Sociological theory

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In sociology, sociological theories are statements of how and why particular facts about the social world are related.[1] They range in scope from concise descriptions of a single social process to paradigms for analysis and interpretation. Some sociological theories explain aspects of the social world and enable prediction about future events,[2] while others function as broad perspectives which guide further sociological analyses.[3]

Sociological theory vs. social theory[edit]

Kenneth Allan[4] proposed the distinction between sociological theory and social theory. In Allan's usage, sociological theory consists of abstract and testable propositions about society.[4] It often heavily relies on the scientific method, which aims for objectivity, and attempts to avoid passing value judgments. In contrast, social theory, according to Allan, focuses on commentary and critique of modern society rather than explanation.[4] Social theory is often closer to Continental philosophy, less concerned with objectivity and derivation of testable propositions, and more likely to pass normative judgments.[5] Sociological theory is generally created only by sociologists, while social theory can frequently come from other disciplines.

Prominent sociological theorists include Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton, Randall Collins, James Samuel Coleman, Peter Blau, Marshal McLuhan, Immanuel Wallerstein, George Homans, Harrison White, Theda Skocpol, Gerhard Lenski, Pierre van den Berghe and Jonathan H. Turner.[5] Prominent social theorists include: Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, Dorothy Smith, Alfred Schütz, Jeffrey Alexander, and Jacques Derrida.[5] There are also prominent scholars who could be seen as being in between social and sociological theories, such as Harold Garfinkel, Herbert Blumer, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman.[5]

History of sociological theories[edit]

The field of sociology itself and sociological theory by extension is relatively new. Both date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The drastic social changes of that period, such as industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of democratic states. The oldest sociological theories deal with broad historical processes relating to these changes. Since then, sociological theories have come to encompass most aspects of society, including communities, organizations and relationships.[6]

List of sociological theories[edit]

Traditional / classical theories[edit]

Social conflict is the struggle between segments of society over valued resources[7] Due to social conflict, it turned a small population into capitalists in the nineteenth century. Capitalists are people who own and operate factories and other businesses in pursuit of profits. However, capitalism turned most people into industrial workers, whom Marx called proletarians. Proletarians are people who sell their labour for wages. Conflict theories draw attention to power differentials, such as class, gender and race conflict, and contrast historically dominant ideologies. It is therefore a macro level analysis of society that sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and social change.[8] Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory, which is a component of the four major paradigms of sociology.[citation needed] Other important sociologists associated with this theory include Harriet Martineau, Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois. This sociological approach doesn't look at how social structures help society to operate, but instead looks at how "social patterns" can cause some people in society to be dominant, and others to be oppressed.[9] However, some criticisms to this theory are that it disregards how shared values and the way in which people rely on each other help to unify the society.[9]

Structural functionalism or Functionalism is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.[10] This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shapes society as a whole.[11] This approach looks at both social structure and social functions. Functionalism addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely norms, customs, traditions and institutions. Important sociologists associated with this approach include Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton. A common analogy, popularized by Herbert Spencer, presents these parts of society as "organs" that work toward the proper functioning of the "body" as a whole.[12] A criticism for this approach is that it disregards any inequalities that exists within a society, which in turn causes tension and conflict and the approach ends up being politically conservative. So in order to focus on this topic, the social conflict theory was made.[9]

Interpretivism or Symbolic interaction; also known as Interactionism, is a sociological theory that places emphasis on micro-scale social interaction to provide subjective meaning in human behavior, the social process and pragmatism.[13] The approach focuses on creating a framework for building a theory that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals. Society is nothing more than the shared reality that people construct as they interact with one another.[14] This approach sees people interacting in countless settings using symbolic communications. Therefore, society is a complex, ever-changing mosaic of subjective meanings.[15] However some criticisms to this approach are that it only looks at what is happening in one particular social situation, and disregards the effects that culture, race or gender may have on the people in that situation.[9] Some important sociologists associated with this approach include Max Weber, George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, George Homans and Peter Blau.

Contemporary perspectives[edit]

Positivism is a philosophy developed by Auguste Comte (widely regarded as the first true sociologist) in the middle of the 19th century that stated that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.[16] Society operates according to laws like the physical world. Introspective and intuitional attempts to gain knowledge are rejected. The positivist approach has been a recurrent theme in the history of western thought, from the Ancient Egyptians to the present day.

