Theory and Social Theory

“Theory, Social Theory: A theory is a account of the world which goes beyond what we can see and measure. It embraces a set of interrelated definitions and relationships that organizes our concepts or and understanding of the empirical world in a systematic way. Thus, we may establish a statistical relationship between poverty and crime, but to explain that relationship we might have to employ a number of theories: about people’s motivation, the social meanings attached to poverty and crime, and the structural constraints which keeps sections of the population in poverty.

Generally speaking there are three different conceptions of theory in sociology. Some think of theory as generalizations about and classifications of, the social world. The scope of generalization varies from theorizing about a particular range of phenomena to more abstract and general theories about society and history as a whole. Others believe that theoretical statements should be translated into empirical, measurable, or observable propositions, and systematically tested. Thus, in the example above, we should test assumptions about motivations, social meanings, and so forth. This approach is usually characterized (rather unhelpfully) as positivism. Finally, yet others argue that theory should explain phenomena, identifying causal mechanisms and processes which, although they cannot be observed directly, can be seen in their effects. For example, Marxists might use the alleged contradiction between the forces and relations of production (unobservable) to explain fluctuations in class struggle (observable). The label realism is sometimes attached to this view.

The term social theory is also applied commonly to the most general level of theories of society—to perspectives such as structural functionalism, phenomenology, or Marxism—which embrace most or all of the social sciences. Some prefer to call this level ‘social philosophy.’”

Excerpted from: Marshall, Gordon, ed. Oxford Dictionary of Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

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