Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

1. Basics

1.5 Theory
1.5.1 Introduction
1.5.2 Levels of theorising Specific theories General theories Resarch traditions No simple categorisation of theories and methods

Activity 1.5.1
Activity 1.5.2
Activity 1.5.3

1.5.1 Introduction
Evidence only makes sense if we have theories to help deal with the data. So, even the question, 'what does the social world look like?' involves more than simply collecting unconnected bits of data.

It is not uncommon for students to bemoan 'theory'. It is somehow seen as separate from practice or even 'reality'. It is often seen as hard to understand and students feel they just have to learn theory—not use it!

For example, classical social theory, such as Emile Durkheim's theory of anomie, Karl Marx's theory of alienation and of relations of production and Max Weber's ideal types and theories of leadership, are often considered difficult and disconnected from our everyday experience of the world. In practice they are not complex or difficult theories and in the original or amended form are frequently used to explain our social world.

Often, the problem comes when students read what other writers have had to say about the works of the classical sociologist, which more often than not are much more complex and harder to follow than reading the (translations) of the originals.

We all use theory all the time. We often don't think about it; theory is often taken for granted. We turn on a hairdryer, it works and dries our hair. We don't think about the electrical theory driving the motor, the reason why warm air dries our hair faster, and so on. As soon as it stops working, though, we invoke theory, at least at a superficial level. Is it because the plug has come out, the fuse 'blown', the appliance has 'overheated' or has the motor given up? If we catch a cold we usually 'theorise' that it is because we have been in contact with someone else with a cold or because the weather has changed, or because we are 'run down'.

Social theory is essential for understanding the social world. We can do it by reading about the theories that others have developed (although it isn't always clear how or why they developed them). However, it is easier to understand social theory when undertaking research because there is a connection to a real problem: a real issue of concern that you are trying to get to the bottom of.

The other important aspect of doing social research is that it gives you more confidence in critiquing different theories about a phenomenon. Although there are well-established theories, which are worth noting and being aware of, they aren't necessarily correct and maybe inadequate to explain or help you understand a new situation.

Sociology is the study of society and if you want to understand society then it is important that you develop theories about how society works. In sociology, a theory is a notion about aspects of the social world. Theories answer questions such as:

  • Why do we have poverty?
  • What purpose does racial prejudice serve?
  • How do some people become criminals?
  • Why are women rarely in positions of power?
  • Why are some families dysfunctional?
  • Does violence on television lead to violence in reality?

All of these are theoretical questions.

Activity 1.5.1
Write down three other questions relating to the social world about which you could theorise. Compare your answers with those with other members of your tutor group.
This activity involves thinking theoretically.
As a class activity this would take about 15 minutes in small groups with a short 5-minute feedback session.


1.5.2 Levels of theorising
'Theory' is an all-encompassing term that covers a variety of levels of theorising, including:

  • specific theories;
  • general theories of social action;
  • broader sociological research traditions. Specific theories
A theory can be very specific, dealing with a limited aspect of sociology, such as a sociological theory of deviant behaviour. For example, Howard Becker, (1963) theorised that the ways in which people attach negative labels to people who contravene conventional behaviour may lead to further deviant behaviour on the part of those so labelled: this is known as labelling theory.

Activity 1.5.2
Why do you think someone labelled as deviant would be likely to embrace further deviant behaviour? Look up Becker's labelling theory and see if your view agrees with his.
This activity involves individual reflection and then library/internet search for appropriate reference.
As an individual activity this would take 15 minutes for the first part and probably 10 minutes to locate the text on the Internet or, if in a library, also about 10 minutes.
Making the comparison of the student views with Becker's published views would take about half an hour once the source material is obtained.

Top General theories
A sociological theory can also be wider, attempting to cover all social activity. This is usually known as a sociological perspective.

For example, functionalism proposes that a stable society results from agreement about norms, that is, acceptable ways of behaving.This perspective also assumes that there is agreement about what is important in a society. For example, the work of Emile Durkheim reveals a concern for social order. Durkheim thinks of society much as a human body in which all the separate parts, the heart, the lungs, the liver, and so on need to work well in order for an individual to be healthy. In the same way, a healthy society requires individuals to work together for the good of society as a whole. This is often referred to as an organic view of society. An alternative view, found in various conflict perspectives, challenge the idea that society is characterised by consensus. According to these conflict perspectives, society is characterised by various structural inequalities such as wealth, gender and 'race', which make consensus impossible.

Top Research traditions
At a third level are broad research traditions. These are more than particular theories about the nature of society and represent a way of seeing the world. They raise fundamental issues about the nature of the social world, what the purpose of sociology and other health and social sciences are, what constitutes appropriate evidence and how one creates and validates theory.

Traditions combine the ways in which researchers define their subject matter (ontological assumptions), with theories about what constitutes social scientific knowledge (epistemological assumptions). See Section 1.6.

Research traditions are sometimes referred to by invoking a key advocate of the tradition, such as, Marxist or Weberian sociology. Alternatively they may be identified as an '-ism' such as feminism, realism, marxism, postmodernism [Note that marxism is a generic term for all theories that draw on Marx's work, whereas Marxist (or sometimes Marxian) refers specifically to Marx's own approach. Also, note that not all '-isms' are sociological traditions, functionalism and interactionism, for example are general theories of social action].

In other cases, epistemological perspectives are used to identify research traditions, in particular, positivism, phenomenology and critical social research. This is the approach used to structure the chapters in this Guide.

Within each research tradition it is possible to identify a variety of sociological perspectives (or general sociological orientations as they are also known). Each of these involves a general theory of society or of social processes. Each sociological perspective develops particular theories about specific areas of sociology. These theories are investigated using particular methods.

For example, reinforcement theory of the media depends on the general perspective known as behaviourism, which involves a positivist approach that assumes the mass media reinforces behaviour and that experiments provide a method for investigating this.

Activity 1.5.3
From the following list of items, identify three each of the following: research traditions, sociological perspectives; sociological theories; social research methods:
functionalism, labelling theory, positivism, structuralism, in-depth interviewing, critical social research, participant observation, phenomenology, race relations cycle, sociobiology, experiments, the Protestant ethic.

This activity involves individual reflection on the material so far plus a little extrapolation, which may require looking up some of the terms. As an individual activity would take 5–15 minutes.

Top No simple categorisation of theories and methods
It is important to note, however, that sociological theories cannot be fitted neatly into a set of pigeon holes. Sociology is far too varied and dynamic for any way of classifying it to be universally agreed or to have long-term validity. What we offer here is a way of organising sociology that works from the point of view of researching the real world.

The Guide takes the central epistemological feature (cause, meaning or critique) as the basis for organising our overview of sociology. Into this, various perspectives and particular theories can be located, depending on whether they are primarily concerned with causal explanations or subjects? meanings or structural analysis. This is discussed further in Section 1.6 .


Next 1.6 Ontology and epistemology