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Sociological Theory

Updated on August 16, 2013

The word theory is used in many ways. Many apply the word to any intellectual statement about anything. Some use the word to increase the value of a statement by suggesting that it goes beyond mere facts. Others use it derogatorily, to refer to a speculative idea which has no connection with reality and which might not work in practice It is alright in theory, but not in practice.

According to Larson, sociologists use the word theory to refer to any or all of the followings:

  1. Concepts - conceptual ordering - construct - constructed type.
  2. Frame of reference - conceptual scheme - perspective.
  3. Intelligent hunch - hypothesis - theorem - postulate - systmatized assumption.
  4. Proposition - axiom - Law generalization.
  5. Model - logico - deductive scheme - mathematical formulations.
  6. Ideal type - paradigm - typology continuum.

Robert Merton states that six different things are often lumped together as comprising sociological theory:

  1. Methodology
  2. General sociological orientations
  3. Analysis of sociological concepts
  4. Post factum sociological interpretations;
  5. Empirical generalizations in sociology and
  6. Sociological theory.
  • Methodology: Methodology deals with the logic of scientific procedure. It is not limtied to a particular discipline. Sociologists who want to construct theories should be well versed in methodology. Methodology gives us some idea about how to design an investigation, how to test a hypothesis or a theory. Theory construction is a result of methodology, implicit or explicit.
  • General Sociological orientations: sociological orientations provide a general context for inquiry. They offer a way of looking at data. They involve broad postulates which indicate types of variables which are to be taken into account. They do not, however, establish any specific relations between specific variables.
  • Concepts: Conceptual analysis is indispensable for any theory. But a mere array of concepts does not constitute a theory. A theory makes use of a number of concepts and finds some interrelation among them. Concepts constitute the variables between which empirical relations are to be sought and propositions, when logically interrelated constitute a theory.
  • Post factum sociological interpretations: In most of empirical social research data are collected and then subjected to interpretation. This differs from the procedure of testing already formulated hypotheses. Ami most often, these post factum explanations do not, at the same time, utilize already confirmed theory. Post factum explanations carry a low evidential value. They are at best plausible. They serve only as illustrations and not as tests. They are logically inadequate.
  • Empirical generalizations: Empirical generalizations are statements summarizing observed uniformities of relationships between two or more variables. They may or may not be dervied from theory.
  • Sociological theory: A scientific law is a statement of in variance derivable from a theory. There is a paucity of such laws in sociological literature. Durkheim's theory of suicide tries to incorporate some empirical generalizations he found into a body of substantive theory.

Merton examines Durkheim s familiar theory of Suicide in which generalizations were incorporated into a body of substantive theory. Thus it has long been established as a statistical uniformity that in a variety of populations. Catholics have a lower suicide rate than protestants (assuming that education, income, nationality, rural-urban residence and other factors which have a bearing on suicide rates are held constant). This statement merely constituted an empirical regularity which would become significant for theory only if it could be derived from a set of other propositions. Durkheim set himself this task. The theory Durkheim has been stated by Merton thus:

  1. Social cohesion provides psychic support to group members subjected to acute stresses and anxieties.
  2. Suicide rates are functions of unrelieved anxieties and stresses to which persons are subjected.
  3. Catholics have greater social cohesion than protestants.
  4. Therefore, Lower suicide rates should be anticipated among Catholics than among protestants.

A theory usually finds interrelations between a wide variety of uniformities. A theory is usually cumulative in the sense that further research findings might add confirmation to a theory. A theory is usually fruitful in providing implications for further research. A theory usually provides a ground for prediction. But prediction is possible with some degree of accuracy only if a theory is precise.

Zetterberg has distinguished three ceder conceptions associated by sociologists with the term theory. Sociological classics, sociological criticism and sociological taxonomy. The first denotes the important works of early sociologists which provided the basis for a great deal of work that followed; the second traces the relationships and continuities among sociological ideas from a historical perspective; the third refers to an orderly arrangement of sociological idea into neat categories.

Thomas Ward made a study of how different sociologists defined sociological theory. He analysed the definitions in popular texts in Social Sciences published since 1950. He found that 89 percent of the definitions regarded a systematic structure as a characteristic feature of theory. Seventy-four percent of the definitions mention that a theory should be capable of generating hypotheses which are empirically verifiable. Logical interrelatedness was suggested in 70 percent of the definitions. Fifty-nine percent of the definitions use the word proposition. Theory was defined as a logic-deductive system by 44 percent of the definitions. Nineteen percent of the definitions make use of the words, Laws, generalizations; the concepts postulates and axioms are mentioned in only 15 percent of the definitions.

Definitions of Theory

Sociological theory is a set of logically interrelated propositions from which empirical uniformities can be derived.


A theoretical system is a body of logically interdependent generalized concepts of empirical reference. Such a system tends to become logically closed, to reach such state of logical integration that every logical implication of any combination of propositions is the system is explicitly stated in some other propositions in the same system.

- Parsons

Theory as a conceptual scheme designed to explain observed regularities.

- Francis Abraham

The word theory should be used to refer to systematically organised law-like propositions about society that can be supported by evidence.

- Zetterberg

Theory consists 1) a set of concepts descriptive or operative; 2) a set of propositions, each stating a relationship 3) the propositions must be verifiable through experience.

- Homans

Abraham questions the position held by some that only empirically veritable, law-like propositions constitute theory. He feels that no textbook can be written at all if this is insisted upon. He further states that most of the most important theories in sociological literature cannot be verified in their entirety.

