Theory plays a central role in applied sociology. In fact, in many cases it is the use of theory that sets applied sociologists apart from other types of practitioners such as social workers, market researchers, and management consultants. You have probably heard at one time or another that sociological theory and sociological practice are somehow opposite approaches. But this is a misunderstanding. For nothing can be further from the truth. Theory and practice depend on one another, and together they provide applied sociology with an effective set of tools for improving human relationships.
Theory is a somewhat confusing word because it has more than one meaning (look it up in your dictionary). In ordinary language, "theory" means a speculative point of view that someone has more or less dreamed up. This is how we use it when we say "that's just a theory but I want to know the facts." This is a familiar way of speaking, but it is definitely not the way the word is used in scientific contexts.
A scientific theory, in contrast, is based on facts that arise through observation. In sociology, these are what Emile Durkheim called social facts. A scientific theory is part of the world of language, like a story. It is not "out there" in the world of objects, although it always refers to objects -- and actions. This means that sociological theories, like other parts of language, are created by people and are shaped by the ingenuity as well as the limitations of the human mind. They are not "natural" or "God-given," so they can never be perfect. We would, however, like to believe that they are perfectible, that they can always be improved upon.
To give a brief definition, a theory is a logically interrelated set of sentences, some of which must be empirical (based on observation) and all of which must be true, as far as we know. Some of the empirical sentences must be generalizations that state a fact or facts about a large category of things that we observe. Sociological theories include generalizations about some aspect of human relationships. These begin with words like "All," "Every," "None," and so on. The "as far as we know" clause is important because it indicates that a theory is always capable of being improved upon, or even discarded, depending on our observations and measurements. This feature significantly affects the place of theory in applied sociology.
Theories are used to produce hypotheses, which we know are educated guesses. We test hypotheses by comparing them to observations. If what we observe agrees with the hypothesis, we accept it as true -- at least temporarily. When this happens, we say that our theory is supported or verified. If what we observe does not agree with the hypothesis, we reject it as false -- again, subject to further investigation. In this case, we say that our theory is not supported or, if the discrepancy between expectation and observation is great enough, we conclude that the theory is invalidated.
Applied sociologists specialize in contributing to the solution of social problems, great and small. This might involving preparing a report on how relations among employees and managers in a small business can be improved, designing a survey that will yield useful information for a neighborhood recreation program, or devising policies to correct a major social injustice. In these and the many other contexts in which they work, sociological practitioners enter the field armed with theories. Realizing that their theories do not contain absolute truths, they nevertheless employ them and the hypotheses they generate as a framework for focusing in on the important features of an otherwise incomprehensibly complex situation. They use theories as a builder uses scaffolding, to help reach places that would otherwise be inaccessible
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