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Professor Charles Kurzman
Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Class meetings: 151 Pauli Murray Hall (formerly known as Hamilton Hall), Mondays, 1:00-3:30 p.m., Aug. 21-Dec. 4, 2023
Office Hours: By appointment (


    1) To acquaint students with the concept of sociological paradigms.
    2) To introduce students to selected major works and big questions in social theory.
    3) To convince students of the importance of social theory for sociological practice.
    4) To train students in the application and testing of social theory.
    5) To teach students the habits of effective skimming, close-reading, note-taking, and constructive critique.


    Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979). Foucault Action Figure is optional.
    Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd Edition (New York: Norton, 1978).
    Vivek Chibber, The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2022).
    John Bellamy Foster, Capitalism in the Anthopocene (New York: Monthly Press, 2022).
    Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, second edition (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020).
    Verónica Gago, Feminist International (London: Verso, 2020).
    Nigel Clark and Bronislaw Szerszynski, Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021).
    Additional material is available in the “resources” tab on the course’s Canvas page.


1) Attendance and Participation (10% of final grade)

    Attendance means on-time arrival (at the scheduled hour); participation means the contribution of insightful comments on the basis of the assigned readings. When you cannot make it to class, please let me know in advance, if possible. You are allowed to miss one class during the semester; after that, absences deduct 1 percentage point each from your final grade. You are responsible for material covered and due in classes that you miss.

2) Weekly Reading Notes (30% of final grade)

    Reading notes on the week’s readings, approximately 2-3 pages per book (single-spaced) and approximately half-to-one page per article, are due at the beginning of each class. Please see the Assignment Guidelines on Canvas for more details. A sample of my reading notes is also available on Canvas.

3) Three Short Essays, one each due by 1:00 p.m. on Sept. 29, Oct. 31, and Dec. 1, 2023. (60% of final grade)

    These essays must be turned in once a month, and will be graded and returned one week from submission. Each essay counts 20 points. Each essay should be approximately 1,000 words in length and should propose an empirical test of some element of the course readings (different authors for each essay). Please see the Assignment Guidelines on Canvas for more details.


Week 1: Epistemology and Canonization

Optional readings:

    Auguste Comte (France, 1798-1857): The prophet of sociology, founder of the religion of positivism, strong believer in the applicability of natural sciences to the social sciences. Optional reading: The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte, freely translated and condensed by Harriet Martineau, Vol. 2 (New York: D. Appleton & Company, 1854), pages 97, 99, 519.

    Thomas S. Kuhn (United States, 1922-1996): Popularized the term “scientific paradigms,” which are schools of thought within which “normal science” occurs; mounting anomalies within a paradigm can lead to “scientific revolutions”; no two paradigms can be compared, since they have different standards of judgment, but a “residue of progress” can still be discerned. Optional reading: The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, second edition (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1970), pages 10-11, 66-91, 198-207.

    Matteo Motterlini (Italy, contemporary): Philosopher who reviews the debate between Paul Feyerabend (Austria-United States, 1924-1994), a self-described “methodological anarchist,” and Imre Lakatos (Hungary-Britain, 1922-1974), who argues that we can distinguish productive from unproductive paradigms. Optional reading: “Introduction: A Dialogue,” in For and Against Method (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1999), pages 1-18.

    R. W. Connell (Australia, born 1944): A prominent feminist whose analysis of the imperialist roots and parochial concerns of canon-formation in social theory led to the book Southern Theory. Optional reading: “Why Is Classical Theory Classical?” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 102, No. 6, May 1997, pp. 1511-1557.

    Greta Kippner (United States, contemporary): former Chair of the Theory Section of the American Sociological Association, re-thinking the graduate theory seminar in light of the painfulness of “canonical” texts and exclusions. Optional reading: “Theory in the Trenches,” Perspectives: A Newsletter of the ASA Theory Section, December 18, 2019.


    Paradigms, theories, hypotheses, concepts; commensurability; canonization

Reading Questions:

    1) The philosophers of science on our optional reading list for this week believe that theory (systems of hypotheses, presuppositions, and expectations) is necessary to make sense of the world around us. Where these authors differ is in the epistemological status of theory. Are some theories “better” than other theories?
    2) How do canons of social theory form, according to the sociologists on our optional reading list for this week?
    3) Do these authors still support the teaching of social theory, despite their critiques of canonization?

