A theory is a statement about why and how facts are related. It is helpful to explain connections between things because without explanation, these things are simply random occurrences and it is difficult to make sense of them. Therefore, the goal of theory is to make connections between different facts.
Sociology would not exist without theory, and when you do research, the goal is to build theory--to make a ‘theoretical contribution’. If you’re not doing that, then you’re not really practicing sociology--you’re simply observing things.
Well, you would conduct research, interview people, even possibly allow travelers to stay with you. After doing all of these things, you may find that people wanted to stay with another person, versus a Marriott, because it was a more authentic experience.
The theory that bridged the two pieces together is this notion of authenticity. People don’t want to go to the Marriott where everything is the same. They want a unique, more authentic experience, achieved through staying with somebody in their home rather than in a hotel.
You start with facts that you see as unrelated and come up with a theoretical explanation for their relation. What you did with your research is create sociological theory, which is an attempt to explain social behaviors--in this case, couch surfing, or staying with a stranger in their home.
A theoretical approach is the application of an overarching view of society to each general situation.
There are three overarching theoretical approaches in sociology:
1. The structural functional approach states that society is a complex machine with interlocking parts that all work together to keep the system going. If one of those parts fails to function, the whole machine can break down.
EXAMPLEYou could think of your body in this way. Your heart is in charge of pumping the blood. Your brain does the thinking. Your feet do the walking. All these separate parts work together to keep your system going. Society works in much the same way.
2. In the social conflict approach, conflict is the core of society. Think of all the fundamental conflicts that immediately come to mind--capitalist, laborer, rich, poor, atheist, religious, gay, straight, liberal, conservative, etc. People act based on these conflicts, and this leads to change.
3. The symbolic interaction approach states that society is the result of all of our interactions combined. All meaning is created through interaction with each other. Through one on one, through group interaction--that's the core of society. Society is constructed through interaction.
In addition to the three theoretical approaches in sociology, there are two ways of viewing society and people in society: the macro and the micro. You can think of them as two levels of zooming in. You're zoomed out, or you're zoomed in.
The macro-level orientation in sociology is a broad look at society from up above. Recall the structural functional theoretical approach from above, in which society is seen as a complex system with many parts that each work together to maintain the system as a whole--this is a macro view of society. It involves looking at big structures and interlocking parts.
On the other hand, the micro-level orientation in sociology is a much smaller zoom. You zoom into specific situations and look at individual interactions.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.