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SOC2058 : Understanding Social Change and Transformation

  • Offered for Year: 2019/20
  • Module Leader(s): Dr Emma Clavering
  • Owning School: Geography, Politics & Sociology
  • Teaching Location: Newcastle City Campus
Semester 1 Credit Value: 20
ECTS Credits: 10.0


This module is an introduction to the history of ideas in sociology and in anthropology, exploring some of the main theoretical traditions in the two disciplines as they have developed over the past century and more. Taking a broadly chronological approach, we examine how these disciplines emerged as distinctive ways of understanding a changing world, and how their founding assumptions and ideas have been challenged and revised over the course of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

Classical sociology and social anthropology came into being in response to and as part of the major transformation in the Western world that we call modernity, a set of historical shifts associated with the rise of rationality and science, industrial production and urbanisation, democracy and the nation-state, capitalism and individualism. Classical sociology was born out of attempts of European white men to describe and analyse changes within their own societies, and to do so systematically - even scientifically. Social anthropology, on the other hand, developed out of a fascination with the (often colonial) other, with forms of social organisation, institutions, practices and ways of being that were profoundly different from the West. But how could these different systems be understood?

This module aims to examine how we can use enduring traditions and ongoing theoretical debates in sociology and social anthropology to understand a changing and increasingly globalising world. Is the idea of ‘modernity’ still relevant to understanding societies and social change? Is it still possible to understand societies near and far objectively – was it ever? Are we moving into a new era ‘after’ modernity? What frameworks and ideas do we need to understand a range of contemporary societies, their institutions and ideas, and the identities and forms of life they offer us?

Outline Of Syllabus

The module introduces the key ideas and concerns that have made and remade sociology and social anthropology, focusing particularly on how the two disciplines have made sense of social change and transformation.

The module begins by covering ‘classical’ sociological theories – Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel. We focus on the debates that animated early European sociology: changes associated with modernity, including instrumental forms of rationality, modern capitalism, changing social structures and relationships, individualism, urbanisation, industrialism - and how best to understand those changes: in terms of organic progress or conflict dynamics? New structures and material relationships or new ideas and cultural meanings? The module explores how some of those ideas were picked up in early social anthropology, and how that discipline by the 20th century was reflecting critically on some of its early colonial assumptions about non-Western so-called primitive societies. The module explores how both disciplines grappled with the possibility and value of scientific knowledge of the social.

The module then looks at challenges to classical sociology and early social anthropology, especially in relation to ideas about modernity. We look at how early social science was marked by the experiences and social positions of its founders and consider problems with their universal/rational epistemologies. Later thinkers – Foucault, feminist theorists, postmodernists in sociology; Said, post-structuralism, post-colonialism in social anthropology; cultural theorists in both disciplines – have challenged modern assumptions and certainties, introducing fluid, local, partial ways of knowing. We look at how contemporary social theory has reconsidered the big questions - what it means to be human, what constitutes the social, how do we make sense of social change – from new angles, including theories of fluid subjectivities and identities, cultural relativism and hybrid ontologies and debates around for example human rights, queer theories, and post-human theorising.

Teaching Methods

Teaching Activities
Category Activity Number Length Student Hours Comment
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesLecture241:0024:00N/A
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesPractical12:002:00Exam preparation and practice session
Scheduled Learning And Teaching ActivitiesSmall group teaching101:0010:00N/A
Guided Independent StudyIndependent study1164:00164:00N/A
Teaching Rationale And Relationship

The lectures focus on offering clear introductions to key concepts and approaches from the history of ideas in sociology and social anthropology. Each lecture examines a specific aspect of classical or contemporary theorising in sociology or similar in social anthropology. Seminars are organised around exploring both the ideas of major theorists and significant themes and concepts in sociology and social anthropology based on set reading which students are expected to undertake in preparation. This mix enables students to build up relevant knowledges which practicing key disciplinary and transferable skills.

Assessment Methods

The format of resits will be determined by the Board of Examiners

Description Length Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Written Examination901A50Unseen
Other Assessment
Description Semester When Set Percentage Comment
Essay1M502000 words
Formative Assessments
Description Semester When Set Comment
Written exercise1MExam preparation and practice session with feedback.
Assessment Rationale And Relationship

SOC2058 examines students via essay and exam, split 50-50. The essay encourages students to explore selected theoretical ideas and their contexts in depth and detail. The exam asks students to address topics in both sociology and in social anthropology and to demonstrate a breadth of subject knowledge.

An alternative form of assessment can be set for exchange students from non-English speaking home institutions replacing the examination, set in accordance with the University Assessment tariff.

Reading Lists