People Collection

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Richard Westerman

Assistant Professor

Arts

Sociology

About Me

Originally from the UK, I came to the University of Alberta in Fall 2011. Before that, I spent several years as a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Chicago (2006-11), where I taught in the Social Sciences division of the intensive Core Curriculum. My undergraduate and graduate degrees were from the Faculty of History at the University of Cambridge; I had not taken a pure sociology class until I came to teach one. My work draws on a range of disciplines, including the history of ideas, philosophy, social theory, political theory, and aesthetics.

Away from research, I enjoy rock climbing; it took me a mere three decades or so to discover a sport I enjoyed. (Sport at school chiefly involved my sturdier schoolmates delivering crunching rugby tackles that left me dazed in the mud, pounded by the endless hail.) I mix cocktails recreationally, listen to music at the volume of a sullen adolescent, read the TLS, and fight a losing battle against aging. I live (tragically) with my cat Parsley, whose supercilious air is a salutary reminder of my position in the universe.

I was interviewed for the Department's undergraduate newsletter in February 2016; if you have nothing better to do, you can read the interview here.


Research

My research is in the broad field of social thought and the philosophy of society. I am interested in two related questions. First, I examine the nature of meaning in consciousness. To explore this, I draw on the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl and Alfred Schütz, the Critical Theory of Georg Lukács, Theodor Adorno, and other members of the Frankfurt School, and on theorists of art such as Alois Riegl. I look at the ways our experience might seem meaningful or significant, and whether this is related to particular structures of social relations. I connect this to ideas of personal identity, value, agency, and democratic group formation.

The second strand of my research concerns the question of ethics and social critique. I look at the way in which notions such as social justice are understood, and examine the philosophical underpinnings of the normative demands made by critical social theorists of all types. A self-reflexive critical theory must be as sceptical towards its own moral standards as it is to those of the society it addresses. I challenge the deontological assumptions adopted by most such critique. In particular, I engage with the work of Jürgen Habermas. Questioning his formal and procedural approach to establishing moral norms, I draw on the phenomenological account of consciousness to argue that a substantive, meaning-oriented approach is better suited to addressing the inherent problems of critical social theory.


Teaching

Undergraduate courses

My teaching is predominantly in Social Theory: I teach Soc 212: Classical Social Theory, Soc 335: Themes in Contemporary Social Theory, and Soc 461: Sociology of Art (as well as Soc 100: Introductory Sociology). If you're interested in taking one of my classes, you can find more information about current and upcoming classes under the Courses tab above, and syllabi/outlines are under Undergraduate Programs on the department website. Student reviews of my courses have included 'by far the most difficult class I have ever taken,' 'love his cat,' and 'has an accent.' 

In all courses above Soc 100, I take a classical liberal arts approach modelled on the style of teaching encouraged in Chicago's Core Curriculum. My goal is to prepare students to be independent learners, capable of close, critical understanding of complex ideas, and of expressing themselves clearly, coherently, and persuasively. I emphasize logical argumentation, well-structured writing, and the use of hendiatris. We study original texts rather than using a textbook, and classroom work requires extensive small-group discussion as students puzzle through ideas for themselves. The Faculty of Arts' centre for teaching asked me to talk about my approach to teaching for a short video, which you can watch here.


Graduate supervision

I currently work with graduate students looking at parallels between Adorno and Derrida, and on philosophical suicide. I am open to supervising students with clearly-defined theoretical and philosophical questions. I do not supervise any empirical work, but I am happy to provide a theoretical perspective as a committee member on empirically-oriented work. I am open to serve on examination committees for projects concerning social justice, ethics, phenomenological sociology, sociology of art, and any interdisciplinary project connecting social theory, art, and/or philosophical problems. In addition, my Soc 461 class is also cross-listed as Soc 503: Sociology of Art for theoretically-inclined graduate students.