The study of the Social Sciences at Shimer College includes not only sociology and its application in economics, demographic analysis, and social psychology--which is often the focus or the sole subject matter when majoring in social science at other institutions--but rather it embraces the wide range of thought on society, culture, and the individual, and the disciplines of political philosophy, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics as well as “social science” narrowly construed. Education in all academic areas at Shimer is grounded on the principle that specialized knowledge is of limited value without breadth of knowledge.
Moreover, core courses in the Social Sciences at Shimer, like those in the Humanities and the Natural Sciences, consist of reading and seminar discussion of original and influential works. The student is not merely expected to absorb concepts and terms presented through lectures and textbooks on current sociology, as at other institutions, but to critically engage landmark ideas after reading their original, and often controversial, exposition. A student taking college “Soc” courses is likely to learn, for example, that “correlation is not causation,” But will you read the original argument for this by-now established principle of statistical sociology, and have the opportunity to critically examine it? At Shimer you will.
The first of the four core courses in the College’s Social Sciences sequence, titled Society, Culture, and Personality, is designed to introduce the student to anthropology, psychology, and political theory. Instead of unexciting textbooks, course texts are classic and recent works that lend themselves to lively discussion, and course authors tend to be paired on the basis of their contrasting perspectives. Readings typically include foundational ethnographic studies by Mead or Benedict, Colin Turnbull’s highly controversial account of an African tribe on the verge of extinction, Freud—and his critics—on psychoanalysis, Chodorow on gender difference, Marx and Weber on capitalism, and Durkheim’s groundbreaking sociological study of suicide.
The Western Political Tradition is the second course in the Social Sciences sequence---all about politics. Departing from Plato’s Republic and classics in political thought by Aristotle, Aquinas, and Machiavelli, the course follows the evolution of social contract and democratic political theory from Hobbes to the United States Constitution. The text of the Constitution, the climactic point of the course, is examined in detail, so that students have the opportunity to understand contemporary issues such as gun ownership from the perspective of what is actually written in the Constitution and how it might be interpreted. The course is excellent preparation for law school.
The third course in the sequence, Modern Theories of Politics and Society, continues to follow the development of political thought through the study of texts and authors that have extended, revised, or critiqued classic democratic theory or reflected on modernity as a distinct social condition. Among the readings typically included are De Tocqueville’s prescient critical examination of American democracy; Hegel’s difficult but profound writings on history and the state; readings from Marx that build on the introduction to Marxism in Social Sciences 1; Mill’s original exposition of what is now called “liberalism”; Existentialist psychological and social analyses by Sartre and De Beauvoir; Fanon’s explosive brief for violence against colonial powers; Arendt’s penetrating reflections on such topics as modernity, totalitarianism, and the Holocaust; and Huxley’s wry and prophetic Brave New World.
Social Sciences 4, Theories of Social Inquiry, is focused on the question of whether society can be studied scientifically, and how this might be done. The course introduces the student to the statistical and interpretive methods in sociology through further reading of Durkheim and Weber, and to linguistics by way of Saussure. Stanley Milgram’s famous social psychology experiment on obedience is studied in detail. The problem of ideology as an impediment to the objective study of society is a major course topic. The third segment of the course is devoted to recent developments in social thought that are often designated as “postmodern”: feminist methodology, Foucault’s revisionist historical theories and narratives, and Clifford Geertz’s interpretive anthropology. Theories of Social Inquiry is especially helpful to students planning graduate or professional study in the social sciences.
The study of social thought at ShimerCollege is not limited to core courses in the sequence. Among the Social Sciences elective courses s that have recently been offered at the College are Looking Back at the 20thCentury, Famous Trials, Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Feminist Theory, and Critical Theory. History—both as philosophy of history and as particular historical accounts--is the predominant discipline in the Shimer curriculum’s two-semester capstone course, History and Philosophy of Western Civilization (Integrative Studies 5 and 6). Shimer’s “comps,” or comprehensive examinations, which are separate from individual courses, often amount to short courses in their own right, in Social Science or other areas, As in the other areas, there are ample opportunities for independent study of Social Science, through semester projects, research papers (which can take the form of sociological field studies), honors projects, and the senior thesis. Core and elective courses are also complemented by tutorials, which are usually on highly specialized topics, and which are available on the Chicago campus and in Shimer’s Oxford Program.
Albert Fernandez, Professor of Cultural History