Archive for September, 2008

Theory Paper Topics

September 30, 2008

Let me try to clarify and expand upon what we discussed in class regarding paper topics:  You have a great deal of freedom in terms of what you can write about, and how you can go about writing it. In what follows, I’ll describe a couple of options, I’ll try to identify the kinds of papers that wouldn’t be acceptable, and I’ll mention some format do’s and don’ts.

In the first place, you could do an exegesis (academic fancy-talk for ‘explanation’ or ‘interpretation’) of a particular thinker.  As Emile Durkheim writes, ‘If you wish to mature your thought, apply yourself scrupulously to the study of a great master; dismantle a system down to its most secret workings’.  Professor Gerardo Marti has taught theory here in the past and has a very detailed set of instructions for this kind of paper on pp. 6-8 of his syllabus (go here and then click on the link for Soc 370).
Another option would be to do a topic-based paper, in which you do some kind of empirical research to field-test an idea or theory you find intriguing–this might be a bit much if you haven’t already taken the methods class; fortunately, the estimable Kieran Healy has an excellent memo that breaks down the basic steps, and it’s a great primer on research questions, theories, and the research process in general.
As I said on the first day, sociologists often mean different things when they talk of ‘theory’.  Gabriel Abend argues, for example, that there are at least seven different ways in which sociologists use the word ‘theory’:  
  1. ‘theory’ as the establishment of a logical relationship among variables
  2. ‘theory’ as a causal explanation
  3. ‘theory’ as a ‘hermeneutical’ task
  4. ‘theory’ as a study of ‘the classics’
  5. ‘theory’ as a Weltanschauung
  6. ‘theory’ as a normative or interdisciplinary practice
  7. ‘theory’ as a reflection on certain ‘philosophical’ problems, or as conceptual analysis
It follows that there are a number of quite different papers that could qualify as ‘theory papers’.  Professor Marti’s guidelines provide a template for doing a paper related to sense (4); the Healy memo shows you how to do a paper related to senses (1) and (2).  You can consult the PowerPoint lecture posted above, or the Abend article, for ideas about how to do papers in the other four senses.
Remember that a paper without a Bibliography is NOT an option.  Citation style?  Sociologists generally use APA style (see the TEXT, FOOTNOTE/ENDNOTE, and REFERENCE LIST sections in the Preparation Checklist for ASA Manuscripts for examples), so stick with that.

Roughly Left and Right

September 29, 2008

More on orienting ourselves on the political spectrum:  another way of thinking about what counts as left- and right-wing politics in the classroom might refer to what some partisans think they need to combat.  Thus, for example, there was an interesting story last week on the new emphasis conservative organizations and donors are placing on funding profs and programs they like.  On their view, too many college campuses promote teachings that they consider to be anti-capitalist, anti-Canon, and insufficiently celebratory of (or downright hostile to) America and Western civilization in general.  So here we’re talking about ‘social’ and ‘cultural’ conservatism versus ‘socia’l or ‘cultural’ liberalism:  a work of scholarship that is pro-capitalist, or adamantly pro-Western, or relies on ideas of American ‘exceptionalism’, etc., might generally be considered conservative; one that is anti-capitalist, or critical of ‘Eurocentric bourgeois patriarchy’, or apt to use ‘American’ and ‘imperialism’ in the same sentence, etc., seems recognizably liberal.

Conservative Republicans and the Paulson Bailout Plan

September 29, 2008

In Intro today, I mentioned the House Republicans’ opposition to the Bush Administration’s bailout plan on grounds of principal:  here’s a link to an article on that opposition.  People often distinguish between the characteristic features of fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, cultural conservatism, and so on, so it would of course be a mistake to identify ‘conservatism’ simply with fiscal restraint.  But the other principle in play in regards to conservatives’ opposition to the bailout plan–i.e., the idea that robust government intervention in the crisis puts us on ‘the road to socialism’–is a defining feature of Reagan-style conservatism any way you slice it.

Personally, I’m a little mystified regarding the part of the House Republicans’ alternative proposal that calls for tax cuts on investment gains; how is that going to resolve a crisis driven by plummeting housing prices and fundamental uncertainty about market value? Any Econ majors out there?


September 25, 2008

Theory Peoples:

I’ll bet you’re thinking to yourself, ‘How the hell can I come up with an excuse to watch more of that Macfarlane guy?  He just sexes theory up like nobody’s business!’  Well, my friends, you’re in luck:  he’s got quite a helpful little lecture on Max Weber, and here it is for your enjoyment.  Think of it as a background supplement to our discussions, something to chew on while you cook dinner or fold your socks:


(He’s got another lecture on Marx, if you still can’t get enough.)

