social science t-shirts (1)

My Life and Times as a Young Convict






July 17, 2014 Red Wing

My stays at Red Wing were unforgettable. Eventually, I turned my life around.

The Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing was colloquially known as the Red Wing Boys’ Reformatory 50 years ago, when offenders rubbed shoulders with juvenile felons.

Photo: GLEN STUBBE • Star Tribune file 2006,

America’s incarceration explosion begins with young offenders. In “Burning Down the House: The End of Juvenile Prison,” Nell Bernstein explores the physical and psychological abuse that occurs in these state-run correctional facilities. Her new book argues that these kids internalize an unvarnished message — “That they are at once disposable and dangerous.” The evidence is indisputable: Brutal imprisonment and stigmatized identities breed not rehabilitation but recidivism.

My alma mater is the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. That boys’ reformatory both granted me a high school diploma and stamped my identity with an indelible stain that persists even after 50 years.

This Mennonite homeboy was born under a bad sign; by age 4, the elders had expelled me from summer Bible school for fighting. I was a precocious child; by age 12, my story had become the town’s cautionary tale about juvenile delinquency. Today, I can treat those memories with the detachment of a stand-up comic. In those days, however, my survival kit was limited to rage, violence and crime.

In 1962, at age 17, I was dispatched by the town fathers of Jackson, Minn., to what was colloquially known as the Red Wing Boys’ Reformatory. I had ambivalent feelings as I rolled across southern Minnesota, locked in the back seat of an unmarked squad car. On the one hand, I felt an existential despair that I only began to understand years later when I played the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot.” In Red Wing, I was always waiting, waiting for a deliverance that never arrived.

On the other hand, I felt a sense of anticipation and exhilaration. From one end of the state to the other, bad-boy wannabes (like little Bobby Zimmerman from Hibbing) fantasized about making it to the big show. To understand that ambition, just listen to Bob Dylan’s “Walls of Red Wing.”

I was in for a rude awakening. In those days, Red Wing was what Erving Goffman called a “total institution.” Privacy was an idea you checked at the front gate. You ate together, you worked together, you slept together, you showered together and, without benefit of stalls, you defecated together.

Back then, few adolescents faced trial as adults. Consequently, you rubbed shoulders on a daily basis with juvenile felons who may have been burglars, sex offenders, armed robbers or even murderers. In any sort of gulag, there are predators and there is prey. I spent my stint at Red Wing avoiding becoming anyone’s prey. When paroled, I had few remaining illusions. I just knew that I was not coming back.

But back I came. There were many “cottages” (the mother of all euphemisms) at Red Wing. Resembling medieval fortresses, those jagged stone buildings were gothic dungeons. The two that housed the most hardened boys and were the toughest places to do time were McKinley and Lincoln.

This time, I drew Lincoln. I decided to live by Faulkner’s Nobel Prize motto — I would not merely endure: I would prevail. The highest status an inmate could achieve was to become a “belt” (in the old days, they literally wore belts across their chests and over their shoulders). Belts represented a combination of trustee and cottage enforcer. Two belts in each unit ran the show. Within a month, I had dispatched a cottage bully to the hospital infirmary. That made all the difference. I soon became the Lincoln belt.

Paroled once again after 10 months, I knew better than to return home. The good citizens of Jackson were just waiting to award me a scholarship to the “big house” at Stillwater state prison. That being a foregone conclusion, I packed up my 1949 Plymouth and headed for the Twin Cities.

I eventually found work in the basement of the Pillsbury Co. I spent my days mindlessly churning out office note pads and my nights drinking cheap liquor. I eventually met an attorney in the lunchroom who for some reason took interest in me. One day, he said, “Kid, you really aren’t as stupid as you sometimes appear to be. Have you ever thought of going to college?”

That conversation made all the difference. I soon found myself at Austin Junior College. To be honest, even Red Wing’s remedial courses had accomplished little. However, I did make a remarkable discovery midway through my first year of college — cultural capital. From that day forth, I was like a burglar seeking the combination to a bank vault.

Today, I am a college professor and have had the redemptive experience of giving a commencement address at Red Wing. Nevertheless, even though a half-century has passed, those incarcerations remain deeply etched in my soul.

Monte Bute teaches sociology at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

A Community of Scholars + Faculty Unions = Students as an End unto Themselves

Minnesota has perhaps the most over-centralized system of public higher education in the nation. With the best of intentions, the Legislature’s former Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe in 1991 orchestrated a consolidation of three independent systems—state universities, community colleges, and technical colleges—into an über-bureaucracy called the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU).

