Sociological theories are statements of how and why particular facts about the social world are related. 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, while others function as broad perspectives which guide further sociological analyses.
Sociological theory vs. social theory
Kenneth Allan proposed the distinction between sociological theory and social theory. In Allan's usage, sociological theory consists of abstract and testable propositions about society. 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. Social theory is often closer to Continental philosophy; thus, it is less concerned with objectivity and derivation of testable propositions, and more likely to pass normative judgments.
From a sociological theorists point of view, Robert K. Merton, believed that sociological theory deals with social mechanisms. He believed these mechanisms were essential in exemplifying the middle ground between social law and descriptions. Merton believes these social mechanisms are "social processes having designated consequences for designated parts of the social structure" (Merton 1968:43-44).
Prominent sociological theorists include Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton, Randall Collins, James Samuel Coleman, Peter Blau, Niklas Luhmann, Marshal McLuhan, Immanuel Wallerstein, George Homans, Harrison White, Theda Skocpol, Gerhard Lenski, Pierre van den Berghe and Jonathan H. Turner. Prominent social theorists include: Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, Dorothy Smith, Roberto Unger, Alfred Schütz, Jeffrey Alexander, and Jacques Derrida. 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.
History of sociological theories
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 caused particularly Western thinkers to become aware of society. 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.
Central theoretical problems
Overall, there is a strong consensus regarding the central theoretical questions and the central problems that emerge from explicating such questions. Sociological theory attempts to answer the following three questions: (1) What is action? (2) What is social order? and (3) What determines social change? In the myriad attempts to answer these questions, three predominately theoretical (i.e. not empirical) problems emerge. These problems are largely inherited from the classical theoretical traditions. The consensus on the central theoretical problems is: how to link, transcend or cope with the following "big three" dichotomies: subjectivity and objectivity, structure and agency, and synchrony and diachrony. The first deals with knowledge, the second with agency, and the last with time. Lastly, sociological theory often grapples with the problem of integrating or transcending the divide between micro, meso and macro-scale social phenomena, which is a subset of all three central problems. These problems are not altogether empirical problems, rather they are epistemological: they arise from the conceptual imagery and analytical analogies that sociologists use to describe the complexity of social processes.
Objectivity and subjectivity
The problem of subjectivity and objectivity can be divided into a concern over the general possibilities of social actions, and, on the other hand the specific problem of social scientific knowledge. In the former, the subjective is often equated (though not necessarily) with the individual, and the individual's intentions and interpretations of the objective. The objective is often considered any public or external action or outcome, on up to society writ large. A primary question for social theorists, is how knowledge reproduces along the chain of subjective-objective-subjective, that is to say: how is intersubjectivity achieved? While, historically, qualitative methods have attempted to tease out subjective interpretations, quantitative survey methods also attempt to capture individual subjectivities. Also, some qualitative methods take a radical approach to objective description in situ.
The latter concern with scientific knowledge results from the fact that a sociologist is part of the very object they seek to explain. Bourdieu puts this problem rather succinctly:
How can the sociologist effect in practice this radical doubting which is indispensable for bracketing all the presuppositions inherent in the fact that she is a social being, that she is therefore socialized and led to feel "like a fish in water" within that social world whose structures she has internalized? How can she prevent the social world itself from carrying out the construction of the object, in a sense, through her, through these unself-conscious operations or operations unaware of themselves of which she is the apparent subject
Structure and agency
Structure and agency, sometimes referred to as determinism versus voluntarism, form an enduring ontological debate in social theory: "Do social structures determine an individual's behaviour or does human agency?" In this context 'agency' refers to the capacity of individuals to act independently and make free choices, whereas 'structure' relates to factors which limit or affect the choices and actions of individuals (such as social class, religion, gender, ethnicity, and so on). Discussions over the primacy of either structure and agency relate to the core of sociological epistemology ("What is the social world made of?", "What is a cause in the social world, and what is an effect?"). A perennial question within this debate is that of "social reproduction": how are structures (specifically, structures producing inequality) reproduced through the choices of individuals?
Synchrony and diachrony
Synchrony and diachrony, or statics and dynamics, within social theory are terms that refer to a distinction emerging out of the work of Levi-Strauss who inherited it from the linguistics of Ferdinand de Saussure. The former slices moments of time for analysis, thus it is an analysis of static social reality. Diachrony, on the other hand, attempts to analyze dynamic sequences. Following Saussure, synchrony would refer to social phenomena as a static concept like a language, while diachrony would refer to unfolding processes like actual speech. In Anthony Giddens' introduction to Central Problems in Social Theory, he states that, "in order to show the interdependence of action and structure...we must grasp the time space relations inherent in the constitution of all social interaction." And like structure and agency, time is integral to discussion of social reproduction. In terms of sociology, historical sociology is often better positioned to analyze social life as diachronic, while survey research takes a snapshot of social life and is thus better equipped to understand social life as synchronic. Some argue that the synchrony of social structure is a methodological perspective rather than an ontological claim. Nonetheless, the problem for theory is how to integrate the two manners of recording and thinking about social data.
