As the study of social relationships and systems, sociology has many theories that can help us to better understand and interact with the world around us. That includes competing theories that are attempting to explain the same phenomena, as well as theories that cover an incredibly diverse range of different social systems and issues.
Fully appreciating some of the most popular theories in sociology often requires you to understand many other theories as a point of reference. But exploring a few examples of sociological theory can better provide a sense of the range of ideas explored by sociology, as well as prepare you for exploring some of its more complicated ideas in-depth.
What is Sociological Theory?
A theory is a set of principles that helps us to explain something about the world. For example, the theory of evolution helps us explain an enormous variety of evidence about the world, from the fossil record to questions about DNA. Even within that theory, you’ll find many competing ideas. For example, gradualism holds that evolutionary changes are slow and gradual, while punctuated equilibrium argues big changes occur in short spurts that are far apart.
In the same way as other scientific theories explain the world, sociological theories provide us with a framework for explaining the social world around us. They might ask questions about the nature of social order or about the kinds of processes that influence social change. There are also many different types of sociological theory, which look at a wide range of social problems and issues. That’s why starting with some of the primary perspectives in sociological theory is an excellent starting point for further exploration.
Major Sociological Theories
The three major sociological theories that new students learn about are the interactionist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the functionalist perspective. And each has its own distinct way of explaining various aspects of society and the human behavior within it. Taking a moment to compare and contrast sociological theories can provide further context.
Many sociological theories are what’s called macro-sociology — looking at the big picture. For instance, macro-sociology might consider how a social problem like poverty would be influenced by various social institutions. By contrast, micro-sociology is focused on the dynamics involved between smaller groups of individuals.
The interactionist perspective is a good example of micro-sociology. This theory is sometimes called the symbolic interactionist perspective because it argues that our behavior is deeply influenced by definitions and symbolic meanings. And it is our symbolic interactions with other members of the community which creates those definitions and meanings. Our sense of self, being influenced by social interaction, is also influenced by the way others choose to label us. Because the labels others give us provide us with a new view of ourselves.
As such, the interactionist perspective emphasizes the fact that humans react to their perceived definition of their circumstances, as opposed to what you might call an objective evaluation. If we were absolutely positive the world was ending at a particular time and date, whether or not it was a true belief, it would influence our behavior in a significant way. As a result, the things we consider real are capable of being real in consequence, even if our beliefs are incorrect.
By contrast, the functionalist perspective is a more traditional example of macro-sociology. It has a heavy emphasis on the interconnected relationships between various systems within society. In other words, it tends to be more concerned with how part and whole influence each other. And those parts have to cooperate and work together in order to keep society in a state of balance.
Family values, education, knowledge, and culture play an important role in communicating values to young people. Within this perspective, all the various aspects of a society are considered functional if they help social stability, or dysfunctional if they do not. But what is social stability? Even among functionalists, you’ll find an array of answers.
And some circumstances are more challenging to identify than others; some aspects of society can even contribute and detract from social instability at the same time. For instance, crime is associated with social instability. But it can also be functional by promoting shared moral bonds, social cohesion, and occasionally helping to readjust social norms. Learn more about sociological theories about crime.
While functionalism shows us a cooperative picture of society, the conflict perspective looks at society as being composed of groups with their own distinct interests. This theory originates from Karl Marx, who viewed human society as undergoing a series of different stages of economic development.
At the stage of industrialization, separate classes of people emerge, those who earn wages (proletariat) and those who own the means of production (bourgeoisie.) The bourgeoisie then use their disproportionate influence to rearrange society to their advantage, and maintain power differences by using their control over social institutions to turn them to their own advantage. Some conflict perspective theorists will claim progress is a zero sum game, and progress for one group can only come at the expense of another. Others disagree.
Importantly, conflict theory is not limited to ideas of class. You can define groups in various different ways, along religious, racial, gender, or political lines. In each case, the members of those groups will tend to pursue what is in the interests of their group. And in each case, conflict theory asks us to look at which groups have power presently, and who is benefiting from currently-existing social arrangements. For example, men and women suffer from different types of cancer, at different rates. But how does research funding get allocated?
Additional Sociological Theories
Outside of the major perspectives, there are many major sociological theories that explore a variety of facets about our social world:
Social Exchange Theory
Social Learning Theory
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