There are many questions about social theory.  This page is designed to give a summary of some significant social theories, offer some links and articles with more information and examples of the application of social theory and also an attempt to keep up with new trends in social theory. This page also offers an explanation about the nature of social theory.


Socio Site: This website has a good collection of sociological theory



Social Construction Theory

Social Construction Theory: What we know as real has gone through a social process to be defined as real.  What we know to be real is a direct result of how we have been socialized to accept its reality.

This is often a tough theory to get, and unfortunately it is the foundation for the much of what I talk about in class.  In essence, as we go through our daily lives, much of what we encounter as reality has already been pre-defined for us.  so much so that we take it for granted that what we are experiencing is "real." According to Social Construction Theory, however, the reality of a social phenomenon is contingent on the time and place in which it is being experienced. In other words, reality is historically and culturally specific.  For instance, if you were a slave in the Antebellum south you might be inclined to run away.  From a modern perspective, this makes sense.  But at that time, however, you would be suffering from drapetomania, a mental disorder that makes you want to run away from your master.  The treatment, of course, was frequent whipping, which tended to cure the slave of this condition.  If you see two people punching each other in the face, you might be inclined to call the police, or intervene.  Yet you would not even think of these options watching a boxing match. The setting constructs the reality, and reality is not immutable.  A good example is my father.  When something breaks down in my house, I throw it away. In my father's house, however, he saves it for parts.  Having been socialized during the Great Depression, the reality of the value of an item goes beyond its function.

The sociologist who uses social construction theory is interested in how we know about a particular social phenomenon.  She may also be interested in alternative ways of knowing something. For this reason, social construction theory is the basis of the sociology of knowledge.  It is a tool used to get behind the accepted realities and better understand the social facts. It is a potentially liberating theory when used in the critical and feminist tradition, as the realities we are socialized with are often limiting and controlling.  For instance, how women are socialized to accept the "reality" of their gender may lead them to accept gender inequality based on this constructed reality.  So an understanding of the historical and social characteristics of what it means to be a woman can help expand our understanding of womanhood.

However, social construction theory can also lead to nihilism.  If everything is a social construct, then it could be argued that nothing has meaning or substance. This is not the point of social construction theory, nor is it the aim. It is, however, a dangerous temptation into cynicism. 

Strain Theory

Strain Theory is a mainstay of sociological thought.  In a nutshell, the premise of strain theory is that all societies set goals for all of the participants of that society. But typically, societies only make the means of achieving those goals available to a certain fraction of social groups and individuals.  These socially accepted means, or legitimate means, of achieving socially desirable goals are entirely accessible to the elite class of the society, and relatively accessible to different social groups within the established hierarchy.  Marginalized groups within the society, however, have very limited access to the means of social achievement.  This creates strain among these groups.

In the United States, the socially accepted goals usually involve economic acquisition.  This is not true of all societies.  Some societies require adherence to religious belief, or desirable personal qualities, large families, etc.  But in the United States, economic acquisition is the goal.  Among the elite, this goal is easily achieved as wealth can be used to gain access to socializing institutions and cultural capital that virtually guarantees continued access to economic success.  For other groups, however, access to these institutions are restricted.  A young person living in the ghetto, or an impoverished rural community has little access to educational institutions, stable family and peer networks, economic opportunity structures, or other legitimate means to achieve success in the United States.

Such groups experience strain. According to functional/structural sociologists, this strain can explain deviance and crime among marginalized groups.  Those for whom the legitimate means of achieving societal goals are closed may access illegitimate means of achieving those goals. Therefore, the actions of a drug dealer, or a prostitute or a bank robber can be understood as the result of strain. 

Sociologist Robert Merton created an interesting typology to describe different aspects of strain on individuals.  He sorts individuals upon two continua: those who accept or do not accept the goals of society and those who accept or do not accept the means of achieving those goals.  This creates four categories of individuals. 

Those who accept the goals and the means are called conformists.  Conformists will pursue the legitimate means of achieving socially accepted goals.  Even if they do not have access to such means, they still recognize their legitimacy and make do the best they can.

Those who accept the goals, but not the means are called innovators.  Drug dealers and burglars can be described as innovators.  If the socially acceptable goal is the acquisition of wealth, but the means of doing so is not available, then innovation is required.  One could say that the goals of a drug dealer are exactly the same as the goals of a "legitimate" business man from this perspective. 

Those who reject the goals but accept the means of achievement as legitimate are called ritualists.  Such sad people simply carry on the routines of legitimate existence without the hope of ever really achieving the socially acceptable goals.  Look around your work place, or your school and you will find the ritualists.  They are reliable, but not exceptional.

Finally, those who reject both the goals and the means of achievement are referred to as retreatists.  Societies typically have very little room for retreatists. Such individuals usually end up homeless, or wards of the state.  There may be pockets of bohemian subcultures that reject the means and goals of the larger society, but are able to provide for themselves and establish status among their own social groups.  However, such groups are most likely more innovative than retreative.

Merton, however, found that he had to create a fifth category that was not a part of this neat package.  There are individuals who reject the goals and means of society, but do not retreat.  They, in fact, struggle to change the accepted goals and means of society.  Such individuals are called rebels.  Interestingly, rebels may very well be parts of the elite or fortunate classes among society. 

Strain Theory is a powerful tool for explaining deviance among the dispossessed.  However, deviance and crime is not exclusive to marginalized groups.  How can we explain the criminal actions of say Ken Lay or Martha Stewart who have access to the legitimate means of achieving societal goals, but yet chose to innovate for themselves. Strain theory does not offer an explanation for such behavior.

See Dr. Robert Agnew's explanation of Strain Theory and Crime

Ecological Systems Theory

Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis

Power/Knowledge (Governmentality)