Class Topics:

    1) Introductions

      a. Me
      b. You
      c. The course

    2) Theory as ritual

      a. Intergenerational bequeathal
      b. Scarification
      c. Induction ceremony

    3) Theory as canonical texts

      a. Connell: imperialism and canon-formation
      b. Kippner: the painfulness of the canon

    4) Theory as canonical questions, such as:

      a. Ontology
      b. Epistemology
      c. The rise of modernity
      d. The problem of social order
      e. Macro-micro: social origins of self
      f. Micro-macro: social change
      g. The theorist and the theory
      h. Deconstructing theory

    5) Theory as paradigms

      a. Comte: positivism and progress
      b. Kuhn: incommensurability of paradigms … but also progress
      c. Feyerabend: relativism
      d. Lakatos: against relativism
      e. Comparing paradigms

    6) Theory as hypothesis-testing

Week 2: Functionalism


    Emile Durkheim (France, 1858-1917): founder of academic sociology in Europe, popularizer of functionalist paradigm, argued that sociology was a science whose purview consisted of “social facts” such as the division of labor and social solidarity, viewed the sociologist as a physician called upon to diagnose and prescribe cures for ills of the social body. Readings: The Rules of Sociological Method, translated by W.D. Halls (New York: The Free Press, 1982), pp. 50-107; The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen E. Fields (New York: The Free Press, 1995), pp. 1-18.

    Optional reading: Jeffrey C. Alexander, Neofunctionalism and After (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), pages 94-95, 163-164.


    Science, social fact

Reading Questions:

    1) How do you know a social fact when you see one?
    2) What is the purpose of studying social facts, according to Durkheim? (Do you prefer another purpose?)
    3) How is one to distinguish between normal and pathological conditions, according to Durkheim?
    4) Where do concepts and categories come from, according to Durkheim?

Class Topics:

    1) The ontology of the social
    2) Social physicians
    3) The science of the social

Week 3: Functionalism, the Nightmare Version


    Michel Foucault (France, 1926-1984): reluctant hero of the post-structuralists, post-modernists, and hipsters of all sorts, Foucault’s work has been identified with any number of paradigms; I choose to emphasize his normatively-inverted echoes of functionalism, with an anonymous and suprapersonal system serving its own ends through the use and abuse of individuals. Reading: Discipline and Punish (New York: Vintage, 1979).

    Optional reading: Neil Brenner, “Foucault’s New Functionalism,” Theory and Society, Vol. 23, No. 5, October 1994, pp. 679-709.


    Discipline (both meanings), examination, panopticon, delinquency

Reading Questions:

    1) Don’t read the first chapter right after eating. Does our queasiness confirm Foucault’s point about modern society?
    2) In what ways is Foucault’s image of society similar to Durkheim’s, and in what ways does it differ?

Class Topics:

    1) Discipline and modernity
    2) Foucault and Durkheim

Week 4: Class Analysis


    Karl Marx (Germany, 1818-1883): needs no introduction, founder of “scientific socialism,” inspirer of international communist conspiracy, his legacy now basically reduced to academico-intellectual circles whence he came; but one insightful guy, still able to rouse and rile on occasion. Readings: “The Communist Manifesto” (pp. 469-500) and “Estranged Labor” (pp. 70-81), and “Wage Labour and Capital” (pp. 203-217) in The Marx-Engels Reader, edited Robert C. Tucker, second edition (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1978).

    Optional readings: “The German Ideology” (pp. 149-155) and “Capital, Volume 1” (pp. 302-438), in The Marx-Engels Reader.


    Class, mode of production, means of production, alienation, exploitation

    (If you find the details confusing, make a time-line of modes of production, indicating which classes appeared within which modes of production.)

Reading Questions:

    1) What are the stages of history, and what causes history to move from one stage to the next?
    2) Is the working class becoming homogenized by advances in technology and the needs of capital?
    3) Is alienation inevitable?
    4) Where do ideologies come from?
    5) Where does Marx’s ideology come from?

Class Topics:

    1) The march of history
    2) Exploitation
    3) Alienation
    4) Ideology

Week 5: Class Analysis

Vivek Chibber (India-United States, born 1965): a prominent scholar of economic development whose recent work aims to incorporate “cultural” factors into class analysis while defending the centrality of “material” factors. Reading: The Class Matrix: Social Theory after the Cultural Turn.

Optional reading: J.K. Gibson-Graham (Julie Graham, United States, 1945-2010; Katherine Gibson, Australia, born 1953): a joint author who asks why we reify capitalism instead of thinking past it, as we attempt to do with gender, race, and other social constructions. Reading: The End of Capitalism (as we knew it): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1996), Preface, Chapters 1, 8, 11.


    Materialism, the cultural turn, structural constraint, class formation, consent, resignation

Reading Questions:

    1) What is wrong with the “cultural turn,” according to Chibber?
    2) What role does “culture” play in the reproduction of capitalism, according to Chibber?
    3) How does Chibber address the failure of Marx’s prediction that the proletariat was about to revolt?
    4) What is Chibber’s distinction between consent and resignation?

Class Topics:

    1) Materialism and the cultural turn
    2) Consent, resignation, and the seeming inevitability of capitalism

Week 6: Class Analysis


    John Bellamy Foster (United States, born 1953), editor of the Marxist journal The Monthly Review, incorporates recent ecological thinking into class analysis. Reading: John Bellamy Foster, Capitalism in the Anthopocene (New York: Monthly Press, 2022), preface and Chapters 1, 10, 21-22.

