On Teaching Classical and Contemporary Theory: Q&A with Black Hawk Hancock

With the upcoming release of a thoroughly revised third edition of Social Theory: Continuity and Confrontation, University of Toronto Press suggested David Yamane (Wake Forest University) catch up with his fellow sociologist Black Hawk Hancock (DePaul University) to talk about the challenges of teaching sociological theory and to discuss how his new reader with Roberta Garner (DePaul University) addresses those challenges.

David Yamane (DY): OK, first of all, why on earth do we need yet another sociological theory reader?

Social TheoryBlack Hawk Hancock (BH): I felt like there was a gap in what people were reading, especially those of us who came through grad school in the early- to mid-nineties when postmodernism and cultural studies were flourishing. These theorists were not well represented in most other readers. If they were, it was often in a way that was challenging for undergraduates to access. We wanted to include these theorists in a way that was manageable and accessible. Beyond that, we really wanted to build a unique architecture for the reader that would allow for a different way of reading theory. Specifically, we wanted to show how theoretical paradigms and discussions develop over time. One way of doing this was to introduce legacy readings connecting the past and the present. For example, in the “Classical Theory” section we paired David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism with Marx’s writings to help students understand the development of Marxism in the twenty-first century. And we also wanted to provide the philosophical foundations to situate the discipline of sociology (the questions it asks, how it shapes itself as a unique discipline). These connections give us a better sense of why and how sociology is its own discipline. Finally, we wanted to provide some pedagogical support—primarily discussion questions and exercises that help students develop their own theoretical thinking. Bringing all of these elements together in one volume is what really makes this a unique contribution.

DY: There are a huge number of theorists covered in the book. How did you go about choosing who to include and exclude? Any surprises in there?

BH: In some ways that was the hardest part of putting this together. There are always tough choices, and you can never include everything you want. We did make an effort to put Foucault, Hall, Bourdieu, and Goffman at the heart of the contemporary period, so there was a real focus devoted to them. In this way the reader links nicely to our book Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology, where we discuss these four figures as “transitional giants,” as paradigmatic figures that others build upon, creating links from the past to the present. Later theorists (or theorists writing at the same time in dialogue with these “transitional giants”) are either refracted through these thinkers, or are in dialogue with them.

As for surprises, I would say there are three big ones: first, because of the powerful impact of Sigmund Freud’s theories on the analysis of gender, the Frankfurt School, and contemporary cultural studies, we feature a selection from his lectures that delves into dreams, pathways to neurosis, the unconscious, and primary process thought. Freud helps expand our understanding of the classical base of sociological theory, as well as get at the interiority of subjectivity and agency. Second, we have included two pieces by Frankfurt School theorists beyond our original Walter Benjamin selection (one by Adorno and Horkheimer on the culture industry, and part of One Dimensional Man by Marcuse). These selections provide greater depth in one of the most important developments in social theory—critical theory. They also illustrate for students how those readings are part of the Marxist legacy of social critique. Third, culture and media selections have been added, including Raymond Williams, Dick Hebdige, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, and Nestor Garcia Canclini. These selections provide both a greater breadth of terrain, and more substantive areas for ideas than in other sociological theory readers.

DY: Despite the large number of theorists covered, the book is very clearly organized. Tell me about how you put the readings together. What were you trying to accomplish intellectually?

BH: I was brought on board for the third edition of this popular reader to help expand the audience. Now, with two editors, from two different generations, it was really a process of creating a healthy dialogue about how to approach social theory. It was a meeting of the minds, so to speak, an attempt to try and come to agreement on how broad and deep we thought theory should or could be. I think the key benefit of this approach is to create links across generations, to establish internal and external dialogue between different generations, to find consensus about the established relevance and endurance of specific pieces and theorists, as well as between ideas and pedagogical approaches in teaching theory. Ultimately, we tried to think of ways to put theory into action, by thinking about how theory allows us to conceptualize social life, to understand social reproduction and social change, and most importantly, to undertake empirical studies.

DY: I’ll bet those of us who teach sociological theory regularly face some common challenges. What do you think is the biggest challenge in teaching theory to students?

