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Social Theory: Understanding Everyday Life

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Course DatesWeeksMeeting TimesStatusInstructor(s)CRN
June 15, 2015 - June 26, 20152M-F 3:15-6:05POpenRicarda Hammer10649

Course Description

Why is the world the way it is? Do we act as individuals with free will or do we follow social structures that we have no control over? Why are societies unequal and why do these inequalities persist? How is social change possible?

Social theory tackles these ‘big questions’ and addresses some of the most challenging social issues today. Through studying social theory and reflecting on everyday experiences, students will learn how social theory helps us question what we usually take for granted. This course proposes that all our social actions are based on an understanding of how society works, and it is much more difficult to act strategically as an individual "to preserve or change the world" without an idea about how things are and why. In other words, social theorists have developed arguments that allow us to better understand ourselves, our actions, and the current political, economic, and social transformations around us. Why are some groups more powerful than others? How does social mobility work? Who has ‘a right to the city’? To examine these questions, we will read some of the most important classical and contemporary social theorists, including Karl Marx, W.E.B. DuBois, and Pierre Bourdieu. Through in-class discussion, group projects, and movies, we will first learn about these thinkers’ lives, elaborate their key arguments, and discuss their relevance to society and our own actions today.

We then employ these concepts to analyze our everyday life. Drawing on fieldtrips in Providence and students’ personal experiences and knowledge of the world, we will connect theoretical ideas to the most challenging social issues today. For instance, how does Bourdieu lead you to understand your educational experience so far? How does Marx help us to interpret social movements today? How would DuBois think about globalization? In sum, this course will give students a profound introduction to sociology and stimulate critical thinking about complex social problems today.

This course is designed to challenge our assumptions about the world and lead students to question what we usually take for granted. Thus, by the end of this course, students should:

  • Have a solid introduction to the subject matter of social theory
  • Be able to situate a select number of social theorists in their intellectual climate
  • Be able to critically read social theorists and assess the utility of particular theories
  • Make connections between theoretical ideas and everyday life
  • Effectively communicate these reflections in written and oral form


The course has no pre-requisites and will be particularly beneficial for students seeking to major in the social sciences or humanities.