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The Rhetoric of the Canon: Functional, Historicist, and Humanist Justifications


This paper seeks to uncover the modes of justification by which sociological theorists legitimize the “canon” of sociological theory in practice, through the stories they tell to students in sociological theory textbooks. Specifically, we ask: how do textbook authors rationalize their decisions to include and exclude some theorists? Further, what are the modes or “rules of the conceptual game” underlying these justifications? To address these questions, we undertake a rhetorical examination of a corpus of 250 English-language editions of sociological theory textbooks. Focusing on their Introductions and Conclusions, we highlight texts that presume the canon is a social fact and investigate the justifications they provide for assenting to this fact. We articulate and illustrate three forms of legitimation: functionalist, historicist, and humanist. Functionalist justifications legitimate the canon by appealing to its capacity to generate disciplinary unity and integrity. Historicist justifications legitimate the canon by appealing to its members’ foundational and influential role in defining the direction of the field. Humanist justifications legitimate the canon through appealing to the intrinsic qualities of its texts and authors. Identifying these pathways is the primary empirical contribution of this paper, which in turn contributes to the collective project of disciplinary self-reflection.

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  1. The process by which a new author enters into this extended canon involves a form of intellectual activism (Frickel & Gross, 2005) worthy of additional study. For the case of Simmel, see Broćić and Silver (2021).

  2. See also Alway (1995) for a more recent examination of the gendered character of approximately 10 English-language theory textbooks, and a recent 2019 study by McDonald.

  3. Clearly, few sociologists deeply engage with these authors’ entire oeuvres; canonization is not just of authors but of texts. We are not aware of systematic examination of the prevalence of specific texts in syllabi, but information compiled on suggests a canonization that would likely be familiar to most sociologists. For Weber, syllabi tend to feature The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, selections from Economy and Society (often “Class, Status, and Party” and “Basic Sociological Concepts”), and the “Intermediate Reflections” from The Sociology of Religion. For Durkheim, syllabi tend to feature selections from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, The Division of Labour, and Suicide, along with the discussion of social facts in the Rules of Sociological Method. For Marx, typical readings include The Communist Manifesto, the discussion of alienation in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, the opening sections of Capital, and selections from The German Ideology, with the Marx-Engels Reader guiding many instructors.

  4. As noted above, textbooks triangulate between at least three audiences: students, professors, and publishers. The relative weight varies, and in some cases the line is not clear between a book for students or geared toward changing professors’ ideas about how to think about theory or teaching theory. On borderline cases, we tended to err on inclusion, confirming that a candidate book appears on syllabi gathered in For example, Martin’s Thinking Through Theory and Swedberg’s The Art of Social Theory (both discussed below) might reasonably be thought to have professional theorists among their central audiences. Nevertheless, The Art of Social Theory appears in 38 syllabi, Thinking Through Theory in 9, and each is co-assigned with common texts in sociological theory courses, such as Goffman’s Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, or Merton’s Social Theory and Social Structure. Even so, a limitation of our study is that our corpus is not a complete census and there is no bright line between what is and is not a “textbook.”.

  5. Sociological theory and social theory can have distinct meanings, which are often debated by theorists. In practice, however, Guzman and Silver (2018) found that sociological theory courses often assign textbooks that are titled with either term. Some even include both in the same title, such as Allan’s Social and Sociological Theory. Many books with “social theory” in their titles deal explicitly with the history of sociology and engage prominently with sociologists. For our purposes, the abstract distinction is less relevant than whether a textbook is geared towards sociology students and is assigned in sociology courses.

  6. Martin (2015) notes the circularity embedded in this conception: “Theory” is then a side effect of canonization. Durkheim has a “theory” because Durkheim was a theorist, and Durkheim was a theorist because we make everyone read Durkheim. Whether this is a result of his institutional machinations and the creation of a school, the result of his intrinsic excellence, or simply a historical accident, is a secondary matter (Martin, 2015, p. 3). Martin argues that this functionalist explanation is a stable but unsatisfying solution: stable, because it is simple and definitional, allowing some authors to be “in” or “out” of the category “theory” without making any invidious distinctions about quality or value; unsatisfying because its circularity threatens to make theory coterminous with sociology as such, leaving no room for an account of what the distinctiveness of “theory work” amounts to.

  7. Later editions removed this argument, a sign that humanist criteria of quality have been difficult to sustain against contextualist and functionalist narratives (Owens, 2015).

  8. “It is often thought that the work of [Talcott Parsons and Karl Marx] is diametrically opposed and, to a large extent, this is true. There are common features, however, in their work which become more apparent as we compare them with other approaches. One of these common features concerns their views about the role of social structural (or macro) features in the shaping of social activity. In this sense they are both ‘affirmers’ of dualism insofar as they make a distinction between the realm of social activity and the realm of institutions, which represent the social conditions under which such activity takes place” (Layder, 2005, p.13).

  9. See also Silver (2019) which lays out a series of “theory work exercises” for practicing key theoretical skills, such as exegesis, analysis, synthesis, and hypothesis construction.


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This work was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSRHRC) (Grant Number: 435–2018-0801).

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Silver, D., Guzman, C., Parker, S. et al. The Rhetoric of the Canon: Functional, Historicist, and Humanist Justifications. Am Soc (2022).

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  • Social theory
  • History of Sociological Thought
  • Textbooks
  • Rhetoric