A theory is a plausible explanation about social phenomena, logically constructed and syster-matically organized, that underscores the relationship between two well-defined variables. It is more than a hypothesis or speculative reasoning, but far from a social law that is supported by evidence. A theory is contrasted with a fact. A fact is an empirically verifiable observation whereas a theory is a systematized relationship between facts. And a theory cannot be derived from empirical observations merely by means of rigorous induction. A theory is a symbolic construction and theory building is a matter of creative achievement.

Characteristics of Sociological Theory

According to Timasheff, A theory is a set of propositions complying, ideally with the following conditions: One, the propositions must be couched in terms of exactly defined concepts; two, they must be consistent with each other; three, they must be such that from them the existing generalizations could be deductively derived; four, they must be fruitful show the way to further observations and generalizations increasing the scope of knowledge.

Definitions, concepts, propositions and hypotheses are the essential constitutents of theory.

Some people regard verifiability as an essential characteristic of social theory. They equate sociological theory with the scientific laws in the mature sciences like physics, chemistry, biology. But Sociology is still in its infancy and this state of maturity is still a distantigoal. Moreover there exist a large number of conflicting theories and perspectives in sociology. There is no single theory which is applicable to all groups and societies.

Obviously, sociological theories are not necessarily social laws. And the quest for social laws cannot be regarded as the primary objective of sociology. Fruitful sociological insights may not follow rigorous inductive procedure or a logical deductive format.

A Sociological Theory have the following Characteristics

  1. A theory is stated in terms of well defined concepts.
  2. A theory consists of logically interconnected and internally consistent propositions.
  3. A theory goes beyond facts.
  4. A theory is provisional in character. It is always open to rejection or revision depending upon new evidence and insights.
  5. A theory should be verifiable in a preliminary way, that is, consistent with a body of known facts and available evidence.

Types of Theories

Abraham makes a distinction between three alternative schemes of classification.

Speculative Theories Vs. Grounded Theories

Speculative theories are abstract, impressionistic and rooted in a philosophical system. The encyclopedic minds of Comte and Spencer have synthesized the findings of a variety of disciplines to formulate a formidable array of theoretical statements to explain social processes and organisations. These are essentially theories generated by logical deduction from a priori assumptions. They are based on certain methodological and philosophical assumptions and generated theoretical entities and conceptual schemes.

Ground theories, on the other hand, are based on the findings of empirical research and they are suited to their specific uses. They produce specific sociological laws, principles and empirical generalizations.

Macro Theories Vs. Micro Theories

Macro or Molar theories are broader in scope and encompass in array of laws while micro theories have a narrower frame of reference. Macro theories are concerned with total societal patterns. Theories of society culture and institutions constitute the tradition of macro-sociology. Micro or molecular sociology is concerned with interactions among the atoms of society. Role theory, Small group theories represent the micro tradition in contemporary sociology. The distinction between the two types of theories is based on the size of the unit of analysis rather than the level of analysis. Macro theories deal with society as a whole. Micro theories deal with the sub-systmes that make up the whole. Parsons System theory is macro whereas Ho-man's exchange theory is molecular. Macro theories belong to grand theory category, Micro theories come under miniature theories.

Grand Theory Vs. Miniature Theory

A grand theory is a broad conceptual scheme with systems of interrelated propositions that provide a general frame of reference for the study of social processes and institutions. However, it is different from speculative theory. The grand theory is rooted in the empirical world - however loosely whereas speculative theories are based on philosophical systems. The difference between them, of course, is only a matter of degree, not kind. The grand theory is a comprehensive formulation. It provides a master scheme of general sociological orientations. Grand theories are full of jargon and intuitive statements. Parson's system theory and Sorkin's theory of socio-cultural dynamics are examples of grand theories.

Miniature theories are what Merton called as Middle range theories: Theories intermediate to the minor working hypotheses evolved during the day-to-day routines of research, and the all inclusive speculations comprising a master speculative scheme from which it is hoped to derive a very large number of empirically observed uniformities of social behaviour. The miniature theories are partial, more specific and their frame of reference is considerably limited. They are less pretensions than the grand theories. Merton's theory of reference groups is an example of such a theory.

Functions of Theories

  1. A theory is an inspiration to future inquiries. A fruitful theory produces meaningful hypotheses. Many empirical investigations proceed from well-formulated theories.
  2. A theory- explains observed regularities and social uniformities. It establishes order in groups of facts. Theory summarizes relationships between variables in a conceptual frame work.
  3. A theoretical system often provides a secure ground for prediction. The path to greater accuracy in prediction lies in the further development of theories. Predictive indices not based on theory tend to be limited in scope.
  4. Theory guides research and narrows down the range of facts to be studied. Theory provides direction to investigation and helps the researcher in deciding what variables to look for.
  5. Theories serve as tools of inquiry. They help in the formulation of a research design, conducting experiments, making measurements and quantifying data.
  6. Theory points to gaps in our knowledge and thus helps in filling them up. The gaps it exposes help in the cumulation of our knowledge. No Scientific theory is final. A clash of theories usually produces intense research activity which might lead to rejection, modification, improvement or reformulation of old theories or a discovery of new theories.


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    • profile image


      2 months ago

      reallyyyyy helpful for my assignment

    • profile image

      Abir Hassan 

      5 years ago

      Very nice article...

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      really great...

    • Ruchi Urvashi profile image

      Ruchi Urvashi 

      7 years ago from Singapore

      Lot of theory to read. Great work.

    • mathira profile image


      7 years ago from chennai

      Good hub dilip.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      interesting... great hub!

    • edmob1 profile image


      7 years ago from United Kingdom

      Well done Dilip it so expansive a subject you did well to narrow it down.

      Qualatitive reports are desperately difficult express as opposed quantative results.


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