Sociological Theories: A Complete List of Social Science Theories

Sociological theory and other social science theories posted here are dedicated to being the online reference of social science learners. The explanation of this list of sociological theories includes definitions, core ideas, and main characters. Include sources when citing to avoid plagiarism.

Structural Functionalism Theory

Structural functionalism theory considers social stratification or hierarchy as a necessity. Every society works in a stratified system and everything functions according to the needs of the social system. In short, stratification is a requirement of a system. It should be underlined that stratification is not about a person occupying a certain ‘position’, but about social position in a system. Each position can be likened to an organ of the body, so there are heart, liver, kidney, and so on. All organs work to meet the functional needs of the body. If one social position does not work, the social system will fall apart. Society experienced disorganization.

Core idea: The social system is like an organ

Characters: Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory developed as a reaction to structural functionalism theory. Conflict theory has traditional roots from the Marxian. Conflict theory sees social relations in a social system as a conflict of interest. Each group or class has different interests. This difference in interests exists for several reasons: First, humans have a subjective view of the world. Second, social relationships are relationships that influence each other or people have an influence on others. Third, the effect of this influence is the potential for interpersonal conflict. Thus social stratification contains conflictual relations.

Core idea: The structure of social relations is shaped by conflicts of interest

Characters: Karl Marx, Randal Collins

Exchange Theory

Exchange theory is a theory of social behavior (behavioral). This theory considers human (actor) behavior to form a pattern of relationships between the environment and the actor. Human behavior is greeted by reactions from the environment which then influence backward behavior afterwards. So, the relationship is from actor to environment, back to actor. The environment, whether social or physical in which the actor’s behavior exists, influences the actor’s behavior. Environmental reactions can be positive, negative, or neutral. If positive, the actor tends to repeat his behavior in the future in similar social situations. If it is negative, actors tend to change their behavior. A simple example is students who come to school wearing uniforms. The environmental reaction is accepting, let alone reinforced by the rules. So these students tend to dress in uniform again the next day.

Core idea: Human behavior is the product of exchange with the reactions of its environment.

Character: Georg Homans, Peter Blau

Dramaturgy Theory

Dramaturgy theory as a sociological theory understands the social world through social interactions. In the process of social interaction, the self-concept (the self) is formed through interaction with other people in certain social situations. The dramaturgical approach divides the world into two: frontstage and backstage. Most social interactions take place in front of the stage. The self does not belong to the actor, but the product of the dramaturgical interaction between actor and audience. The audience can be the person you are talking to, people around you, or the wider social world. When interacting in front of the stage, actors arrange their own appearance in such a way as to be accepted by the audience. This arrangement is called impression management, which is creating the impression to be socially acceptable. In social interactions in everyday life, actors always present themselves.

Core idea: The world is a stage

Character: Erving Goffman

Symbolic Interactionism Theory

The basic principle of symbolic interaction theory is that humans have the capacity to think and their thoughts are shaped by social interaction. In the process of interaction, humans learn the meanings and symbols that lead to the capacity to be different from others. Meanings and symbols allow humans to act and interact differently, for example, the way people interpret success is different or the different languages ​​used by each tribe are also different. Humans are able to modify or change the meaning they use in the interaction process according to their interpretation of social situations. Changing the meaning and symbol is done with the consideration of profit and loss, then choosing one of them. Different patterns of action and interaction create group differences in society.

Core idea: A person’s thinking is shaped by social interactions

Character: Herbert Blumer

Marxian theory

In fact, the theory of Marxian sociology is the name for several theoretical explanations inspired by Karl Marx. For example, Marx’s concept of alienation is used to explain the modern human condition under a capitalistic economic system. So, we can say that the concept of alienation is a Marxian theory. The emphasis on the Marxian theory is that old assumptions such as the contradiction of the two great classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, inspire explanations of modern phenomena. As a consequence, Marxian theory has always been questioned about its validity in explaining more contemporary social phenomena. The conflict theory proposed by Marx is the main axis of the Marxian theory.