Moe and his legislative colleagues were oblivious to the unintended consequences that would follow. What they had intended was a rational and efficient federation of public colleges and universities. Instead, what they got was a Byzantine empire, with top-down management ruling local campuses like colonial outposts.

Established in 1995, MnSCU is now fittingly ensconced in the palatial and well-secured Wells Fargo Bank building in downtown St. Paul. This behemoth has now mushroomed to over 400 bureaucrats who mandate policies and dictate procedures to its 31 college and universities.

I teach in a union shop at Metropolitan State University. A few colleagues are non-members. They have doubts about the efficacy of collective action. They behave as if faculty activism is beneath them, or that they have no dog in this fight.

Equally misguided are the handful of  libertarians who claim that unions are a coercive imposition upon their “freedom.” They want neither to belong to a union nor to pay anything for the benefits that a union bestows upon them. Economists call these two groups “free riders.” Nonetheless, the union still represents and defends them.

I can only assume that these two sets of colleagues are either naïve or woefully obtuse to the existential threat that MnSCU poses to every faculty member and local campus within its dominion. They also seem oblivious to the collateral damage that this Kafkaesque ministry of higher education inflicts on its students.

The Inter Faculty Organization (IFO) is the statewide faculty union for Minnesota state universities. Subscribing to a rather old-fashioned idea, we see ourselves as a community of scholars. As teachers, we hold one truth to be self-evident—that our students are never a means to some other end, but are an end unto themselves.

What is a Community of Scholars?

The first European universities developed in the 11th and 12th centuries in Italy, France, and England. By the 13th century, Peter Abelard had established at the University of Paris the progenitor of the modern college and university. Modeled on the medieval guild, Paris exemplified the principle of autonomy, a federated and self-regulating community of teachers and scholars.

Paul Goodman wrote The Community of Scholars in 1962. He saw an unbroken lineage between those medieval institutions and contemporary colleges and universities. Goodman argued that there is one dominant ancestranal trait in higher education’s genealogy: The community of scholars has always been self-governing, and its continued existence depends upon that principle. Over a half century ago, he had already pinpointed the most toxic threat to this venerable tradition:

“Will the community of scholars survive its present plague of administrative mentality? The ultima ratio of administration is that a school is a teaching machine [online learning and MOOCs are only the latest iterations], to train the young by predigested programs in order to get pre-ordained marketable skills . . . Such training can, and must, dispense with the ancient communities, for they are not only inefficient but they keep erasing or even negating the lessons.”

Paul Goodman: “The community of scholars is self-governing, and has never ceased to regard itself as such.” 

Why Do Faculties Need Unions?

During the 20th century, trustees and a new class of professional administrators eventually destroyed those self-governing faculty guilds that had persisted for 800 years. Teachers and scholars increasingly became wage slaves in a corporate university, at-will employees with few protections, minimal bargaining power, and little say in governance. Administrators and trustees held a monopoly of power in higher education.

Faculty members finally realized that without their traditional form of self-governance, they were individually subject to autocratic behavior by administrators and trustees, and collectively they were an endangered species. The community of scholars became a shape-shifter—it organized faculty unions.

The IFO improves and protects faculty wages, health coverage, pensions, and contract rights, whether you are a member or not. With the combined 2006 and 2008 contracts, the IFO won long-overdue salaries increases of nearly 17 percent. Since the Great Recession, we have protected those gains and stopped ongoing attempts to cut faculty salaries and benefits. We have worked without benefit of a contract for over a year. Today we are the only public union in Minnesota without a new one: We refuse to settle for anything less than just compensation and protection of our rights to self-governance.

Most importantly, the IFO has organized a countervailing power to the potentially absolute power of  MnSCU and local university administrations. We now have shared governance in our public higher education system.

This faculty power grows from a democratic and participatory organization that projects a collective voice—we hang together, or the powers-that-be will hang us one by one. Much of the time, the slogan “The union makes us strong” seems a mere cliché: Given our current contract stalemate and MnSCU’s efforts to create sweatshops (particularly with its exploitation of adjunct faculty), this notion is what keeps our lifeblood flowing.

MnSCU controls public higher education at 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses. It has 430,000 students, is the state’s third largest employer with 17,000 employees, and is the nation’s 5th largest higher education system. Chancellor Steven Rosenstone says he is running a $2 billion business and, befittingly, has joined the board of the Minnesota Business Partnership—an organization composed of the CEOs of the state’s 100 largest banks and corporations.

