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Advanced Social Theory

Key Information

Course details
Compulsory course for DPhil; Michaelmas Term
Reading list
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Professor Ralph Schroeder


This course introduces doctoral students to the work required to generate novel theoretical contributions to the scholarly literature. This course focuses on how social scientists think. What this course does not attempt to do is to provide a conceptual background to internet studies, digital social science or current debates in the field.  Each week looks at a theory “practice” in social science. Together through extension exercises, optional readings and self-directed preparation for the Transfer of Status, we will apply what we learn about the practice of theory to our particular lines of inquiry and to the field or fields that we share in common. The overarching goals of this course are for students to identify opportunities for the theoretical contributions of their own research and to be able to generate research questions that will be relevant to other scholars.

This course builds a conceptual scaffolding—only one of many different possibilities—for students to use to begin their own explorations in social science theory. The hope is that this course provides the beginning of the ‘meta-theoretical’ work—the thinking, writing and discussing of the practice of theory—that is required to produce doctoral-level—and professional scholarly—research.

Students new to social science or new to digital studies broadly construed may wish to audit the MSc lectures for Social Dynamics of the Internet or Internet Technologies & Regulation.

Course Objectives

This course aims to present multiple perspectives on talking about the practice of theory in digital social science. In doing so we will learn to discuss theoretical practice and draw on the multiple paradigms that necessarily make up an interdisciplinary department such as ours. We will look at interdisciplinary theorizing as a challenge and an opportunity for doctoral students. Finally,  this course aims to present tools for students to begin generating theory, as they are expected to do with their doctoral research, as opposed to apply or test theory as we expect at the masters’ level. Thus, the tenor of our discussions will centre around the question How is theory accomplished?

What this course will not aim to do is to introduce theories necessary for professional-level scholarship in digital social sciences. This is the aim of the reading lists that students develop in their first two terms with their supervisors. It is hoped that these two streams of conversations will mutual inform each other.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the course, students will be able to:             

  • Generate potential areas for empirical research from existing social theory.
  • Situate contemporary and emerging social phenomena relating to internet phenomena in a broader social science theoretical framework.
  • Develop the conceptual scaffolding to understand debates that inform their field of study.
  • Show how theories, paradigms, and philosophies of research methods inform research design, the methods chosen, the means of analysis and the representation and presentation of information and data.
  • Develop research questions based on identification and application of social science theory.
  • Construct “arguments” with literature, developing literature reviews of the quality need for transfer.
  • Use and contextualize theories within social science paradigms, with the goal of advancing new opportunities for theorizing across paradigms.

It is assumed that students come into this course able to do the following that we expect of MSc-level work:

  • Identify major social science theories and debates about new information and communication technologies.
  • Articulate how social science theory “works” and how social science theory differs from other ways of knowing.
  • Apply an existing social science theory to a digital phenomenon, broadly defined.
  • Compare two or more social science theories and evaluate their explanatory power for a particular phenomenon.
  • Explain how a particular theory ‘fits’ into either a conceptual framework of social science or in a larger scholarly conversation.
  • Identify how theories from across the social sciences overlap or diverge.