Core idea: Marx and Marxism are the main axis

Character: Karl Marx

Neomarxian Theory

Neomarxian theory is a reaction, criticism and reflection of ideas or concepts that come from the Marxian theory. Reflections on these ideas are not singular but varied so that the neomarxian theory has various variations. Several variants of the Neomarxian theory include: critical theory, historically oriented Marxism, economic sociology, and deterministic economics. Neomarxian theory not only rejects the basic assumptions of the marxian theory, but also provides a basis for expanding and developing new concepts. For example, the concept of commodities, which in Marxian theory is placed at the center of structural problems in a capitalist economic society, produces commodity fetishism in economic institutions. Neomarxian theory develops the concept of commodity fetishism so that it can be applied to all elements,

Core ideas: Reaction to the ideas of the Marxian theory

Character: Georg Lukacs, The Frankfurt School

Structuralism Theory

Structuralism theory emphasizes the importance of structure in influencing or even determining human action. Structure is an invisible element that regulates a person’s actions. There is debate as to where the structures actually lie. Structures can reside in as deep a place as human thought. There are also those who say, the structure is outside the individual such as the social structure in the form of norms and values. Others argue that structure exists in language as in linguistic studies. It does not rule out the possibility that structures are in the relationship between individuals and social structures. Structuralism theory puts structure as a determinant factor of social action.

The core idea: Human actions are determined by structural systems

Characters: Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Claude Levi Strauss

Poststructuralism Theory

Like the neomarxian theory which is a reaction of Marxian ideas, the theory of poststructuralism is a reaction to the theory of structuralism. When the theory of structuralism developed in the discipline of sociology, the theory of poststructuralism emerged from outside the discipline of sociology. Poststructuralism theory accepts the importance of structure but goes beyond the explanation that social action is influenced by social structure. The theory of poststructuralism further explains that above the structure there is a power relation related to knowledge. There is an opinion that this assumption is the basis for the birth of postmodernism, although in fact it is very difficult to outline and explain the relationship between the two.

Core idea: Above structure are power relations

Character: Michel Foucault

Modernism Theory

The theory of modernism can be described through the jargon that emerged in the era of modern philosophy, such as progress, rationality and consciousness. The theory of modernism is always oriented towards progress and anything that is labeled progress or progress is always considered better. For example, infrastructure development as a modernization process tends to be seen as a better historical period than before. Current conditions that are undergoing the process of renewal are always in the progress stage. The theory of modernism believes in a linear historical development, from primitive to modern, from underdevelopment to progress. At this point, there is an influence of positivism on the theory of modernism. Modernism brought human civilization to the modern era which is now often referred to by scientists as the era of ‘advanced modernism’,

Core idea: We are in the modern era

Characters: Jurgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Zygmun Baumann

Postmodernism Theory

Postmodernism theory rests on the question of whether the current conditions of the world are still relevant to be called the modern era, while the world seems to show different characters from the previous era. The emergence of postmodernism theory symbolically marks the end of modernism, at least the proponents of postmodernism argue. The theory of postmodernism not only emerges as a critique, but also ends, declaring a new era that has never existed before. There are differences of opinion whether this new era is a continuation of modernity or a completely new era. The theory of postmodernism is often called a radical intellectual movement because it dismantles the masks of modernism. For example, modernism says progress is a marker of a better civilization. Postmodernism rejects such views.

Core idea: Modernism is dead

Characters: Jean Francois Lyotard, Jean Boudrillard, Fredric Jameson

Critical Theory

The critical theory was initiated by the neomarxist intellectual group which later became known as The Frankfurt School. The ideas of critical theory were influenced by Karl Marx, but at the same time criticized the theoretical foundations of Marxism which according to him were never satisfactory. Critical theory criticizes economic determinism, positivism, modernism, and even sociology. Critical theory also claims to be autocritical as part of the operationalization of its theory. Against Marxism, according to the theory of criticism, the Marxian theory distorts Karl Marx’s original ideas by interpreting it in a mechanistic way. Marxian sociological theory reduces social analysis to an explanation that is economistic in nature and ignores other aspects of life that are no less important, namely culture.

Core ideas: A theoretical criticism of theory

Characters: Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Herbert Marcuse

Social Construction Theory

Social construction theory sees that reality in a social system is created through reciprocal interactions that produce a system of values ​​and beliefs. The system of values ​​and beliefs is practiced and acted out repeatedly by social actors so that it is embedded in the system which is then considered as reality. This reality enters individuals through a process of internalization, is practiced repeatedly through a process called externalization until it becomes embedded in the social system institutions. The process of institutionalization brings knowledge and human conception of reality inherent in the structure of society that has been created. This reality is assumed to be like that even though it was created. Therefore, social construction theory sees reality as a product of social construction.

