Social Theory as a Map to the World

Tags: , ,

Categories: GSI Online LibraryTeaching Effectiveness Award Essays

by Martin Eiermann, Sociology

Teaching Effectiveness Award Essay, 2017

Problem: Many students might initially perceive works of social theory as obtuse relicts from another era that remain interesting to a cadre of academic experts but are of limited utility to everyone else. This sentiment is only heightened by a canon of “Old, White, Dead Men from Europe” whose relevance to the present is not always immediately evident. As a teacher, my goal is thus not just to aid students in mastering the material but to walk with them as they discover the relevance of social theory in the world they inhabit.

Teaching Strategy: I encourage students to approach unknown texts with a mental checklist: Can they identify the key idea of each paragraph? Can they use topic sentences to pinpoint or reverse-engineer the author’s key question? Can they identify preliminary critiques? Can they link the text to theories they have already studied, and thus understand it by comparison or juxtaposition? Can they discuss a news article or experience that is illuminated by the text?

By thus urging students to think about an unknown text not as a succession of words and sentences but as an assemblage of ideas, questions, and answers, I hope to shift the focus of social scientific reading from memorization towards the logic and relevance of an argument. If we conceive of theories as verbalized maps that help us to render a complex and often inscrutable world intelligible, their logics resemble a map’s topology: They make underlying features of the world selectively visible by emphasizing their significance and outlining their contours. They also allow us to apply old concepts to new contexts: The descriptive passages of a book written in the throes of the Industrial Revolution might appear anachronistic today – but perhaps its logic can still shed light on the workings of power, the polarization of society, and the concentration of privilege and disadvantage.

In class, I then organize frequent group exercises that emphasize list-making, diagramming, and discussions of video clips and excerpts from books and newspapers. Many works of social theory can be turned into Buzzfeed-style listicles (“10 Things Max Weber Knew About the Social Order”; “7 Passages that Explain Modern Capitalism”) and into box-and-arrow diagrams. I find these diagrams particularly useful for two reasons. First, they require a significant amount of translational labor. Students have to move beyond copying printed words to identify core concepts that can be connected into a coherent whole. Second, diagrams lay bare logics that are sometimes veiled in the original texts. Are concepts linked into positive feedback loops or into unidirectional sequences? Can different outcomes result from shared antecedents? Do these outcomes lead to additional divergence, or do they re-converge? Each arrangement of boxes and arrows suggests something quite profound about the development of social order or about the engines that drive social change.

Assessment: After the first two rounds of diagramming, students began to ask for additional diagrams or brought their own creations to class, including one intricate watercolor painting of Foucault’s theory of power. When we encountered new theories, students who struggled to verbally summarize them would sometimes ask to sketch out the argument instead: “I can’t put it into words, but can I draw it?” I also encountered many of these diagrams in student-made study guides and in the scrap notes of their exams.

As the semester progressed, I used diagramming exercises as preludes to discussions of video clips and excerpts from novels and newspapers. Students sketched the logics of different theories as scaffolding that aided their interpretation of contemporary social phenomena, and sought to discover social theory in accounts of industrial manufacturing, in commercials for electric cars, and in clips from The Simpsons. In short: We lifted theory from the printed page. We built a series of maps and used them to explore the world.