Sociology is the very broad academic field that studies human societies. Given the scope and complexity of the civilized world, many sociologists concentrate their subject matter to a more manageable macro level. Some sociologists, however, engage in critical analysis of the theoretically universal principles and structures that define the organization and behavior of all human societies. Although generalized, these theories of sociology may be grouped into two categorical questions. One addresses, the questions sociology should be asking, while the other type of theory is about methodology, or how sociology approaches the answers to its questions.
Since nearly the dawn of civilization, social thinkers have largely attempted to understand the elements of society, such as family, commerce, and government. In the end of the 19th Century, at the height of the Second Industrial Revolution, during an era of rapid societal change, sociology as a science emerged. A French philosopher proposed positivism as one of the first, and most influential, theories of sociology. A scientific method — the cycle of conjecture and observation — could yield understanding, remedy and a utopian “positivist” stage of society.
Contrary theories quickly followed, including Marxism which argued that structural things like social class and division of labor have deterministic effect on society. More broadly, and academically, antipositivism was offered as an alternative methodological framework by a group of German sociologists. They insisted that, no matter how vigorous the critical analysis, society is too complex to take a set of empirical data and jump to a conclusion of social cause. Antipositivism essentially separated the two competing approaches to sociology, allowing for objective research while also encouraging subjective theoretical discussion.
From the first university departments of sociology in Europe, positivism was refined and modeled into functionalism. Its basic premise is that society is organic and adheres to natural laws. Taking its cue from biology, measurable facts about society arise directly from its institutional or structural parts, and affect the “health” of the entire system. Conflict theories of sociology reverse this equation, often explaining that readily apparent inequalities and dysfunctions of society create skewed symptoms which should not be measured as “facts.”
Meanwhile, theories of sociology developed along different, independent paradigms in colleges and universities. Symbolic interactionism took a subjective and qualitative approach to understand an individual’s interactions within the context of his symbolic interpretation of society. With the advance of electronics technology and advent of the Information Revolution, rapid societal change has diversified the academic theories of sociology. Though there are many newly named frameworks and perspectives, most of them are collectively referred as middle-range theories. They generally share two things in common: computational statistics, and an attempt to reconcile the historically competing two categorical approaches to sociology.