A Board of Trustees governs MnSCU. Business leaders, including current and past executive directors of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota and the Minnesota Business Partnership, dominate the board. Naive political appointees (including the former of Speaker of the House and a former Senate Minority Leader for the Minnesota Legislature), with no experience in higher education are the next largest bloc. Students have four seats, labor one, and faculty none.  The market ideology that permeates MnSCU has no sympathy for faculty unions. In fact, there are Trustees and MnSCU employees who support efforts to weaken, and even destroy, public unions.

Imagine doing your job without a faculty union having your back. It is not a comforting thought. The choice is yours—union solidarity today or wage slavery tomorrow.

Why are Students an End unto Themselves?

Higher education in Minnesota is fundamentally undemocratic: The University of Minnesota and private colleges provide elite education for those who are destined to give orders; Rosenstone and MnSCU are seeking to provide mass education for those whose fate it is to obey those orders. I, and many of my state university colleagues, seek to subvert the imposition of this class system by providing elite education to the masses.

The mission that drives MnSCU is an ideological belief that they are providing vocational training to meet the needs of Minnesota employers. Given that bias, “workforce development” trumps all other criteria for teaching and learning. While the chancellor and trustees would vehemently deny it, they seem to see MnSCU students as little more than flesh-covered widgets, mass-produced to fill the needs of the state’s workforce. They now even have production quotas.

Under this paradigm, MnSCU students (and their families) are not ends; they are means to satisfy the ends of employers. By contrast, state university faculties hold the currently unfashionable belief that students are not means to an end; they are an end unto themselves.

Consequently, the vocationally educated employee, in the eyes of MnSCU’s leadership, is a well-trained worker bee. As you might imagine, the leadership qualities fostered by a traditional liberal arts education are, at best, an afterthought (like France, the care and feeding of elite leaders is the province of elite institutions in Minnesota). The development of well-educated persons and well-informed citizens still occurs on our local campuses but in spite of, not because of, the trustees and their over-staffed and over-compensated MnSCU chain of command.

Students and teachers are the heart and soul of higher education: All other partners exist merely to facilitate their teaching and learning.



New Film Premiering: Monte Bute in “An Interview with Martin Bright”

My new film premiers in Minneapolis at The Film Society on Sunday, August 3.

Four exemplars of hands-on political sociology

This is my essay in Buzz magazine on four of my favorite books (see second entry). I argue that these authors are exemplars of hands-on political sociology. As a life-long political activist, their wisdom has informed my practice. In the midst of battle, I cherished late-night conversations with mentors like these. Action, contemplation, action . . .

Bob Dylan could only fantasize about getting into my Alma Mater . . .

My Alma Mater, the Minnesota Correctional Facility-Red Wing. This idyllic campus granted me the prestigious degree that launched my notorious career as a deviant and dissident. Listen to Dylan’s song “The Walls of Red Wing.” He was just a teen-age wannabe.

Red Wing

Editorial Board issues a blistering rebuke of trustees for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities

Straighten up, MnSCU board


We continue to support Chancellor Steven Rosenstone’s work on changes to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System. But strange and perhaps irresponsible behavior by the MnSCU Board of Trustees gives ammunition to those who don’t and raises valid concerns among those who do.

The trustees have come in for deserved criticism around the circumstances involved in awarding a new contract to Rosenstone.

They all should ensure that the fallout — and a lingering labor dispute with a faculty union — don’t undermine a needed drive for system-wide change.

Details of the chancellor’s new three-year contract made headlines this week — eight months after it was agreed to.

The contract came to light only after its release by a faculty member. The system on Monday disclosed details of the agreement in a news release issued in response to media requests.

The contract hadn’t gone before the full board for approval — a step MnSCU said was not necessary because trustees had delegated the task to Chair Clarence Hightower. Some trustees did not learn of the deal until Sunday, the Pioneer Press reported.

As for the criticism: “This is not right,” Sen. Terri Bonoff, a Minnetonka Democrat and chair of the Senate higher education committee, said in a report by Mila Koumpilova of the Pioneer Press. “I believe a contract of this size and magnitude should have the full blessing of the board and public disclosure.”

Koumpilova also quoted a blunt assessment from Bonoff’s House counterpart, Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr., a Winona Democrat: “As far as passing the smell test for openness in government, this stinks.”

Yes, it does.

