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Do grad students have to know social theory?

March 27, 2013

By Michael E. Smith, Professor in the School of Human Evolution & Social Change at Arizona State University, and Affiliated Faculty in the School of Geographical Science and Urban Planning.

I am writing this on the bus between Ann Arbor and East Lansing, Michigan. I gave a lecture at the Museum of Anthropology at the University of Michigan on Friday. This was a great experience. The lecture (the “Jeffrey Parsons Lecture”) is run by the archaeology grad students – they are the ones who invited me, and my schedule was set to maximize my interaction with students. Normally when one visits a program, one has individual meetings with the faculty, and then maybe a lunch with a bunch of students. Well, I had lunch with some faculty, but meetings and events all day with grad students (including breakfast and dinner, not to forget Friday afternoon beers, called “007” at Michigan for some reason I can’t recall).

This is a great group of students. They are smart and competent and each one I talked to is doing good research. And they are solid empirical scientists who don’t have much use for high-level social theory. But several expressed a concern about whether they would be expected to talk the social-theory talk when interviewing for jobs or otherwise interacting with outsiders. Has social theory so infected the discipline that everyone needs to deal with it (regardless of whether it helps their research or not)? That is an excellent question, one without a short, easy answer. So here are some thoughts on the question.

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