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Sociological Theory

Sociological Theory

Author: Zach Lamb

Identify the key ideas and basic components of sociological theory.

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Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

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[MUSIC PLAYING] Hello, and welcome to this episode of sociological studies. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. And I hope you guys are excited because today we're going to be talking about my favorite area of sociology-- social theory.

A theory is a statement about why and how facts are related. We want to explain connections between things. If we don't explain it, we just have things happening, and we can't make sense of it. So the goal of theory to connect why this is happening with why this is happening.

We couldn't have sociology without theory, and when we do research, the goal is to build theory, to make a theoretical contribution. And if we're not doing that, we're not really doing any sociology. We're just looking at things.

So to give an example, let's look at my research in the past. I looked into groups of travelers who preferred to stay with other strangers in their homes when they're traveling rather than in a Marriott. Sometimes they would even pay for this, up to $50 to $90 a night to stay.

So I wanted to know what makes it so popular? Why are these people doing it, on the one hand? And on the other hand, why do people want to host like this? Why do you want to open your home to a stranger? So those are two facts that were disconnected in my mind, and we needed a theory to bridge them.

Well, after doing research, I interviewed people. I even put my house up to have travelers come stay with me. So after I did both of those things, I found that people wanted to stay with another person because it was a more authentic experience.

And that was really the key. That was the theory that bridged the two pieces together, this notion of authenticity. People didn't want to go to the Marriott where they were all the same. They were after a unique, more authentic experience when they would stay with somebody in their home rather than in a hotel.

So that's an example of the process. That's how it's done. That's so we start with facts that we see as unrelated and come up with some theoretical explanation for their relation.

So what I did with my research then is I created sociological theory. And sociological theory is an attempt to explain social behaviors, like couch surfing, like staying with a stranger in their home. There are three overarching theoretical approaches in sociology. A theoretical approach is really just that. It's applying an overarching view of society to each general situation.

We're going to talk about them, each briefly in turn. There are other tutorials where we'll go into them in more depth. So for today, I'm just going to skate over them, and you can refer to the others if you want more information.

So the first one we're going to talk about is structural functionalism, which says that society is a complex machine with interlocking parts that all work together to keep the system going. You could think of your body in this way, just like your heart is in charge of pumping the blood. Your brain does the thinking. Your feet do the walking, that kind of thing. Society is the same way.

Society then is just a complex machine, a system with interlocking parts that all work together. If one of them goes wrong, the whole machine can kind of grind down. That's one theoretical approach in sociology.

The second is called the social conflict approach. And in this approach, society is seen as an arena for conflict. Conflict is part and parcel of society. Conflict drives people to act and that leads to social change.

So in this perspective, conflict is really the stuff of society. And we can think of all the fundamental conflicts that come to mind right away-- capitalist, labor, rich, poor, atheist, religious, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, and on and on and on and on again. People act based upon these conflicts and that leads to change. So this is the second fundamental perspective in sociology.

Thirdly, we have what's called symbolic interaction. This perspective states that society is the result of all of our interactions combined. All of our meaning, all of meaning is made through interaction with each other. Through one on one, through groups, that's the stuff of society. Society is constructed through interaction.

In addition to the three theoretical approaches in sociology, we have two ways of looking at society and at people. We've got the macro and the micro. You can kind of think of them as two levels of zooming in. You're zoomed out, or you're zoomed up close.

For instance, the macro orientation in sociology is a broad look at society from up above. Recall the structural functional from just a minute or so ago. That's a macro view of society. It's looking at big structures, interlocking parts. Whereas, on the other hand, the micro is a much smaller zoom. You zoom into specific situations, and you look at individual interactions.

Recall the symbolic interactionism. That's a micro level orientation. So in addition to the three perspectives in sociology, we have two layers of orientation or two different orientations we can use to look at them.

As always, thanks for joining me today, and I hope to see you again soon.

Terms to Know
Macro-level Orientation

​A zoomed out look at the social structures and institutions that shape society.

Micro-Level Orientation

A zoomed in look at specific situations and individual interactions.

Social-Conflict Approach

An approach to social theory that argues that society is characterized by various conflicts which cause people to act socially, producing change.

Sociological Theory

Explanations for the social behavior of people in groups.

Structural Functional Approach

An approach which sees society as a complex system with interlocking parts that each work together to maintain the system as a whole.

Symbolic-Interaction Approach

​A sociological approach which views society as the result of many individual, everyday interactions.

Theoretical Approach

Applying a theory to all thinking and research.


​A statement on how and why facts are related.