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  • Explain what sociological theories are and how they are used
  • Understand the similarities and differences between structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism
People holding posters and waving flags at a protest rally outside the U.S. Capitol Building are shown.
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. In sociology, a theory    is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006).

For example, although suicide is generally considered an individual phenomenon, Émile Durkheim was interested in studying the social factors that affect it. His studied social ties within a group, or social solidarity    , and hypothesized that differences in suicide rates might be explained by religion-based differences. Durkheim gathered a large amount of data about Europeans who had ended their lives, and he did indeed find differences based on religion. Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics in Durkheim’s society, and his work supports the utility of theory in sociological research.

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.

Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view social issues through a variety of useful lenses.
Sociological theories or perspectives
Sociological Paradigm Level of Analysis Focus
Structural Functionalism Macro or mid The way each part of society functions together to contribute to the whole
Conflict Theory Macro The way inequalities contribute to social differences and perpetuate differences in power
Symbolic Interactionism Micro One-to-one interactions and communications

Functionalism

Functionalism , also called structural-functional theory, sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of the individuals in that society. Functionalism grew out of the writings of English philosopher and biologist, Hebert Spencer (1820–1903), who saw similarities between society and the human body; he argued that just as the various organs of the body work together to keep the body functioning, the various parts of society work together to keep society functioning (Spencer 1898). The parts of society that Spencer referred to were the social institutions, or patterns of beliefs and behaviors focused on meeting social needs, such as government, education, family, healthcare, religion, and the economy.

Questions & Answers

What is politic
sani Reply
the act of being sensible and judicious in circumstances
Packra
branhes k of sociology
Jafari
think why Nietzsche was so concerned about the loss of religion for society and weather God exists. what social function does religion perform which are so vital for society
tarawallie Reply
response of human illnesse in nigeria
Hassan Reply
Analyse the social responses to mental illness in Nigeria
Hassan
Deviance what couses
Khadija Reply
different classical theories and neoclassical theories
Waziri Reply
what is socialogy
Andrew Reply
It is the scientific study of society
Muhmmad
Thank you
Andrew
Sociology is the science of social institution
Beauty
sociology have alot of difinition one of them is d study of society is sociology
pakhtoon
thanks
Muhmmad
who is called the father of sociology ?
Ajaz
Auguste Comte
Md
park and burgers:sociology is a science of collective behaviour
Sofi
ibn khaldun
sani
Auguse Cumte
saleh
What is collective behaviour?
Khalid
discuss and explain the word sociology
aaron Reply
Search and find out biblical passage(s) which encourage Christian to engage in business enterprise.
Emmanuel Reply
why should a teacher study sociology
Owen Reply
The process of social change in the Caribbean society can not be analyzed using the major macro European paradigm as they ignore the carribean’s reality, to what extent is this statement true?
Alivia Reply
Search and find out biblical passage(s) which encourage Christian to engage in business enterprise.
Emmanuel
yes
Muhmmad
What is the Caribbean society like?
Joseph
And what is this Caribbean reality being ignored?
Joseph
Where can a person with sociology certificates work
Enum Reply
What are the General Conception of Sociology
Maryam
What are the importance of medical sociology on health
Ha-ati Reply
I don't know
Matheus
What is subject matter of Sociology.
Zama Reply
hi
Joel
weakness of confluct
Falakhe Reply
have you heard of pakistan before?
ali
what is Neo Marxist perspective?
Md
ali mehr from which university u study in pakistan and in which semester studied
pakhtoon
Jewel Rana, I am from Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Science and Technology, Bangladesh.
Md
Can anyone suggest topics for research
joshua
is sociology a science?
Precious
yea...but social science
paul
how can education influence peoples culture.
Jones
correct the question
Muhmmad
correct the question
Muhmmad
correct the question
Muhmmad
how many types of questionnaire?
Muhmmad
hello! I am joel.
Joel
distinguish between qualitative and quantitative nature of sociology scope.
Ajay Reply
how social structure influence our lives?
ali
please help me. i have been given an assignment on above topic share your views about it.
ali
This is an interesting opinion. I think it influences our miracle and future
Thomas
The route is the goal
Thomas
Ali focus on social factors: Economics politics education religion family
owais

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Source:  OpenStax, Introduction to sociology 2e. OpenStax CNX. Jan 20, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11762/1.6
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