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Major Sociological Theories

Much of what we know about societies, relationships, and social behavior has emerged
thanks to various sociology theories. Sociology students typically spend a great deal of time
studying these different theories. Some theories have fallen out of favor, while others remain
widely accepted, but all have contributed tremendously to our understanding of society,
relationships, and social behavior. By learning more about these theories, you can gain a deeper
and richer understanding of sociology's past, present, and future.

1. Symbolic Interaction Theory

The symbolic interaction perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, is a major

framework of sociological theory. This perspective focuses on the symbolic meaning that people
develop and rely upon in the process of social interaction. The symbolic interaction perspective,
also called symbolic interactionism, is a major framework of sociological theory. This
perspective relies on the symbolic meaning that people develop and rely upon in the process of
social interaction. Although symbolic interactionism traces its origins to Max Weber's assertion
that individuals act according to their interpretation of the meaning of their world, the American
philosopher George Herbert Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the

Symbolic interaction theory analyzes society by addressing the subjective meanings that
people impose on objects, events, and behaviors. Subjective meanings are given primacy because
it is believed that people behave based on what they believe and not just on what is objectively
true. Thus, society is thought to be socially constructed through human interpretation. People
interpret one anothers behavior and it is these interpretations that form the social bond.

These interpretations are called the definition of the situation.

For example, why would young people smoke cigarettes even when all objective medical
evidence points to the dangers of doing so? The answer is in the definition of the situation that
people create. Studies find that teenagers are well informed about the risks of tobacco, but they
also think that smoking is cool, that they themselves will be safe from harm, and that smoking
projects a positive image to their peers. So, the symbolic meaning of smoking overrides that
actual fact regarding smoking and risk.

Some fundamental aspects of our social experience and identities, like race and gender,
can be understood through the symbolic interactionist lens. Having no biological bases at all,
both race and gender are social constructs that function based on what we believe to be true
about people, given what they look like. We use socially constructed meanings of race and
gender to help us decide who to interact with, how to do so, and to help us determine, sometimes
inaccurately, the meaning of a person's words or actions.

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One shocking example of how this theoretical concept plays out within the social
construct of race is manifested in the fact that many people, regardless of race, believe that
lighter skinned blacks and Latinos are smarter than their darker skinned counterparts. This
phenomenon occurs because of the racist stereotype--the meaning--that has been encoded in skin
color--the symbol--over centuries. In terms of gender, we see the problematic way in which
meaning is attached to the symbols "man" and "woman" in the sexist trend of college students
routinely rating male professors more highly than female ones.

Critics of this theory claim that symbolic interactionism neglects the macro level of social
interpretationthe big picture. In other words, symbolic interactionists may miss the larger
issues of society by focusing too closely on the trees rather than the forest. The perspective
also receives criticism for slighting the influence of social forces and institutions on individual
interactions. In the case of smoking, the functionalist perspective might miss the powerful role
that the institution of mass media plays in shaping perceptions of smoking through advertising,
and by portraying smoking in film and television. In the cases of race and gender, this
perspective would not account for social forces like systemic racism or gender discrimination,
which strongly influence what we believe race and gender mean.

2. Conflict Theory
Conflict theory emphasizes the role of coercion and power in producing social order. This
perspective is derived from the works of Karl Marx, who saw society as fragmented into groups
that compete for social and economic resources. Social order is maintained by domination, with
power in the hands of those with the greatest political, economic, and social resources. Conflict
theory states that tensions and conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly
distributed between groups in society and that these conflicts become the engine for social
change. In this context, power can be understood as control of material resources and
accumulated wealth, control of politics and the institutions that make up society, and one's social
status relative to others (determined not just by class but by race, gender, sexuality, culture, and
religion, among other things).

Marx's Conflict Theory

Conflict theory originated in the work of Karl Marx, who focused on the causes and
consequences of class conflict between the bourgeoisie (the owners of the means of production
and the capitalists) and the proletariat (the working class and the poor). Focusing on the
economic, social, and political implications of the rise of capitalism in Europe, Marx theorized
that this system, premised on the existence of a powerful minority class (the bourgeoisie) and an
oppressed majority class (the proletariat), created class conflict because the interests of the two
were at odds, and resources were unjustly distributed among them.

Within this system an unequal social order was maintained through ideological coercion
which created consensus--and acceptance of the values, expectations, and conditions as
determined by the bourgeoisie. Marx theorized that the work of producing consensus was done in
the "superstructure" of society, which is composed of social institutions, political structures, and

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culture, and what it produced consensus for was the "base," the economic relations of production.
(Read more about Marx's theory of base and superstructure here.)

Marx reasoned that as the socio-economic conditions worsened for the proletariat, they
would develop a class consciousness that revealed their exploitation at the hands of the wealthy
capitalist class of bourgeoisie, and then they would revolt, demanding changes to smooth the
conflict. According to Marx, if the changes made to appease conflict maintained a capitalist
system, then the cycle of conflict would repeat. However, if the changes made created a new
system, like socialism, then peace and stability would be achieved.

Evolution of Conflict Theory

Many social theorists have built on Marx's conflict theory to bolster it, grow it, and refine
it over the years. Explaining why Marx's theory of revolution did not manifest in his lifetime,
Italian scholar and activist Antonio Gramsci argued that the power of ideology was stronger than
Marx had realized and that more work needed to be done to overcome cultural hegemony, or rule
through common sense. Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, critical theorists who were part
of The Frankfurt School, focused their work on how the rise of mass culture--mass produced art,
music, and media--contributed to the maintenance of cultural hegemony. More recently, C.
Wright Mills drew on conflict theory to describe the rise of a tiny "power elite" composed of
military, economic, and political figures who have ruled America from the mid-twentieth century.

Many others have drawn on conflict theory to develop other types of theory within the
social sciences, including feminist theory, critical race theory, postmodern and postcolonial
theory, queer theory, post-structural theory, and theories of globalization and world systems. So,
while initially conflict theory described class conflicts specifically, it has lent itself over the years
to studies of how other kinds of conflicts, like those premised on race, gender, sexuality, religion,
culture, and nationality, among others, are a part of contemporary social structures, and how they
affect our lives.

Applying Conflict Theory

Conflict theory and its variants are used by many sociologists today to study a wide range of
social problems. Examples include:

How exposure to environmental pollution and hazards is shaped by race and class.
The many ways in which women and girls experience gender oppression in the U.S.
How today's global capitalism creates a global system of power and inequality.
How words play a role in reproducing and justifying conflict.
The causes and consequences of the gender pay gap between men and women.
How Airbnb exacerbates economic inequality in cities across the U.S.

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3. Functionalist Theory

The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical
perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially
interested in how social order is possible and how society remains relatively stable. The
functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in
sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in
how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable. As such, it is a theory that
focuses on the macro-level of social structure, rather than the micro-level of everyday life.
Notable theorists include Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton.


Functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability
of the whole society. Society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each part of society is
functional for the stability of the whole. Durkheim actually envisioned society as an organism,
and just like within an organism, each component plays a necessary part, but none can function
alone, and one experiences a crisis or fails, other parts must adapt to fill the void in some way.

Within functionalist theory, the different parts of society are primarily composed of social
institutions, each of which is designed to fill different needs, and each of which has particular
consequences for the form and shape of society. The parts all depend on each other. The core
institutions defined by sociology and which are important to understand for this theory include:
family, government, economy, media, education, and religion. According to functionalism, an
institution only exists because it serves a vital role in the functioning of society. If it no longer
serves a role, an institution will die away. When new needs evolve or emerge, new institutions
will be created to meet them.

Let's consider the relationships between and functions of some core institutions. In most
societies, the government, or state, provides education for the children of the family, which in
turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. The family is dependent upon
the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their
own families. In the process, the children become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, who in turn
support the state. From the functionalist perspective, if all goes well, the parts of society produce
order, stability, and productivity. If all does not go well, the parts of society then must adapt to
produce new forms of order, stability, and productivity.

Functionalism emphasizes the consensus and order that exist in society, focusing on
social stability and shared public values. From this perspective, disorganization in the system,
such as deviant behavior, leads to change because societal components must adjust to achieve
stability. When one part of the system is not working or is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts
and creates social problems, which leads to social change.

The functionalist perspective achieved its greatest popularity among American

sociologists in the 1940s and 50s. While European functionalists originally focused on
explaining the inner workings of social order, American functionalists focused on discovering the

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functions of human behavior. Among these American functionalist sociologists is Robert K.
Merton, who divided human functions into two types: manifest functions, which are intentional
and obvious, and latent functions, which are unintentional and not obvious. The manifest
function of attending a church or synagogue, for instance, is to worship as part of a religious
community, but its latent function may be to help members learn to discern personal from
institutional values. With common sense, manifest functions become easily apparent. Yet this is
not necessarily the case for latent functions, which often demand a sociological approach to be

Functionalism has been critiqued by many sociologists for its neglect of the often
negative implications of social order. Some critics, like Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, claim
that the perspective justifies the status quo, and the process of cultural hegemony which
maintains it. Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their
social environment, even when doing so may benefit them. Instead, functionalism sees agitating
for social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate in a
seemingly natural way for any problems that may arise.

4. Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is one of the major contemporary sociological theories, which analyzes
the status of women and men in society with the purpose of using that knowledge to better
women's lives. Feminist theory is most concerned with giving a voice to women and highlighting
the various ways women have contributed to society.

Feminist theory is a major branch of theory within sociology that is distinctive for how its
creators shift their analytic lens, assumptions, and topical focus away from the male viewpoint
and experience. In doing so, feminist theory shines light on social problems, trends, and issues
that are otherwise overlooked or misidentified by the historically dominant male perspective
within social theory. Key areas of focus within feminist theory include discrimination and
exclusion on the basis of sex and gender, objectification, structural and economic inequality,
power and oppression, and gender roles and stereotypes, among others.


Many people incorrectly believe that feminist theory focuses exclusively on girls and
women and that it has an inherent goal of promoting the superiority of women over men. In
reality, feminist theory has always been about viewing the social world in a way that illuminates
the forces that create and support inequality, oppression, and injustice, and in doing so, promotes
the pursuit of equality and justice.

That said, since the experiences and perspectives of women and girls were historically
excluded from social theory and social science, much feminist theory has focused on their
interactions and experiences within society in order to ensure that half the world's population is
not left out of how we see and understand social forces, relations, and problems. Most feminist
theorists throughout history have been women, however, today feminist theory is created by
people of all genders.

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By shifting the focus of social theory away from the perspectives and experiences of
men, feminist theorists have created social theories that are more inclusive and creative than
those which assumes the social actor to always be a man. Part of what makes feminist theory
creative and inclusive is that it often considers how systems of power and oppression interact,
which is to say it does not just focus on gendered power and oppression, but on how it might
interact with systemic racism, a hierarchical class system, sexuality, nationality, and (dis)ability,
among other things.

Key areas of focus include the following.

Gender Differences

Some feminist theory provides an analytic framework for understanding how women's
location in, and experience of, social situations differ from men's. For example, cultural feminists
look to the different values associated with womanhood and femininity as a reason why men and
women experience the social world differently. Other feminist theorists believe that the different
roles assigned to women and men within institutions better explain gender difference, including
the sexual division of labor in the household. Existential and phenomenological feminists focus
on how women have been marginalized and defined as other in patriarchal societies. Some
feminist theorists focus specifically on how masculinity is developed through socialization, and
how its development interacts with the process of developing feminity in girls.

Gender Inequality

Feminist theories that focus on gender inequality recognize that women's location in, and
experience of, social situations are not only different but also unequal to men's. Liberal feminists
argue that women have the same capacity as men for moral reasoning and agency, but that
patriarchy, particularly the sexist division of labor, has historically denied women the opportunity
to express and practice this reasoning. These dynamics serve to shove women into the private
sphere of the household and to exclude them from full participation in public life. Liberal
feminists point out that heterosexual marriage is a site of gender inequality and that women do
not benefit from being married as men do. Indeed, married women have higher levels of stress
than unmarried women and married men. According to liberal feminists, the sexual division of
labor in both the public and private spheres needs to be altered in order for women to achieve

Gender Oppression

Theories of gender oppression go further than theories of gender difference and gender
inequality by arguing that not only are women different from or unequal to men, but that they are
actively oppressed, subordinated, and even abused by men. Power is the key variable in the two
main theories of gender oppression: psychoanalytic feminism and radical feminism.
Psychoanalytic feminists attempt to explain power relations between men and women by
reformulating Freud's theories of the subconscious and unconscious, human emotions, and
childhood development. They believe that conscious calculation cannot fully explain the

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production and reproduction of patriarchy. Radical feminists argue that being a woman is a
positive thing in and of itself, but that this is not acknowledged in patriarchal societies where
women are oppressed. They identify physical violence as being at the base of patriarchy, but they
think that patriarchy can be defeated if women recognize their own value and strength, establish
a sisterhood of trust with other women, confront oppression critically, and form female separatist
networks in the private and public spheres.

Structural Oppression

Structural oppression theories posit that women's oppression and inequality are a result of
capitalism, patriarchy, and racism. Socialist feminists agree with Karl Marx and Freidrich Engels
that the working class is exploited as a consequence of capitalism, but they seek to extend this
exploitation not just to class but also to gender. Intersectionality theorists seek to explain
oppression and inequality across a variety of variables, including class, gender, race, ethnicity,
and age. They offer the important insight that not all women experience oppression in the same
way, and that the same forces that work to oppress women and girls also oppress people of color
and other marginalized groups. One way in which structural oppression of women, specifically
the economic kind, manifests in society is in the gender wage gap, which sees men routinely earn
more for the same work as women. An intersectional view of this situation shows us that women
of color, and men of color too, are even further penalized relative to the earnings of white men.
In the late-twentieth century, this strain of feminist theory was extended to account for the
globalization of capitalism and how its methods of production and of accumulating wealth center
on the exploitation of women workers around the world.

5. Critical Theory

Critical Theory is a type of theory that aims to critique society, social structures, and
systems of power, and to foster egalitarian social change.

Critical theory is a social theory oriented toward critiquing and changing society as a
whole, in contrast to traditional theory oriented only to understanding or explaining it. Critical
theories aim to dig beneath the surface of social life and uncover the assumptions that keep us
from a full and true understanding of how the world works. Critical theory emerged out of the
Marxist tradition and it was developed by a group of sociologists at the University of Frankfurt
in Germany who referred to themselves as The Frankfurt School.

History and Overview

Critical theory as it is known today can be traced to Marx's critique of economy and
society put forth in his many works. It is inspired greatly by Marx's theoretical formulation of the
relationship between economic base and ideological superstructure, and tends to focus on how
power and domination operate, in particular, in the realm of the superstructure. Following in
Marx's critical footsteps, Hungarian Gyrgy Lukcs and Italian Antonio Gramsci developed
theories that explored the cultural and ideological sides of power and domination.

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Both Lukcs and Gramsci focused their critique on the social forces that prevent people
from seeing and understanding the forms of power and domination that exist in society and affect
their lives.

Shortly following the period when Lukcs and Gramsci developed and published their
ideas, The Institute for Social Research was founded at the University of Frankfurt, and the
Frankfurt School of critical theorists took shape. It is the work of those associated with the
Frankfurt School--including Max Horkheimer, Theodor Adorno, Erich Fromm, Walter Benjamin,
Jrgen Habermas, and Herbert Marcuse--that is considered the definition and heart of critical

Like Lukcs and Gramsci, these theorists focused on ideology and cultural forces as
facilitators of domination and barriers to true freedom. The contemporary politics and economic
structures of the time greatly influenced their thought and writing, as they existed within the rise
of national socialism--including the rise of the Nazi regime, state capitalism, and the rise and
spread of mass produced culture. Max Horkheimer defined critical theory in the book Traditional
and Critical Theory. In this work Horkheimer asserted that a critical theory must do two
important things: it must account for the whole of society within historical context, and it should
seek to offer a robust and holistic critique by incorporating insights from all social sciences.

Further, Horkheimer stated that a theory can only be considered a true critical theory if it
is explanatory, practical, and normative, meaning that the theory must adequately explain the
social problems that exist, it must offer practical solutions for how to respond to them and make
change, and it must clearly abide the norms of criticism established by the field.

With this formulation Horkheimer condemned "traditional" theorists for producing works
that fail to question power, domination, and the status quo, thus building on Gramsci's critique of
the role of intellectuals in processes of domination. Over the years the goals and tenets of critical
theory have been adopted by many social scientists and philosophers who have come after the
Frankfurt School. We can recognize critical theory today in many feminist theories and feminist
approaches to conducting social science, in critical race theory, cultural theory, in gender and
queer theory, and in media theory and media studies.

6. Labeling Theory

Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and
criminal behavior. It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions
of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the
interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions.

Labeling theory posits that people come to identify and behave in ways that reflect how
others label them. It is most commonly associated with the sociology of crime and deviance,
where it is used to point out how social processes of labeling and treating someone as criminally
deviant actually fosters deviant behavior ?and has negative repercussions for that person because
others are likely to be biased against them because of the label.

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Labeling theory is rooted in the idea of the social construction of reality, which is central
to the field of sociology, and is linked to the symbolic interactionist perspective. As an area of
focus, it flourished within American sociology during the 1960s, thanks in large part to
sociologist Howard Becker. However, the ideas at the center of it can be traced back to the work
of founding French sociologist Emile Durkheim. The theory of American sociologist George
Herbert Mead, which focused on the social construction of the self as a process involving
interactions with others, was also influential in its development. Others involved in the
development of labeling theory and the conduct of research related to it include Frank
Tannenbaum, Edwin Lemert, Albert Memmi, Erving Goffman, and David Matza.


Labeling theory is one of the most important approaches to understanding deviant and
criminal behavior. It begins with the assumption that no act is intrinsically criminal. Definitions
of criminality are established by those in power through the formulation of laws and the
interpretation of those laws by police, courts, and correctional institutions. Deviance is therefore
not a set of characteristics of individuals or groups, but rather it is a process of interaction
between deviants and non-deviants and the context in which criminality is being interpreted.

In order to understand the nature of deviance itself, we must first understand why some
people are tagged with a deviant label and others are not. Those who represent forces of law and
order and those who enforce the boundaries of what is considered normal behavior, such as the
police, court officials, experts, and school authorities, provide the main source of labeling. By
applying labels to people, and in the process creating categories of deviance, these people
reinforce the power structure of society.

Many of the rules that define deviance and the contexts in which deviant behavior is
labeled as deviant are framed by the wealthy for the poor, by men for women, by older people
for younger people, and by ethnic and racial majorities for minority groups. In other words, the
more powerful and dominant groups in society create and apply deviant labels to the subordinate

For example, many children engage in activities such as breaking windows, stealing fruit
from other peoples trees, climbing into other peoples yards, or playing hooky from school. In
affluent neighborhoods, these acts may be regarded by parents, teachers, and police as innocent
aspects of the process of growing up. In poor areas, on the other hand, these same activities
might be seen as tendencies towards juvenile delinquency, which suggests that differences of
class and race play an important role in the process of assigning labels of deviance. In fact,
research has shown that Black girls and boys are disciplined more frequently and more harshly
by teachers and school administrators than are their peers of other races, though there is no
evidence to suggest that they misbehave more frequently. Similarly, and with much more severe
consequences, statistics that show that police kill Black people at a far higher rate than whites,
even when they are unarmed and have committed no crime, suggests that the misapplication of
deviant labels as a result of racial stereotypes is at play.

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Once a person is labeled as deviant, it is extremely difficult to remove that label. The
deviant person becomes stigmatized as a criminal or deviant and is likely to be considered, and
treated, as untrustworthy by others. The deviant individual is then likely to accept the label that
has been attached, seeing himself or herself as deviant, and act in a way that fulfills the
expectations of that label. Even if the labeled individual does not commit any further deviant acts
than the one that caused them to be labeled, getting rid of that label can be very hard and time-
consuming. For example, it is usually very difficult for a convicted criminal to find employment
after release from prison because of their label as ex-criminal. They have been formally and
publicly labeled a wrongdoer and are treated with suspicion likely for the remainder of their

One critique of labeling theory is that it emphasizes the interactive process of labeling
and ignores the processes and structures that lead to the deviant acts. Such processes might
include differences in socialization, attitudes, and opportunities, and how social and economic
structures impact these.

A second critique of labeling theory is that it is still not clear whether or not labeling
actually has the effect of increasing deviant behavior. Delinquent behavior tends to increase
following conviction, but is this the result of labeling itself as the theory suggests? It is very
difficult to say, since many other factors may be involved, including increased interaction with
other delinquents and learning new criminal opportunities.

7. Social Learning Theory

Social learning theory is a theory that attempts to explain socialization and its effect on
the development of the self. It looks at the individual learning process, the formation of self, and
the influence of society in socializing individuals. Social learning theory is commonly used by
sociologists to explain deviance and crime.


Social learning theory is a theory that attempts to explain socialization and its effect on
the development of the self. There are many different theories that explain how people become
socialized, including psychoanalytic theory, functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic
interaction theory. Social learning theory, like these others, looks at the individual learning
process, the formation of self, and the influence of society in socializing individuals.

Social learning theory considers the formation of ones identity to be a learned response
to social stimuli. It emphasizes the societal context of socialization rather than the individual
mind. This theory postulates that an individuals identity is not the product of the unconscious
(such as the belief of psychoanalytic theorists), but instead is the result of modeling oneself in
response to the expectations of others. Behaviors and attitudes develop in response to
reinforcement and encouragement from the people around us.

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While social learning theorists acknowledge that childhood experience is important, they
also believe that the identity people acquire is formed more by the behaviors and attitudes of
others. Social learning theory has its roots in psychology and was shaped greatly by
psychologist Albert Bandura. Sociologists most often use social learning theory to understand
crime and deviance.

Social Learning Theory and Crime/Deviance

According to social learning theory, people engage in crime because of their association
with others who engage in crime. Their criminal behavior is reinforced and they learn beliefs that
are favorable to crime. They essentially have criminal models that they associate with. As a
consequence, these individuals come to view crime as something that is desirable, or at least
justifiable in certain situations. Learning criminal or deviant behavior is the same as learning to
engage in conforming behavior: it is done through association with or exposure to others. In fact,
association with delinquent friends is the best predictor of delinquent behavior other than prior
delinquency. Social learning theory postulates that there are three mechanisms by which
individuals learn to engage in crime: differential reinforcement, beliefs, and modeling.

Differential reinforcement of crime. Differential reinforcement of crime means that

individuals can teach others to engage in crime by reinforcing and punishing certain behaviors.
Crime is more likely to occur when it 1. Is frequently reinforced and infrequently punished; 2.
Results in large amounts of reinforcement (such as money, social approval, or pleasure) and little
punishment; and 3.Is more likely to be reinforced than alternative behaviors. Studies show that
individuals who are reinforced for their crime are more likely to engage in subsequent crime,
especially when they are in situations similar to those that were previously reinforced.

Beliefs favorable to crime. On top of reinforcing criminal behavior, other individuals can
also teach a person beliefs that are favorable to crime. Surveys and interviews with criminals
suggest that beliefs favoring crime fall into three categories. First is the approval of certain minor
forms of crime, such as gambling, soft drug use, and for adolescents, alcohol use and curfew
violation. Second is the approval of or justification of certain forms of crime, including some
serious crimes. These people believe that crime is generally wrong, but that some criminal acts
are justifiable or even desirable in certain situations. For example, many people will say that
fighting is wrong, however that it is justified if the individual has been insulted or provoked.
Third, some people hold certain general values that are more conducive to crime and make crime
appear as a more attractive alternative to other behaviors. For example, individuals who have a
large desire for excitement or thrills, those who have a disdain for hard work and a desire for
quick and easy success, or those who wish to be seen as tough or macho might view crime in
a more favorable light than others.

The imitation of criminal models. Behavior is not only a product of beliefs and
reinforcements or punishments that individuals receive. It is also a product of the behavior of
those around us. Individuals often model or imitate the behavior of others, especially if it is
someone that individual looks up to or admires. For example, an individual who witnesses
someone they respect committing a crime, who is then reinforced for that crime, is then more
likely to commit a crime themselves.

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8. Structural Strain Theory

Robert K. Merton developed structural strain theory as an extension of the functionalist

perspective on deviance. This theory traces the origins of deviance to the tensions that are caused
by the gap between cultural goals and the means people have available to achieve those goals.

Structural strain theory explains deviant behavior as an inevitable outcome of the strain
individuals experience when society does not provide adequate and approved means to achieve
culturally valued goals. This theory was developed by American sociologist Robert K. Merton. It
is rooted in the functionalist perspective on deviance and connected to mile Durkheim's theory
of anomie.


Societies are composed of two core aspects: culture and social structure. It is in the realm
of culture that our values, beliefs, goals, and identities are developed. These are developed in
response to the existing social structure of society, which is supposed to provide the means for us
to achieve our goals and realize positive identities. However, often our cultural goals are not in
balance with means made available by the social structure, and this is when structural strain
occurs, and according to Merton, deviant behavior is likely to occur.


How people go about achieving or appearing to achieve economic success is a prime

example of this phenomenon.

In the U.S., economic success is a goal that most everybody strives for. Doing so is
crucial to having a positive identity and sense of self in a capitalist/consumerist system. In the
U.S., there are two key legitimate and approved means to achieving this: education and work.
However, access to these means is not equally distributed in U.S. society. Access is brokered by
class, race, gender, sexuality, and cultural capital, among other things. Merton would suggest that
what results, then, is structural strain between the cultural goal of economic success and unequal
access to available means and that this leads to the use of deviant behavior--like theft, selling
things on the black market, or embezzling--in pursuit of economic success.

People marginalized and oppressed by racism and classism are most likely to experience
this particular strain because they aim for the same goals as the rest of society, by a society rife
with systemic inequalities limits their opportunities for success. These individuals are therefore
likely to turn to unsanctioned means as a way to achieve economic success.

One could also frame the Black Lives Matter movement and the series of urban uprisings
(like in Ferguson and Baltimore) that occurred over 2014-15. Many Black citizens and their
allies have turned to protest and disruption as a mean for achieving the basic forms of respect
and provision of opportunities that are required to attain cultural goals.

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In Ferguson, protests attracted the attention of the Department of Justice, which
conducted a thorough review of police and judicial practices in the county. Findings of
widespread civil rights violations in both areas lead to important supervised changes to police
and judicial practices, which suggest that the unsanctioned method of seeking change--protest--
has produced the desired effect.


Many sociologists have relied on Merton's theory of structural strain theory to provide
theoretical explanations for types of deviant behavior and to provide a basis for research that
illustrates the connections between social-structural conditions and the values and behavior of
people in society. In this regard, many find this theory valuable and useful. However many
sociologists also critique the concept of deviance and argue that deviance itself is a social
construct that unjustly characterizes anormative behavior, and can lead to social policies that
seek to control people instead of fixing problems within the social structure itself.

9. Rational Choice Theory

Economics plays a huge role in human behavior. That is, people are often motivated by
money and the possibility of making a profit, calculating the likely costs and benefits of any
action before deciding what to do. This way of thinking is called rational choice theory.


Economics plays a huge role in human behavior. That is, people are often motivated by
money and the possibility of making a profit, calculating the likely costs and benefits of any
action before deciding what to do. This way of thinking is called rational choice theory.

Rational choice theory was pioneered by sociologist George Homas, who in 1961 laid the
basic framework for exchange theory, which he grounded in assumptions drawn from behavioral
psychology. During the 1960s and 1970s, other theorists (Blau, Coleman, and Cook) extended
and enlarged his framework and helped to develop a more formal model of rational choice. Over
the years, rational choice theorists have become increasingly mathematical. Even Marxists have
come to see rational choice theory as the basis of a Marxist theory of class and exploitation.

Human Actions Are Calculated And Individualistic

Economic theories look at the ways in which the production, distribution, and
consumptions of goods and services is organized through money.

Rational choice theorists have argued that the same general principles can be used to
understand human interactions where time, information, approval, and prestige are the resources
being exchanged. According to this theory, individuals are motivated by their personal wants and
goals and are driven by personal desires. Since it is not possible for individuals to attain all of the
various things that they want, they must make choices related to both their goals and the means
for attaining those goals. Individuals must anticipate the outcomes of alternative courses of

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action and calculate which action will be best for them. In the end, rational individuals choose
the course of action that is likely to give them the greatest satisfaction.

One key element in rational choice theory is the belief that all action is fundamentally
rational in character. This distinguishes it from other forms of theory because it denies the
existence of any kinds of action other than the purely rational and calculative. It argues that all
social action can be seen as rationally motivated, however much it may appear to be irrational.

Also central to all forms of rational choice theory is the assumption that complex social
phenomena can be explained in terms of the individual actions that lead to that phenomena. This
is called methodological individualism, which holds that the elementary unit of social life is
individual human action. Thus, if we want to explain social change and social institutions, we
simply need to show how they arise as the result of individual action and interactions.

Critiques of Rational Choice Theory

Critics have argued that there are several problems with rational choice theory. The first
problem with the theory has to do with explaining collective action. That is, if individuals simply
base their actions on calculations of personal profit, why would they ever choose to do
something that will benefit others more than themselves? Rational choice theory does address
behaviors that are selfless, altruistic, or philanthropic.

Related to the first problem just discussed, the second problem with rational choice
theory, according to its critics, has to do with social norms. This theory does not explain why
some people seem to accept and follow social norms of behavior that lead them to act in selfless
ways or to feel a sense of obligation that overrides their self-interest.

The third argument against rational choice theory is that it is too individualistic.
According to critics of individualistic theories, they fail to explain and take proper account of the
existence of larger social structures. That is, there must be social structures that cannot be
reduced to the actions of individuals and therefore have to be explained in different terms.

10. Game Theory

Game theory is a theory of social interaction, which attempts to explain the interaction
people have with one another. As the name of the theory suggests, game theory sees human
interaction as just that: a game.

Game theory is a theory of social interaction, which attempts to explain the interaction
people have with one another. As the name of the theory suggests, game theory sees human
interaction as just that: a game. John Nash, the mathematician who was featured in the movie A
Beautiful Mind is one of the inventors of game theory along with mathematician John von

Game theory was originally an economic and mathematical theory that predicted that
human interaction had the characteristics of a game, including strategies, winners and losers,

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rewards and punishment, and profits and cost. It was initially developed to understand a large
variety of economic behaviors, including behavior of firms, markets, and consumers. The use of
the game theory has since expanded in the social sciences and has been applied to political,
sociological, and psychological behaviors as well.

Game theory was first used to describe and model how human populations behave. Some
scholars believe that they can actually predict how actual human populations will behave when
confronted with situations analogous to the game being studied. This particular view of game
theory has been criticized because the assumptions made by the game theorists are often
violated. For example, they assume that players always act in a way to directly maximize their
wins, when in reality this is not always true. Altruistic and philanthropic behavior would not fit
this model.

Example of Game Theory

We can use the interaction of asking someone out for a date as a simple example of game
theory and how there are game-like aspects involved. If you are asking someone out on a date,
you will probably have some kind of strategy to win (having the other person agree to go out
with you) and get rewarded (have a good time) at a minimal cost to you (you dont want to
spend a large amount of money on the date or do not want to have an unpleasant interaction on
the date).

Elements of a Game

There are three main elements of a game:

The players.
The strategies of each player.
The consequences (payoffs) for each player for every possible profile of strategy choices
of all players.

Types of Games

There are several different kinds of games that are studies using game theory:

Zero-sum game: The players interests are in direct conflict with one another. For example, in
football, one team wins and the other team loses. If a win equals +1 and a loss equals -1, the sum
is zero.
Non-zero sum game: The players interests are not always in direct conflict, so that there are
opportunities for both to gain. For example, when both players choose dont confess in
Prisoners Dilemma (see below).
Simultaneous move games: Players choose actions simultaneously. For example, in the
Prisoners Dilemma (see below), each player must anticipate what their opponent is doing at that
moment, recognizing that the opponent is doing the same.
Sequential move games: Players choose their actions in a particular sequence. For example, in
chess or in bargaining/negotiating situations, the player must look ahead in order to know what
action to choose now.

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One-shot games:: The play of the game occurs only once. Here, the players are likely to
not know much about each other. For example, tipping a waiter on your vacation.
Repeated games: The play of the game is repeated with the same players.
Prisoners Dilemma

The prisoners dilemma is one of the most popular games studied in game theory that has
been portrayed in countless movies and crime television shows. The prisoners dilemma shows
why two individuals might not agree, even if it appears that it is best to agree. In this scenario,
two partners in crime are separated into separate rooms at the police station and given a similar
deal. If one testifies against his partner and the partner stays quiet, the betrayer goes free and the
partner receives the full sentence (ex: ten years). If both remain silent, both are sentences for a
short time in jail (ex: one year) or for a minor charge. If each testifies against the other, each
receives a moderate sentence (ex: three years). Each prisoner must choose to either betray or
remain silent, and the decision of each is kept from the other.

The prisoners dilemma can be applied to many other social situations, too, from political
science to law to psychology to advertizing. Take, for example, the issue of women wearing
make-up. Each day across America, several million woman-hours are devoted to an activity with
questionable benefit for society. Foregoing makeup would free up fifteen to thirty minutes for
each woman every morning. However, if no one wore makeup, there would be great temptation
for any one woman to gain an advantage over others by breaking the norm and using mascara,
blush, and concealer to hide imperfections and enhance her natural beauty. Once a critical mass
wears makeup, the average facade of female beauty is artificially made greater. Not wearing
makeup means foregoing the artificial enhancement to beauty. Your beauty relative to what is
perceived as average would decrease. Most women therefore wear makeup and what we end up
with is a situation that is not ideal for the whole or for the individuals, but is based on rational
choices by each individual.

Assumptions Game Theorists Make

The payoffs are known and fixed.

All players behave rationally.
The rules of the game are common knowledge.


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