The Main Sociological Theories

Learning Outcomes

  • Explain sociological theories
People holding posters and waving flags outside at a protest rally.

Figure 1. Sociologists develop theories to explain social occurrences such as protest rallies. (Photo courtesy of voanews.com/Wikimedia Commons)

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns, and they develop a theory in an attempt to explain why things work as they do. A sociological theory seeks to explain social phenomena. Theories can be used to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006).

Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro-level theories look at very specific relationships between individuals or small groups. Grand theories attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change. Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their predecessors and add to them (Calhoun 2002).

In sociology, a few theories provide broad perspectives that help explain many different aspects of social life, and these are called paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them. Three paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking, because they provide useful explanations: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Table 1. Sociological Theories or Perspectives. Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view social issues through a variety of useful lenses.
Sociological Theories/Paradigms Level of Analysis Focus Analogies Questions that might be asked
Structural Functionalism Macro or Mid The way each part of society functions together to contribute to the functioning of the whole. How each organ works to keep your body healthy (or not.) How does education work to transmit culture?
Conflict Theory Macro The way inequities and inequalities contribute to social, political, and power differences and how they perpetuate power. The people with the most toys win, and they will change the rules of the game to keep winning. Does education transmit only the dominant certain cultures?
Symbolic Interactionism Micro The way one-on-one interactions and communications behave. What does it mean to be an X? How do students react to cultural messages in school?

Watch It

Watch the following video for an overview of each of the sociological paradigms. First, the video introduces major sociological theories in general terms, then gives an overview of structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Structural functionalism views society as an organism in which the various parts, or social structures, fulfill certain functions to meet the needs of the society. Conflict theory imagines society as a struggle for scarce resources and focuses on the conflicts created by competition and power differences. Conflict theory includes sub-categories such as class conflict theory, race conflict theory, and gender conflict theory. Symbolic interactionism focuses more on individuals and the shared reality that people create through their own experiences.

Try It

grand theories:
an attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change
hypothesis:
a testable proposition
macro-level theories:
a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society
micro-level theories:
the study of specific relationships between individuals or small groups
paradigms:
philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them
theory:
a proposed explanation about social interactions or society

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