The lawmakers reportedly want their committees to review handling of the contract during the next legislative session.

The disclosure raises questions about lack of public scrutiny, operations of the trustees and how much latitude they provide their chair. Hightower is among six trustees reaching the end of their terms. MnSCU on Wednesday announced the election of Tom Renier, president of the Duluth-based Northland Foundation, as board chair, and former Minnesota House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher as its vice chair. Gov. Mark Dayton is expected to name new trustees in coming weeks. His choices deserve attention.

And they should prepare to pay attention. If a matter as important as the chancellor’s contract escapes scrutiny, what else don’t we know that we should about this sprawling bureaucracy? MnSCU, with 31 colleges and universities on 54 campuses in 47 communities across the state, serves more than 400,000 students.

Word of Rosenstone’s new contract arrived as the board was preparing for its annual review of the chancellor’s performance and dealing with faculty union negotiations. The Inter Faculty Organization, which represents educators at the seven state universities, has been negotiating with MnSCU for more than a year and is critical of Rosenstone. Wednesday, the system announced it had reached agreements with two other faculty unions.

Meanwhile, Rosenstone and the trustees seek to advance a “Charting the Future” plan to overhaul MnSCU. The initiative strives to prepare the system — one of the nation’s largest — to serve students in a permanent environment of scarcer resources, continuous change and increasing expectations.

According to the statement from MnSCU, the new contract with Rosenstone increases the chancellor’s base salary by 1.8 percent to $387,250. While it eliminates $50,000 in performance pay, the contract increases various allowances — for housing and transportation, for example — by $43,160 per year. State lawmakers last year directed MnSCU to do away with administrator bonuses.

The statement also notes some conditions: Rosenstone will resign from a tenured faculty appointment at the University of Minnesota, from which he has been on an unpaid leave. It also removed a guaranteed two-year appointment as a distinguished senior fellow for academic affairs after his term as chancellor.

At MnSCU, which educates 60 percent of Minnesota’s undergraduates, the difficult conversation about needed changes and how to implement them is of critical importance.

The hard work of system change should proceed without distractions from the chancellor’s office or from MnSCU’s trustees.


The Trustees who can’t shoot straight, manage to shoot themselves in the foot

Three-year contract for MnSCU chancellor reached in October draws fire

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • June 16, 2014

System’s faculty union and board of trustees clash over a quiet pay raise and renewed contract.

 Monday’s announcement that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system gave its top executive a raise and a new, three-year contract — last October — drew criticism from a top lawmaker and the union that represents the faculty at seven state universities.

Chancellor Steven Rosenstone will make $387,250 in base salary for the coming school year, a 1.8 percent increase. He also will receive a $43,160 boost to allowances for transportation and other expenses, MnSCU said.

A professor sent the contract to the media Friday. On Monday, MnSCU sent out a news release “due to interest from the media,” a spokesman said.

Clarence Hightower, chairman of the MnSCU board of trustees, negotiated the agreement. He said that after the board in June unanimously gave him the authority to negotiate with Rosenstone, it did not vote on the final deal — but there was “not an expectation that it would.”

“It’s the same process we used three years ago when we hired Chancellor Rosenstone,” he said. There was no vote, news release or announcement then, either, he said.

Hightower said that some board members “learned as late as yesterday” about the signed contract.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, chair of the House higher education committee, blasted MnSCU leaders for settling Rosenstone’s contract while testy negotiations with the universities’ faculty union drag on.

Those leaders promised lawmakers during the last legislative session that if they approved $17 million for the system, the contract for those 4,000 faculty members would be settled “within days,” said Pelowski, D-Winona.

“Well, it’s been a month or more,” he said. “Then the most expensive contract you have, you settled in October? And now we find out about it?”

The public deserves a more open process, Pelowski added. “If you look at openness in government and take a smell test, this stinks.”

It’s been more than three years since Rosenstone was picked to lead MnSCU — a network of seven state universities and 24 community or technical colleges with more than 430,000 students. His contract expires July 31. It says the trustees “may renew or continue the chancellor’s appointment only by a majority vote of the board.”

The new agreement, which starts Aug. 1, eliminates a performance bonus of up to $50,000 a year, a response to lawmakers banning such bonuses during last year’s session. Rosenstone will get $42,300 a year for housing, $15,000 for transportation and $7,800 for professional development.

The increases bring his total compensation “in line with that of other leaders of higher education systems nationally,” the MnSCU news release says. Rosenstone’s current pay ranks 23rd among 65 heads of similar systems, according to an annual ranking by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

MnSCU spokesman Doug Anderson said the contract approval “is consistent with practices in recent years.”

