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 Social Theory and Analysis  posted by  duggu   on 12/7/2007  Add Courseware to favorites Add To Favorites  
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Fischer, Michael M., 21A.750J Social Theory and Analysis, Fall 2004. (Massachusetts Institute of Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare),  (Accessed 07 Jul, 2010). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

An Iranian woman engineer using a video camera to film her team in the 6th International robotic soccer competitions. The logo of those competitions are projected onto her chador from a spotlight in the Fukuoka, Japan, sports dome. (Image courtesy of Prof. Michael M.J. Fischer.)

Highlights of this Course

This course features an extensive reading list, along with assignments and study materials.

Course Description

This course presents a survey of social theory from the 19th century to the present. The focus is on (a) the social grounds from which the theory arises; (b) the utility and limitations of older theories for current conditions; (c) the creation of new theory out of contemporary conditions; (d) sciences and technologies as the infrastructures upon which social institutions depend, are shaped, and shape.





This course is designed around three interlocking traditions of social inquiry:

  1. The tradition of social theory that begins with the political economists of the 19th century (in the course, with Malthus and Marx) and classical sociology at the turn of the twentieth century (Weber, Durkheim, Mauss, Freud), mid-century social and cultural anthropology -- questions of comparative social organization and social structure; and cultural, symbolic, structuralist interpretation (in the course, mainly Geertz and Levi-Strauss), and late twentieth century efforts to come to grips with the changes wrought by the third industrial revolution of computers, molecular biology, and ecological understanding (Lyotard, Beck, Derrida, Castells, Negri, et al.).

  2. The tradition of ethnography that begins (albeit with many precursors) with Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown in Britain, and Boas, Kroeber, Mead, Park and Redfield in the U.S. and has been undergoing various reinventions ever since. This particular tradition (or set of traditions) of ethnography has always been oriented towards the production of heuristically valuable social theory, drawing upon -- testing and contesting -- the social theory tradition, and claiming to build new theory empirically, comparatively, with attention to different worlds that languages and cultures produce, as well as to local social structures and their embedded (and conflictual) position in global systems. While Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown contended with the larger colonial systems, they were also concerned for instance to rebuild political theory on other than social contract theory emerging out of European monarchical states, using gift exchange theory as one important tool, or producing comparative studies of marriage stability in different kinds of kinship systems (and intervening in public debates over marriage law reform). While Boas and Kroeber's students dealt with another form of colonialism (vis-a-vis American Indian reservations), they also pioneered a tradition of psychological anthropology, and meanwhile Chicago School sociology and anthropology (Park, Redfield) pioneered ethnicity, migration and immigrant studies, community studies, and comparative civilization studies. In mid-century, Levi-Strauss' structuralism played a major public role as part of a broad turn to linguistics and cybernetics, but based upon a close reanalysis of the ethnographic archive collected by earlier anthropologists, and had a transforming effect also upon classical Greek studies ("the foundation of western civilization"). Meanwhile Clifford Geertz and Chicago's symbolic and interpretive anthropology took the linguistic turn in a less formalist direction, producing a significant new corpus of ethnographic work (partly reviewed in Anthropology as Cultural Critique). In the last twenty years ethnography has been testing-contesting the social theory of the emergent forms of postmodernities, and increasingly becoming a distinctive contributor to the studies of computer-networked society, the life sciences revolutions, and environmental issues.

  3. The tradition of science studies that begins with Ludwig Fleck's almost Durkheimeian account of how facts are created and stabilized in medical science (that Thomas Kuhn was to adapt and generalize to physics in his widely cited The Structure of Scientific Revolutions). Science, technololgy and society programs grew institutionally in engineering schools with the desire to add social context to the curriculum. In the 1970s a "new sociology of science" with historical interests back to the seventeenth century began to emerge in England, France, Holland, Scandinavia, Germany, the U.S. and elsewhere. A spate of anthropological style ethnographies of science began with Latour and Woolgar's Laboratory Life, Sharon Traweek's Beamtimes and Lifetimes, and Paul Rabinow's Making PCR.

Course Strategy

The readings are set up in an alternating rhythm of theory and ethnography. We should try to read each week against the previous ones, building up a common framework and set of questions. You will get better grades (and learn more) if you weave the weeks together.

We want to ask:

  • How does the "social," "cultural," "political," "economic" help us understand emergent forms of life in (a) the networked world, (b) the technosciences (especially biology, biotechnology, biocapitalism), (c) our environmental and ecological lives. (Consider for example, not only how biology is being reorganized institutionally, upsetting traditional relations between industry, government and universities, but whether biocapitalism is a new form of capitalism, and what that might mean.)

  • Is there magic in the contemporary world? Is there something about the symbolic (or what Haraway calls the material-semiotic) that cannot be reduced to instrumental rationality? Is fantasy, utopia, misrecognition necessary to the operation of (post)modernity?

  • How are technologies peopled? and what effect does that have on the technologies, their use, their development, and how can we use this in planning, "implementation", and policy?

  • Are there really new ethical dilemmas posed by the fast pace of technoscientific change that cannot be addressed by past moralities? Where does morality come from? Can we identify some of these ethical dilemmas?

  • Do we see and judge the same way people did a hundred or two hundred years ago? Do people see and judge the same way everywhere around the globe? Do new teletechnologies and new visual technologies really make any difference to the way the world is constructed?

  • What is the utility of new concepts and where do or should they come from? Are traditional terms like class, race, gender, social, cultural, political economic still the most useful ones to use? What about terms like material-semiotic, cyborg, rhyzome?

  • What new social organizations do we need to pay attention to? Are "new social movements" (what is this term?) any different from social movements in the past? Are new organizational forms demanded by the needs (contradictions, pressures) of the breakdown of first order modernity (what's first order modernity?) or are they "voluntaristic" or matters of political consciousness raising and organizing work?

Some of you are coming to this course with past experiences that will be useful to incorporate, and perhaps even some ideas about ongoing or future research. It will make the class more interesting and more motivated if you allow us to share those interests and read the texts in this class with an eye to how they might inform or be informed by those interests.


This is a reading and discussion seminar. Two students are assigned each week to help lead the discussion. Everyone else must (and the discussion leaders may, but are not required to) write a response paper on the readings. The response papers must be circulated to the entire class at least three hours before the class meets (i.e. the night before or early in the morning of class) by email.


Class Participation 50%
Class Discussion Leading 25%
Response Papers 25%


There is no final exam for this course. Students are asked to take a "pre-test" to get a sense of what names and texts they recognize and can identify by argument, and to give them a sense of what they don't yet know that will come up in the class. There are two parts: a multiple choice identification part on the direct course subject matter; and a check list of novels, plays, and films on science, technology and society that they have read or seen, with a short answer space for adding names of other items and why they like them.



1 Introduction and Assignments
2-3 The Social, the Ethnographic Method and the Durkheimean Challenge
4-5 Disciplines, Communities of Expertise and Epistemological Cultural Critique
6 Ecology and Systems: You Can't Change Only One Thing
7 System Transformation, Social Formations, Multiple Historical Horizons: The Marxian Challenge
8 Meaningful Social Action in Post-Bureaucratic Worlds: The Weberian Challenge
9 Media, the Culture Industry, and the Transformation of Social Relations: The Challenge of the Frankfurt School
10 Bodies, Multitudes, Codes and Flows: The Challenge of 1970s-90s French "Theory"
11 Material-Semiotic Objects: Cyborg and Companionate Anthropologies
12 Trauma, Human Rights, the Humanitarian Industry, and the Reconstruction of Society after Violent Distruction   Tell A Friend