Major Sociological Theories

A List of Sociological Theories And Frameworks

Much of what we know about societies, relationships, and social behavior has emerged thanks to various sociology theories. Sociology students typically spend a great deal of time studying these different theories. Some theories have fallen out of favor, while others remain widely accepted, but all have contributed tremendously to our understanding of society, relationships, and social behavior. By learning more about these theories, you can gain a deeper and richer understanding of sociology's past, present, and future.

Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

Friends BBQ
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The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a major framework of sociological theory. This perspective focuses on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction. More »

class conflict
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Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources. More »

Emile Durkheim
The functionalist perspective originated from the works of French socialist philosopher and professor Emile Durkheim. Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images

The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible and how society remains relatively stable. More »

Women's March Washington D.C.
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Feminist theory is one of the major contemporary sociological theories, which analyzes the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to better women's lives. Feminist theory is most concerned with giving a voice to women and highlighting the various ways women have contributed to society. More »

Banksy's Dismaland evokes the aspect of critical theory that suggests that amusement and entertainment are key facets of domination.
A steward is seen outside Banksy's 'Dismaland' exhibition, at a derelict seafront lido on August 20, 2015 in Weston-Super-Mare, England. Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Critical Theory is a type of theory that aims to critique society, social structures, and systems of power, and to foster egalitarian social change. More »

Man in handcuffs
Labeling theory suggests that a person becomes a criminal when the system labels them and treats them as such. Chris Ryan/Getty Images

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and criminal behavior. It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. More »

shoplifting
Deviant and criminal behavior, like shoplifting, is believed to be socially learned behavior, according to social learning theory. Westend61/Getty Images

Social learning theory is a theory that attempts to explain socialization and its effect on the development of the self. It looks at the individual learning process, the formation of self, and the influence of society in socializing individuals. Social learning theory is commonly used by sociologists to explain deviance and crime. More »

breaking into car
A man breaks into a car, demonstrating how deviant behavior and crime can result from structural strain. Westend61/Getty Images

Robert K. Merton developed structural strain theory as an extension of the functionalist perspective on deviance. This theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals. More »

couple at restaurant
According to rational choice theory, people make individualistic and calculated decisions about all things, even their love lives. Martin Barraud/Getty Images

Economics plays a huge role in human behavior. That is, people are often motivated by money and the possibility of making a profit, calculating the likely costs and benefits of any action before deciding what to do. This way of thinking is called rational choice theory. More »

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Playing chess
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Game theory is a theory of social interaction, which attempts to explain the interaction people have with one another. As the name of the theory suggests, game theory sees human interaction as just that: a game. More »

Meerkats
Sociobiology theory maintains that some social differences are actually rooted in biological differences. kristianbell / Getty Images

Sociobiology is the application of evolutionary theory to social behavior. It is based on the premise that some behaviors are at least partly inherited and can be affected by natural selection. More »

moving day
Friends volunteer their time to help another move into a new house, illustrating social exchange theory. Yellow Dog Productions / Getty Images

Social exchange theory interprets society as a series of interactions that are based on estimates of rewards and punishments. According to this view, our interactions are determined by the rewards or punishments that we receive from others, and all human relationships are formed by the use of a subjective cost-benefit analysis. More »

crowded street
A crowded yet functioning city street demonstrates chaos theory. Takahiro Yamamoto / Getty Images

Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, however, it has applications in several disciplines, including sociology and other social sciences. In the social sciences, chaos theory is the study of complex nonlinear systems of social complexity. It is not about disorder, but rather is about very complicated systems of order. More »

Friends talking
Social phenomenology theory maintains that people create their reality together through conversation and action. Paul Bradbury / Getty Images

Social phenomenology is an approach within the field of sociology that aims to reveal what role human awareness plays in the production of social action, social situations, and social worlds. In essence, phenomenology is the belief that society is a human construction. More »

man sleeping in restaurant
An elderly man sleeps in the booth of a cafe, Juarez, Mexico, late 1980s. Mark Goebel/Getty Images

Disengagement theory, which has many critics, suggests that people slowly disengage from social life as they age and enter the elderly stage. More »

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Crossman, Ashley. "Major Sociological Theories." ThoughtCo, Aug. 11, 2017, thoughtco.com/sociology-research-and-statistics-s2-3026650. Crossman, Ashley. (2017, August 11). Major Sociological Theories. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-research-and-statistics-s2-3026650 Crossman, Ashley. "Major Sociological Theories." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sociology-research-and-statistics-s2-3026650 (accessed October 23, 2017).