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2.2 Paradigms, Theories, and How They Shape a Researcher’s Approach

Learning Objectives

  1. Define paradigm, and describe the significance of paradigms.
  2. Identify and describe the four predominant paradigms found in the social sciences.
  3. Define theory.
  4. Describe the role that theory plays in sociological inquiry.

The terms paradigm and theory are often used interchangeably in social science, although social scientists do not always agree whether these are identical or distinct concepts. In this text, we will make a slight distinction between the two ideas because thinking about each concept as analytically distinct provides a useful framework for understanding the connections between research methods and social scientific ways of thinking.

Paradigms in Social Science

For our purposes, we’ll define paradigmAn analytic lens, a way of viewing the world, and a framework from which to understand the human experience. as an analytic lens, a way of viewing the world and a framework from which to understand the human experience (Kuhn, 1962).See Kuhn’s seminal work for more on paradigms: Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. It can be difficult to fully grasp the idea of paradigmatic assumptions because we are very ingrained in our own, personal everyday way of thinking. For example, let’s look at people’s views on abortion. To some, abortion is a medical procedure that should be undertaken at the discretion of each individual woman who might experience an unwanted pregnancy. To others, abortion is murder and members of society should collectively have the right to decide when, if at all, abortion should be undertaken. Chances are, if you have an opinion about this topic you are pretty certain about the veracity of your perspective. Then again, the person who sits next to you in class may have a very different opinion and yet be equally confident about the truth of his or her perspective. Which of you is correct? You are each operating under a set of assumptions about the way the world does—or at least should—work. Perhaps your assumptions come from your particular political perspective, which helps shape your view on a variety of social issues, or perhaps your assumptions are based on what you learned from your parents or in church. In any case, there is a paradigm that shapes your stance on the issue.

In Chapter 1 "Introduction" we discussed the various ways that we know what we know. Paradigms are a way of framing what we know, what we can know, and how we can know it. In social science, there are several predominant paradigms, each with its own unique ontological and epistemological perspective. Let’s look at four of the most common social scientific paradigms that might guide you as you begin to think about conducting research.

The first paradigm we’ll consider, called positivismA paradigm guided by the principles of objectivity, knowability, and deductive logic., is probably the framework that comes to mind for many of you when you think of science. Positivism is guided by the principles of objectivity, knowability, and deductive logic. Deductive logic is discussed in more detail in the section that follows. Auguste Comte, whom you might recall from your introduction to sociology class as the person who coined the term sociology, argued that sociology should be a positivist science (Ritzer & Goodman, 2004).Ritzer, G., & Goodman, D. J. (2004). Classical sociological theory (4th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. The positivist framework operates from the assumption that society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically. Positivism also calls for a value-free sociologyA perspective associated with positivism. Posits that sociologists should set their personal opinions and beliefs aside in favor of pursuing objective truth., one in which researchers aim to abandon their biases and values in a quest for objective, empirical, and knowable truth.

Another predominant paradigm in sociology is social constructionismA paradigm that argues that we create reality through our interactions and our interpretations of those interactions.. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckman (1966)Berger, P. L., & Luckman, T. (1966). The social construction of reality: A treatise in the sociology of knowledge. New York, NY: Doubleday. are credited by many for having developed this perspective in sociology. While positivists seek “the truth,” the social constructionist framework posits that “truth” is a varying, socially constructed, and ever-changing notion. This is because we, according to this paradigm, create reality ourselves (as opposed to it simply existing and us working to discover it) through our interactions and our interpretations of those interactions. Key to the social constructionist perspective is the idea that social context and interaction frame our realities. Researchers operating within this framework take keen interest in how people come to socially agree, or disagree, about what is real and true. Consideration of how meanings of different hand gestures vary across different regions of the world aptly demonstrates that meanings are constructed socially and collectively. Think about what it means to you when you see a person raise his or her middle finger. We probably all know that person isn’t very happy (nor is the person to whom the finger is being directed). In some societies, it is another gesture, the thumbs up, that raises eyebrows. While the thumbs up may have a particular meaning in our culture, that meaning is not shared across cultures (Wong, 2007).For more about how the meanings of hand gestures vary by region, you might read the following blog entry: Wong, W. (2007). The top 10 hand gestures you’d better get right. Retrieved from

It would be a mistake to think of the social constructionist perspective as only individualistic. While individuals may construct their own realities, groups—from a small one such as a married couple to large ones such as nations—often agree on notions of what is true and what “is.” In other words, the meanings that we construct have power beyond the individual people who create them. Therefore, the ways that people work to change such meanings is of as much interest to social constructionists as how they were created in the first place.