Hightower, who was appointed to the board in 2002, said that he can’t remember ever voting on a contract for former Chancellor James McCormick. But news articles and meeting minutes mention board votes on McCormick’s compensation. One 2002 report said that the 15-member board reviewed McCormick’s performance and “voted unanimously in favor of the raise and extension.” Board minutes from December 2005 also note the board approving a raise for McCormick.

Criticism is ‘fair’

The faculty “absolutely have the right” to call the board out, Hightower said. “That’s fair. Hindsight always gives us an opportunity … to look at how we do things.”News of the contract comes as Rosenstone is about to get a performance review. A committee, led by Hightower, will give its report to the board of trustees July 18.

“I want to know how they expect the average Minnesota citizen to understand why they would give a contract extension nine months before they performed an evaluation,” said Nancy Black, president of the Inter Faculty Organization, which represents university faculty.

Her group already delivered Rosenstone a harsh job review, criticizing him for “the erosion of the missions of the state universities.” In a statement last week, Hightower responded by saying the board supports Rosenstone “unanimously and without reservation.”

Monte Bute, a sociology professor at Metropolitan State University, sent the letter to media and was surprised by Monday’s news release, which did not mention when the contract was signed. He said he’s concerned about that “lack of transparency.”

“For what purpose are you doing a performance review?” Bute said. “You’ve already rewarded him.”

So professor, you don’t think you need a union?

Faculty feud with MnSCU chancellor heats up

By Mila Koumpilova

POSTED:   06/09/2014 12:01:00 AM CDT | UPDATED:   2 DAYS AGO
Steven Rosenstone, left, the new chancellor of MnSCU, talks to Board of Trustees Chair Scott Thiss before a news conference announcing Rosenstone’s

Steven Rosenstone, left, the new chancellor of MnSCU, talks to Board of Trustees Chair Scott Thiss before a news conference announcing Rosenstone’s new position, January 2, 2011. (Pioneer Press: Jean Pieri)

Minnesota’s state university faculty union sent a harsh critique of Chancellor Steven Rosenstone’s performance to the MnSCU governing board as it gears up to evaluate him.

The union and Rosenstone have had a tense relationship. Since last fall, they have clashed over a new strategic planning process for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. And they have been caught in contentious contract negotiations for more than a year.

In a memorandum Friday to the MnSCU’s Board of Trustees, the union voiced a litany of concerns, arguing the system administration is not attuned to faculty and student input.

“I have been hearing from faculty increasingly for the past year,” said Nancy Black, the outgoing president of the union, the Inter Faculty Organization.

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

Steven Rosenstone (Courtesy photo)

“One of their disenchantments is that it doesn’t appear students are better off now than they were three years ago.”

MnSCU board chairman Clarence Hightower said in a statement that trustees “unanimously and without reservation” support Rosenstone, whose three-year contract expires in July.

Rosenstone has had a more amicable relationship with other employee groups and organizations representing students. Those groups voiced measured support for the chancellor’s Charting the Future initiative, which calls for more coordination among the system’s campuses, wider use of education technology and other changes.

Faculty has voiced concerns that the initiative will lead to a more centralized system that undervalues the liberal arts. Rosenstone has argued the effort is about collaboration and innovation on a rapidly changing higher education scene.

Black said the university faculty union’s open dissent on Charting the Future and other issues has at least in part snarled contract negotiations. This spring, the two sides enlisted a state mediator to help resolve differences.

“We are the only part of the system that has vigorously dissented with (Rosenstone), and he doesn’t tolerate dissent,” Black said.

Citing the mediator’s request that the two sides not discuss the closed-door talks publicly, Black declined to discuss the union’s efforts.

Hightower said the board is “enthusiastic” about the direction in which Rosenstone had led the system.

“He is a visionary leader who cares passionately for our students and works tirelessly on their behalf,” he said.

Trustees will begin their annual evaluation of Rosenstone this month.


In its memo to the board, the union criticized Rosenstone for what it deemed an “uninspiring” budget pitch to the Legislature and spending cuts on two MnSCU campuses.

It argued the system’s legislative proposal was informed by the wishes of the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce rather than by student needs. The union previously has questioned Rosenstone’s belief that campuses need to be more responsive to the workforce needs of Minnesota employers to stay relevant.

