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Sociological theories are complex theoretical frameworks that sociologists use to explain and analyze variously how social action, social processes, and social structures work. Sociological theories are sometimes called social theories, though the later term generally refers to interdisciplinary theory. In seeking to understand society, sociologists use both sociological theory and interdisciplinary social theories to organize social research.

Core assumptions

Sociological theories are based on certain basic core assumptions, or basic metaphysical, epistemological and moral premises, about the nature of the social world. Basic assumptions include positivism and antipositivism, materialism and idealism, determinism and free will (related to the problem of structure and agency), and individualism and collectivism.

Some social theories, such as neo-marxist theory, feminist theory and variants of social constructionism, are often motivated by a strong sense of social justice and concerned with liberation from oppression and exploitation. Other social theories, such as structural functionalism and systems theory, may be motivated by a concern with scientific objectivity and seeming value neutrality (which may entail value commitments, sometimes masked, such as to conformity or acceptance of the status quo in a given society).

Another dimension of basic assumptions is about the nature of socio-historical development and the current state of development of various societies. Distinctions used about contemporary societies in sociological theory include broad historical trends such as industrialization, urbanization, underdevelopment, and globalization and stages of development such as modernity, postindustrial, underdevelopment, postmodernity, and the network society.

List of sociological theories

General theories

Also see: Social theory

Some of the major general sociological theories (and their variants) include:

  • Conflict theory: focuses on the ability of some groups to dominate others, or resistance to such domination.
  • Ethnomethodology:examines how people make sense out of social life in the process of living it, as if each was a researcher engaged in enquiry.
  • Feminist theory: focuses on how male dominance of society has shaped social life.
  • Functionalism:A major theoretical perspective which focuses on how elements of society need to work together to have a fully functioning whole.
  • Interpretative sociology: This theoretical perspective, based in the work of Max Weber, proposes that social, economic and historical research can never be fully empirical or descriptive as one must always approach it with a conceptual apparatus.
  • Social constructionism: is a sociological theory of knowledge that considers how social phenomena develop in particular social contexts.
  • Social phenomenology: The social phenomenology of Alfred Schütz influenced the development of the social constructionism and ethnomethodology.
  • Social positivism: Social Positivists believe that social processes should be studied in terms of cause and effect using 'the' scientific method.
  • Structural functionalism: also known as a social systems paradigm addresses what functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system.
  • Symbolic interactionism: examines how shared meanings and social patterns are developed in the course of social interactions.
  • Rational choice theory: models social behavior as the interaction of utility maximizing individuals.


Main article: Criminology

Social movements

Main article: Social movements

Sociologists have developed various theories about social movements [Kendall, 2005]. Chronologically (by approximate date of origin) they include:

Sociology of science and technology

Main article: Sociology of science

Sociologists have been active in developing theories about the nature of science and technology:

See also


  • Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie. 2001. Sociological Theory. Pine Forge Press
  • Babbie, Earl R. 2003. The Practice of Social Research, 10th edition. Wadsworth, Thomson Learning Inc., ISBN 0-534-62029-9
  • Michael Hughes, Carolyn J. Kroehler, James W. Vander Zanden. 'Sociology: The Core', McGraw-Hill, ISBN 0-07-240535-XOnline chapter summary
  • Ritzer, George and Douglas Goodman. 2004. Sociological Theory, Sixth Edition. McGraw Hill.

External links

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