An Introduction to Sociological Theories and Concepts

Social worker leading a group discussion

Have you ever wondered about the factors that contribute to recidivism? Are you curious about the rise of social systems, such as the foster care system in the U.S.? If you’re a high school student who is thinking about what to major in at college and you’re curious about societal issues and structures, you may want to consider majoring in sociology. Sociological theories and concepts strive to create a deeper understanding of humanity.

What Is Sociology?

Sociology is a broad field that seeks to understand and analyze human society, humans’ social relationships, systems and institutions. A sociologist can study major and widespread societal issues, such as the following:

  • Crime
  • Drug abuse
  • Religion
  • Social stratification
  • Cultural beliefs and traditions
  • Economic systems
  • Public health institutions
  • Education

Sociologists can also study issues on a personal level, such as family conflict, deviant behavior, romantic love and personal identity. On a global level, sociologists study war, peace, population growth and immigration. As you can see, the field is tremendously broad and holds virtually limitless potential for subspecializing in a particular area of interest.

What Are Sociological Theories and Concepts?

Sociologists are social scientists. Like other scientists, they rely on careful research design, information gathering, observation, hypothesis formation and analysis. For example, they can evaluate historical documents, observe group behavior, conduct lab experiments and interview group participants.

These scientific processes enable sociologists to develop sociological theories and concepts. These theories and concepts are a way to try to understand human society or some aspect of it.

Exploring Major Sociological Theories

If you decide to study sociology in college, you’ll take a close look at major sociological theories. Some sociological theories fall into the macro-sociological category, which examines widespread societal problems, like poverty. Others are micro-sociological theories, which explore issues on a more personal level or within smaller groups.

Some of the most widely studied sociological theories include the interactionist perspective, functionalist perspective and conflict perspective.

Interactionist Perspective

The interactionist perspective is a micro-sociological theory. Also known as symbolic interaction theory, it establishes some of the fundamental concepts used for much of the research conducted in the field. The interactionist perspective posits that humans derive meaning from the world around us as a social construct that is the result of daily social interaction.

In other words, this sociological theory explores how people use and interpret symbols as methods of interpersonal communication. It also examines how people develop self-identities both for themselves and to show to the outside world. In addition, this theory encompasses how people create and maintain their own deeply held truths and visions of reality.

The interactionist perspective has roots in the work of Max Weber, one of the founders of sociology.1 Weber’s theory was that humans will act based on how they interpret the world around them, indicating that action is based on and is secondary to meaning itself.

Functionalist Perspective

The functionalist perspective, also known as functionalism, is a macro-sociological theory. It explores the interconnected nature of the relationships between societal systems and structures. The functionalist perspective has roots in the work of noted sociologist Emile Durkheim.2 He was interested in the mechanisms through which society remains stable and how social order is perpetuated.

The functionalist perspective essentially argues that the structures and systems in society together are more than the sum of their parts. Much like a living creature, which needs both respiratory and circulatory systems to live, society needs each of its structural components to perpetuate itself. If you remove one component, such as education or public health, for example, then the larger society can no longer function as it once did.

This sociological theory acknowledges that society can evolve over time. If a new need arises, then a new system or structure can be formed to meet that need. For example, if a society recognizes that it is having trouble meeting its need for a stable workforce, then it may institute universal childcare benefits so that the parents in its population will be able to work.

Similarly, if a particular need no longer exists, then functionalism holds that the system or structure that traditionally meets that need will wither away. In some cases, a structure may diminish, but not disappear entirely. Consider how a country may ramp up its military capacity during wartime, and then reduce — but not eliminate — its military following the resolution of the conflict.

Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective, also known as conflict theory, has roots in the work of Karl Marx, who studied class conflict between the bourgeoisie (people of means and the affluent) and the proletariat (the working class and the poor).3 Marx argued that class-based conflict was inevitable because these two groups had interests that were not aligned and because resource distribution was uneven.

From a broader perspective, conflict theory examines the disparate groups of people within a society. These groups of people all have their own interests. From Marx’s view, revolution was an inevitable consequence of unequal power and resources.

It’s important to note that conflict perspective does not necessarily need to be limited to theories of class and social stratification. This sociological theory can be applied to any disparate groups of people. For example, a sociologist might study gender, political, racial or religious groups through the lens of conflict theory.

A specific example of an issue that might be examined through this lens could include the pay gap that exists in the U.S. between male and female employees performing the same job and with the same qualifications. Another issue that could be examined is how students from affluent families may be more likely to score well on exams because their families have opportunities that arise from financial resources, whereas students from working class families may fare more poorly in the education system.

Earn Your Bachelor’s and Master’s in Sociology

If these sociological theories and concepts spark your interest, then you may want to study the fascinating field of sociology. Grand Canyon University (GCU) offers degree programs that suit your interests. The Bachelor of Science in Sociology degree and the Master of Science in Sociology with an Emphasis in Education program both cover pertinent sociological theories and concepts.

Both of these programs explore the fundamental principles of evidence-based scientific research. You will study topics such as the following:

  • The concepts, theories and methods that sociologists use to study social structures and how they influence human behaviors
  • Societal and personal issues in modern life, including crime, drug abuse, poverty and family relations
  • The development of roles, norms, group processes, attitudes, stereotypes, prejudices and social awareness within societal groups
  • Classical and contemporary theoretical perspectives that provide the foundation for the analysis of social patterns and influences
  • Social stratification and inequality within theoretical, historical and conceptual frameworks The master’s in sociology program takes a deeper dive into sociological theories and concepts, with a focus on pedagogy in the field within institutes of higher education.

If you’re fascinated by the study of human society and its systems and institutions, Grand Canyon University encourages you to apply to our school. We offer a number of relevant degree programs, including the Bachelor of Social Work (BSW—non-licensure) degree and the Master of Science in Sociology with an Emphasis in Education program.

1 Britannica, Max Weber, German sociologist in December 2022

2 Britannica, Emile Durkheim, French social scientist in December 2022

3 Investopedia, Conflict Theory Definition, Founder, and Examples in December 2022

Approved by the Sociology and Social Work Department Chair for the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Dec. 21, 2022.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.

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