This course in the sociology and anthropology curriculum is often called "theory" but is often taught as intellectual history. The conventional approach sets up some conflict or contest between "schools of thought" anchored by individual thinkers who lived in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. If there is time, courses repeat this logic for mid and late 20th century thinkers. The story line in these courses is usually "theory" X vs. "theory" Y. The most common story in sociology is "symbolic interactionism" vs. "structural-functionalism." In anthropology you might get functionalism vs. structuralism vs. cultural materialism.

Now it is somewhat useful, if you are going to BE a sociologist or anthropologist to know what these "theories" or schools of thought are - that is, what the term refers to. And it's useful to know whose name is associated with with one and what classic titles are associated with them.

But learning theory in this way is also useful as a part of a liberal arts education because the theorists are all smart people who were trying to make sense of modernity, they were a part of a conversation at the turn of the 20th century about whether the modern world of industrial capitalism and European empire and mechanized urban life was in fact an "end of civilization as we know it" moment. There were really significant changes in the world between, say, 1850 and 1950 and the people who were living through them spent a lot of time trying to figure out what was going on and to counter one another's claims about what was going on. Grappling with their ideas is useful for two reasons. For one, the changes they were experiencing are changes that set up the world as we know it. The other reason is because we are living in a world in which THAT foundational world is undergoing profound changes so we have a lot to learn from the successes and failures of those who struggled to understand the last great transformation.

But, "what is theory?" Based on the above, it might be something like "a way of looking at some social phenomenon that can be abstracted and used to look at other phenomena."

But if you look more closely at the "parade of theorists" approach to teaching theory you will find a second version of what theory is. If we speak of "Durkheim's theory of solidarity" we would be talking about Durkheim's explanation of what holds societies together, and how modernity does not mean societies will fall apart because there has been a transformation in what hold them together.

[insert closer look at that theory and how it shows the "parts" of a theory]

What about Weber's "theory of bureaucracy"?

[insert closer look at what sorts of work this stuff does]

And by contrast his "Protestant Ethic".

[insert closer look at what sorts of work this stuff does]

So, sometimes a theory is an explanation of why something happened the way it did. Sometimes it is an explanation of why something did not happen. In both cases, the theories suggest a mechanism, a step of steps of causes and effects. This is what we will mean by the strongest sense of the word theory.

If you observe that members of group X do better at activity Z than members of group Y, what do you think?

You might think, why? What causes that? Or what's going on? What is the logic underlying your pondering? One piece of it is that this probably does not happen by accident. What does that mean? Are you saying "there must be a reason for this pattern"? Something must be causing it?

What if there is some characteristic or trait, W, that makes one better at activity Z? What if Xs have, on average, more W than Ys? What if W is "living near a river"? [more]

  • Ryan bio: computer science less complex than sociology
  1. Theory as explanation.
    1. Causal relations
    2. Causal mechanisms
  2. Individuals - micro - actions
  3. Aggregate - macro - effects
  4. Criteria for better theories: empirical implications
    1. Thinking Tool: if this theory is correct, what else should we expect to see?
    2. Thinking Tool: how much of the observed pattern does this theory explain?

Micro - Macro Exercises

Find the micro/macro.

  • People at ballpark move to better seats.
  • Drivers steal a glance at an accident site.
  • Student shows up in class without having done reading seriously.
  • Unemployment rate.
  • Public opinion.


Observation: SoCal proliferation of matching bike tog outfits.
Observation: Olympic athletes really attractive

A Note on Simplification

In the social sciences, we usually do not care about your grandmother. She is an exception. That's why you have that really awesome anecdote about her. We are, instead, interested in grandmothers, senior citizens, the elderly.

We look at a flock and try to ascertain its overall direction. We look at groups and try to fathom the predominant motivations among their members.

More fine grained theories allow us to break things down further and further but a social theory is never going to tell you why you did it or, more to the point, we cannot predict what you will do in a particular situation.


Terms, Concepts, Vocabulary

situational mechanism
behavioral mechanism
transformational mechanism