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Confronting the Human Condition and the Pressing Problems of the Day

An introduction to a course on social interaction (syllabus included)

I have been teaching courses on social interaction for my entire career, most often indirectly, most recently, directly. In the past, I taught a wide variety of topical courses: on bureaucracy, the arts, culture, politics, media, publics and much more, and while I reviewed with the students the relevant literatures, in the discussion, I would present my social interactionist perspective, focused on the areas of our substantive concerns. This approach changed, though, when a few years ago, I taught a course on classical sociology for the first time in thirty years. I decided that I had to expand the classics to include major thinkers who were usually neglected: Alexis de Tocqueville, Gabriel Tarde, Georg Simmel and George Herbert Mead, along with the usual suspects, Karl Marx, Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. I wanted to be clearer about the often neglected works that I thought are fundamental to understanding enduring problems of culture and politics, and to critically understand and become capable of responding to the fundamental problems of our times. I have become convinced that questions about the relationships between structural determination and agency, the micro and the macro, text and context, and culture versus the political economy, can all be best addressed by understanding that Social Interaction is where the action Is, the title of my last Public Seminar introduction of this class.

The course I am offering this year is basically the same as the one I taught a couple of years ago. This semester I will present it to undergraduates, next semester to graduate students. I have made a few changes, some based on what I learned when I last taught the class; note that W.E.B. Du Bois is now included as a foundational theorist of this field of inquiry. Other changes are based on my experiences as an executive editor of Public Seminar. The title of this piece draws from the guiding motto of PS: “confronting fundamental problems of the human condition and pressing problems of the day.” Also note that this semester’s syllabus (see below) includes readings from PS that will be used to supplement the more scholarly assignments. My hope is that the scholarly material will lend theoretical depth to the issues raised in the posts, and that the posts will substantiate, challenge and extend the theoretical insights of the assigned readings. Including these readings from PS, along with the reading of books and journal articles, in a seminar in which they will be discussedI trust demonstrates how the life of the mind online doesn’t have to compromise and indeed can extend and enrich books, articles and serious face to face intellectual discussion.

In this class, through this syllabus, I hope to demonstrate that understanding of society as an ongoing set of social interactions is one that is necessary to perceive how societies are constituted through media, leading to a nuanced appreciation of the social condition. I hope to show that such an understanding provides the possibility of examining how social consensus and conflict are formed and transformed, and how social actors on their own and together establish social order and social change. I am presenting the social interaction syllabus on this beautiful, warm and sunny Friday afternoon in New York because I believe that discerning the importance of social interaction facilitates the awareness of the beauty of the gray, the weekly theme of my column. I am hoping that such awareness is one of the learning outcomes of my teaching this year.

The Social Interaction Syllabus

I. Social Interaction as the primary domain of sociological investigation

3 weeks

1. Tarde, “Sociology,” Sociology, Social Psychology and Sociologism” and “A Debate with Emile Durkheim”

2. Simmel, “The Problem of Sociology?” “How is Society Possible?” “The Stranger”

3. Mead, Mind, Self and Society, especially “Self.”

4. John Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, especially chapter 1

5. W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

6. From Public Seminar: considering the enduring and pressing problems coming out of the events in Charlottesville, Virginia: Chris Howard-Woods, Colin Laidley and Maryam Omidi (eds.), #Charlottesville: White Supremacy, Populism and Resistance. (

II. Mediation and the Social Condition 2 weeks

  1. Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place

2. Dayan and Katz, Media Events

3. Goldfarb, The Politics of Small Things

4. From Public Seminar: Silvio Waisbord, “Who Needs Big Brother?” Julia Sonnevend, “Why We Need More Essays About Media,” Jeffrey C. Goldfarb “Solidarity and the Rise and Fall of the Public Sphere,” and Amusing Ourselves to Death Still, Daniel Dayan, “On Media Monstration and the Politics of Small Things,” and “Overhearing in the Public Sphere”

III. Consensus (meaningful action) 2 weeks

1. Weber, “Fundamental Concepts of Sociology” (from Economy and Society)

2. Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural System,” “Ideology as a Cultural System”

3. Arendt, “Ideology and Terror”

4. Fine, “The Performance of Ideology” (from Tiny Publics)

5. From Public Seminar: Goldfarb, Tavory, et al, on The Social Condition

IV. Agency and Order 4 weeks

1. Goffman, *The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,; Deference and Demeanor, Stigma

2. Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology

3. Becker, “Art as Collective Action,” “Arts and Crafts,” “The Making of a Marihuana Smoker”

4. Fine, “Tiny Publics as Social Order” (from Tiny Publics)

5. West and Zimmerman, “Doing Gender”

6. Young, “Throwing Like a Girl”

7. Elijah Anderson, Cosmopolitan Canopy

8. From Public Seminar#MeTooBlack Lives Matter

V. Conflict 2 weeks

1. Simmel, “Conflict,” “Prostitution”

2. Scott and Lyman, “Accounts”

3. Wright Mills, “Situated Actions and the Vocabulary of Motive”

4. Fleras, “Theorizing Microaggression as Racism 3.0”

5. From Public Seminar9/11

VI. Change 2 weeks

1. Goldfarb: The Politics of Small Things, Reinventing Political Culture

2. Havel, “The Power of the Powerless”

3. From Public Seminar: The Transition from Democracy to Dictatorship

Course Requirements

1. Active participation in the seminar, including opening discussions of the seminar with key questions about the assigned materials.

2. 3 short papers of 800 – 1200 words, responding to the readings and discussions, applied to issues of your own intellectual concerns. These papers will be considered for possible publication in Public Seminar.

3. Final paper of 8 – 15 pages, these can build upon and include the shorter pages. This paper should present what you specifically have learned from the course.

Also for you:

Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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