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.