Theories and Methods

If you inherently believe that society is good, you will seek the positive aspects when studying society. If you inherently believe that society is bad, you are more likely to find the negative aspects wherever you look.

Theories and Methods Theories and Methods

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Table of contents

    Believe it or not, such fundamental beliefs often inform how sociologists go about their study of society and how they create theories.

    This article will give an overview of theories and methods, which is a key topic in sociology. A theory in sociology aims to explain social phenomena, societal structures, and why and how these are the way they are.

    • First, we will introduce the topic of theory and methods in sociology.
    • We will go over the three main paradigms in sociology.
    • Lastly, we will introduce the topic of research methods in sociology and outline the subtopics.

    Let's get started.

    Theory and methods in sociology

    Throughout history, there have been numerous theories offering explanations for social phenomena. To understand them, we must first understand the paradigms in which they exist.

    The paradigms in sociology are broad sets of beliefs and perspectives on the way things are. They seek to describe and explain human behaviour and society in the context of sociological theory. It is widely accepted that these are the main overarching paradigms in sociology.

    Structural-functionalist paradigm

    The structural-functionalist paradigm views society as largely stable and harmonious. A key sociological theory in this paradigm is functionalism, which sees society as operating on a shared consensus of norms and values.

    Functionalism states that through individuals' and institutions' roles and contributions, society can maintain social solidarity. Functionalism looks at macro, large-scale societal structures and processes.

    Conflict paradigm

    The conflict paradigm views society as unequal. It focuses on the types of inequalities resulting from social differences between a 'dominant' group and minority groups. The conflict paradigm considers societal structures and how they perpetuate racism, sexism, and social class inequalities.

    Societal structures are created and upheld to maintain such inequalities at the expense of minority groups. The conflict paradigm also looks at macro, large-scale societal structures and processes. Examples of specific conflict theory approaches include the following:

    • Marxism: inequalities between the bourgeoisie (ruling capitalist class) and proletariat (the working class).
    • Feminism: inequalities between men and women.

    Briefly, let's consider the theories of Marxism and feminism.

    Marxism: theory and methods in sociology

    Marxist theory discusses the impact of the capitalist structure on all aspects of society, including:

    • education
    • family
    • crime
    • religion
    • the media
    • stratification
    • and of course, labour!

    In addition, Marxists do not trust information and data collected by institutions belonging to the bourgeoisie, as it is designed to uphold the capitalist structure. Therefore, Marxists do not trust official statistics collected by the government, as the government is part of the bourgeoisie.

    Feminism: theory and methods in sociology

    Feminist theory discusses the impact of the patriarchy on all aspects of society, including:

    Feminists often claim that not all research methods are reliable, as many studies and experiments have been carried out by men and with male subjects. As such, sociologists should ensure that they have conducted research methods in a representative manner.

    Symbolic interactionist paradigm

    The symbolic interactionist paradigm views society as made up of the interactions between individuals in small groups. Unlike the structural-functionalist and conflict paradigms, this paradigm looks at micro, small-scale processes and systems, especially how humans interact with each other.

    A key sociological theory within this paradigm is interactionism. The paradigm states that the way we interact with others is due to the meanings given to cultural symbols. Cultural symbols exist in language, media, education, stereotypes, and belief systems. Symbolic interactionists are interested in how individuals interpret these cultural symbols and how they impact our interactions with each other.

    Social action theory is also a key theory. It sees society as a construction of interactions and meanings produced by its members. The theory states that social behaviour should be considered through its 'level of cause' and 'level of meaning'.


    Postmodernism is a sociological theory and intellectual movement that seeks to understand society beyond the traditional metanarratives.

    Difference between theory and method

    In sociology, you will be learning not only about which theories exist, but how data to form such theories is collected. As such, it is important to understand the what (theory) and the how (method). Consider the example below.

    A sociologist theorises that in private schools, children from upper social classes are treated better by teachers than children from lower social classes (e.g. those with scholarships to attend). However, the sociologist must provide some form of data that proves or disproves their theory.

    This is where their method(s) is/are relevant - how will they try to prove this?

    Whilst theory and methods are taught together, you should understand that they have their own 'halves'. However, both halves form together to create a sturdy understanding of sociology.

    Example: education with theory and methods

    Let's look at the relationship between theory and methods in a popular area of sociological study - education.

    Researchers examine the characteristics of their research population and sample; this gives them an understanding of how different groups might respond to being researched and how to conduct research in diverse settings. They study patterns, events and their development, within the context of education, and investigate people’s experiences of the education system.

    Within this, researchers must be aware of the different practical, theoretical, and ethical issues they might encounter when conducting research into education with methods in context, and how characteristics such as social class, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender intersect with each other.

