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Sociologists develop theories to explain social phenomena. A theory is a proposed relationship between two or more concepts. In other words, a theory is explanation for why or how a phenomenon occurs. An example of a sociological theory is the work of Robert Putnam on the decline of civic engagement.

While there are a number of factors that contribute to this decline Putnam's theory is quite complex , one of the prominent factors is the increased consumption of television as a form entertainment. Putnam's theory proposes:. This element of Putnam's theory clearly illustrates the basic purpose of sociological theory: it proposes a relationship between two or more concepts. In this case, the concepts are civic engagement and television watching. The relationship is an inverse one - as one goes up, the other goes down.

What's more, it is an explanation of one phenomenon with another: part of the reason why civic engagement has declined over the last several decades is because people are watching more television. Putnam's theory clearly contains the key elements of a sociological theory.

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Sociological theory is developed at multiple levels, ranging from grand theory to highly contextualized and specific micro-range theories. There are many middle-range and micro-range theories in sociology.

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Because such theories are dependent on context and specific to certain situations, it is beyond the scope of this text to explore each of those theories. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the more well-known and most commonly used grand and middle-range theories in sociology.


In the theory proposed above, the astute reader will notice that the theory includes two components: The data, in this case the findings that civic engagement has declined and TV watching has increased, and the proposed relationship, that the increase in television viewing has contributed to the decline in civic engagement.

Data alone are not particularly informative. If Putnam had not proposed a relationship between the two elements of social life, we may not have realized that television viewing does, in fact, reduce people's desire to and time for participating in civic life. In order to understand the social world around us, it is necessary to employ theory to draw the connections between seemingly disparate concepts. Another example of sociological theorizing illustrates this point. In his now classic work, Suicide , [2] Emile Durkheim was interested in explaining a social phenomenon, suicide , and employed both data and theory to offer an explanation.

By aggregating data for large groups of people in Europe, Durkheim was able to discern patterns in suicide rates and connect those patterns with another concept or variable : religious affiliation. Durkheim found that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than were Catholics.

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At this point, Durkheim's analysis was still in the data stage; he had not proposed an explanation for the different suicide rates of the two groups. It was when Durkheim introduced the ideas of anomie and social solidarity that he began to explain the difference in suicide rates.

Durkheim argued that the looser social ties found in Protestant religions lead to weaker social cohesion and reduced social solidarity. The higher suicide rates were the result of weakening social bonds among Protestants. While Durkheim's findings have since been criticized, his study is a classic example of the use of theory to explain the relationship between two concepts. Durkheim's work also illustrates the importance of theory: without theories to explain the relationship between concepts, we would not be able to hypothesize cause and effect relationships in social life or outline processes whereby social events and patterns occur.

As noted above, there are many theories in sociology. However, there are several broad theoretical perspectives that are prominent in the field they are arguably paradigms. These theories are prominent because they are quite good at explaining social life. They are not without their problems, but these theories remain widely used and cited precisely because they have withstood a great deal of criticism. As the dominant theories in sociology are discussed below, you might be inclined to ask, "Which of these theories is the best? In fact, it is probably more useful and informative to view these theories as complementary.

One theory may explain one element of society better than another. Or, both may be useful for explaining social life. In short, all of the theories are correct in the sense that they offer compelling explanations for social phenomena. Structural-Functionalism is a sociological theory that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to meet individual biological needs originally just functionalism.

Later it came to focus on the ways social institutions meet social needs structural-functionalism.

Structural-functionalism draws its inspiration primarily from the ideas of Emile Durkheim. He sought to explain social cohesion and stability through the concept of solidarity. In more "primitive" societies it was mechanical solidarity , everyone performing similar tasks, that held society together.

Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or systems of exchanges. In modern, complex societies members perform very different tasks, resulting in a strong interdependence between individuals. Based on the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole, Durkheim argued that modern complex societies are held together by organic solidarity think interdependent organs.

