Theory has multiple meanings in regard to its context in both field and method. In everyday use, the word theory generally means an assumption or inference, to denote a status less than something that can be certifiably known as a fact. Following this, “theory” is often juxtaposed against “fact.” However, both are mutually exclusive or opposed: an action can be empirically verifiable, and the theory as to why the action has occurred either falsifiable or verifiable (e.g., an apple falls and the theory of gravity explains why).
As sociology developed out of a positivist scientific system in the tradition of Auguste Comte, it is based in a scientific, as opposed to a hermeneutic (interpretative), approach to theory. However, this is by no means exhaustive, as many traditions in sociology are explicitly based on the discovery and evaluation of meaning and qualitative enterprises. Scientifically, “theory” is often described as an anticipated and/or projected interaction within and between natural or social phenomena. That is, theory is a hypothesized explanation of empirical evidence. This means that theory generally (a) is consistent with, or falsifiable of, preexisting theory; (b) is sustained by pieces of evidence opposed to a solitary, unified body of thought; (c) makes forecasts that could be used in the future to falsify the theory; (d) is hesitant and provisional; and (e) is the most parsimonious explanation (often known as “Ockham’s Razor”).
Following, there are several types of theory. First, metatheory (also referred to as “epistemology” or the philosophy of knowledge and/or science) specifies the nature and goals of science, sets standards by which it is evaluated, defines what methodology will be used to obtain data, and sets the research goals. Second, conceptual theory provides the perspective and language with which a science addresses reality. Third, explanatory theory orders the subject matter and proposes why phenomenon and variation occur. This type of theory is able to predict phenomena of a similar ilk and is capable of being tested.
Within general sociological purview, and within the subdiscipline of the study of social problems in specific, there are various forms of sociological theory, but these are often boiled down to three distinct approaches. First, functionalist theory is the oldest perspective and rests upon two endeavors: the first is the application of the traditional “scientific method” to the social world, and the second is the understanding of the individual and society as continually involved in a (dys)functional relationship. Notable functionalists are Emile Durkheim, Robert Merton, and Talcott Parsons. Second, conflict theory is predicated upon the work of Karl Marx, who stated that society is in constant conflict among groups vying to maximize their interests. The theory attempts to refute functionalist paradigms that leave little room for explaining the operations of power. Other notable conflict theorists are Georg Simmel, Lewis A. Coser, and Ralf Dahrendorf. Third, symbolic interactionism (its later derivation is known as “cultural sociology”) explains how individuals and groups interact, focusing on the creation of personal identity through interaction with others. Drawing from the sociology of Max Weber, symbolic interactionism examines how individuals create the symbolic structures that make life meaningful. Reality does not impose the names and definitions of things, but rather people must define things and give them meaning in order to make them socially real. Notable theorists in this tradition are Herbert Blumer, Erving Goffman, and George Herbert Mead.
- Calhoun, Craig, Joseph Gerteis, James Moody, Stephan Pfaff, and Indermohan Virk, eds. 2007. Contemporary Sociological Theory. 2nd ed. New York: Wiley-Blackwell.
- Cheal, David. 2005. Dimensions of Sociological Theory. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Dickens, David. 2004. Postmodernism and Social Inquiry. New York: Routledge.
- Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. New York: Free Press.
- Popper, Karl. 1992. Conjectures and Refutations. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
- Ritzer, George. 2007. Classical Sociological Theory. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences, edited by E. A. Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
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