Core idea: Reality is a social construct

Characters: Peter L. Berger, Thomas Luckmann

Feminism Theory

The theory of feminism is a generalization of the system of ideas about social life and human experience developed from the perspective of women. The perspective of women in feminist theory is central in describing the social world. As the center, the social situations and experiences captured always refer to the women’s point of view. The development of feminist theory that departs from the need to see women’s perspectives is based on the assumption that knowledge of the world that has developed so far tends to marginalize women’s perspectives. The subordinate position of women in social, cultural, political, economic and philosophical discourses has resulted in the marginalization of women in practice. Finally, there is domination, hegemony, and discrimination against women.

Main idea : Against domination over women

Character: Harriet Martineau

Globalization Theory

Globalization theory emphasizes the importance of seeing the reciprocal relationship between local and global in analyzing social phenomena. Broadly speaking, globalization can be categorized into three theoretical dimensions: economic, political and cultural. The economic dimension examines the phenomenon of the global market economy in the era of neoliberalism and its resistance from a Marxian perspective. The political dimension of globalization sees the role of the nation state in the era of globalization. The cultural dimension examines the cultural implications of globalization at the local level and vice versa. In sociology, the cultural dimension of the sociological theory of globalization gave birth to several main concepts, such as unification, dissemination or hybridization, and cultural differentiation between societies or nation states.

Core idea: Interrelationship between local and global

Characters: Antonio Negri, Michael Hardt

Development Theory

Development theory carries the ideology of developmentalism. The context of this theory is at the state or regional level. The basic assumption that is built is that the progress of a country is very dependent on investments that are oriented towards advancing the economy of a country. The economic factor becomes the leader in creating social and political stability so that the progress of an ideal community life is achieved. Economic growth lies at the heart of development theory. Typically, this theory is promoted by developed countries to be applied in developing countries. Developed countries explicitly want to open the door to investment in developing countries with the aim that developing countries can catch up. Economic growth, again, is the key.

Core idea: Economic growth will create social welfare

Character: WW Rostow

Addiction Theory

The dependency theory is a reaction to the development theory or developmentalism ideology promoted by developed countries such as the United States and countries in Western Europe. Dependency theory was born in Latin America, the United States during the Cold War. The basic assumption of dependency theory is that investment and all financial assistance or loans disbursed by developed countries, instead of creating progress, creates dependency for developing countries. Consequently, developing countries will never be sovereign, but instead be on the fringes, in the third world. The power of developed countries over developing countries is seen by dependency theory as a form of colonialism and new imperialism. Similar to development theory, dependency theory always exists in a country or regional context.

Core idea: Foreign investment is a new form of imperialism

Character: Andre Gunder Frank

Consumption Theory

Consumption theory emerged during the Industrial Revolution era, but did not develop significantly in the discipline of sociology. It was only at the birth of postmodernism that consumption theory became popular. Postmodernist theory often sees contemporary society as a consumption society. The development of consumption theory has implications for the decline in social analysis on the aspects of production in terms of class, culture, and social phenomena. Social class, in the perspective of the sociological theory of consumption, is no longer determined by the mode of production, the process of production, ownership of the means of production, but by the mode of consumption and lifestyle. Entering the digital era, consumption theory is increasingly gaining a stage, such as the emergence of the Prosumer concept where human behavior seems to be perpetual in the process of production and consumption.

Core idea: Contemporary society is a consumption society.

Character: Jean Baudrillard

Actor Network Theory

The actor network theory is a variant of the broader network sociology theory. This theory is relatively new in sociology. Actor network theory looks at the role of networks in influencing social action. Individuals are only part of a wider social network. It should be noted that this theory is not only concerned with the agency of individuals, but also the structure of the network which is often not human. The internet and artificial intelligence involve a significant role for machines. Through the actor network theory approach, individual agency becomes a small component that is connected to one another. Humans enter the world of postsocial, posthuman because networks play a more significant role in determining social action. The development of actor network theory as a sociological theory creates several new conceptions in the contemporary era,

The idea is: Individuals are components of connected networks

Character: Manuel Castells

Systems Theory

The basic assumption of systems theory is that the world as a whole is a system and the social world has its own system, namely communication. Communication is produced by the community. One of the key words in systems theory is complexity. It should be understood beforehand that the system is always in the environment and the system is always simpler than the environment. In other words, the environment is always more complex than the system. Systems theory as a sociological theory says that all dimensions of life are a system, from the biological cell to the market economy to social life as a whole. What makes the system work is the value produced by its elements. For example, a market economy system, has a basic element, namely money. Money becomes valuable in a market economic system because the system produces value.


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