A third paradigm is the critical paradigmA paradigm that focuses on how power, inequality, and social change shape the human experience.. At its core, the critical paradigm is focused on power, inequality, and social change. Although some rather diverse perspectives are included here, the critical paradigm, in general, includes ideas developed by early social theorists, such as Max Horkheimer (Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, & Virk),Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (Eds.). (2007). Classical sociological theory (2nd ed.). Malden, MA: Blackwell. and later works developed by feminist scholars, such as Nancy Fraser (1989).Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices: Power, discourse, and gender in cotemporary social theory. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. Unlike the positivist paradigm, the critical paradigm posits that social science can never be truly objective or value-free. Further, this paradigm operates from the perspective that scientific investigation should be conducted with the express goal of social change in mind.

Finally, postmodernismA paradigm that challenges most social scientific ways of knowing, arguing that there are no universals. is a paradigm that challenges almost every way of knowing that many social scientists take for granted (Best & Kellner, 1991).Best, S., & Kellner, D. (1991). Postmodern theory: Critical interrogations. New York, NY: Guilford. While positivists claim that there is an objective, knowable truth, postmodernists would say that there is not. While social constructionists may argue that truth is in the eye of the beholder (or in the eye of the group that agrees on it), postmodernists may claim that we can never really know such truth because, in the studying and reporting of others’ truths, the researcher stamps her or his own truth on the investigation. Finally, while the critical paradigm may argue that power, inequality, and change shape reality and truth, a postmodernist may in turn ask, whose power, whose inequality, whose change, whose reality, and whose truth? As you might imagine, the postmodernist paradigm poses quite a challenge for social scientific researchers. How does one study something that may or may not be real or that is only real in your current and unique experience of it? This fascinating question is worth pondering as you begin to think about conducting your own sociological research. Table 2.1 "Social Scientific Paradigms" summarizes each of the paradigms discussed here.

Table 2.1 Social Scientific Paradigms

Paradigm Emphasis Assumption
Positivism Objectivity, knowability, and deductive logic Society can and should be studied empirically and scientifically.
Social constructionism Truth as varying, socially constructed, and ever-changing Reality is created collectively and that social context and interaction frame our realities.
Critical Power, inequality, and social change Social science can never be truly value-free and should be conducted with the express goal of social change in mind.
Postmodernism Inherent problems with previous paradigms Truth in any form may or may not be knowable.

Sociological Theories

Much like paradigms, theories provide a way of looking at the world and of understanding human interaction. Like paradigms, theories can be sweeping in their coverage. Some sociological theories, for example, aim to explain the very existence and continuation of society as we know it. Unlike paradigms, however, theories might be narrower in focus, perhaps just aiming to understand one particular phenomenon, without attempting to tackle a broader level of explanation. In a nutshell, theoryA way of explanation, a mapping out of the why and how of the social phenomenon being studied. might be thought of as a way of explanation or as “an explanatory statement that fits the evidence” (Quammen, 2004).Quammen, D. (2004, November). Was Darwin wrong? National Geographic, pp. 2–35. At their core, theories can be used to provide explanations of any number or variety of phenomena. They help us answer the “why” questions we often have about the patterns we observe in social life. Theories also often help us answer our “how” questions. While paradigms may point us in a particular direction with respect to our “why” questions, theories more specifically map out the explanation, or the “how,” behind the “why.”

