Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns, and they develop a theory in an attempt to explain why things work as they do. In sociology, a theory is a way to explain different aspects of social interactions and social structures as well as to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan, 2006).
For example, although suicide is generally considered an individual phenomenon, Émile Durkheim was interested in studying the social factors that affect it. He studied social ties within a group, or social solidarity, and hypothesized that differences in suicide rates might be explained by religion-based differences. Durkheim gathered a large amount of data about Europeans who had ended their lives, and he did indeed find differences based on religion. Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics in Durkheim’s society, and his work supports the utility of theory in sociological research.
Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro-level theories look at very specific relationships between individuals or small groups. Grand theories attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change. Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their predecessors and add to them (Calhoun, 2002).
In sociology, a few theories provide broad perspectives that help explain many different aspects of social life, and these are called paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them. Students are encouraged to shift their paradigms by considering a variety of perspectives and content covered in this textbook. To test your ability to shift paradigms, what do you see in this picture? When was the picture taken, and where?
If you guessed Nazi Germany during WWII, you are incorrect! Taken in 2001, this photo is of a residence in Taiwan; the swastika on the front door communicates it is a Buddhist household, welcoming visitors. Throughout Asia and Indigenous societies worldwide, the swastika symbolizes peace, happiness, love, and long life - not hatred, anti-semitism, racism, or violence which many associate with the swastika symbol, due to the atrocity of the Holocaust during German-occupied Europe from 1941-1945. Considering different paradigms is important to understand our vast human history and contemporary society.
Three paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking, because they provide useful explanations: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. These are discussed further in the next section as well as two more recent theoretical contributions: intersectionality and critical race theory.