The union faulted the system’s office with the handling of two recent high-profile cases:

– Payroll problems at Metropolitan State University.

– The firing and rehiring of a Minnesota State Mankato football coach who was accused and then cleared of child pornography.

The memo also charges that the chancellor ignored faculty input into his budget proposal and did not sufficiently involve faculty in work on Charting the Future.

Newly formed 18-member implementation teams for the plan feature one university faculty each, Black said.

Black said faculty morale at state universities was at an all-time low, and members on several campuses discussed no-confidence votes on the chancellor this spring.

In late May, Rosenstone wrote to the union to say he shared its frustration with the pace of contract talks. He said $17 million in additional state funding for salaries would allow the system to settle the contract with base pay increases rather than one-time bonuses.

He voiced hope that the change of union leadership this month would allow a “reset” in the relationship when Mankato faculty member James Grabowska takes over for Black.


Earl Potter, president of St. Cloud State University and of MnSCU’s executive committee, condemned the union’s memo as a “public effort to embarrass and damage the president that is not productive.”

He said the faculty backlash is ultimately about two issues: the difficult contract talks and faculty resistance to changes envisioned in Charting the Future.

“The chancellor appropriately and wisely is looking to our future and saying, ‘We need to change to remain viable,” Potter said. “I’ve heard from faculty who don’t believe we need to change.”

Potter said he and fellow campus presidents reviewed the system’s finances this year and agreed “the money is not there” to meet union contract demands — though the additional state funding helped.

MnSCU is the state’s largest higher education system and one of the nation’s biggest. Seven universities and 24 community and technical colleges serve more than 400,000 students annually, including almost 60 percent of the state’s undergraduates.

Rosenstone’s base salary is about $360,000 a year. He is also eligible for up to $50,000 in annual performance pay.

Average university faculty salary at MnSCU is about $59,680 for an assistant professor, $66,500 for an associate professor and $83,000 for a full professor, according to data provided by the union.

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at

My Distinction Between Social and Sociological Theories

I teach in an interdisciplinary social science department. It includes anthropology, political science, and sociology. The department offers only a social science major. We do offer minors in the individual disciplines but our majors cannot take them (too much overlap). While we have topical courses in each discipline, our introductory, methods, theory, and capstone courses are interdisciplinary in nature.

I teach SSci 501 “Great Ideas: Classics of Social Science.” The anthropologists and political scientists in the department see this course as merely my sociological version of  social theory. They argue that the course could as well be taught from an anthropological or political science foundation. This short e-mail is my attempt to disabuse my colleagues of that misconception and to distinguish between social theory and disciplinary theories.


I realize I have not done a very good job of explaining how social theory, as I teach it, differs from individual disciplinary theory courses. While you may have interpreted my arguments during our discussions as merely an ethnocentric claim that sociological theory is what social theory ought to be, that is not my belief or intent. In this course, I am really focusing on the philosophy of social science.

Let me appropriate Simmel’s quintessential distinction between “form and content” as a metaphor for what I am up to in “Great Ideas: Classics of Social Science.” Here is a gloss of Simmel’s differentiation:

“Form and content.  Simmel distinguished form and content as a way of explaining the ‘underlying forms of human association’ (Plummer in Turner, p. 199).  Just as Durkheim was not concerned with theological doctrines but with social aspects when studying religion, so Simmel is not so concerned with the content of social interaction. Rather he notices similarities in forms of interaction in different places, times, societies, situations, and institutions.”

While the content of the eight social theorists  (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, Benedict, Freud, Fanon and Arendt) receives substantial attention in the course, content is only the “second order” objective of my learning outcomes. The “first order” objective of my learning outcomes is the forms (there are others that might be used as well) that are the categorical foundations of the philosophy of social science.

The following is the students’ first short writing assignment, using the theoretical parameters of the course. As you can see, in this assignment I am less concerned with Blumer’s “content” than I am with the “forms” that fit his social theory:

“You have read Campbell’s ‘Comparing and Assessing Theories’ [Seven Theories of Human Society]. He explicates five parameters of social theory. You have also read ‘Society as Symbolic Interaction’ by Hubert Blumer.

I want you to write a mini-essay in which you interpret Blumer’s positioning on the following parameters:

  • Idealist-Materialist
  • Individualist-Holist
  • Conflict-Consensus
  • Positivist-Interpretative
  • Descriptive-Normative”

I hope this helps clarify why I see social theory, grounded in the philosophy of social science, as quite a different critter from any of the individual disciplinary theories.