Introductory sociology textbooks typically teach students about “the big three” sociological theories—structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism (Barkan, 2011; Henslin, 2010).The theory discussions in each of the following texts provide useful examples: Barkan, S. (2011). Sociology: Understanding and changing the social world, comprehensive edition. Irvington, NY: Flat World Knowledge; Henslin, J. M. (2010). Sociology: A down to earth approach, core concepts (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Pearson. Most also mention at least a few additional theories or theorists (Sprague, 1997).See Sprague’s 1997 critique of social theory for a compelling and well-developed argument in favor of sociology reorganizing theory with the aim of increasing its relevance to social life today and bridging, rather than building, boundaries across diverse perspectives and disciplines: Sprague, J. (1997). Holy men and big guns: The can[n]on in social theory. Gender & Society, 11, 88–107. As you probably recall from your introductory sociology course, structural functionalists focus on the interrelations between various parts of society and how each part works with the others to make society function in the way that it does. Conflict theorists are interested in questions of power and who wins and who loses based on the way that society is organized. Finally, symbolic interactionists focus on how meaning is created and negotiated though meaningful (i.e., symbolic) interactions. Just as researchers might examine the same topic from different levels of inquiry, so, too, could they investigate the same topic from different theoretical perspectives. In this case, even their research questions could be the same, but the way they make sense of whatever phenomenon it is they are investigating will be shaped in large part by the theoretical assumptions that lie behind their investigation.

Table 2.2 "Sociological Theories and the Study of Sport" summarizes the major points of focus for each of major three theories and outlines how a researcher might approach the study of the same topic, in this case the study of sport, from each of the three perspectives.

Table 2.2 Sociological Theories and the Study of Sport

Paradigm Focuses on A study of sport might examine
Structural functionalism Interrelations between parts of society; how parts work together Positive, negative, intended, and unintended consequences of professional sport leagues
Conflict theory Who wins and who loses based on the way that society is organized Issues of power in sport such as differences in access to and participation in sport
Symbolic interactionism How meaning is created and negotiated though interactions How the rules of sport of are constructed, taught, and learned

Within each area of specialization in sociology, there are many other theories that aim to explain more specific types of interactions. For example, within the sociological study of sexual harassment, different theories posit different explanations for why harassment occurs. One theory, first developed by criminologists, is called routine activities theory. It posits that sexual harassment is most likely to occur when a workplace lacks unified groups and when potentially vulnerable targets and motivated offenders are both present (DeCoster, Estes, & Mueller, 1999).DeCoster, S., Estes, S. B., & Mueller, C. W. (1999). Routine activities and sexual harassment in the workplace. Work and Occupations, 26, 21–49. Other theories of sexual harassment, called relational theories, suggest that a person’s relationships, such as their marriages or friendships, are the key to understanding why and how workplace sexual harassment occurs and how people will respond to it when it does occur (Morgan, 1999).Morgan, P. A. (1999). Risking relationships: Understanding the litigation choices of sexually harassed women. The Law and Society Review, 33, 201–226. Relational theories focus on the power that different social relationships provide (e.g., married people who have supportive partners at home might be more likely than those who lack support at home to report sexual harassment when it occurs). Finally, feminist theories of sexual harassment take a different stance. These theories posit that the way our current gender system is organized, where those who are the most masculine have the most power, best explains why and how workplace sexual harassment occurs (MacKinnon, 1979).MacKinnon, C. 1979. Sexual harassment of working women: A case of sex discrimination. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. As you might imagine, which theory a researcher applies to examine the topic of sexual harassment will shape the questions the researcher asks about harassment. It will also shape the explanations the researcher provides for why harassment occurs.

Key Takeaways

  • Paradigms shape our everyday view of the world.
  • Sociologists use theory to help frame their research questions and to help them make sense of the answers to those questions.
  • Some sociological theories are rather sweeping in their coverage and attempt to explain, broadly, how and why societies are organized in particular ways.
  • Other sociological theories aim to explain more specific events or interactions.


  1. Of the four paradigms described, which do you find most compelling? Why?
  2. Feeling confused about the social constructionism paradigm? Check out the 10-minute lecture that illustrates this framework online at:

    After watching this lecture, come up with a two- to four-sentence description of social constructionism that would make sense to someone who has no background in sociological theory.