Home » SOC 101 Lecture 2 (URock): Theory, Paradigms and Places

SOC 101 Lecture 2 (URock): Theory, Paradigms and Places


Welcome to our second online lecture in the Spring 2015 Introduction to Sociology course at the University of Maine at Augusta.  This week, we are considering the nature of “theory” in sociology.  “Theory” is an interesting word, having been derived from the ancient Greek word theoria, which itself referred to a way of looking at, viewing or seeing.  It is any wonder that your reading for this week, Chapter 1 of Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself, spend so much time talking about the sociological imagination?  After all, imagination is itself a word that refers to a way of seeing, of creating an internal mental image of an external mental reality.

Vision is seemingly everywhere in the subject matter of Chapter 1. Lurking behind the scenes of Chapter 1 but not explicitly mentioned is the word “paradigm,” which is itself derived from the ancient Greek word paradeiknynai, meaning to represent or exhibit. A paradigm is a grand variety of theory, indeed a theory for building other theories! In this online lecture, we’ll focus on the three biggest paradigms in 20th-century sociology and discuss the ways in which a paradigm does for sociology what the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook does for your kitchen. We’ll take a brief sneak peak at one more paradigm, the biggest paradigm of 21st-century sociology that isn’t in your textbook. We’ll consider how we might see Maine through the lens of sociological paradigms. Finally, we’ll zoom up from Maine to the entire United States of America — does your personal vision allow you to accurately predict political differences at a national scale?

From Paradigms to Theory

In your textbook, You May Ask Yourself, author Dalton Conley avoids the use of the p-word: paradigm.  That’s a shame, because thinking about paradigms helps us understand the progression from general thought to specific prediction that occurs within sociology.

A sociological theory is a story about the world around us that, if told well, leads directly to a hypothesis (a prediction about how societies work).  A sociologist may develop a theory about any subject involving social behavior: a theory of families, or a theory of voting, or a theory of sexual behavior, or a theory of political protest, for example.  You can find tests of these theories every other month in the American Sociological Review.

Paradigms are subtly but importantly different from theories that try to predict social behavior in a particular context.  A paradigm involves a general overarching image of society that describes the way a society is organized.  A paradigm describes the sort of social behavior that is meant to be explained, and helps guide a sociologist into asking particular kinds of questions.  A paradigm is a guidebook for how to build a theory.

That may sound abstract, so please bear with me while I use an analogy.  Have you ever opened the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook?  The chances are good that you, your parents, or your grandparents have owned a copy.  When you open that cookbook, you’ll see a series of tabs: Meats, Breads, Cakes, Cookies, and so on.  The tab doesn’t itself tell you how to make any particular kind of food.  Still, each tab directs a cook to a particular kind of recipe for preparing a different kind of food.  The sections of the book marked off by tabs contain recipes that hold much in common.

The Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook: a Metaphor for Paradigms in Sociology

Think about “cookies,” for instance.  The idea of cookie is a paradigm, because within the cookie paradigm there are certain consistent elements you’ll always find in a recipe.  They are:

* A cookie is baked in an oven.

* Unless you’re making a weird cookie, there will be eggs, sugar, butter, flour, salt, and either baking soda or baking powder.

* A cookie is to be eaten after dinner or as a snack, not as a main course.

The fine details of any particular cookie recipe may vary, but 90% of the time, a cookie will contain the above elements.  The meats tab will have different recipes with different common elements.  So will the breads tab.  A recipe is a particular theory of a particular kind of cookie.  A cookbook tab organizes recipes according to particular common elements that will almost always be there.

So it works in sociology.  We have many particular theories that we use in our research, but many of them can be classified into one of three paradigms.  Each of these paradigms tells us how to build a particular kind of theory, just like each section of a cookbook tells us how to build a particular kind of recipe.