    Optional reading: Immanuel Wallerstein (United States, born 1930): founder of “world-systems theory,” an international extension of one form of Marxism, holding that immiseration of the working class has not appeared to take place in the “core” countries only because it has foisted upon “peripheral” countries, which are dragged into the world-system from “external” self-sufficiency. Readings: The Modern World-System, Vol. 1 [1974], second edition (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), pp. 479-492; World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004), pp. 1-22.


    To come.

Reading Questions:

    1) To come.

Class Topics:

    1) Marxism after Communism
    2) The anthropocene
    3) Ecological class analysis

Week 7: Racialization


    W.E.B. Du Bois (United States, 1868-1963): one of the founders of U.S. sociology, who twice retired from academia to engage in political work on behalf of African-Americans and, late in life, colonized peoples around the world. His long career presaged what would later be termed “intersectionality” by combining analyses of race, class, and gender, as well as by combining academic analysis with political engagement.

    Reading: The Philadelphia Negro (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1899), pp. 46-65, 146-160, 322-397.

    Reading: The Souls of Black Folk (Chicago, IL: A.C. McClurg & Co., 1903), pp. 1-12.

    Optional reading: “Exhibit of the American Negroes,” Paris Exposition Universelle, 1900.

    Reading: “Sociology Hesitant” [unpublished, circa 1905], boundary 2, Vol. 27, No. 3, Fall 2000, pp. 37-44.

    Optional reading: Lynn England and W. Keith Warner, “W. E. B. Du Bois: Reform, Will, and the Veil,” Social Forces, Vol. 91, No. 3, March 2013, pp. 955-973.

    Optional reading: Aldon D. Morris, The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), pp. 218-223.

    Reading: Black Reconstruction (New York: Russell & Russell, 1935), pp. 700-708.

    Optional reading: “The Damnation of Women,” pp. 163-187 in Darkwater (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Howe, 1920).

    Reading: “The Disfranchised Colonies,” pp. 17-57 in Color and Democracy: Colonies and Peace (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945).

    Optional reading: W.E.B. Du Bois, “My Evolving Program,” in Rayford W. Logan, editor, What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1944), pp. 31-70.

    Optional reading: W.E.B. Du Bois, “I Won’t Vote,” The Nation, October 20, 1956.


    Double consciousness, race, psychological wage of whiteness, colonies

Reading Questions:

    1) What is double consciousness?
    2) Is there a connection between Du Bois’s essay on Law and Chance and his other work?
    3) How does Du Bois’s later work combine the study of racialized inequalities and capitalism?
    4) How might we reconcile the style and content in Du Bois’s empirical research and his other writings (autobiographical, essayistic, political, theoretical, etc.)?

Class Topics:

    1) Pigeon-holing Du Bois
    2) Double-consciousness
    3) Law and chance
    4) Race and class, in the U.S. and globally
    5) Engaged sociology

Week 8: Racialization


    Achille Mbembe (Cameroon, born 1957): Political philosopher who draws attention to the colonial roots of contemporary racialization and violence. Reading: On the Postcolony (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), chapter 1; Critique of Black Reason (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), introduction and chapter 1; Necropolitics (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019), chapter 3; Out of the Dark Night (New York: Columbia University Press, 2021), chapter 1.


    Colonial rationality, Black reason, necropolitics, the planetary turn

Reading Questions:

    1) How does European colonial racialization continue to shape the postcolonial era, according to Mbembe?
    2) How do racialization and capitalism interact in Mbembe’s analysis?
    3) How does necropolitics differ from colonial rationality?
    4) In what ways does Africa represent the future of the planet, according to Mbembe?

Class Topics:

    1) Racialization on a planetary scale
    2) Necropolitics
    3) Planetary entanglement

Week 9: Institutional Analysis


    Max Weber: Weber’s analysis of institutions – here the institutions of bureaucracy and science – emphasizes the increasing rationalization of these spheres (administration and cognition), analogous to the rationalization of economic behavior in The Protestant Ethic. “Bureaucracy” (pp. 196-244), “Science as a Vocation” (pp. 129-156), in From Max Weber, edited by Hans Gerth and C. Wright Mills (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958).

    Paul J. DiMaggio and Walter W. Powell (United States, both born 1951): influential authors in the sociology of organizations; emphasize Weberian issues of social norms instead of Weberian issues of instrumental efficiency (rationality), which the Taylorist tradition in organizational studies emphasizes. Reading: “The Iron Cage Revisited: Institutional Isomorphism and Collective Rationality in Organizational Fields,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, April 1983, pages 147-160.

