21A.859J | Spring 2021 | Graduate

Social Theory and Analysis

Syllabus and Calendar

Course Meeting Times 

Seminars: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


There are no prerequisites for this course.

Course Description

This subject presents a survey of social theory from the 17th century to the present. We focus on the historical contexts out of which theory arises, the utility and limitations of older theories for present conditions, and the creation of new theory out of contemporary circumstances. We keep an eye on how theories help us think about science and technology as infrastructures upon which institutions and knowledge claims depend, and that in turn shape and are shaped by wider social and cultural forms.


This is a reading and discussion seminar.

Each week’s session has two parts and each week two students each offer presentations on half of the readings and then lead a related discussion. Everyone who is not presenting should write a 3–4 page (double-spaced) response paper on the readings. If you would like to offer a response in another format (an audio recording, a short video) that can work, too. Alternatively, if you are interested from time to time in teaming up with one or more others to create a collective response document, that can work as well (though if you do this, it would make sense to mix up collaborations over the course of the term, so that no one is left out who wants to participate).

Submitting papers or responses by midnight the day before our class meeting will help presenters (and me) prepare for class, but I understand that we are all working under a multiplicity of demands and stressors—the Covid-19 pandemic makes these very exceptional times—so these may be submitted at any time prior to class. You may skip one response document over the course of the term without it affecting your final grade.

Class participation, discussion leading, and response papers each count for one-third of the final grade. For detail on the response papers, see the Assignments section.

The Fine Print

MIT’s Writing and Communication Center offers free consultation and online help to MIT students at any stage of the writing process. Get help overcoming writer’s block and formulating an argument, and with questions on grammar and style (Writing Center consultants do not proofread, but do offer help with grammar and beyond).

MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office (ICEO) is dedicated to cultivating an environment that enacts “MIT’s shared values of excellence, meritocracy, openness, integrity, and mutual respect.” We will in this class observe and respect one another’s voices and points of view, taking collective responsibility for making sure everyone feels welcome and heard.

Students are expected to adhere to MIT’s guidelines on academic integrity. Plagiarism, unauthorized collaboration, cheating, or facilitating academic dishonesty may cause us to contact the Office of Student Citizenship or Committee on Discipline. If you have questions about what qualifies as plagiarism check out Academic Integrity at MIT.

Don’t panic. I will provide you with guidance about how to approach each session—what’s most important, how each session’s reading builds on what has come before. Start with a bird’s eye view of a session’s readings and then, as you read each piece, ask yourself what questions and debates it speaks to (who or what is the piece arguing against? why?), how it is structured (as a chronology, a close reading, a case study, a manifesto?), what claims it makes, and what evidence it employs.


Session 1: Introductions

Session 2: The Social Contract, Liberal Individualism, Colonial Contexts

Session 3: The Critique of Political Economy

Session 4: Communities of Sentiment, Nations, Migrations

Session 5: Bureaucracies, States, Prisons, Publics

Session 6: Culture, Anthropologically

Session 7: Mediation: The Frankfurt School, Cultural Studies, Poststructuralisms, Social Media

Session 8: Discourse, Biopower, Practice, Cyborgs

Session 9: Feminisms

Session 10: Colonialism, Racial Formation, Postcolonialism, Decoloniality

Session 11: Planetary Racial and Indigenous Formation and Justice, Anthropogenic Climate Change, Global Health and Covid-19