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Content created: 2006-07-10
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Quick Essays on Social Theory
and Other Abstractions

Overviews for College Students

The essays provided here are designed to be quick clarifications about some of the theoretical issues that arise frequently in beginning college classes in history and the social sciences. They are intended to be both brief and simple, but the issues raised are fundamental. (If they had been phrased slightly differently, the series could equally well have been called "Fundamental Logical Errors Careless People Tend to Make.") Mastery of this material can probably raise your grades by one whole grade point. Maybe two. But if that doesn't happen, it can at least help you win arguments with your roommate. Interactive review quizzes are available for these readings and are linked at the end of each reading and on this page.

  1. Two Kinds of Definitions
    Center-focused and boundary-focused definitions and the process of "operationalization," the basis of all social research
    Interactive Review: Quiz 1, Quiz 2
  2. Variables & Models
    What the dingdong is a "theory" anyway?
    Interactive Review: Quiz
  3. Classification: Lumping & Splitting
    What is your "default" hypothesis in classifying ambiguous evidence?
    Interactive Review: Quiz 1, Quiz 2
  4. Interpreting Motivation
    Most "explanations" of why people do what they do are fatuous foolishness. What is the logical trap that they fall into?
    Interactive Review: Quiz
  5. Competing Loyalties & Cross-Cutting Ties
    Is it good to have competing loyalties? Wouldn't that make for … um … conflict?
    Interactive Review: Quiz
  6. Symbols, Sumptuation, & Mystification
    Why do people like gold? It's not because it's pretty.
    Interactive Review: Quiz
  7. The Idea of Evolution
    Evolution is a central idea in biology, an important idea in historical linguistics, and a generally confused mess in cultural anthropology. Why?
    Interactive Review: Quiz 1, Quiz 2

I am most grateful to many students and colleagues who have offered comments and corrections over the years, and especially to Nancy Friedlander, Jacqueline Giordano, and the late Donald Tuzin for their thoughtful views and eagle-eyed proof-reading.

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