Master of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies (MAIS) 601

Making Sense of Theory in the Arts and Social Sciences (Revision 4)

MAIS 601
**Note: Students in Group Study courses are advised that this syllabus may vary in key details in each instance of the course. Always refer to the Moodle site for the most up-to-date details on texts, assignment structure, and grading.**


MAIS 601: Making Sense of Theory in the Arts and Social Sciences is a foundation course for the Master of Arts (Interdisciplinary Studies). This course provides students with an opportunity to explore the origins and roles of the various theories that inform the contemporary humanities and social sciences. It provides the foundation for subsequent studies in the Interdisciplinary Studies program.

The course is organized around three themes that are central to the interdisciplinary study of the humanities and social sciences:

  1. Theory and Practice
  2. The Individual and Questions of Identity
  3. Modernity and Social Change

Each of these themes will be introduced through the study of topical issues that exemplify their respective themes and raise some of their themes’ key questions. The course also identifies principal theoretical frameworks for the ways in which we explore these themes, and also key concepts that identify questions that arise, with varying emphasis, in all of the readings in the course.

The course uses two modes of student participation:

  1. group study, in which you work with a few of your fellow students to produce a jointly agreed on response to one of the readings
  2. individual moderation of the discussion of one of the week’s readings, based on a short response paper (with questions for discussion) that you will post for that reading

Course Objectives

We will begin the course by addressing the theme of the relation between theory and practice—that is, the complex relation between the ways in which we reflect on and understand the world and the ways in which we approach the attempt to act on our thinking and put it into practice in our lives and in society. One of the key means of understanding is the organizing of thought and experience into the range of academic disciplines, aligned as many of them are under the broad categories of humanities (for example, history, literature, philosophy, and culture) and social sciences (for example, psychology, sociology, anthropology, political science, and economics). Thus we begin our inquiry into theory and practice with readings on the nature of academic disciplines and the possible motivations and assumptions with which we choose to adopt, as we do in MAIS, an interdisciplinary mode of inquiry.

In the second week of the course we will take up the group study approach to the issue of how thinking works in relation to our everyday lives. We will read our text Examined Life, which is a collection of interviews with contemporary thinkers. This book is an extended transcript of interviews recorded by Astra Taylor in her documentary film of the same title, a film in your course package that you will no doubt want to view along with your reading of the text.

Each of the three thematic areas of the course begins with discussion of a topical issue. These topics are common across all class sections of MAIS 601. However, in the remaining weeks of each thematic area, readings will be selected by each MAIS 601 class section’s professor from a large range of possible examples, primarily drawn from the course anthology Social Theory: Roots and Branches, but also from other sources either online or as files downloadable from the course website. The professor will choose readings that she or he finds most significant in relation to the three thematic issues, informed by his or her own scholarly interests and expertise. Although the course professor will determine which readings from the texts and from the list of online readings to assign, a variety of theoretical frameworks will inform the selection of readings for each area.

Key Terms or Constructs to Be Kept in View Throughout the Course

These terms arise persistently in contemporary and historical debate in relation to the above theoretical frameworks, but also across and among disciplines that address our three main themes.

  • Class
  • Ethics
  • Eurocentrism
  • Gender
  • Identity
  • Ideology
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Knowledge
  • Ontology
  • Paradigms
  • Power
  • Race
  • Self-critical thinking
  • Social justice

Student Evaluation

In this foundation course, students will be assessed on a pass / fail basis. To help students plan their individual study schedules, each activity is weighted proportionately. Your work in this course will be evaluated according to style, thesis/argument, research, background/context, conclusion and grammar/mechanics.

To receive credit for Making Sense of Theory in the Arts and Social Sciences, students will be required to complete successfully each of the following activities.

Course Activity Weighting
Online Participation 20%
Short essay 20%
Response paper 20%
Final essay 40%
Total 100%

Course Materials

The course materials for Master of Arts-Interdisciplinary Studies 601 include the items listed below.


  • Kivisto, Peter, ed. Social Theory: Roots and Branches. 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Supplementary eText

Registration in this course includes an electronic textbook. For more information on electronic textbooks, please refer to our eText Initiative site.

  • Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg, Meaghan Morris, eds. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

A print version of the eText may be available for purchase from the publisher through a direct-to-student link provided on the course website; you can also acquire the textbook on your own if you wish.


  • Examined Life. Dir. Astra Taylor. Zeitgeist Films, 2008.

Athabasca University Online Materials

Course Home Page: You will find Course Information (including the Assignment File and other pertinent information) at the top of the course home page. You will also find your Study Guide presented unit by unit online. You will find your assignments and links to submit your work to your professor on the course home page.

Athabasca University Library: Students are encouraged to browse the Library's Web site to review the Library collection of journal databases, electronic journals, and digital reference tools:

Athabasca University reserves the right to amend course outlines occasionally and without notice. Courses offered by other delivery methods may vary from their individualized-study counterparts.

Opened in Revision 4, September 1, 2011.