Social Theory Volume IBH: I think there are a number of challenges in teaching social theory. First, too often I think that placing theorists into “camps” or labels obscures the work of the particular theorists labeled therein. This only causes confusion, and the reification of classifications. That is not to say there are not schools of thought, but students come to rely on these labels, like too many introductory textbooks that classify everything into functionalism, conflict theory, or symbolic interactionism, as if these three areas cover the field of intellectual thought. Too often this happens in theory readers and undermines the complexity of any one thinker’s thought and/or the intellectual debates in which they are engaged. Social Theory Volume IIAs a result, this disconnects theorists in terms of their context and relationships to other theorists. Second, I would say that students too often have negative predisposed orientations towards theory as “useless” and “boring” since they don’t see or understand the linkages and legacies amongst theorists. This makes theory intimidating and unpalatable to students. Finally, there is the challenge of getting students to establish connections between theories and empirical research, or connections between theories and their everyday lives and current issues.

DY: What does this new edition of Social Theory do in particular to address that challenge?

BH: The reader has a strong pedagogical focus. Each chapter includes a “Study Guide” that provides key terms and a number of questions to stimulate review, class discussion, and observation. In addition, there are short biographies of the theorists and “legacy” authors to provide general historical context, which helps students come to understand how theory is always a product of theoretical traditions and personal contexts. The revised introduction, “Reading Theory: A General Introduction,” and introductory sections throughout the book serve several purposes:

1) To help students read the material.

2) To help students connect theories to each other and develop a better understanding of continuities, conversations, controversies, and legacies—in short, to see theory as an ongoing process, not a collection of abstract texts.

3) To link theories in sociology (and social thought) to other types of thought—for example, linking Hegel and Marx, Nietzsche to Weber, Simmel, and Foucault, and feminist theory to Freud.

Finally, we have added a number of discussion questions and exercises, including a format that encourages students and instructors to formulate their own questions. In addition, there are exercises that illustrate concepts and promote understanding theories. Visualization exercises help students imagine examples and situations in order to illustrate concepts and exercises that link theory to empirical research, showing how theories motivate research questions or help to interpret research findings.

DY: There is a lot I like about this reader, especially the number of authors covered, the organization, and the pedagogical materials for instructors. What’s your favorite part of the book?

BH: Ultimately, what I would say I am most proud of is the dynamism of the reader. By that I mean the way that the selections in the reader can be considered like “jigsaw puzzle pieces,” whereby instructors can use their preferences, or what they think resonates best with students, allowing them to dictate how they conduct their courses. In this way, both teachers and students can come to form their own dialogues and conversations, viewing theory as a web of interconnected dialogues and living traditions that develop out of internal and external dialogues, engaging specific historical traditions and specific socio-political problems—whether it be around a historical trajectory, a particular school of thought, or a substantive issue.

DY: You’ve put a lot of time and energy into the project. As you look at the finished product, what are your hopes for it?

BH: I think the ultimate goal is two-fold:

1) To appeal to a wide audience—both teachers and students alike—who want to prime the sociological imagination. I think it is that ideal that ultimately drove the whole project and I hope that the diverse set of readings we have assembled illustrates how the discipline was formed and where it is heading.

2) To produce something that was highly flexible for teachers. The book is designed so that instructors can teach the chapter beginning with the theoretical excerpt and then move to the end of the chapter and engage the more empirical focused exercises, or they may start with the empirically-focused material at the end of the chapter and then move to the theory readings. The instructor is free to take either approach without having to labor through over-interpretations of the material, leaving no room for creativity or possible alternative approaches to sociological inquiry.

In short, our goal was to create a book that simplifies teaching theory, a book that provides readings, contextual materials, class discussion questions, and exercises all in one volume.

Black Hawk Hancock is Associate Professor of Sociology at DePaul University in Chicago. He is the co-author with Roberta Garner of Changing Theories: New Directions in Sociology (2009) and author of American Allegory: Lindy Hop and the Racial Imagination (2013).

David Yamane teaches Sociology at Wake Forest University and is the author most recently of Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape (2014). He is currently exploring the phenomenon of armed citizenship in America. He blogs about this at Gun Culture 2.0. Follow him on Twitter @gunculture2pt0.


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