Abstraction (sociology)

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Sociological Abstraction refers to the varying levels at which theoretical concepts can be understood. This idea is very similar to the philosophical understanding of abstraction. There are two basic levels of sociological abstraction: sociological concepts and operationalized sociological concepts.

A sociological concept is a mental construct that represents some part of the world in a simplified form. An example of a mental construct is the idea of class, or the distinguishing of two groups based on their income, culture, power, or some other defining characteristic(s). Concepts can remain abstract or can be operationalized. Operationalizing a sociological concept takes it to the concrete level by defining how one is going to measure it. Thus, with the concept of class one could operationalize it by actually measuring people's income. Once operationalized, you have a concrete representation of a sociological concept.

In addition to the basic levels of sociological abstraction, sociological concepts are often understood at multiple levels as a result of sociological theorizing. Sociological theories postulate relationships between sociological concepts. It is generally understood that there are three levels of sociological theorizing:

The most abstract level of sociological theory is often referred to as Grand Theory. Grand Theory attempts to explain the inter-relationships among numerous concepts and intends to be independent of time and space. In other words, it intends to be universally applicable. An example would be Talcott Parsons' Action Systems Theory, which attempted to explain the workings of society at a very abstract level. Another example would be Marx's Historical Materialism, which argued economic relations were the foundation of social structure.

Middle-range theories are also explanations of human behavior that go beyond one particular observation but are limited in scope and do not attempt to explain all of society. A classic example (with Grand Theory implications) would be Durkheim's research on suicide. He proposed a relationship between the breakdown of social bonds found in religions (Protestantism vs. Catholicism) as the reason for higher rates of suicide in specific areas.

Micro-level theories are limited to explanations of specific observations and are not intended to be universal. For instance, current work on religious activity in the U.S. seems to indicate that religious pluralism and marketforces have played a role in reducing the apparent amount of secularization (defined here as 'decreased levels of religiosity'). As the U.S. is one of few examples of a modernized country where levels of religiosity have remained relatively high over time (perhaps the only example), the theory seems applicable only to the U.S. and only during a specified time period.