Drawing inspiration from the shorthand measures inside the cover of my favorite cookbook, here’s a shorthand guide to understanding the differences between the major sociological paradigms (see also Conley’s description in Chapter 1):

Paradigm Level of Analysis General Overarching Image of Society What is to be Studied? What Kind of Questions are Appropriate?
Functionalism Macro A society is like a body made of organs (called institutions) that must work together to support the health and stability of the whole (aka organicism) Institutions (regularized, interdependent relations and behaviors) that are Functional (contributing to social stability and health) or Dysfunctional (leading to social instability and social ills) What are the most influential social institutions in any society?  How do they interact with and affect one another?  How does each institution make a society healthy when it works as it should?
Conflict Macro Society is riven with conflict between sets of people occupying the same position, with competing interests, battling for scarce resources, with the result determined by power Social positions with different interests.  Differences in resources and power.  Inequality in outcomes. Where does power come from?  What are the kinds of positions between which inequality exists?  How is inequality maintained or changed?
Symbolic Interactionism Micro Society is a set of interactions between people that lead to the development of values, beliefs, and expectations for behavior as people develop symbols to communicate meaning. Roles, norms, symbols, meanings and cultures How do people create and sustain meaning in interaction?  How are people socialized into a culture with certain symbols, values, beliefs and practices?  How do expectations change as social context changes?
Social Network Analysis Micro to Meso A society is like a fisherman’s net, containing an overlapping web of human relations Group membership, contagion of disease, diffusion of innovation, patterns of exclusion Between which individuals are ties most and least likely to form?  How do ties lead to groups?  How does position in a network affect the social experience of the individual and the group?

The Sociological Paradigm that Isn’t in your Textbook

Functionalism? Check. Conflict? Check. Symbolic Interactionism? Check. Social Network Analysis?

Wait a minute… social network analysis isn’t in your textbook!  Too right, and that’s a problem.

The first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook you’re reading this week is not very different from the first chapter of the Introduction to Sociology textbook I read as an undergraduate student in the 1980s.   This is not unusual.  In introductory textbook after introductory textbook, there’s a script to follow in the first Chapter: a nod to Marx, Weber and Durkheim.  A sniff at Comte comes next, with an appreciation for lending a name to sociology but disdain for his scientific approach. An identification of historically unrecognized founders such as Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois follows. Then there’s a reference to C. Wright Mills and the “sociological imagination” before the big finish: an identification of the “Big Three” paradigms of sociology. These are without variation identified as functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory.  In this part of your textbook, you’re reading from a standard script.

When I made the transition to graduate school and started reading and listening to professional sociologists, I noticed immediately that the phrases “functionalism,” “symbolic interactionism” and “conflict theory” were not being used in journal articles, conferences, colloquia or seminars.  When I asked my graduate advisors whether they considered themselves to be functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists, they’d raise their eyebrows and say, “well, really I’m not any of those things.” It’s not as though functionalists, symbolic interactionists or conflict theorists never existed. Rather, these divisions were identified in the middle of the 20th Century as a handy way of summarizing sociology as it was organized then, way back then. Since then, sociology has moved on in its development, drawing from but often improvising beyond the Big Three.  Despite the fact that sociologists have largely moved on from these conceptual categories in their work, there seems to be a reluctance upon the part of textbook publishers to let go of the Big Three.

Some change has been creeping in. Perhaps the largest innovation over the last quarter century has been to occasionally add reference to postmodernism as an alternative fourth paradigm, as Dalton Conley’s You May Ask Yourself does. Unlike the other three terms, the term “postmodernism” does make a major appearance in modern scholarship, as the following graph showing the occurrence of the paradigmatic phrases in the Google Scholar database of publications shows:

Occurrence of the Phrases Postmodernism, Conflict Theory, Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism in the Google Scholar database from 2000 to 2013

The presence of “postmodernism” in Google Scholar search results should perhaps not be taken as an indication of the presence of “postmodernism” in the sociological literature, since postmodernism is an intellectual movement reaching far into the humanities. Similarly, the relative presence of “functionalism” may be overstated in this graph since functionalism also describes an intellectual movement in architecture and linguistics. Still, the presence of postmodernism appears considerable, and possibly explains the movement’s new inclusion in sociology texts.

Bringing the Networks In

I’d like to make a case for bringing the study of social networks into the mix of paradigms in an Introduction to Sociology course. Social network analysis is a field centered in sociology that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the three classic 20th Century paradigms identified in introductory textbooks. It isn’t a macro paradigm like the conflict paradigm or functionalism (although work related to it has macrosocial implications), and while it deals with the nature of interaction social network analysis largely avoids the study of psychological symbols, expectations and meanings that is of central importance to symbolic interactionism. Instead, social network analysis draws from graph theory, matrix algebra and theories about groups to focus on the structure of communication and affiliation outside the individual, primarily at a micro- to meso-social level.

