Contemporary Social Theory

Course Description: 

Building on the Classical Sociological Theory and Classical Anthropology courses of last Fall,  this class introduces the major concepts and theories of contemporary social theory.  Contemporary social theory is understood as a set of both general theories of the social, and theories of modernity/the present. The course proceeds through a decisive focus on the most recent contributions to this canon. Such recent contributions provide a path and a lens through which critically to examine and rethink a canon of contemporary social theory (the sociologies of Bourdieu, Habermas, Giddens, Tilly, Elias, Foucault, the Frankfurt school etc). This canon is still contemporary in the sense that it keeps inspiring vibrant agendas of research. But it is also aging and needs to be put in the critical perspectives developed by STS, feminist, post-colonial, critical-race, and neo-Marxist theories.

This class is thus not exactly a survey class although it does aim at fulfilling some of the latter’s functions, such as getting students acquainted with the basic notions, debates, and findings of contemporary social theory. Such basic items include: issues of structure, culture, agency, structuration and practice; the definition and workings of social and political power; epistemological issues concerning the possibility and conditions of solid social-scientific accounts, in a context where methods and approaches vary greatly across disciplines; tools for an adequate conceptualization and explanation of both historical change and social reproduction.

Two main questions are considered through the sessions: How does society, groups, networks hold together, and why do they transform? How can and should social scientists account for these processes of reproduction and change?

Learning Outcomes: 

-- Substantive knowledge: see above.

-- Portable skills: learn to face, handle, and interpret difficult conceptual works; practice academic essay writing; approach questions of knowledge production in the social sciences in an interdisciplinary way, mobilizing relevant ; think critically not just about the social but about one’s own intellectual production and one’s own place in the production of the social. 


1. Attendance, preparedness and participation. Official justification required after two sessions missed. 20% of grade.

2. Each student volunteers to provide at least 2-3 discussion questions for three distinct sessions. 20% of grade. Students may sign up in advance or just jump into conversations as they develop on the designated fora.

3. Two short essays (1500 words each) answering distinct questions. A set of six essay questions will be provided by week 5. Students are invited to contribute to the production of these questions. Three uestions will be submitted around the time of session 11, out of which students will pick two as their essay questions. 60% of final grade.

NB: This syllabus might undergo small changes in the course of coming weeks and you are  responsible for following up with any of those.