Theory Essay

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The ”sociological canon” includes Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim – authors whose seminal books, most published before 1800, are assigned in practically all sociological theory courses. Along with several of their contemporaries and near-contemporaries, their masterworks comprise sociology’s body of classical theory. Although this body of work was prone to grandiose rhetoric and minimal empirical validation, today these demerits are usually forgiven in view of the trailblazing nature of the work.

Between the classical period and the 1980s or so, contemporary theorizing resided in what is sometimes called the modern era. Sociology experienced a great upsurge of activity and visibility between around 1920 to 1970. Some of this activity was due to the rise of critical theory led by Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and others. An ascension of American sociology also occurred during this period, owing to the Chicago School (W. I. Thomas, Florian Znaniecki, Robert Park, Charles Horton Cooley, and Herbert Blumer), Harvard University (including Pitirim Sorokin, Talcott Parsons, and Georg Homans), and Columbia University (including Robert K. Merton, Paul Lazarsfeld, Daniel Bell, C. Wright Mills, and William J. Goode). Every school of theorizing spawned multiple offspring: feminist, postmodernist, agency-structure, and modernity approaches, to cite just a few.


Theories may be distinguished by major traditions or ”schools.” These tend to be general, thematic approaches, relatively open to varying interpretations, and difficult to test in direct and rigorous ways. Sociology encompasses dozens of schools, but several are foundational.

  • Functionalism (also called structural functionalism) once dominated sociology. It treated social systems as having differentiated, interdependent substructures with corresponding functions that operate in a coordinated fashion to maintain the integrity of the system as a whole. Early proponents included Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Durkheim, and later Merton and Parsons. The core ideas have continued to evolve through lines of work such as human ecology, organizational ecology, neo-functionalism, evolutionary approaches, and others.
  • Conflict approaches focused on destabilizing factors such as social inequalities and social change. Marx helped to usher in these ideas, and other early versions were articulated by Weber and Georg Simmel, with later refinements by Ralf Dahrendorf, Lewis Coser, Jonathan Turner, Randall Collins, and others. Neo-Marxist theories, resource mobilization theory, theories of social revolutions, and breakdown theories of social movements all have roots in the conflict perspective.
  • Symbolic Interactionism gives primacy to the individual in social contexts. Cooley focused on the emergence of self-concepts out of social interaction, and in the 1930s George Herbert Mead became a leading figure, making theoretical connections between institutions, the social self, and the minds of human actors. Other key figures have included Blumer, Park, Jacob Moreno, Edmund Husserl, Alfred Schutz, Manford Kuhn, and the field has helped spawn newer lines including phenomenology, ethnomethodology, role theories, identity theories, emotion theories, sociolinguistics, dramaturgical analysis, and conversation analysis.
  • Structuralism is concerned with the social consequences of patterns among social objects ranging from individual cognitions to nations. It first emerged from certain strands within Marxist, Durkheimian, and Simmelian theorizing, and later was influenced by Claude Levi-Strauss’ cognitive-linguistic approach; Alfred Radcliffe-Brown’s ideas on the effects of social structures; and around the mid-twentieth century by such work as Moreno’s sociometry, Alex Bavelas’s communication network studies, Fritz Heider’s balance theory, and Peter Blau’s macrostructural theory. More recent approaches emerging from structuralist traditions include social network analysis, Pierre Bourdieu’s cultural conflict theory, Anthony Giddens’s structuration theory, and many others.
  • Others: many other schools achieved at least some level of prominence at various times, including critical theory, ethnomethodology, feminist theories, postmodernism, systems theories, neofunctionalism, exchange theories, neo-Marxism, evolutionary theory. On the positive side, our theoretical traditions provide us with a superb ”database” of ideas from which to draw solutions to intellectual and social problems. On the negative side, these schools have waxed and waned mainly due to factors other than explanatory power and empirical testing. Sociology would do well to improve systematically on its most promising ideas and relegate the rest to the historical record.

Theoretical Methods

Theories may be distinguished according to methods employed in their construction. Sociology is widely considered to be a social science. A central tenet of science is that research is oriented toward developing and evaluating clear, testable theories. A scientific theory is a set of general, parsimonious, logically related statements containing clearly defined terms, formulated to explain accurately and precisely the broadest possible range of phenomena in the natural world. Only a relatively few modern and contemporary sociological theories manifest such properties, and sociologists generally do not teach or learn methods for developing such theories.

Much theoretical work in sociology entails the analysis of other theoretical writings. Whereas the value of such activities may be questioned from a scientific standpoint, they may offer previously unrealized nuances and insights. At the same time, a writer’s status, personal charisma, or rhetorical skill may receive undue consideration in the evaluation of such work. Other work aims to produce atheoretical descriptions of complex empirical phenomena. These may range from discursive ”thick descriptions” to statistical relationships in a causal model, either of which may serve as a platform for inducing general theory. Finally, even the blatant promotion of ideological or philosophical positions has been called theorizing in some corners of the field.

Between the highly rigorous and the non-scientific is a range of theoretical styles. Computer simulations may embody the terms and arguments of a theory. Grounded theorizing is method used to develop a relatively abstract theory to fit a concrete set of observations. Typology construction produces categorization schemes that assist in conceptual development. Propositional inventories are listings of general statements intended to encapsulate some body of theoretical knowledge.


  1. Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (eds.) (2003)   Contemporary   Sociological Theory. Blackwell, Malden, MA.
  2. Cohen, B. P. (1989) Developing Sociological Knowledge .2nd edn. Nelson-Hall, Chicago.
  3. Munch, R. (1994) Sociological Theory, vol. 1: From the 1850s to the 1920s; vol.2: From the 1920s to the 1960s. Nelson-Hall, Chicago.
  4. Turner, J. H. (2003) The Structure of Sociological Theory, 7th edn. Wadsworth-Thomson Learning, Belmont, CA.

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