Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Social theories draw the connections between seemingly disparate concepts in order to help us understand the world around us.

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Key Takeaways

Key PointsTheories have two components: data, and and the explanation of relationships between concepts that are measured by the data.A theory is a proposed relationship between two or more concepts, often cause and effect.Sociologists develop theories to explain social phenomena.Sociological theory is developed at multiple levels, ranging from grand theory to highly contextualized and specific micro-range theories.Key Termscause and effect: Cause and effect (also written as cause-effect or cause/effect) refers to the philosophical concept of causality, in which an action or event will produce a certain response to the action in the form of another event.anomie: Alienation or social instability caused by erosion of standards and values.sociological theory: A theory is a statement as to how and why particular facts are related. In sociology, sociological perspectives, theories, or paradigms are complex theoretical and methodological frameworks, used to analyze and explain objects of social study, and facilitate organizing sociological knowledge.

Sociologists develop theories to explain social phenomena. A theory is a proposed relationship between two or more concepts. In other words, a theory is an explanation for why a phenomenon occurs.

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. 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.

Sociological Theories at Work

An example of a sociological theory comes from the work of Robert Putnam. Putman’s work focused on the decline of civic engagement. Putnam found that Americans involvement in civic life (e.g., community organizations, clubs, voting, religious participation, etc. ) has declined over the last 40 to 60 years. While a number of factors that contribute to this decline, one of the prominent factors is the increased consumption of television as a form of entertainment. Putnam’s theory proposes:

The more television people watch, the lower their involvement in civic life will be.

This element of Putnam’s theory clearly illustrates the basic purpose of sociological theory. Putnam’s theory proposes a relationship between two or more concepts. In this case, the concepts are civic engagement and television watching. This is an inverse relationship – as one goes up, the other goes down; it is also an explanation of one phenomenon with another: part of the reason for the decline in civic engagement over the last several decades is because people are watching more television. In short, Putnam’s theory clearly encapsulates the key ideas of a sociological theory.

Importance of Theory

Theory is the connective tissue that bridges the connection between raw data and critical thought. In the theory above, the data showed that that civic engagement has declined and TV watching has increased. 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, 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 than Catholics to commit suicide. 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. When Durkheim introduced the ideas of anomie and social solidarity, 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 understand cause and effect relationships in social life. The discovery of the cause and effect relationship is the major component of the sociological theory.

Theories: Are Some Better than Others?

There are many theories in sociology, but there are several broad theoretical perspectives that are prominent in the field. 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.

You might be inclined to ask, “Which theories are the best? ” As is often the case in sociology, just because things are different doesn’t mean one is better than another. In fact, it is probably more useful and informative to view 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.


Ritzer’s Integrative Micro-Macro Theory of Social Analysis: The theoretical perspectives in sociology use both micro- and macro-perspectives to understand sociological and cultural phenomenon.

Key Takeaways

Key PointsIn the functionalist perspective, societies are thought to function like organisms, with various social institutions working together like organs to maintain and reproduce societies.According to functionalist theories, institutions come about and persist because they play a function in society, promoting stability and integration.Functionalism has been criticized for its failure to account for social change and individual agency; some consider it conservatively biased.Functionalism has been criticized for attributing human-like needs to society.Emile Durkheim ‘s work is considered the foundation of functionalist theory in sociology.Merton observed that institutions could have both manifest and latent functions.Key Termsfunctionalism: Structural functionalism, or simply functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.manifest function: the element of a behavior that is conscious and deliberatesocial institutions: In the social sciences, institutions are the structures and mechanisms of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given human collectivity. Institutions include the family, religion, peer group, economic systems, legal systems, penal systems, language, and the media.latent function: the element of a behavior that is not explicitly stated, recognized, or intended, and is thereby hidden


The functionalist perspective attempts to explain social institutions as collective means to meet individual and social needs. It is sometimes called structural-functionalism because it often focuses on the ways social structures (e.g., social institutions) meet social needs.

Functionalism draws its inspiration from the ideas of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was concerned with the question of how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. He sought to explain social stability through the concept of solidarity, and differentiated between the mechanical solidarity of primitive societies and the organic solidarity of complex modern societies. According to Durkheim, more primitive or traditional societies were held together by mechanical solidarity; members of society lived in relatively small and undifferentiated groups, where they shared strong family ties and performed similar daily tasks. Such societies were held together by shared values and common symbols. By contrast, he observed that, in modern societies, traditional family bonds are weaker; modern societies also exhibit a complex division of labor, where members perform very different daily tasks. Durkheim argued that modern industrial society would destroy the traditional mechanical solidarity that held primitive societies together. Modern societies however, do not fall apart. Instead, modern societies rely on organic solidarity; because of the extensive division of labor, members of society are forced to interact and exchange with one another to provide the things they need.

The functionalist perspective continues to try and explain how societies maintained the stability and internal cohesion necessary to ensure their continued existence over time. In the functionalist perspective, societies are thought to function like organisms, with various social institutions working together like organs to maintain and reproduce them. The various parts of society are assumed to work together naturally and automatically to maintain overall social equilibrium. Because social institutions are functionally integrated to form a stable system, a change in one institution will precipitate a change in other institutions. Dysfunctional institutions, which do not contribute to the overall maintenance of a society, will cease to exist.

In the 1950s, Robert Merton elaborated the functionalist perspective by proposing a distinction between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are the intended functions of an institution or a phenomenon in a social system. Latent functions are its unintended functions. Latent functions may be undesirable, but unintended consequences, or manifestly dysfunctional institutions may have latent functions that explain their persistence. For example, crime seems difficult to explain from the functionalist perspective; it seems to play little role in maintaining social stability. Crime, however, may have the latent function of providing examples that demonstrate the boundaries of acceptable behavior and the function of these boundaries to maintain social norms.

Social Institutions

Functionalists analyze social institutions in terms of the function they play. In other words, to understand a component of society, one must ask, “What is the function of this institution? How does it contribute to social stability? ” Thus, one can ask of education, “What is the function of education for society? ” A complete answer would be quite complex and require a detailed analysis of the history of education, but one obvious answer is that education prepares individuals to enter the workforce and, therefore, maintains a functioning economy. By delineating the functions of elements of society, of the social structure, we can better understand social life.

Criticism of Functionalism

Functionalism has been criticized for downplaying the role of individual action, and for being unable to account for social change. In the functionalist perspective, society and its institutions are the primary units of analysis. Individuals are significant only in terms of their places within social systems (i.e., social status and position in patterns of social relations). Some critics also take issue with functionalism’s tendency to attribute needs to society. They point out that, unlike human beings, society does not have needs; society is only alive in the sense that it is made up of living individuals. By downplaying the role of individuals, functionalism is less likely to recognize how individual actions may alter social institutions.

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Critics also argue that functionalism is unable to explain social change because it focuses so intently on social order and equilibrium in society. Following functionalist logic, if a social institution exists, it must serve a function. Institutions, however, change over time; some disappear and others come into being. The focus of functionalism on elements of social life in relation to their present function, and not their past functions, makes it difficult to use functionalism to explain why a function of some element of society might change, or how such change occurs.