Classical theoretical traditions
The contemporary discipline of sociology is theoretically multi-paradigmatic. In Randall Collins' well-cited survey of sociological theory he retroactively labels various theorists as belonging to four theoretical traditions: functionalism, conflict, symbolic interactionism, and utilitarianism. Modern sociological theory descends predominately from functionalist (Durkheim) and conflict-centered (Marx and Weber) accounts of social structure, as well as the symbolic interactionist tradition consisting of micro-scale structural (Simmel) and pragmatist (Mead, Cooley) theories of social interaction. Utilitarianism, also known as "rational choice" or "social exchange", although often associated with economics, is an established tradition within sociological theory. Lastly, as argued by Raewyn Connell, a tradition that is often forgotten is that of social Darwinism, which brings the logic of Darwinian biological evolution and applies it to people and societies. This tradition often aligns with classical functionalism and is associated with several founders of sociology, primarily Herbert Spencer, Lester F. Ward and William Graham Sumner. Contemporary sociological theory retains traces of each these traditions and they are by no means mutually exclusive.
A broad historical paradigm in both sociology and anthropology, functionalism addresses the social structure as a whole and in terms of the necessary function of its constituent elements. A common analogy (popularized by Herbert Spencer) is to regard norms and institutions as 'organs' that work toward the proper-functioning of the entire 'body' of society. The perspective was implicit in the original sociological positivism of Comte, but was theorized in full by Durkheim, again with respect to observable, structural laws. Functionalism also has an anthropological basis in the work of theorists such as Marcel Mauss, Bronisław Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. It is in Radcliffe-Brown's specific usage that the prefix 'structural' emerged. Classical functionalist theory is generally united by its tendency towards biological analogy and notions of social evolutionism. As Giddens states: "Functionalist thought, from Comte onwards, has looked particularly towards biology as the science providing the closest and most compatible model for social science. Biology has been taken to provide a guide to conceptualizing the structure and the function of social systems and to analyzing processes of evolution via mechanisms of adaptation ... functionalism strongly emphasizes the pre-eminence of the social world over its individual parts (i.e. its constituent actors, human subjects)."
The conflict theory is a way for people to explain scientifically why conflict arises in a society. Conflict theorists look at how conflict in society arises, is resolved and how every conflict is different. Conflict theorists explain that the reasons conflict arises in societies are because there is not enough resources and power and there is an unequal balance for these things, resulting in people fighting over them. Most conflict theorists don't have the same ideas of what the resources people fight over include, but most look at it the same way Max Weber did. Weber viewed class, status, and power as ways people are defined in any given society. These rankings of class, status, and power result in conflict throughout society. Conflict theorists also believe people in a society abide by the rules and expectation because of power. Where the power comes from is where the standards come from. Social conflict is the struggle between segments of society over valued resources. From the perspective of social conflict theory, in the West, by the nineteenth century, a small population had become capitalists. Capitalists are people who own and operate factories and other businesses in pursuit of profits. In other words, they own virtually all large-scale means of production. However, capitalism turned most other people into industrial workers, whom Marx called proletarians. Proletarians are people who, because of the structure of capitalist economy, must sell their labor 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. Karl Marx is the father of the social conflict theory, which is a component of the four major paradigms of sociology. 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. 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.
Symbolic interaction, often associated with interactionism, phenomenological sociology, dramaturgy, and interpretivism, is a sociological tradition that places emphasis on subjective meanings and the empirical unfolding of social processes, generally accessed through analysis. These processes have a common idea that people are necessary to perform these acts and it is necessary for them to do so for society to keep progressing. This phenomena was first theorized by George Herbert Mead who describes it as the outcome of collaborative joint action.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. This approach sees people interacting in countless settings using symbolic communications to accomplish the tasks at hand. Therefore, society is a complex, ever-changing mosaic of subjective meanings. Some critics of this approach argue that it only looks at what is happening in a particular social situation, and disregards the effects that culture, race or gender (i.e. social-historical structures) may have in that situation. Some important sociologists associated with this approach include George Herbert Mead, Erving Goffman, George Homans and Peter Blau. Those are the more historical sociological supporters of the theory, some new contributors to the theory are Howard Becker, Gary Alan Fine, David Altheide, Robert Prus, Peter Hall, David Maines, and a few others. It is also in this tradition that the radical-empirical approach of Ethnomethodology emerges from the work of Harold Garfinkel.
