Social theory is responsible for providing scholars and other stakeholders with the paradigms and frameworks that can be applied in the study of social phenomena. Through social theory, the developments and changes of societies can be studied and explained. Furthermore, the theory provides parameters that can be used to explain social behavior, political power, social structures, ethnic dynamics, civilizations, and ideal societies.
Social theory is often confined to sociological studies but it can also be applied to other disciplines such as political and economical studies. Initially, some fields of study such as political science, anthropology, and economics were part of social theory but they later became independent disciplines in the early twentieth century. The main origins of social theory cannot be attributed to a particular time or personality.
However, the theory has mostly evolved gradually starting from ancient Greece up to the golden ages of Eastern and Western philosophies. In its current form, social theory encompasses a broad area of study especially in the modern context of globalization. In the information age, social theory has also assumed an informal stance whereby non-academic entities contribute to social science. Traditionally, social theory was confined to simple scopes such as family structures and the significance of marriage. This essay explores social theory including its historical evolution, tenets, scope, and the main assumptions that stem from the theory.
History Evolution of Social Theory
The origins of social theory go back to an era when the theory lacked formal expressions. Before the nineteenth century, components of social theory included narratives and expressions that provided guidelines concerning ethical principles and moral acts. Consequently, the true pioneers of social theory mainly consist of religious leaders. In the East, Confucius or Master Kong was the first personality to zero in on solid aspects of social theory.
For instance, Confucius “envisaged a just society that improved upon the warring states and recommended a more pragmatic, but still ethical, sociology” (Allan, 2012). In the West, Greek philosophers Aristotle and Plato were the first notable contributors of social theory through their commentaries on good social practices between 427 and 322 BCE. Later on, religious personalities Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine continued to build on the tenets of social theory through their visions of a just societal order.
In Europe, a series of philosophers came up with theories on social order and human beings. Some of the earliest European philosophers to contribute to social theory include Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Edmund Burke, and Jacques Rousseau (Wallace, 2006).
In the early days of social theory, the discipline was mostly concerned with formulating social systems that would create an ideal society. Notably, the early forms of social theories never concerned themselves with analyzing the society as it was at the time. The more advanced form of social theory was first encountered in Ibn Khaldun’s book “Al Muqaddimah” where the historian took time to analyze the rise and fall of popular dynasties. With time, it became normal for established or proposed social theories to face opposition in the hands of other social scholars (Turner, 2003). This dynamic put the social theory in a perpetual motion that has persisted to this day.
For example, one of the earliest social scholars proposed that “the more ardently the group presses their ideas, the more likely another group will challenge them and over time, a middle view that incorporates aspects of each group develops and is accepted by society” (Burke, 2005, p. 34). Consequently, as of the early twentieth century, social theory has become a means of pursuing a refined society that aims to achieve high levels of moral and life concepts.
In the twentieth century, the study of social theory in Europe was marked by the emergence of sophisticated theories and renowned personalities. In Western Europe, social theory has witnessed the society transform from “Reformation, Renaissance, and Enlightenment to industrialization, urbanization, and democracy” (Turner, 2003, p. 76). Due to the more enhanced social theories, most of the Western world witnessed a period when traditions lost their standing, church and monarch authorities was challenged, the feudal systems became untenable, and the advent of the capitalist economy.
On the other hand, social scholars were queuing to try and make sense of all the changes that were being witnessed in the society through ‘grand theories’. The simple explanations for explaining the complexities of the society are the basis of the current social theory. The element of religion was a common component of social theory in the early 1900s. In addition, sociologists began to become part of university staff beginning with Emile Durkheim’s appointment as a professor.
Between the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the theory of social evolution became part of sociology. The personality behind the theory was Hebert Spencer, who came up with the notion of ‘survival for the fittest’. Spencer is also credited with formulating the ‘Law of Individualization’, which seeks to explain the differences in personalities. At the same time, Marxism was quickly gaining ground in various parts around the world including Europe.
The Marxist social order was concerned with the rising instances of capitalism and industrial development. Experts observe that Marxism has been one of the most disruptive social systems in history due to its connection to political revolutions. In the early 1900s, the tag of war between capitalism and communism was responsible for various revolutions in places such as Russia, Cuba, China, and France. It is important to note that Marxism remained a somehow dormant theory for almost a century before it gained global popularity in the twentieth century.