Antipositivism (also non-positivist or interpretive sociology) is the view in social science that the social realm may not be subject to the same methods of investigation as the natural world; that academics must reject empiricism and the scientific method in the conduct of social research. Interpretivists hold that researchers should focus on understanding the meanings that social actions have for the people being studied.[17]

Field theory examines social fields, which are social environments in which competition takes place (e.g., the field of electronics manufacturers). It is concerned with how individuals construct such fields, with how the fields are structured, and with the effects the field has on people occupying different positions in it.

Middle Range theory is an approach to sociological theorizing aimed at integrating theory and empirical research, developed by Robert K. Merton. It is currently the de facto dominant approach to sociological theory construction, especially in the United States. Middle range theory starts with an empirical phenomenon (as opposed to a broad abstract entity like the social system) and abstracts from it to create general statements that can be verified by data.[18]

Mathematical theory, also known as formal theory, is the use of mathematics to construct social theories. Mathematical sociology aims to take sociological theory, which is strong in intuitive content but weak from a formal point of view, and to express it in formal terms. The benefits of this approach include increased clarity and the ability to use mathematics to derive implications of a theory that cannot be arrived at intuitively. The models typically used in mathematical sociology allow sociologists to understand how predictable local interactions are often able to elicit global patterns of social structure.[19]

Socialization is the means by which human infants begin to acquire the skills necessary to perform as a functional member of their society, and are among the most influential learning processes one can experience.[20] Sociologists use the term socialization to refer to the lifelong social experience by which people develop their human potential and learn culture. Unlike other living species, humans need socialization within their cultures for survival.[21]

Structure and agency theory – The question over the primacy of either structure or agency in human behavior is a central debate in the social sciences. In this context, agency refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.[1] Structure, in contrast, refers to the recurrent patterned arrangements which influence or limit the choices and opportunities available.[22]

Critical theory is any sociological theory that aims to critique and change society and culture, not simply to document and understand it.[23]

Ethnomethodology examines how people make sense out of their social lives in the process of living, as if each individual were a researcher engaged in inquiry. It is the study of how people attempt to make sense of their everyday surroundings.[9] Harold Garfinkel (1967) is the one who devised this approach.[24] It begins by pointing out that everyday behavior rests on a number of assumptions.[24] Those assumptions are usually predictable due to the reaction of people or their behavior in everyday reality.[25]

Interpretive sociology is a theoretical perspective based on the work of Max Weber, proposes that social, economic and historical research can never be fully empirical or descriptive as one must always approach it with a conceptual apparatus.[25]

Network theory is a structural approach to sociology that is most closely associated with the work of Harrison White, who views norms and behaviors as embedded in chains of social relations.[25]

Phenomenological sociology is an approach within the field of sociology that aims to reveal what role human awareness plays in the production of social action, social situations and social worlds. In essence, phenomenology is the belief that society is a human construction. The social phenomenology of Alfred Schütz influenced the development of the social constructionism and ethnomethodology. It was originally developed by Edmund Husserl.

Post-colonial theory is a post-modern approach that consists of the reactions to and the analysis of colonialism.

Rational choice theory models social behavior as the interaction of utility maximizing individuals. "Rational" implies cost-effectiveness is balanced against cost to accomplish a utility maximizing interaction. Costs are extrinsic, meaning intrinsic values such as feelings of guilt will not be accounted for in the cost to commit a crime.

Social constructionism is a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts.[26]

Dramaturgy or Dramaturgical Perspective is a specialized symbolic interactionism paradigm developed by Erving Goffman, seeing life as a performance. As "actors," we have a status, which is the part that we play, where we are given various roles.[27] These roles serve as a script, supplying dialogue and action for the characters (the people in reality).[28] They also involve props and certain settings. For instance, a doctor (the role), uses instruments like a heart monitor (the prop), all the while using medical terms (the script), while in his doctor's office (the setting).[29] In addition, our performance is the "presentation of self," which is how people perceive us, based on the ways in which we portray ourselves.[30] This process, sometimes called impression management, begins with the idea of personal performance.[31]