The central concern of structural-functionalism is a continuation of the Durkheimian task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion of societies that are necessary to ensure their continued existence over time. Many functionalists argue that social institutions are functionally integrated to form a stable system and that a change in one institution will precipitate a change in other institutions. Societies are seen as coherent, bounded and fundamentally relational constructs that function like organisms, with their various parts social institutions working together to maintain and reproduce them.

The various parts of society are assumed to work in an unconscious, quasi-automatic fashion towards the maintenance of the overall social equilibrium. All social and cultural phenomena are therefore seen as being functional in the sense of working together to achieve this state and are effectively deemed to have a life of their own.

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These components are then primarily analysed in terms of the function they play. In other words, to understand a component of society, one can ask the question, "What is the function of this institution? Thus, one can ask of education, "What is the function of education for society? Durkheim's strongly sociological perspective of society was continued by Radcliffe-Brown.

Explanations of social phenomena therefore had to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively stable social roles. Thus, in structural-functionalist thought, individuals are not significant in and of themselves but only in terms of their social status : their position in patterns of social relations. The social structure is therefore a network of statuses connected by associated roles. Structural-functionalism has been criticized for being unable to account for social change because it focuses so intently on social order and equilibrium in society.

For instance, in the late 19th Century, higher education transitioned from a training center for clergy and the elite to a center for the conduct of science and the general education of the masses. As structural-functionalism thinks about elements of social life in relation to their present function and not their past functions, structural-functionalism has a difficult time explaining why a function of some element of society might change or how such change occurs.

However, structural-functionalism could, in fact, offer an explanation in this case. Also occurring in the 19th Century though begun in the 18th was the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, facilitated by capitalism, was increasingly demanding technological advances to increase profit.

Technological advances and advanced industry both required more educated workforces. Thus, as one aspect of society changed - the economy and production - it required a comparable change in the educational system, bringing social life back into equilibrium. Another philosophical problem with the structural-functional approach is the ontological argument that society does not have needs as a human being does; and even if society does have needs they need not be met. The idea that society has needs like humans do is not a tenable position because society is only alive in the sense that it is made up of living individuals.

What's more, just because a society has some element in it at the present that does not mean that it must necessarily have that element. For instance, in the United Kingdom, religious service attendance has declined precipitously over the last years. Today, less than 1 in 10 British attend religious service in a given week. Another criticism often leveled at structural-functionalist theory is that it supports the status quo.

According to some opponents, structural-functionalism paints conflict and challenge to the status quo as harmful to society, and therefore tends to be the prominent view among conservative thinkers. Robert K. Merton proposed a distinction between manifest and latent functions.

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Latent functions are the unintended functions of a phenomenon in a social system. An example of manifest and latent functions is education. The manifest purpose of public education is to increase the knowledge and abilities of the citizenry to prepare them to contribute in the workforce. A latent function of the public education system is the development of a hierarchy of the learned.

The most learned are often also the most affluent. Thus, while education's manifest function is to empower all individuals to contribute to the workforce and society, it also limits some people by creating boundaries of entry into occupations. A prominent sociological theory that is often contrasted with structural-functionalism is conflict theory. Karl Marx is considered the father of conflict theory. Conflict theory argues that society is not best understood as a complex system striving for equilibrium but rather as a competition.

Society is made up of individuals competing for limited resources e.

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Broader social structures and organizations e. Conflict theory was developed in part to illustrate the limitations of structural-functionalism. The structural-functionalist approach argued that society tends toward equilibrium, focusing on stability at the expense of social change. This is contrasted with the conflict approach, which argues that society is constantly in conflict over resources. One of the primary contributions conflict theory presents over the structural-functional approach is that it is ideally suited for explaining social change, a significant problem in the structural-functional approach.

A heuristic device to help you think about society from a conflict perspective is to ask, "Who benefits from this element of society? Because higher education in the U. Thus, the educational system often screens out poorer individuals not because they are unable to compete academically but because they cannot afford to pay for their education.