Are you ready to embark on an intellectual journey that discusses the intricacies of human interaction and societal structures with social theory? In this blog, we’ll delve into the captivating realm of ideas that seek to decipher the complex dynamics shaping our world by defining social theory, detailing five basic social theories, providing more than 15 examples of social theories, and explaining the difference between Social Theory and Sociological Theory.

Between the timeless classics of Karl Marx and Emile Durkheim and the contemporary brilliance of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault, social theory offers a kaleidoscope of perspectives, shedding light on power dynamics, inequality, identity, and the very essence of social existence. Discover how the brilliant minds of sociology unravel the hidden threads that bind us together, uncovering the mechanisms that perpetuate social order or lead to its disruption. Unleash your critical thinking as you navigate through concepts like structural functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, postmodernism, and feminism.

What Is Social Theory?

Getting started with the basics, let’s establish the foundations of social theory before moving onto examples. Social theory, the enigmatic realm of knowledge, explores the intricacies of human society. It seeks to unravel the concealed mechanisms, clandestine structures, and covert forces that shape the tapestry of our collective existence. With its interdisciplinary tapestry — drawing threads from sociology, anthropology, political science, psychology, and philosophy — social theory forges a profound understanding of the patterns and bewildering interactions that pervade our social fabric.

This domain encompasses an extensive array of perspectives and approaches. Each offers a distinctive lens through which society is seen and understood. From the panoramic vistas of macro-level theories, which explore grandiose social systems and colossal structures, to the intimate exploration of micro-level theories, delving into the intricate nuances of individual and small group behavior amidst the social milieu, the tapestry of social theory weaves a rich narrative of comprehension. 

Within the tapestry of social theory, prominent theories emerge as luminary constellations, guiding scholars on their quest for enlightenment. 

What Are the Basic Social Theories?

There are five basic social theories: Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Interactionism, and Postmodernism. Let’s take a look at each of these in detail.

  1. Functionalism: A structural consensus theory that emphasizes the positive functions performed by social institutions in maintaining social order and value consensus, key theorists associated with functionalism include Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.
  2. Marxism: Marx’s social conflict theory argues societies are divided based on social class —the bourgeoisie owning capital and the proletariat working for low wages. Marxism highlights the exploitative relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat, where workers are paid less than the value of what they produce. Meanwhile, capitalism, which is the opposite of communism, allows private individuals with capital to invest, make money, and retain profit. The ruling classes use ideological control to maintain their dominance. Marx believed in the necessity of revolution to establish a communist society with equality and freedom.
  3. Feminism: A social theory and political movement that aims to understand and address gender inequalities. Patriarchy refers to a society where women are systematically disadvantaged. Gender scripts are learned patterns of behavior associated with different genders. Liberal, Marxist, and radical feminism emphasizes different aspects of gender equality. Deconstruction involves critically analyzing norms to expose their social construct nature. Interactionism focuses on how individuals construct their identities through interactions with others, with concepts like the looking glass self and social identity.
  4. Interactionism: A sociological perspective that places less emphasis on social structures and instead focuses on how individuals perceive themselves and actively shape their identities through interactions with others. Prominent interactionist theorists include Ervin Goffman and Howard Becker.
  5. Postmodernism: This theory challenges the certainties of the modernist era and emphasizes fluidity and unpredictability. Postmodernists question science and social progress. The service sector economy refers to a society where most people work in services rather than agriculture or manufacturing. Consumer culture emphasizes consumption as a source of identity and status. Social fragmentation refers to the splitting up of communities. Hyperreality describes a society where people cannot distinguish between media representations of reality and actual reality.

What Are Examples of Social Theory?