Utilitarianism is often referred to as exchange theory or rational choice theory in the context of sociology. This tradition tends to privilege the agency of individual rational actors and assumes that within interactions individuals always seek to maximize their own self-interest. As argued by Josh Whitford, rational actors are assumed to have four basic elements, the individual has (1) "a knowledge of alternatives," (2) "a knowledge of, or beliefs about the consequences of the various alternatives," (3) "an ordering of preferences over outcomes," (4) "A decision rule, to select amongst the possible alternatives". Exchange theory is specifically attributed to the work of George C. Homans, Peter Blau and Richard Emerson. Organizational sociologists James G. March and Herbert A. Simon noted that an individual's rationality is bounded by the context or organizational setting. The utilitarian perspective in sociology was, most notably, revitalized in the late 20th century by the work of former ASA president James Coleman.
List of contemporary theories
Anomie theory seeks to understand normlessness, where society provides little moral guidance to individuals. Sociologist Emile Durkheim observed that social periods of disruption result in greater anomie and higher rates of suicide and crimes. 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 The Division of Labor in Society, Durkheim described anomie as one result of an inequitable division of labour within the society. 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.
Critical theory is a lineage of sociological theory, with reference to such groups as the Frankfurt School, that aims to critique and change society and culture, not simply to document and understand it.
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. These roles serve as a script, supplying dialogue and action for the characters (the people in reality). 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). In addition, our performance is the "presentation of self," which is how people perceive us, based on the ways in which we portray ourselves. This process, sometimes called impression management, begins with the idea of personal performance.
Engaged theory is an approach that seeks to understand the complexity of social life through synthesizing empirical research with more abstract layers of analysis, including analysis of modes of practice, and analysis of basic categories of existence such a time, space, embodiment, and knowledge.
Feminism is a collection of movements aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, and social rights for women. The theory focuses on how gender inequality shapes social life. 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.
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.
Grounded theory is a systematic methodology in the social sciences involving the generation of theory from data. This theories goal is to discover data and analyze it through comparative analysis, while this theory has a direct goal it can be very flexible in the means to get there by using different techniques to analyze the data set. Grounded theory is a largely qualitative research method that is constantly debated about between supporters of the theory as well as people who oppose the theory.
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.
Middle range theory is an approach to sociological theorizing aimed at integrating theory and empirical research. 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.
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.
Positivism is a philosophy developed by Auguste Comte 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. 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 ancient times to the present day.
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.
Postmodernism is a theoretical perspective approach that criticises modernism, instead adhering to 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. 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. 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? " An example of a prominent postmodernist is the French philosopher Michael Foucault.
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.
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.
Socialization theory is an approach to understanding the means by which human infants begin to acquire the skills necessary to perform as a functional member of their society 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.
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 the 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.
Thomas theorem refers to situations that are defined as real are real in their consequences. 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.
Theories in subfields of sociology
- The general theory of crime: States that the main factor behind criminal behaviour is the individual's lack of self-control. Theorists who don't distinguish differences between criminals and noncriminals are called classical theorists or control theorists. Classical theorists see criminals as people who view criminals as people who do deviant things for fun and don't care about the consequences, these criminals are believe criminals participate in criminal acts for fun. Positivists believe that it is the characteristics of the person, they view the criminals actions as a result of the person themselves instead of the nature of the person.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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. 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. 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.
- 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). The white-collar crime involves people making use of their occupational position to enrich themselves and others illegally, which often causes public harm. 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.
- 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.
- Organized crime: a business that supplies illegal goods or services, including sex, drugs, and gambling. This type of crime expanded among immigrants, who found that society was not always willing to share its opportunities with them. A famous example of organized crime is the Italian Mafia.
- 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.
Physical traits do not distinguish criminals from non criminals, but genetic factors together with environmental factors are strong predictors of adult crime and violence. Most psychologists see deviance as the result of "unsuccessful" socialization and abnormality in an individual personality.
Sociology of science and technology
Sociologists have been active in developing theories about the nature of science and technology:
Sociologists have developed various theories about social movements [Kendall, 2005]. Chronologically (by approximate date of origin) they include:
- Collective behavior/collective action theories (1950s)
- Relative deprivation theory (1960s)
- Value-added theory (1960s)
- Resource mobilization/political process theory (1970s)
- Frame analysis theory (1970s)
- New social movement theory (1980s)
- New cultural theory (1990s) — James M. Jasper, Jeff Goodwin et al.
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