    John W. Meyer, John Boli, George M. Thomas, Francisco O. Ramirez (United States, contemporary): leaders of the “world polity” / “institutionalist” research programme based at Stanford University, the authors trace the global expansion of institutions. Reading: “World Society and the Nation-State,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 103, No. 1, July 1997, pages 144-181.


    Bureaucracy, rational/bureaucratic-patriarchal-charismatic authority, value neutrality, isomorphism, world society

Reading Questions:

    1) Do institutions emerge and endure because they are suited to perform certain goals, or for some other reason?
    2) In what ways is the institutional isomorphism identified in the late 20th century an outgrowth of, and in what ways is it rejection of, Weberian ideas about the ever-increasing rationalization of the world?

Class Topics:

    1) Rationalization/demystification of all spheres of life
    2) Institutionalist analysis in the late 20th century and early 21st century

Week 10: Status


    Max Weber: In this classic work, Weber sketches a different approach to “class” than in the Marxian tradition, and adds other axes of inequality that are related, but analytically independent. “Class, Status, Party” (pp. 180-195), in From Max Weber.

    Pierre Bourdieu (France, 1930-2002): a major social theorist of the late 20th century, with significant contributions to the study of culture, of academia, and of “grand theory” issues such as the relationship of social structure and individual consciousness; extra credit to anyone who can explain “habitus.” Reading: Distinction, translated by Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984), pages 99-225; and The Logic of Practice, translated by Richard Nice (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1990), pages 52-65, 80-97, 135-141.


    Status, honor, caste, habitus, taste, field, economic-social-culture capital, class fraction, practice, logic of practice

Reading Questions:

    1) How does a status hierarchy become a caste?
    2) How does Bourdieu’s analysis relate to Weber’s “Class, Status, Party”?
    3) To what extent does Bourdieu’s analysis reach beyond his particular case material?

Class Topics:

    1) Class, Status, Party
    2) Weber and Bourdieu
    3) Habitus and practice

Week 11: Intersectionality


    Patricia Hill Collins (United States, born 1948): a leading participant in the Black Feminist movement, which incorporates race, gender, and class in the analysis of what Collins has called the “matrix of domination,” inverting Foucault’s equation of knowledge with power. Reading: Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge, Intersectionality, second edition (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2020).


    Intersectionality, relationality, identity, social justice

Reading Questions:

    1) How does the emergence of the concept of intersectionality reflect some of the insights of intersectional analysis?
    2) How do Collins and Bilge navigate the tension between defining intersectionality and maintaining an openness to alternative approaches?
    3) What role does personal experience play in intersectionality, according to Collins and Bilge?
    4) If multiple systems of inequality form articulated conjunctures, must we — and how might we — study them all at the same time?

Class Topics:

    1) The reincorporation of race and gender in social theory (mini-lecture)
    2) The emergence of “intersectionality” as a concept and a movement
    3) Intersectional theory today
    4) Implications for research

Week 12: Global Feminism


    Verónica Gago (Argentina, born 1976): Latin American feminist academic and activist who has participated in and helped to theorize many of the region’s mass mobilizations of the early 21st century. Reading: Feminist International (London: Verso, 2020).


    Potencia, situated thinking, feminist strike

Reading Questions:

    1) In what ways is Gago’s feminism similar to Collins and Bilge’s intersectional approach, and in what ways does it differ?
    2) How does Gago reconcile the concept of a (single?) feminist international with the recognition of multiplicity and difference?
    3) How central are the mobilizing method of popular assemblies and the political strategy of strikes to Gago’s analysis?

Class Topics:

    1) Feminisms
    2) Feminism and intersectionality
    3) Internationalism

Week 13: Ecological Theory


    Nigel Clark (United Kingdom, born 1961) and Bronislaw Szerszynski (United Kingdom, contemporary): Significant figures in the move to incorporate the concept of the Anthropocene into the social sciences. Reading: Nigel Clark and Bronislaw Szerszynski, Planetary Social Thought: The Anthropocene Challenge to the Social Sciences (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021).

    Optional additional readings: The Anthropocene Curriculum.


    Anthropocene (Holocene, Pleistocene); planetary social theory; planetary multiplicity; earthly multitudes

Reading Questions:

    1) What is the Anthropocene for geoscientists, and what is it for Clark and Szerszynski?
    2) What is the relevance of ironing to planetary social theory?
    3) How do Clark and Szerszynski reconcile the globalizing concept of the Anthropocene with respect for multiple epistemologies?

Class Topics:

    1) Anthropocene
    2) Ironing
    3) Earthly multitudes

Week 14: Review

    How are we to evaluate the theories we have read together? How are we to make use of them?

Class Topics:

    1) Review: paradigms, theories, and sociological research

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Syllabus Changes

The professor reserves the right to make changes to the syllabus, including project due dates and test dates. These changes will be announced as early as possible.

Last updated September 29, 2023.