Anomie theory, also known as normlessness, is where society provides little moral guidance to individuals.[29] It is difficult for individuals to find their place in the society without clear rules or norms to help guide them. Sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that social period of disruption. The economic depression results in greater anomie and higher rates of suicide and crimes.[32] Merton theorizes that anomie (normative breakdown) and some forms of deviant behavior derive largely from a disjunction between “culturally prescribed aspirations” of a society and “socially structured avenues for realizing those aspirations. In other words, a gap between people’s aspirations and their access to legitimate means of achieving them results in a breakdown of values, at both societal and individual levels. In The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim described anomie as one result of an inequitable division of labour within the society; such inequality, Durkheim wrote, causes a breakdown or lack of rules in society and results in class conflict. In Suicide, Durkheim viewed anomie as an outcome of rapid social and economic change and hypothesized that it explained a particular kind of suicide that occurs when individuals experience marked and sudden changes in their social condition. Broadly speaking, then, during times of great upheaval, increasing numbers of individuals’ ‘cease to accept the moral legitimacy of society,” as sociologist Anthony R. Mawson, University of Keele, UK, notes.[32]

Grounded theory is a systematic methodology in the social sciences involving the generation of theory from data.[33]

Thomas theorem refers to situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences.[34] Suggests that the reality people construct in their interaction has real consequences for the future. For example, a teacher who believes a certain student to be intellectually gifted may well encourage exceptional academic performance.[35]

Social Exchange Theory says that the interaction that occurs between people can be partly based on what someone may "gain and lose" by being with others. For example, when people think about who they may date, they'll look to see if they other person will offer just as much (or perhaps more) than they do. This can include judging an individual's looks and appearance, or their social status.[9]

Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women.[36] The theory focuses on how gender inequality shapes social life.[37] This approach shows how sexuality both reflects patterns of social inequality and helps to perpetuate them. Feminism, from a social conflict perspective, focuses on gender inequality and links sexuality to the domination of women by men.[38]

Postmodernism is a theoretical perspective approach that criticises modernism and believes anti-theory and anti-method and has a great mistrust of grand theories and ideologies. Due to human subjectivity, theorists believe that discovering the objective truth is impossible or unachievable.[39] This is due to a perspective that sees society as ever-changing along with the assumption that truth is constantly subject to change. A post-modern theorist's purpose is to achieve understanding through observation, rather than data collection. This approach uses both micro and macro level analysis.[40] A question that is asked by this approach would be, "How do we understand societies or interpersonal relations, while rejecting the theories and methods of the social sciences, and our assumptions about human nature? or How does power permeate social relations or society, and change with the circumstances? "[41] An example of a famous Post Modernist is Michael Foucault. He was a French philosopher and one of the most influential post modernist of all time.

Pure sociology is a theoretical paradigm developed by Donald Black that explains variation in social life with social geometry, that is, locations in social space. A recent extension of this idea is that fluctuations in social space - called social time - are the cause of social conflict.[42]

Theories in subfields of sociology[edit]


