The Legitimacy of Modernity? Basic Texts in Social Theory

Lecture, Open—Year

Social theory is a distinctly modern tradition of discourse, centered on explaining social order in societies that are too large, fluid, and complex to rely on tradition or self-conscious political regulation alone. Instead, a series of theorists whose works gave rise to the modern social sciences explore the sources of social order in structures, many of which work “behind the backs” or independently from the intention of those whose interaction they integrate. The market economy, the legal and administrative state, the firm and the professions, highly differentiated political and civil cultures, a variety of disciplinary techniques inscribed in diverse mundane practices—one by one, these theorists labored to unmask the often hidden sources of social order. Moreover, this understanding of social order has evolved side-by-side with evaluations ranging from those that view Western modernity as achieving the apex of human freedom and individuality to those that see it as insinuating a uniquely thorough and invidious system of domination. This class will introduce many of the foundational texts and authors in the social sciences, including Adam Smith, Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, Sigmund Freud, Michel Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, and Frantz Fanon. In this way, it will also cover various schools of social explanation, including: Marxism, structuralism, poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, and feminism. The thread connecting these disparate authors and approaches will be the issue of the worth or legitimacy of Western modernity. Which of the institutions that structured the process of modernization are worth defending or reforming? Which should be rejected outright? Or should we reject them all and embrace a new, postmodern social epoch? In answering these questions in class and in group conferences, we will grapple both with classical texts and with the implications of different approaches for contemporary social analysis.