Theories of Sociology (Introduction)

"Nothing is so practical as a good theory."

Kurt Levin
German social psychologist.

Sociologists develop theories to explain social phenomena. A theory is a proposed relationship between two or more concepts. To use the example from the previous chapter, one might propose the following theory:

Ice cream consumption and crime rates are correlated, increasing and decreasing together (the data). As a result, a theorist could propose that the consumption of ice cream results in angered individuals who then commit crimes (the theory).

Of course, this theory is not an accurate representation of reality. But, it illustrates the use of theory - to elucidate the relationship between two concepts; in this case, ice cream consumption and crime.

Sociological theory is developed at multiple levels, ranging from grand theory to highly contextualized and specific micro-range theories. There are literally thousands of middle-range and micro-range theories in sociology. Because such theories are dependent on context and specific to certain situations, it is beyond the scope of this text to explore each of those theories. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the more well-known and most commonly used grand and middle-range theories in sociology. For a brief explanation of the different levels of sociological theorizing, see Sociological Abstraction.

Importance of Theory

In the theory proposed above, the astute reader will notice that the theory includes two components. The data, the correlation between ice cream consumption and crime rates, and the proposed relationship. Data alone are not particularly informative. In fact, it is often said that 'data without theory is not sociology'. In order to understand the social world around us, it is necessary to employ theory to draw the connections between seemingly disparate concepts.

Take, for instance, Emile Durkheim's class work Suicide. Durkheim was interested in explaining a social phenomenon, suicide, and employed both data and theory to offer an explanation. By aggregating data for large groups of people in Europe, Durkheim was able to discern patterns in suicide rates and connect those patterns with another concept (or variable): religious affiliation. Durkheim found that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than were Catholics. At this point, Durkheim's analysis was still in the data stage; he had not proposed an explanation of the relationship between religious affiliation and suicide rates. It was when Durkheim introduced the ideas of anomie (or chaos) and social solidarity that he began to formulate a theory. Durkheim argued that the looser social ties found in Protestant religions lead to weaker social cohesion and social solidarity and result in increased social anomie. The higher suicide rates were the result of weakening social bonds among Protestants, according to Durkheim.

While Durkheim's findings have since been criticized, his study is a classic example of the use of theory to explain the relationship between two concepts. Durkheim's work also illustrates the importance of theory: without theories to explain the relationship between concepts, we would not be able to understand cause and effect relationships in social life or otherwise gain better understandings of social activity (i.e., Verstehen).

The Multiplicity of Theories

As the dominant theories in sociology are discussed below, the reader might be inclined to ask, "Which of these theories is the best?" Rather than think of one theory being better than another, it is more useful and informative to view these theories as complementary. One theory may explain one element of a phenomenon (e.g., the role of religion in society - structuralfunctionalism) while another might offer a different insight on the same phenomenon (e.g., the decline of religion in society - conflict theory).

It may be difficult, initially at least, to take this perspective on sociological theory, but as you read some of the later chapters you will see that each of these theories is particularly useful at explaining some phenomena yet less useful in explaining other phenomena. If you approach the theories objectively from the beginning, you will find that there really are many ways to understand social phenomena.

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PhD student at the University of Cincinnati

MS Human Genetics; employed as a genetic counselor at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center

-Introduction to Sociology (Wikibook)-

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