Criminology - The scientific study of crime and criminals.
  • The general theory of crime: States that the main factor behind criminal behaviour is the individual's lack of self-control.
  • Differential association theory: The theory was developed by Edwin Sutherland and it examines the acts of a criminal from the perspective that they are learned behaviours.[43]
  • Labeling theory: It is the main idea that deviance and conformity result not so much from what people do as from how others respond to these actions.[44] It also states that a society's reaction to specific behaviors are a major determinant of how a person may come to adopt a "deviant" label.[45] This theory stresses the relativity of deviance, the idea that people may define the same behavior in any number of ways. Thus the labelling theory is a micro-level analysis and is often classified in the social-interactionist approach.[44] Bryant, Lee. "The Labelling Theory", History Learning Site, 2000-2012, retrieved March 13, 2013.
  • Control theory: The theory was developed by Travis Hirschi and it states that a weak bond between an individual and society itself allows the individual to defy societal norms and adopt behaviors that are deviant in nature.[46]
  • Rational choice theory: States that people commit crimes when it is rational for them to do so according to analyses of costs and benefits, and that crime can be reduced by minimizing benefits and maximizing costs to the "would be" criminal.
  • Social disorganization theory: States that crime is more likely to occur in areas where social institutions are unable to directly control groups of individuals.
  • Social learning theory: States that people adopt new behaviors through observational learning in their environments.[47]
  • Strain theory: States that a social structure within a society may cause people to commit crimes. Specifically, the extent and type of deviance people engage in depend on whether a society provides the means to achieve cultural goals.[48]
  • Subcultural theory: States that behavior is influenced by factors such as class, ethnicity, and family status. This theory's primary focus is on juvenile delinquency.
  • Psychopath: serious criminals who do not feel shame or guilt from their actions. They do not fear punishment and have little sympathy for the people they harm.[49] These individuals are said to have a psychological disorder as psychopathy or antisocial personality disorder. They exhibit a variety of maladaptive traits such as rarely experiencing genuine affection for others. They are skilled at faking affection, are irresponsible, impulsive, tolerate little frustration and they pursue immediate gratification.[50] Robert Hare, one of the world's leading experts on psychopathy, developed an important assessment device for psychopathy, the Psychopathy Checklist-Revised. For many, this measure is the single, most important advancement to date toward what will hopefully become our ultimate understanding of psychopathy (McCann, Weiten, 641).
  • Containment theory: when an individual has a stronger conscience it will make one more tolerable to frustrations and therefore are less likely to be involved in criminal activities.[51]
  • White-collar crime: defined by Edwin Sutherland as crime committed by persons of high social position in the course of their occupation (Sutherland and Cressey, 1978:44).[52] The white-collar crime involves people making use of their occupational position to enrich themselves and others illegally, which often causes public harm.[52] In white-collar crime, public harm wreaked by false advertising, marketing of unsafe products, embezzlement, and bribery of public officials is more extensive than most people think, most of which go unnoticed and unpunished.[53]
  • Corporate crime: refers to the illegal actions of a corporation or people acting on its behalf. Corporate crime ranges from knowingly selling faulty or dangerous products to purposely polluting the environment. Like white-collar crime, most cases of corporate crime go unpunished, and many are not never even known to the public.[53]
  • Organized crime: a business that supplies illegal goods or services, including sex, drugs, and gambling.[52] This type of crime expanded among immigrants, who found that society was not always willing to share its opportunities with them.[53] A famous example of organized crime is the Italian Mafia.[53]
  • Hate crime: a criminal act against a person or a person's property by an offender motivated by racial, ethnic, religious or other bias. Hate crimes may refer to race,ancestry,religion, sexual orientation and physical disabilities. According to a Statistics Canada publication, "Jewish" community has been the most likely the victim of hate crime in Canada during 2001-2002. Overall, about 57 percent of hate crimes are motivated by ethnicity and race, targeting mainly Blacks and Asians, while 43 percent target religion, mainly Judaism and Islam. A relatively small 9 percent is motivated by sexual orientation, targets gays and lesbians.[54]

Physical traits do not distinguish criminals from non criminals, but genetic factors together with environmental factors are strong predictors of adult crime and violence.[51] Most psychologists see deviance as the result of "unsuccessful" socialization and abnormality in an individual personality.[51]

Sociology of science and technology[edit]

Sociologists have been active in developing theories about the nature of science and technology:

Social movements[edit]

American Civil Rights Movement is one of the most famous social movements of the 20th century. Here, Martin Luther King is giving his "I Have a Dream" speech, in front of the Lincoln Memorial during the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

