Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: History of Sociology and Basic Sociological Theory

Lesson 2

Target Competencies (Outcomes)

Evaluate the importance of sociological theories

Document the emergence of sociology as an academic discipline

You will demonstrate your competence by:

Completing the learning activities in this Learning Plan

Your performance will be successful when:

You can explain why sociology emerged as a mode of inquiry when it did

You can describe how sociology became an academic discipline

You can articulate what sociological theories are

You can explain how major sociological theories have developed

You can explain how sociological theories are used

Learning Activities

1. If you have not yet done so, READ Chapter 1 of your text.

2. READ the Applying Theory Cheat Sheet. This is a helpful summary which you can use throughout this course.

3. COMPLETE the lesson below.

Understanding the Role of Social Theory

Now that we understand the interplay between the micro and macro perspectives, we need to understand the role of theory in sociological research.

In the general study of society, theory is used as a foundation to research. It allows us to explain what is happening and it also allows us to predict what the consequences of actions might be. You can think of theory as the engine that drives research--without a theory (an IDEA) about how society is working, research wouldn't make sense.

So, theory is the idea that a researcher has about something in society--it is the "WHY" question that we ask when we are observing others. We do this when we're walking about, observing others and their behaviors. We ask, "Hmmm, I wonder why she's doing that?" Or, "Why would he make that choice?" These WHY questions form the foundation of theory--they help us to form ideas about the structure of society and the individual's place in it.

More deeply, theories contain specific elements:

‣Subject Matter

"Subject Matter" refers to whether or not the theory deals with MACRO or MICRO perspectives.


All social theories contain specific assumptions about the structure and the individual and how these two things fit together.


Theories also allow a researcher to translate her ideas into a practical research project which uses the scientific method. Theories are used at the beginning stages of a research project (ASK QUESTIONS, DO BACKGROUND RESEARCH):

Scientific Process

Research can progress along different paths for sociologists: INDUCTIVE, DEDUCTIVE, and SPIRALING. Each of these methods relies on the researcher's ability to theorize about a particular social issue, and then to create a research project which will explain why the issue exists.

While there are many theories in use in various research projects, there are three/four major theories in sociology from which other theories get their roots. These major perspectives are the points from which other theories formed--either as a response to a weakness, or as a new school of thought. We'll also be covering several CONTEMPORARY theories in this course. Below you'll find an explanation of the foundational major theories and some ideas about how these theories can help us to study society:

Max Weber's Influence on Sociology

So, by now, you have probably figured out which theory--or lens--you use in your life every day. Do you see the world as generally FUNCTIONing most people, most of the time? Or do you see the world in a constant state of CONFLICT? Perhaps you view the world via the INTERACTIONs you have with it and others. Is the lens you use to view the world always colored by gender? If so, then you have a FEMINIST point of view.

Or, maybe you see the benefits of viewing the world from all of these points of view.

Bruce asserts that it is not enough to simply understand what has happened – that is to say, what a group of people may or may not have done when presented with the boundaries or forces of society. He says, drawing on the work of Max Weber, that we must also understand what drives the behavior (1999). Weber, a famous German sociologist, called the idea of understanding what drives people's behaviors "verstehen" (the German word for insight). Max Weber, a German sociologist from the late 1800s, gives us his insight by explaining the concept of VERSTEHEN:

The Relationship between People and Structure

Within the field of sociology, the common denominator is people. Sociology explores the "forces that influence people and help shape their lives … Society shapes what we do, how we do it, and how we understand what others do" (Univ. of Limerick 2007). Options in life are determined in the past and are molded by currently existing structures that provide well-established guidelines for how individuals conduct their lives. To quote Macionis and Plummer, "In the game of life, we may decide how to play our cards, but it is society that deals us the hand."

You can think about the structure of society such that it is an invisible force, much like gravity. Where gravity makes us "stick" to the earth, social structures make us "stick" to the rules. It is often invisible, and sometimes very obviously visible. It presses in on us to cause us to conform (or not) to the pressures of society around us:

Macro Forces

Not only does social structure press down on us to cause us to conform to or contradict it, we also help to shape the bigger picture:

Micro Forces


There are many facets to the study of society, but the one that allows us to think about why things are the way they are is THEORY. It is the foundation by which social scientists do their work, and it is the foundation from which you, as a member of society, can understand the actions and beliefs of others from not only your own perspective, but also the perspective of others. Think about a child who is always asking "why?..." This is how the mind of a theorist works--social theorists always want to know WHY something is the way it is, and they are always devising new ways to describe why we feel, think and act the way we do.