SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

World Social Theory: Imagining Society from 500BCE to 1900

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 1

This course provides an insight into how society has been conceived of in different places and times. We will read a broad range of classic texts of social theory from ancient China and classical Greece to eighteen century Enlightenment and onwards to the birth of anthropology and sociology as academic disciplines. The course has two aims, one in terms of content and the other in terms of method: It is designed to give BA students a sense of the long conversation of social thought that preceded and produced the discipline of social anthropology. This background is essential both for understanding theoretical developments during the second half of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and for evaluating the claims to originality they make. In terms of method, it is meant to introduce the students to the art and skill of interpretation. The further a text is removed from our own sensibilities and concerns geographically and historically, the more work is required to make it intelligible. Reading a 2500-year old text, even in translation, is an encounter with a different way of thinking, writing and feeling. Learning to interpret and translate such a document and to put it in its historical and local context is the key skill that anthropology requires.

Objectives and learning outcomes of the module

On successful completion of this module a student will be able to:

  • Demonstrate knowledge of several influential social theories and intellectual currents from 500BCE to ca. 1900.
  • Contextualise both writers and their arguments in time a place
  • Critically interpret and interrogate the claims made by the thinkers on the course.

Scope and syllabus

1. Social Theory in Ancient China
2. Social Theory in Ancient Greece
3. Social Theory in the Islamic World
4. Social Theory in the Enlightenment "light": Rights and Governance
5. Outsider Social Theory: Tadano Makuzu's World
6. Social Theory in the Enlightenment "dark": Capitalism and Colonialism
7. Ideologies of Progress: Evolution and its Colonial Legacies
8. Karl Marx and the Communist Manifesto
9. Max Weber and the Birth of Sociology
10. Society Inside/Out: Freud and the World of the Psyche

Suggested reading

  • Mencius. Translated by D. C. Lau. London: Penguin Classics 2003.
  • Plato (380BC) The Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee. London: Penguin Classics.
  • Mary Wollstonecraft (1792) ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects.’ Boston: Peter Edes.
  • Bartolomé de Las Casas (1542) A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies. London: Penguin.
  • Zora Neale Hurston (2018) Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave. London: Harper and Collins.
  • Anténor Firmin (2002[1885]) The Equality of the Human Races. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules