The discipline of sociology involves more than a distinctive point of view. The sociological perspective illuminates new facts in countless familiar situations; but linking specific observations together in a meaningful way involves another element of the discipline, theory. In the simplest terms, a theory is an explanation of the relationship between two or more specific facts. To illustrate the use of theory in sociology, recall Emile Durkheim's study of suicide. Durkheim attempted to explain why some categories of people (males, Protestants, the wealthy, and the unmarried) have higher suicide rates that do others (females, Catholics, the poor, and the married). To do so, he linked one set of facts — suicide rates — to another set of facts — the level of social integration characteristic of these various categories of people. Through systematic comparisons, Durkheim was able to develop a theory of suicide, namely, that people with low social integration are more prone to take their own lives.
To provide another illustration, how might we explain the sociological observation that college science courses in the United States typically contain more men than women? One theoretical approach would suggest that the sciences are more attractive to males than to females; perhaps males simply have a greater innate interest in science. Another possibility is that American society encourages males to develop an interest in science while simultaneously discouraging this interest in females. A third theoretical approach might suggest that the educational system has some formal or informal policy that limits the enrollment of women in science courses.
As this example suggests, there may be more than one theoretical explanation for any particular issue. Therefore, the ability to link facts together into a meaningful theory does not in itself mean that theory is correct. In order to evaluate contrasting theories, sociologists make use of various methods of scientific research.
As sociologists use these scientific methods to gather more and more information, they are able to confirm some theories while rejecting or modifying others. In the early decades of this century, several sociologists interested in the rapid growth of cities developed theories that linked city living to distinctive patterns of human behaviour such as pronounced impersonality and even mental illness. However, research completed during subsequent decades has found that living in a large city does not necessarily result in social isolation, nor does it diminish mental health. Within any discipline therefore, theory is never static, because sociologists are continually carrying out research, sociological theory is always being refined.
II. Answer the following questions:
1. What is meant by theory?
2. What did E. Durkheim base his research on?
3. What is the essence of his suicide theory?
4. What sociological observation was made among college science students?
5. What do sociologists make use of to evaluate contrasting theories?
6. Is a theory static or changeable within any discipline?
7. Do you agree with the point that men are more prone to science study?
III. Agree or disagree with the following:
1. The sociological perspective illuminates new facts in unfamiliar situations.
2. A theory is the explanation of the relationship between two or more specific facts.
3. It is possible to develop a rational theory through systematic observations and comparisons.
4. The ability to link facts together into a meaningful theory means that the theory is correct.
5. To evaluate contrasting theories sociologists make use of various methods of research.