Sociology - Why bother reading the classics?

Sociology is a relatively new subject (with origins in the work of Auguste Comte in the early years of the 19th Century), but it has grown hugely in a short space of time and is now a constantly updating agent of social commentary, measurement and reflection. 

When you start a sociology degree, you are typically presented with a couple of compulsory modules that you must take and a handful of electives that you get to choose from. The elective modules tend to sound fun and modern: 'Sociology of Sexuality', 'Interpersonal Violence and Street Gangs' and 'Pop Music - in a Social Context'. Whereas the compulsory modules sound dry and boring: 'Introduction to Social Theory', 'The Protestant Ethic', 'Modernity, Post-Modernity and Zygmunt Bauman'.

Lady Gaga

“Yes, at some point you might be studying the social impact of Lady Gaga and enjoying it...”

It's understandable that these heavy titles and the fact that you've been forced to take them might make you approach these compulsory modules with a big dark cloud over your head, but these are actually the essential building blocks of sociology.

Without a decent understanding of thinkers like Comte, Marx, Durkheim and Weber you will struggle to see the world in the way that is essential to sociology as a discipline. The work of contemporary sociologists is made possible by the groundwork laid by sociology's forefathers.

The "dry and boring" elective modules will arm you with the foundations of a really strong sociological eye and reconfigure your world view, but if you get the opportunity, read further. It's one thing to be able to discuss Marxist theory and contrast it with Althussar or Hegel, because a lecturer has shown you which extracts to read in order to make a strong argument, but it's another thing to reach these conclusions yourself and really know a text inside out.

Most sociology degrees include an optional module on 'Reading the Classics'. This will involve a close reading of books like Das Kapital by Karl Marx, Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and the key works of Émile Durkeim. The opportunity to study these great works of western thought and have time to read them at leisure and be guided through by someone who knows the text well, will only come once in a lifetime. Take it.

And you never know, these old books may improve your understanding of contemporary events like the London riots, the global economic crisis and the failings of neo-liberalism, the monarchy and the rise of new religions or neo-humanism.

Sociology is a truly varied subject. Yes, at some point you might be studying the social impact of Lady Gaga and enjoying it, but you will enjoy it a whole lot more and get a much better mark if you can discuss it in the context of centuries of feminist theory (especially Bauman's 'liquid sexualities', Judith Butler's 'Gender Trouble' or maybe Liz Kelly's work on bad romances), ask yourself if she's making herself a commodity using chapter 1 of Karl Marx's 'Das Kapital' or use Durkheimian method to isolate what specific demographic of person is most inclined to succumb to Gaga-fandom. 

The classics are an essential groundwork and from there, the fun starts.