That’s a highfaultin’ paragraph I just wrote.  Don’t worry if you don’t understand social networks yet; we’ll spend a whole semester on them.  But in the meantime, let me boil the essence of the paradigm down for you in simpler language.  Social network analysis contends that almost anything of importance can be boiled down to some pattern of only two kinds of objects:

1. Things that relate to one another, called nodes.  These are usually represented as circles.

2. Relations, called ties.  These are usually represented as lines.

Social networks are very simple at the root of it:

Simple social network

But that incredibly simple foundation can depict very complex social systems:

Complicated Global Network

That’s the beauty of social network analysis, and that’s why social network analysis has become so popular within sociology.

The main contention of social network analysis — that patterns of relations more than their content have consequences for individuals, groups and societies — involves a strong and distinct image of society that creates a basis for the creation of social theory. That’s what a paradigm is. The distinctiveness and conceptual clarity of network analysis gives it the potential to stand alongside but in contrast to symbolic interactionism, conflict theory, functionalism and postmodernism in an introduction to sociology text.

The case for social network analysis as a paradigm worth inclusion is bolstered by pure volume. Let’s add Google Scholar counts for “social network analysis,” a movement in sociological study that is largely left out of introductory sociology textbooks. In contrast to “postmodernism” and “functionalism,” the phrase “social network analysis” leads to a restrictive search, leaving out “social networks” references that don’t contain analysis and “network analysis” references that don’t feature the modifier “social.” The phrase “social network analysis” pretty much guarantees that results will fall within the social sciences and probably underestimates the actual volume of scholarship on the subject. These limitations create a so-called conservative test of the presence of social network sociology among other brands of sociology. Here are the results with “social network analysis” added in:

Occurrence of Paradigmatic Phrases, including "Social Network Analysis," in Google Scholar Database from 2000 to 2013

At the turn of the 21st Century the relative presence of “social network analysis” was nothing remarkable, but for the past six years “social network analysis” has outperformed the three classic sociological paradigmatic phrases by an increasingly large margin, even when restrictively phrased. In the year 2013, “social network analysis” outperformed “postmodernism” for the first time.

Google Scholar is a very handy (and widely replicable) way of assessing the volume of scholarship for a subject, but the tool cannot easily filter by discipline. On the other hand, the University of Maine at Augusta Library’s physical and online collection of books and journals is more limited in breadth than Google Scholar’s database in contents but allows results to be filtered by discipline.

Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...
Social Science Publications in the UMA Library Collection Published since 2000 Featuring these Phrases...

As you can see, these results indicate the same pattern: since the year 2000, new publications in the social sciences mentioning social network analysis have strongly surpassed publications mentioning the three classic paradigms, approaching the number of publications in the social sciences for “postmodernism.” Last year, the number of new publications for “social network analysis” in the university collection surpassed those for “postmodernism” as well.

There are a number of audacious social facts in the network paradigm worth sharing.  We’ll make up for what your textbook is missing by discussing them in detail later this semester.

Seeing Maine through Paradigms

I know that it can take a bit of time and practice to learn to think in terms of different sociological paradigms.  To get a better feel for sociological paradigms as they apply closer to home, I’d like you to review the following video, which uses three perspectives suggested by sociological paradigms in order to understand the Maine towns of Belfast, Winterport, and Belfast.

Can You See Clearly? Test Yourself

One of the core contentions of the first lecture in SOC 101 is that you shouldn’t necessarily trust your own gut feelings about what is common sense, real or true.  Let’s test that notion by zooming out from the state of Maine to the United States as a whole.  Not too long ago, the elections of 2014 brought us an entirely new 114th Congress for the term of 2015-2016.  Some of the 435 districts of the U.S. House of Representatives are represented by Republican members of Congress; other districts are represented by Democratic members of Congress.  Do you think there are differences between Republican-represented districts and Democratic-represented districts?  Take the brief, anonymous poll embedded below to share your guesses.  There are just six questions, and they’re simple to answer — if you think you know America:

Once you have finished answering the questions… and only then… click here to find the actual results.

How did you do?

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