Anthropological Theory

Course Info

Course Number/Code: 21A.110 (Spring 2003)
Course Title: Anthropological Theory
Course Level: Undergraduate
Offered By: Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)
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Department: Anthropology
Course Instructor(s): Prof. Susan S. Silbey

Course Introduction:
Syllabus Syllabus (PDF)

This course introduces students to some of the major social theories and debates that inspire and inform anthropological analysis. Over the course of the semester, we will investigate a range of theoretical propositions concerning such topics as agency, structure, subjectivity, history, social change, power, culture, and the politics of representation. Ultimately, all theories can be read as statements about human beings and the worlds they create and inhabit. We will approach each theoretical perspective or proposition on three levels: (1) in terms of its analytical or explanatory power for understanding human behavior and the social world; (2) in the context of the social and historical circumstances in which they were produced; and (3) as contributions to ongoing dialogues and debate.

The first portion of the course examines classic statements of social and anthropological theory, analyzing them both as theoretical texts and in their amplification through ethnographic analysis. This section concentrates on interpreting structure, agency, and the "nature" of actors (subjectivity). If, as Marx proposes, humans make their own history, but not under circumstances of their own choice, what are the forces and structures that shape and constrain our ideas and our acts? How do social actors create themselves and the circumstances of their lives? How do they transform these? Following these basic topics, we examine contemporary theoretical debates about and within anthropology, focusing on how new insights into the politics of representation, post-modern theory, and transnational relations influence how anthropologists theorize and represent "culture" in their work today.

Requirements

This is a communications intensive course for the Anthropology minor and major. The goal is to be able to use, in writing, the concepts of anthropological and social theory to interpret cultural phenomena. Students will learn to write closely reasoned analyses of theoretical texts. They will learn to connect examples with categories, to distinguish processes of observation, interpretation, and critique, and to represent these processes through their own writing. We will emphasize revision and rewriting.

Each student will write several short papers and one longer final paper. Three short papers (approximately 4-5 pages) will cover assigned readings, with different students taking responsibility for a different week's assignment. Each paper will be distributed to the rest of the class at least 36 hours before class; students will provide oral and written comments on each other's papers.

The final writing assignment will be determined in discussion with the instructor. Each student should meet with the instructor within the first two weeks of class to discuss a topic for a final paper and to set up a schedule for submission of short papers.

Reading Materials There have been no books specifically ordered for this seminar, although you may wish to purchase some which are generally available in area bookstores. Additional readings may be assigned as we develop paper topics. This is a provisional list of readings from which we can adapt, add or subtract, as we go along. In the Study Materials section, I have attached a set of helpful hints about how generally to work through long lists of readings. Specifically, for this course on theory, I suggest that you approach each reading with the following questions in mind: Putting the work in the tradition of social theory. Try to get the big picture.What is the phenomenon being explained?What is the explanation offered?How does this apply to a specific observable phenomenon in social relations, in other words, what examples can you generate to illustrate the explanation offered?With whom (or what alternative point of view) might the author be arguing? Or, how does this explanation differ from other explanations for the same phenomenon?Close textual reading.Find some portions of the text you want us to discuss for close reading and interpretation.Find portions that are difficult or unclear to you.Find portions that you think exemplify the author's most important insights. Grading

The final grade will be based on completion of assignments ( 35% ), quality of assignments (20% ), improvement over the semester ( 25% ), attendance and class discussion ( 20% ).