The following are a few examples of social theory:

  • Anomie: A concept developed by Durkheim, anomie refers to a state of normlessness caused by a lack of social regulation. It occurs when there are either too few rules guiding individual behavior or conflicting sets of rules.
  • Functional prerequisites: Functional prerequisites are the four basic social needs that societies must fulfill to ensure survival: adaptation (production of goods), governance (decision-making institutions), integration (social cohesion), and latency (reproduction).
  • Talcott Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory: The Functional Fit Theory suggests the functions of the family change to fit the needs of evolving societies. As societies transitioned from pre-industrial to industrial, for example, the family’s functions shifted toward reproductive and stabilizing adult personalities, while education systems took on the role of educating children.
  • Mechanical and organic solidarity: Durkheim introduced the concepts of mechanical and organic solidarity to explain social bonding mechanisms in pre-industrial and industrial societies. Mechanical solidarity is based on similarity and togetherness, while organic solidarity emerges in complex industrial societies where people work in different roles and require specific institutions for social cohesion.
  • Meritocracy: A system where individuals succeed based on their abilities and efforts rather than their social background. According to former Parsons students Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, a meritocratic education system is necessary in industrial capitalist societies to justify social inequalities.
  • Norms and values: Fundamental concepts in functionalism, norms refer to expected patterns of behavior, while values represent lasting ideas and beliefs about what is desirable. These are shaped by religion, politics, and family background.
  • Organic analogy: Organic analogy compares institutions in society to organs in a body, working together to maintain the whole. For example, saying society is like the human body, with its many parts that need to function properly to succeed.
  • Positive functions of institutions: Functionalists believe institutions generally have positive functions for society. For example, the nuclear family provides a stable environment for raising children, and schools help prepare individuals to work in an advanced economy.
  • Role allocation: One of the main functions of education systems in industrial societies, role allocation sorts students into appropriate job roles based on how well they do in school and their qualifications and identifies the most qualified students for the top positions.
  • Social evolution: Functionalists view society as evolving rather than undergoing a revolution. They recognize that societies change over time, with industrial capitalist democracies seen as the most complex and evolved forms.
  • Social facts: Durkheim emphasized the study of objective social facts rather than subjective individual thoughts and feelings. These social facts include collective norms, values, and social statistics.
  • Social integration: Refers to the extent of bonds between individuals and institutions in a society. It influences social cohesion, and both excessive or insufficient integration can increase the suicide rate.
  • Socialization: Socialization is the process of learning the norms and values of a society. Functionalists see it as crucial for maintaining social order, while Marxists and feminists view it as a process that benefits the powerful and reinforces the status quo.
  • Society as a system: Functionalists analyze societies as systems that have a reality beyond individual levels. They focus on the macro level, using statistics to understand social trends and changes.
  • Stabilization of adult personalities: The stabilizing of adult personalities is one of the essential functions of the family in industrial societies, according to Parsons. The family helps individuals cope with the stress of industrial work through emotional support.
  • Strain Theory: Proposed by Merton, this theory explains crime increases when there is a strain between society’s success goals and the available opportunities to achieve those goals. This strain can lead individuals to adapt through criminal activities or more revolutionary actions.
  • Value consensus: This refers to agreement around shared values, which is seen as crucial for maintaining social order in functionalist thought.

What Is the Difference Between Social Theory and Sociological Theory?

Although they may sound similar, Social Theory and Sociological Theory are not one and the same, though they are related. Sociological theory is a subset of social theory, but the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in colloquial language. Unlike what we have explained above, there is a clear difference between Social Theory and Sociological Theory. Sociological theory specifically refers to scientific theories developed within the field of sociology. It is a subset of social theory that focuses on explaining social phenomena, social institutions, social interactions, and change from a sociological perspective. 

Sociological theory often emphasizes social structures, power relations, social stratification, social norms, and the influence of social factors on individual and group behavior. Social theory is a broader term that encompasses theories from various disciplines, while sociological theory specifically refers to theories developed within sociology that focus on understanding social phenomena and processes. 

Overview: What Is Social Theory?

Prepare to challenge conventional wisdom and perceive the world through a fresh lens as social theory invites you to question the status quo, interrogate assumptions, and envision alternative futures. By engaging with social theory, you can embark on an enlightening journey that not only deepens your understanding of society, but empowers you to try to make a tangible impact on the world.


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