Modern social theory

Offer semester
1st semester

Lecture time
Tuesday 13:30 - 16:20

Lecture venue

Course description

This course is designed to provide an overview of the contemporary sociological theories starting from the 1920s, by that time all the great classical thinkers (including Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx and Max Weber) had passed from the scene, and new theorists were beginning to replace them. We start with key questions about why social theorists speculate and develop theories; how these theories deal with various aspects of the social world – from the most exalted to the most mundane; how they do their theorizing based on the work of their forebears and rigorous empirical data; and the applicability of a wide array of modern social theories in our social realities and relationships.

As contemporary sociological theory encapsulates a massive body of work, in building the syllabus I have tried to strike a balance between breadth and depth and provided space for student
interests. You all come to this course with areas of interest and some background in theory. As your central theory course, my goal is to familiarize everyone with a selected sample of contemporary sociological theories, help you become acquainted with the various theoretical perspectives that have shaped the discipline of sociology, acquire a structural understanding of sociological theory and its trajectory within our discipline, gain insights into the process of formulating empirical research in a theoretically appropriate and cogent way, and establish your identities as sociologists.

Following a thematic sequence, we will first revisit the key ideas by numerous classical social theorists, then we go on to discuss and evaluate a variety of contemporary theories who have come
to form the sociological canon and respectively focus on (i) the macro-level structures and institutions of society, (ii) the micro-level phenomena associated with everyday life, and (iii) the
meso-level integrative analysis seeking to combine the two. While we will cover important works by a wide array of social thinkers, this course is not merely about their “canonical ideas” but organized accordingly around the logics and interconnections of such ideas.

In addition to becoming acquainted with the work of specific social thinkers, we will see how persistent theoretical issues in sociology have been explained and reformulated; learn about strategies to mediate, reconcile, and apply differing sociological viewpoints; and be able to critically evaluate the accuracy and value of very different theoretical approaches.

Course learning outcomes

  • Map out the major trends of modern social theory and develop their own responses to the question of “what is theory and how theory can be useful?”;
  • Reflectively evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each theoretical school and to investigate their relevance to social reality and empirical analyses;
  • Improve their analytical skills through group discussion and paper writing;
  • Synthesize theory with practice and acquire the tools required to be a social theorist.


Attendance & participation20%
Two individual essays50%
Group presentation30%

Required reading

Ritzer, G. & Stepnisky, J. (2019). Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics (5th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA; London, UK: Sage.*

*1 e-copy & 2 print copies ordered via HKU libraries in early Jan 2020; 1 print copy on reserve for SOCI3024 and the other for SOCI6008 (available very soon). Alternatively, you can purchase your own copy at the University Bookstore (Swindon Books) or here.

Recommended reading

Ritzer, G. & Stepnisky, J. (2018). Sociological Theory (10th edition). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Extended readings:
Seidman, S. (2017). Contested Knowledge: Social Theory Today (6th edition). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Trevino, A.J. (ed.) (2017). The Development of Sociological Theory: Readings from the Enlightenment to the Present. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Course co-ordinator and teachers

Office opening hours adjustment