The metatheoretical framework the author introduces in this chapter is useful not only for navigating classical sociological theory, but also for thinking about virtually any social issue.

What is Sociological Theory?

Credits, references, bibliography, and translations

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Creating Sociological Theory

  • Everyone creates theories to help them make sense of what they experience.
    • Common-sense theories
    • Tend to be less systematic
  • Sociological theories: specifically and systematically developed
    • Typically built on the theories and ideas of previous sociologists.
    • Built on scientific research (desire to share–publish-ongoing dialogue)
    • Focused on structural relationships (individual in society, human being as social being), rather than “personal experiences.”
    • Personal concerns directed toward understanding social issues.
  • Quiz 1

Defining Sociological Theory

“Sociological theory is defined…as a set of interrelated ideas that allow for the systematization of knowledge of the social world.  This knowledge is then used to explain the social world and make predictions about the future of the social world.”(2)

  • Not all theories necessarily conform to this definition.
  • Knowledge versus prediction
  • Not only sociologists create sociological (social) theory.
  • Test of time and applicability

Origins of Sociology

  • Enlightenment: Individualism and Rationality
    • Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire (natural rights, progress)
    • Anti-Enlightenment: de Bonald, de Maistre–stability and longevity of the “old order” ordained by God. Relevance of the irrational: tradition, religion, emotion.
  • Rise of Science: Empiricism, Prediction- Power and Control (yet anti-scientific currents).
  • Industrial Revolution (see also and visit wikipedia). Rise of the bureaucracy.
  • Political change–revolutions and socialism (pro and con).
  • Religious Change (see also: wikipedia). Reform, religious backgrounds, and morality.
  • Urbanization and the question of Community: emergence of social (urban) problems.
  • Evolutionary theories and the idea of Progress

Basic Questions

  • The question of “social order.” (patterns and predictability) (Domain Assumptions)
    • What is “society?” An organic whole or the sum of individual parts.
    • What is the individual–and how does the group affect behavior (belief, attitudes, and values).
    • What is the relationship between the individual and the group? How is social life possible?
  • The question of “action.” (source of motivation)
    • Rational: self-interest. Maximize rewards and minimize cost. Calculation.
    • Non-Rational: values, morals, tradition and norms. Meaning. Unconscious desires and/or emotions.

The Sociological Tradition: Sociological Theory

  • Claude Henri Saint-Simon (see also)1760-1825: positivism and socialism
  • Alexis de Tocqueville 1805-1859: freedom versus equality (individualism). Critique of democracy and centralization. “Democracy in America” (1835)
  • Auguste Comte 1798-1857 (On the Positivistic Approach to Society). Idealism, evolutionary theory, reform, empiricism, and positivism: discover universal laws of society.
  • Harriet Martineau 1802-1876 (see also)
  • Herbert Spencer 1820-1903 (The Nature of Society) (The Scope of Sociology) (Survival of the Fittest)

Two Theoretical Orientations: Grand Theories and Theories of Everyday Life

Grand theories (for example: the work of Karl Marxand Max Weber) are attempts to deal with society as a whole–to explain the structure of the system and the processes of change that produce what we call, human history.

Theories of everyday life focus on, sometimes mundane, human behavior in an attempt to explain individual action and interaction between individuals; as well as beliefs, attitudes, and values within the context of groups and the broader social system.

Towards a More Realistic Sociological Theory

  • Many contemporary (and not so contemporary) sociologists critique the “classic” sociological theories of old (and often dead) while males. 
  • There is a concern with the political factors that influence and the emergence, development, and hegemony of particular theoretical orientations.
  • For example: the politically conservative structural functionalist theory has dominated sociology (as compared to critical or Marxist theory).
  • Who decides what type or style of theory is appropriate or acceptable?

Multicultural Social Theory

  • A focus on diversity: feminism, queer theory, Afrocentric theory, and Native-American theory.
  • A historical example, W.E.B. DuBois(1868-1963) (see below).
  • Multicultural social theory rejects universalism, supports the struggle of impoverished and disenfranchised populations. It is also self-critical and appreciates the importance of context: temporal, spatial, and social.

Post-structuralism, post-modernism, and critical theory (chart).

ANNOTATED WEBLINKS from the text/instructor’s manual (see below)

WWW Virtual Library: Sociological Theory: (This virtual library contains links to introductory articles and other resources on sociological theory from classical to postmodern)

SocioSite: Sociological Theories and Perspectives: (This site provides many links to resources on every imaginable theoretical perspective in sociology.)

A Biographical Sketch of W.E.B. Du Bois: (This is a somewhat lengthy biographical sketch of Du Bois.  It provides insight into his life and intellectual work, as well as a bibliography of primary and secondary sources.) See also: DuBois and the online version of: The Souls of Black Folks, 1903.

Read the biographical sketch of W.E.B. Du Bois and answer the following questions.

  1. Where and when was Du Bois born?
  2. What is the title of Du Bois’s doctoral thesis?
  3. Why did Du Bois oppose Booker T. Washington?
  4. Where did Du Bois die?

The Feminist Theory Website: (The Feminist Theory Website provides research materials and information for students, activists, and scholars interested in women’s conditions and struggles around the world.  It contains information on different fields of feminist theory, different ethnic/national feminisms, and many individual feminists).


  1. An Estonian translation,, by Martin Aus, May 2018.

Credits, references, and bibliography

1. Much of this page comes from the “Instructor’s Manual” to accompany Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics, Second Edition, George Ritzer, Mcgraw-Hill, 2007. The Instructor’s Manual was prepared by James Murphy, University of Maryland, College Park and Todd Stillman, Fayetteville State University.
2. Ritzer, George. 2007/2010/2013. Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics. 2nd/3rd/4th editions. St. Louis: McGraw-Hill Page 5.
3. A Georgian translation: by Ana Mirilasvili, March 2018.

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