Another notable addition to social theory in the twentieth century was Emile Durkheim’s work on norms; “the unwritten and unspoken rules of behavior that guide social interaction, as essential to a healthy society and without them, anomie, or a state of normlessness, when a society is unable to provide guidance results” (Wallace, 2006, p. 18). It was Max Weber, another pioneering social scholar, who argued that the burgeoning pursuit of wealth in the society would only lead to worthless passions.
Unlike the social theories of the classical era, modern theories do not necessarily focus on rigid social structures. Modern social theory has developed to “include free will, individual choice, subjective reasoning, and unpredictable human activity” (Merton, 1998). The modern era is a time of complex theories that focus on human-environment interactions among other factors. Some of these modern theories include the ‘symbolic interactionist theory’, which forwarded the argument that individuals shape their environments and not vice versa.
The reboot of Marxism in the twentieth century brought about the social conflict argument that seeks to solve “the unequal distribution of physical resources and social rewards, particularly among groups differentiated by race, gender, class, age, and ethnicity” (Ku, 2012, p. 583).
This theory has been used in the fight for equality among women and minorities whereby conflict has been justified as a means of seeking social justice. The current form of social theory does not contain new tenets of the discipline but historical developments combined with new frontiers of societal exploration. In recent times, various social theories have emerged and they have mostly sought to build on the existing ones while at the same time incorporating new disciplines.
Scope and Assumptions of Social Theory
One area that has shown dependence to social theory is politics. Political theory has close connections to social theory as exhibited in the history of the Western philosophies and developments. Some of the modern assumptions of social theory date back to the Greek and Roman civilizations and they mostly deal with political situations. On the other hand, the assumptions of social theory on jurisprudence can mostly be correlated to political systems (Swirski, 2011).
For instance, politics deal with questions such as the quality of leadership, the systems that are most likely to deliver justice to all, loyalty, civil obedience, and equality. On the other hand, social theory will most likely answer these questions indirectly in its pursuit for social order and harmony.
Social theory also inadvertently encompasses basic human psychology. The connection between social theory and psychology has existed for a long time. For instance, in some ways Sigmund Freud was a sociologist because most of his breakthroughs sought to bring order in social settings. Social scholars are “mostly concerned with the structure of material and symbolic relations between individuals treated as members of collective groups in definite cultural and historical contexts” (Burke, 2005).
This scope of study is well addressed through the discipline of social psychology whereby individuals are studied within social contexts. For example, most of the contributions that Emile Durkheim made to sociology had elements of psychology within them.
Anthropological sociology deals with the study of human beings in the context of cultures and societies. The study of social systems assumes that human beings are smaller components of entire cultures. Consequently, to understand both the individual and the society it is important to study both on the same level. Systems theory is another scope of sociology and it seeks to encourage the understanding of entire social systems and not just parts. As part of social theory, systems theory consists of goals, values, boundaries, patterns, and actors of interaction (Allan, 2012).
This concept of sociology can be applied in situations where mediation between different factions is required. Social theory has also been connected to post-modernism whereby the discipline seeks to challenge the society to provide evidence of populist social claims. The evidence produced through this process can be used to re-align entire theories and systems.
The most important aspect of social theory is that it is a construct of people’s input, hence their evolving nature. Social theories have their roots in ancient civilizations and they can be said to be as old as organized human systems. On the other hand, the oldest aspects of social theory continue to be reverberated by new inputs and revisions. In the modern times, sociologists have become more accommodative of diversity in this discipline. However, this diversity comes with the threat of adding baggage to social theory. Overall, social theory has become more pertinent in this age of globalization because the world has become both small and diverse at the same time. Consequently, it has become paramount for individuals to understand other social orders apart from their own.
Allan, K. (2012). Contemporary social and sociological theory: Visualizing social worlds. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.
Burke, P. (2005). History and social theory. New York: Polity.
Ku, M. (2012). A Critical View on the Gender in Social Psychology. Sex Roles, 67(9-10), 582-584.
Merton, R. K. (1998). Social theory and social structure. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Swirski, P. (2011). An American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York: Routledge.
Turner, H. (2003). The structure of sociological theory. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Wallace, R. (2006). Contemporary sociological theory. Upper Saddle, NJ: Pearson Education.