It Was Bad Enough With All the Freakonomists Running Around

September 24, 2008

The New York TImes has introduced a new blog that, it says, considers economics as ‘the study of everyday life’

Looks like I’m out of a job.
Kieran Healy has a great short essay on the new economic imperialism in Sociological Forum.  (It’s worth mentioning that this essay started out as a blog post before coming to the attention of the SF editors…)


September 21, 2008

It’s amazing what you can find on YouTube these days–I don’t even buy that many tracks on iTunes because I can just play the videos when I get the hankering.  But I bet you hadn’t thought of using YouTube to assuage the frustration of trying to understand all these opaque social theorists, didja?  Well, check out this lecture by the British social anthropologist Alan Macfarlane: 

I just discovered this cat a couple days ago, but I think he’s great at breaking Durkheim down into bite-sized chunks–love his attention to intellectual context, as well as his frequent references to the standard critiques of our favorite froggy sociologist (sorry, Pierre!).  Pay especial attention to his summary and critiques of The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, as well as the way he slams Durkheim’s method in the last five minutes of the lecture (especially noteworthy, given that methodology is usually taken to be one of the core parts of Durkheim’s appeal).
It might not be what you would choose to watch for entertainment (quick:  who’s your other favorite tweedy Cambridge anthropologist-video host?) but great stuff to listen to while you clean your room or something.

Hey, Kool-Aid!

September 17, 2008


On Friday we’ll read a fascinating article by Malcolm Gladwell–even though I disagree with his basic thesis, for reasons we’ll talk about in class.  In any event, Gladwell documents a growing convergence between, on the one hand, an interest in the way in which space might be arranged to enhance creativity in the workplace, and, on the other, an interest in the way people might be arranged to enhance creativity in the workplace.
Gladwell ranges far and wide to show us how this convergence has garnered increasing attention from CEOs, business consultants, and the architects who cater to them.  Over the last few years, I have slowly begun to investigate a related question:  How do architects design for their own collaboration?  Do architects–who surely, I would argue, engage in collaboration easily as creative as ad execs or some of the other professions Gladwell covers–buy into the same vogue for ‘breakout rooms’, serendipitous-encounters-by-design, and ‘floorcasting’ that some of the most prominent members of their guild have sold to their clients?
I want to stress that I’m really in the exploratory stages of this inquiry.  But I think this is a really kind of fun topic to investigate:  I’ve been snooping around various architectural offices in New York City, interviewing folks at small, ’boutique’ firms such as Lewis.Tsurumaki.Lewis and TEN Arquitectos, as well as people at giant, ‘corporate’ firms like Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.  The former make their reputations by producing ‘arty’, cutting-edge work for smaller clients; the latter specialize in providing a vast array of services to clients of all kinds, but especially to major corporations and other large organizations.  So the first thing one might expect to see is a big difference between the spatial arrangements in the first kind of workplace vs. the second…
Okay, I think I’ve gone on too long about this pet project.  But as I’ve said, I’m still in the early stages of thinking it through, and thought perhaps you guys might have some ideas about further questions to add to the ones I’m currently pursuing.  BTW:  if you’re interested in the question of whether the architects have drunk their own Kool-Aid, there’s a recent NYT article that addresses a parallel question:  How do architects design for their own living?  This is hardly a new question; but it takes on added interest because the architect in question has designed highly Gladwellian projects such as the TBWA/Chiat/Day LA offices and the much-discussed new Google headquarters.

Webs, War, and Wack Jobs

September 10, 2008


To my Intro peoples:  
Here’s an Op-Ed from a few years back that touches on a couple of issues we’ve been talking about recently–namely, politics in the classroom, on the one hand, and the 9/11 attacks, on the other.  It’s unfortunate, I think, that Stanley Fish (the author of the piece) dismisses 9/11 conspiracy theories as beyond the pale.  Not that I’m a big fan of conspiracy theories in general, but I think the way to deal with them is to consider them seriously as possibilities before rejecting them.  It’s a hoarily liberal conviction that the best way to combat bad ideas is to expose them to the harsh light of public debate, but just because it’s hoary doesn’t make it false–and it’s especially important to address such ideas when many people in the Middle East also subscribe to them.  
On the flipside, if we restrict the conspiracies to the people most Americans regard as the conspirators–namely, al Qaeda and their ilk–then what kind of conspirators are they?  Here’s where we get into the kinds of issues I mentioned briefly today–are terrorist networks decentralized ones, such that completely new forms of counterterrorism are called for?  Are network theorists in sociology and other fields uniquely poised to provide us with these new forms?

Life’s Work

September 9, 2008

Reading.jpgI never seriously considered blogging–despite the fact that all the cool kids are doing it–until I read this post by Duke sociologist Kieran Healy. Healy pokes a little fun at the pretensions of his peers who disdain blogging as a tenure track-derailing frivolity, then makes a forceful case for the importance of blogging for academics by reproducing an essay on journaling by C. Wright Mills, replacing every occurrence of the word ‘journal’ with ‘blogs’. In doing so, he convincingly updates Mills’ dictum to the scholar to unify ‘life’ and work. ‘You must learn to use your life experience in your intellectual work: continually to examine and interpret it’, Mills exhorts us. If we try to apply our understanding to experiences and ideas as they happen to us in real time, we will always learn something, even if–especially if–we’re wrong sometimes.  I encourage you to do that here:  if, as Hegel said, the owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, then right now we’ll just have to find our way down here on the ground.