Sociologists have developed various theories about social movements [Kendall, 2005]. Chronologically (by approximate date of origin) they include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Macionis and Gerber, John J. and Linda M. (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, Inc. p. 14. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3. 
  2. ^ Keel, Robert. "What is Sociological Theory?". Robert Keel. Retrieved 29 February 2012. 
  3. ^ Craig J. Calhoun (2002). Classical sociological theory. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 1–. ISBN 978-0-631-21348-2. Retrieved 2 March 2011. 
  4. ^ a b c Kenneth Allan, (24 March 2006). Contemporary social and sociological theory: visualizing social worlds. Pine Forge Press. pp. 10–. ISBN 978-1-4129-1362-1. Retrieved 2 March 2011. 
  5. ^ a b c d Sanderson, SK (2006). "Reforming theoretical work in sociology: A modest proposal". Perspectives (1360-3108), 28 (2), p. 1.
  6. ^ Craig J. Calhoun (2002). Classical sociological theory. Wiley-Blackwell. pp. 5–. ISBN 978-0-631-21348-2. Retrieved 2 March 2011. 
  7. ^ Aghababa, Hossein (October 2011). There Will Be Blood |url= missing title (help). 
  8. ^ Gerber, John J. Macionis, Linda M. Sociology (7th Canadian ed. ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 15. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f John J. Macionis, Linda M. Gerber, "Sociology", Seventh Canadian Edition, Pearson Canada
  10. ^ Macionis, Gerber, Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. (Pearson Canada Inc., 2010)pg.14
  11. ^ DeRosso,Deb The Structural Functional Theoretical Approach, [1] 2003.(Accessed Feb 24,2012)
  12. ^ Urry, John (2000). "Metaphors". Sociology beyond societies: mobilities for the twenty-first century. Routledge. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-415-19089-3.
  13. ^ Macionis, John J. (2012). Sociology 14th Edition. Boston: Pearson. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-205-11671-3.
  14. ^ Macionis, John J. (2012). Sociology 14th Edition. Boston: Pearson. p. 23. ISBN 978-0-205-11671-3.
  15. ^ Gerber, John J. Macionis, Linda M. Sociology (7th Canadian ed. ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3. 
  16. ^ Cohen, Louis; Maldonado, Antonio (2007). "Research Methods In Education". British Journal of Educational Studies (Routledge) 55 (4): 9.
  17. ^ ^ Gerber, John J. Macionis, Linda M.. Sociology (7th Canadian ed. ed.). Toronto: Pearson Canada. pp. 32. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3.
  18. ^ Merton, Robert. "Social Theory and Social Structure."
  19. ^ Berger, Joseph. 2000. "Theory and Formalization: Some Reflections on Experience." Sociological Theory 18(3):482-489.
  20. ^ Billingham, M. (2007) Sociological Perspectives p.336 In Stretch, B. and Whitehouse, M. (eds.) (2007) Health and Social Care Book 1. Oxford: Heinemann. ISBN 978-0-435-49915-0
  21. ^ Macionis, John J., and Linda M. Gerber. Sociology. Toronto: Pearson Canada, 2011. Print.
  22. ^ Barker, Chris. 2005. Cultural Studies: Theory and Practice. London: Sage. ISBN 0-7619-4156-8 p448
  23. ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed.. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 16.
  24. ^ a b Liz, Sharon, Grauerhoolz, Bouma-Holtrop (2003). "Exploring critical sociological thinking". Teaching Sociology 31 (4): 485 - 496. ISSN 0092-055X
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  26. ^ Swedberg, Richard (2007). "Max Weber's Interpretive Economic Sociology". American Behavioral Scientist 50 (8): 1035 - 1055. ISSN 0002-7642.
  27. ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 16.
  28. ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 19.
  29. ^ a b Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 134.
  30. ^ Macionis and Gerber, John J. and Linda M. (2010). Sociology, the 7th Canadian Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, Inc.. pp. 134. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3.
  31. ^ Lyons, Tickle-Degnen, KD, L (2003). "Dramaturgical challenges of Parkinson's disease". OTJR-OCCUPATION PARTICIPATION AND HEALTH 23 (1): 27 - 34. ISSN 1539-4492.
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  33. ^ Template:
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  35. ^ Patricia Yancey Martin & Barry A. Turner, "Grounded Theory and Organizational Research," The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, vol. 22, no. 2 (1986), 141.
  36. ^ "Feminism – Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary". Retrieved 12 June 2011. 
  37. ^ Hird, Myra J (2003). "New Feminist Sociological Directions". The Canadian Journal of Sociology 28 (4): 447–462. ISSN 0318-6431. 
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  41. ^ ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.. pp. 19.
  42. ^ Donald Black (2011). Moral Time. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-973714-7. 
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  47. ^ Weiten, W. (2010). Psychology: themes & variations (8th ed.). Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth/Cengage Learning pp. 532.
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  49. ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc. p. 199. 
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  52. ^ a b c Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc. p. 206. 
  53. ^ a b c d Macionis and Gerber, John J. and Linda M. (2010). Sociology, the 7th Canadian Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, USA: Pearson Education, Inc. p. 206. ISBN 978-0-13-700161-3. 
  54. ^ Macionis, Gerber, John, Linda (2010). Sociology 7th Canadian Ed. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc. pp. 208, 209. 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]