    You will be studying this and more in 'education with methods in context'!

    Research methods in sociology

    The other 'half' of the topic of theories and methods is research methods. Research methods in sociology are used by sociologists to collect, analyse, and interpret data about society. A large variety of research methods are used depending on the type of research being conducted.

    Below are overviews of some concepts used to consider which research method (s) may be appropriate (for more detailed information on any of the following headings, please refer to Sociological Methods).

    Theories and Methods, Magnifying glass on city skyline, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Research methods help us understand humans and society.

    Types of data

    Below are some types of data collected by sociologists during social research.

    • Quantitative data is numerical data, such as statistics.
    • Qualitative data is descriptive data, such as interview answers or documentation.
    • Primary data is data collected first-hand by the researcher, such as creating a tailored survey and analysing the responses gathered.
    • Secondary data is data collected from another source of data, such as other researchers or the government. Examples include a meta-analysis or official government statistics.


    Positivism is the belief that sociologists should use quantitative research methods to study society and social phenomena. Positivists believe society shapes individuals, and exercises control over them with norms and values.

    Positivists believe that society has 'laws' and objective realities just like the natural sciences (such as the laws of physics). For this reason, positivism encourages the use of quantitative research methods to discover such 'laws'.


    Interpretivism is the belief that sociologists should use qualitative research methods to study society and social phenomena. Interpretivists believe individuals shape society and interact with their own perceptions of society. They do not believe that society has objective realities, as society is perceived differently by each complex individual.

    Interacting closely with individuals is important for interpretivism as this can help them understand people's motivations and actions at a deeper level. For this reason, interpretivism encourages the use of qualitative research methods.

    Research design

    Research design is the consideration of how to go about conducting research. Sociologists need research design to understand what they are trying to study and how they will study it. They first come up with a research question, form a hypothesis, and develop an operational definition.

    An operational definition helps the researcher to observe or measure the concept they are trying to study. This should be a reliable or standardised form of measurement.

    Research considerations

    Research considerations are an integral part of sociological research. Thought must be given to a variety of factors, including funding for the study, time taken to conduct the study (this is especially important in longitudinal studies, where researchers may have to wait years for results), research methods, and ethical issues (see Research Considerations for a deeper understanding of these issues).

    Theories and Methods, Colourful sticky notes on whiteboard, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Sociologists must take several factors into consideration before starting research.

    Values in research

    Sociologists must consider the impact of their own values in research. In particular, they should not allow their own opinions or beliefs to influence the research in any way. Some sociologists, such as positivists, consider objectivity as a priority for research to uncover societal 'laws'.

    Others, such as interpretivists, believe some subjectivity from the research subjects is necessary.

    However, it is widely accepted that sociologists, as researchers, should keep their own values and judgments out of the research and their subjects. They must simply conduct the research. Some values that may affect sociologists' research are:

    • Choice of topic.
    • Choice of research method.
    • Result analysis.

    Theories and Methods - Key takeaways

    • Theories in sociology aim to explain social phenomena, societal structures, and why they are the way they are.
    • Paradigms are broad perspectives within which sociological theories exist. The three main paradigms in sociology are the structural-functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist paradigms.
    • The structural-functionalist and conflict paradigms are concerned with macro, large-scale societal structures whereas the symbolic interactionist paradigm is more interested in micro, small-scale interactions between individuals.
    • Research methods are used by sociologists to collect, analyse, and interpret data about society. Researchers have to consider many factors before doing research, such as what they want to find out, what type of data they want to collect, and how they will collect it.
    • Research considerations must be thought through, including costs, time and ethical issues.
    Theories and Methods Theories and Methods
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Theories and Methods

    Is sociology a science in theory and methods?

    Sociology is a science according to some sociologists, who think that society has objective 'laws' just like the natural sciences. They claim such 'laws' should be discovered using positivist research methods. They are interested in patterns, correlations, and statistics. However, other sociologists, such as interpretivists, do not think sociology is a science. They believe that sociologists need to understand meanings and interactions, not patterns.

    What are sociological theories and methods?

    Sociological theories and method studies evaluate the various sociological theories which explain how society operates. The topic also studies research methods used by sociologists to collect data about society.

    What is the relationship between theory and method?

    The relationship between theory and method can be described in the following way: the theory proposes a fact, issue or explanation, and the method is a way to prove or disprove the theory.

    What are the research methods in sociology?

    In sociology, there are many types of research methods, including quantitative (e.g. experiments, official statistics) and qualitative (e.g. unstructured interviews, documents).

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Do researchers need to use existing literature?

    Are researchers subject to any research quality standards?

    The main reason for patriarchy is the capitalist structure, which requires the exploitation of women to maintain the capitalist agenda. This view is put forward by...


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