Decanonizing the Introduction to Sociology Text

Lisa Wade, PhD, is a Visiting Scholar at Tulane University, formally joining the faculty in 2021. An accomplished scholar, award-winning teacher, and public sociologist, she has become well known for delivering conversational yet compelling translations of sociological theory and research. She’s the author of the best-selling textbook Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions and American Hookup, the definitive account of the new culture of sex on campus. Her new introduction to sociology textbook, Terrible Magnificent Sociology, will be available for spring 2022 courses.

Photo Credit: Babs Evangelista

Writing a fresh introductory textbook is an opportunity to break old habits. One habit I wanted to break with my forthcoming book, Terrible Magnificent Sociology, was the tendency to center the historical contributions of White male scholars. Without diminishing the importance of Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Émile Durkheim—the three White men who’ve traditionally been centered as sociology’s “founding fathers”—I wanted to elevate the contributions of early scholars who’d been sidelined, forgotten, or excluded.

Decanonization is not just the right thing to do. I believe it’ll also change how students encounter our fields, especially if we decanonize our introductory courses. An inclusive canon invites all of our students—no matter their identities or life experiences—to see themselves as essential to what we do and who we are. It’s the first step toward further diversifying our fields by making sure that everyone feels welcome and at home.

In the process of writing Terrible Magnificent Sociology, however, I came to feel that dropping in a few extra names would not be enough. Decanonization required substantive changes to the pedagogy. In the hopes of helping others who are aiming to decanonize their texts and courses, this post explains the choices I made and why.

Many introduction to sociology texts begin with a short history of the field and highlights of its important scholars and their ideas. This has never felt right to me. First, it asks students to care about a history of a thing before learning about the thing itself. That’s a big ask. Second, it presents early thinkers’ ideas as if they were history, irrelevant to contemporary life.

I decided to go another way. I introduce historically important figures throughout the book at the moment their ideas intersect with the pedagogy. Harriet Martineau, for example, is discussed when introducing sociology as a science; she’s rightly credited with writing the first sociological research methods monograph in 1838 (almost 60 years before Durkheim’s). Anna Julia Cooper’s A Voice from the South: By a Black Woman of the South, published in 1892, helps introduce students to the idea of intersectionality. Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s groundbreaking research on lynching, published the same year, helps contextualize a discussion of police violence against Black people.

For all the scholars I highlight, I give relevant biographical detail. Sometimes this helps make the scholars more memorable—like in discussing Herbert Blumer’s professional football career or Erving Goffman’s atrocious poker face—but there’s a lesson here, too. Oftentimes the research interests and conclusions of historically marginalized scholars are read as indicative of “bias,” while men and White folks are believed to be more “objective.” In offering biographical context for everyone, I hope to show that all our scholarship is influenced by our lived experience.

So, yes, W.E.B. Du Bois was specifically concerned with the plight of Black people in part because he, himself, was Black. And Charlotte Perkins Gilman was concerned with women’s lives in part because she was a woman. But White male scholars are motivated by their experiences, too. Like Durkheim, whose fascination with the problem of social stability is explained by being born into a politically chaotic time in France. And Charles Horton Cooley’s articulation of the “looking glass self” was likely motivated by being shy, ill, and isolated as a child, with high-achieving parents who were quick to judge him.

Grounding scholars’ interests in their life experiences also suggests that if we want a well-rounded understanding of society, sociology needs all kinds of sociologists. I compare and contrast, for example, Max Weber’s interest in work (e.g., The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, 1905) with Marianne Weber’s interest in the family (e.g., Occupation and Marriage, 1906). It’s not a coincidence that the interests of each member of this married couple were drawn in different directions. Neither is more “biased” than the other. Moreover, I hope I make clear that understanding both work and family is more valuable sociologically than understanding just one or the other.

These implicit lessons, included throughout, ultimately bolster a more direct discussion of standpoint theory and the value of diversity, both then and now. Students first encounter the importance of “standpoint” in the introduction, in which I write:

All standpoints, especially the ones we hear less often, are important for understanding the world. Our personal biographies shape our questions, our research methods, our analysis and insights, and our conclusions. So, if we want sociology to explain the full breadth of social life, everyone has to be involved in its production.

Standpoint theory is discussed further in a module on sociological research methods. My hope, however, is that students learn this lesson passively as well as actively as they absorb the relationships between lives and research interests as they pop up throughout the book.

The field of sociology—like other academic fields—has been, and continues to be, complicit in reproducing the discriminatory environments that led to the underappreciation of previously marginalized scholars. It was hard to decide whether to emphasize this in the main text. I decided against it. That is, I don’t explain that these scholars’ contributions were ignored or erased by sociologists. Ultimately, I concluded that these scholars deserved to have their ideas recognized and appreciated separate from a discussion of sociology’s failings. I wanted them to stand toe to toe with the “founding fathers” without the mea culpa meta-commentary.

That they faced great odds is clear. I discuss how Ida B. Wells-Barnett and Anna Julia Cooper reached the heights of intellectual accomplishment after being born into the institution of slavery. I discuss W.E.B. Du Bois’s encounter with Northern racism and the Jim Crow South during Reconstruction. I explain Marianne Weber’s impressive productivity in light of unwanted domestic demands, which included taking care of an emotionally fragile husband. And the tragic death by suicide of Talcott Parsons’s brilliant and ambitious daughter, Anne Parsons, is tied (via a letter to Betty Friedan) to the oppressive expectations for White middle-class women in the 1950s. That we should be in awe of these figures is indisputable.

I embrace the importance of understanding sociology’s history, but I am betting that students will be more interested in knowing where sociology came from after they have a good grasp of what it is. A primer on the emergence and evolution of the field is available as an appendix and can be assigned whenever instructors believe it’ll be most useful. Students do learn about sociology’s exclusionary practices there, and those who pursue sociology further will have plenty of opportunity to learn more.

I wrote this book as a love letter to sociology. So, I take some liberties in presenting it as we wish it was, without being in denial of its flaws. And, to be fair, sociology is now among the most diverse of all academic fields. Accordingly, I supplement the broader inclusion of historical scholars with an even wider range of contemporary ones. I want students to see themselves in who sociologists study, but also in who sociologists are. This means discussing the research of scholars from as many demographic backgrounds as possible, but also telling the stories of sociologists who are trans, single mothers, convicted felons, U.S. immigrants, and more. No matter who our students are, and no matter what life is throwing their way, I want them to know they have a home with us.

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