SOAS University of London

Department of Anthropology and Sociology

Social Theory, Reform and Revolution in an Age of Extremes

Module Code:
FHEQ Level:
Year of study:
Year 1
Taught in:
Term 2

In this course we explore social thought between, roughly, 1900 and 1960. We do so by studying a sample of the writings of influential social thinkers hailing from Europe, the Caribbean and China, and by situating these in their social, intellectual, and wider historical contexts. The age we look at was one of extremes - of imperialist domination and struggles for national liberation, of free-market capitalism, the Great Depression and protectionism, of communist revolutions, world wars, fascism and genocides, and of women’s suffrage, workers’ rights and the rise of the welfare state. The thinkers we learn about in the course did not simply witness these events and processes – they were part of them. They differed, sometimes profoundly, in their analyses and identification of the issues of the day. Yet all of them, at least implicitly, embraced Marx’s maxim that philosophers should seek not simply to interpret the world, but to change it. The conceit of this course is that by reading these thinkers in their own words and situating them in historical contexts we will come to better understand how they helped to change the world in which we live and better appreciate the relevance and limitations of their approaches to our contemporary concerns.

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 of c.1900-c.1960. 
  • Contextualise social theorists in relation to twentieth-century historical processes and events.
  • Critically reflect on the idea of 'European' social theory and its relationship to non-European social theories in contexts of twentieth-century imperialism and decolonisation.

Scope and syllabus

1. He-Yin Zhen and Ellen Key: transnational feminisms at the dawn of the twentieth century
2. Durkheim’s Science of Society
3. Mao Zedong and the Sinification of Marxism
4. Fei Xiaotong’s Confucian Sociology
5. C.L.R. James and The Black Jacobins
6. Antonio Gramsci’s Theory of Politics
7. Hannah Arendt on the Banality of Evil
8. F.W. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom
9. Karl Polanyi’s Double Movement
10. Frantz Fanon on the Struggle for Liberation

Suggested reading

  • Fei Xiaotong (1992 [1947]) From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society. Berkeley: U.C. Press.
  • Durkheim, E. (1965) Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. London: Free Press.
  • James, CLR. (2001) The Black Jacobins. London: Penguin
  • Gramsci, Antonio (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks. London.
  • Polanyi, Karl (2001[1944]) The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Arendt, Hannah (1977 [1964]) Eichmann in Jerusalem. New York: Penguin Books.
  • Fanon, Frantz (1986 [1952]) Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
  • Fanon, Frantz (2004 [1961]) The Wretched of the Earth. New York: Grove Press.


Important notice regarding changes to programmes and modules