Teaching Sociology Sociologically

Louis Kontos, John Jay College (CUNY)

In 1907 Ellwood described sociology in the following terms: ‘a synthetic and fundamental science of the whole field of social phenomena’ (p. 590). He claimed that many of his undergraduate students at the University of Missouri were unprepared for sociology – lacking both ‘academic knowledge’ and ‘life experience’. The theoretical part of sociology was deemed most difficult to grasp. Elwood recommended that only mature students be allowed to write papers dealing with theory, and that the rest limit the expression of their opinion to submitting notes about readings and lectures. Today the same problem is more likely to be framed in terms of how to make sociological theory less abstract, and, by the same means, more relevant; alternatively, to bracket most of it. In the typical undergraduate course in sociology a rehearsal of middle- range theories and summaries of general theories is sufficient to support the claim that what is being taught is a sociological perspective or imagination. But the claim is contradictory. The version of sociological pedagogy of someone like Ellwood is elitist and ungrounded. But the aversion to theoretical abstraction undercuts the argument that sociology is a synthetic discourse about society. It appears instead as a collection of contestable unrelated explanations of unrelated topics that correspond to myriad problems of society. The following essay examines claims and arguments about ‘abstraction’ in sociology as they relate to pedagogical questions – including what it means to teach sociology sociologically, and why it matters how sociology is taught.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 260. Truth and Ignorance in Higher Education