In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Social Theory

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Histories of Social Thought
  • W. E. B. (William Edward Burghardt) Du Bois
  • Functionalism and Its Critics
  • Theories of Action and Interaction
  • Interpretive and Phenomenological Theories
  • Psychoanalytic Social Theory
  • Twentieth-Century Marxism
  • Structuralism and Post-structuralism
  • Postmodernism
  • Theories of Modernity and Modernization, c. 1965 to the Present
  • Globalization
  • Standpoint Theories: Feminist and Postcolonial Interventions
  • Developments since 2000
  • Developments since 2010

Sociology Social Theory
Austin Harrington
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 March 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0054


Social theory refers to ideas, arguments, hypotheses, thought-experiments, and explanatory speculations about how and why human societies—or elements or structures of such societies—come to be formed, change, and develop over time or disappear. Usually supported in research institutions as a core component of the discipline of sociology, social theory most commonly encompasses the range of explanatory concepts, analytical tools, and heuristic devices on which sociologists and social scientists draw in their efforts to interpret statistical or qualitative data about particular empirical social phenomena. Social theory in this relatively narrowly delimited sense is usually thought of as more or less synonymous with the term “sociological theory.” But many common understandings of the scope of the field also imply a wider range of reference than this. Social theory can name general sources of ideas about social phenomena relevant to other disciplines of the social sciences and humanities, such as anthropology, political science, economics, history, cultural and media studies, and gender studies. And social theory can also be thought of as incorporating normative concerns bearing on debates about desirable ends or values of social life—about how social life ideally “ought to be”—in ways that overlap closely with concerns in the fields of moral, political, and legal philosophy. As social theory in most of its central concerns names only a practice of systematic theoretical thinking relevant to particular substantive problems or questions in sociology and other social-science disciplines, some headings in this bibliographical survey of the field will be found to overlap thematically with other Oxford Bibliographies entries in sociology. For more detailed surveys of substantive areas in the Oxford Bibliographies listing with prominent theoretical components see especially: Comparative Historical Sociology, Chicago School of Sociology, World-Systems Analysis, Marxist Sociology, Feminist Theory, Max Weber, Émile Durkheim, Postmodernity, Symbolic Interactionism, and Michel Foucault. The emphasis of the survey that follows falls primarily on currents and schools of thought in Western social theory from the 18th century to the present day. Note, however, that this survey omits commentary of texts currently unavailable in English.


Textbooks in social theory have been available in English for the past four or five decades. Most currently relevant textbooks and general guides to the field, however, date from the 1990s onward. One of the most wide-ranging recent textbooks, written at an elementary level and suitable for newcomers to the field, is Harrington 2005, covering virtually all sections of the field, with an emphasis on European developments. A more in-depth guidebook, written at a higher level and with a more concentrated focus on particular schools, is Joas and Knöbl 2009. An influential work specifically on American technical developments in theoretical sociology is Collins 1988. A classic work, still highly readable and a canonical work in its own right, is Mills 2000. An accessible and stimulating book, narrower in range but suitable for younger student readership, is Ritzer 1993.

  • Collins, Randall. 1988. Theoretical sociology. New York: Harcourt Brace.

    One of the best systematic expositions and syntheses of American traditions in social and sociological theory.

  • Harrington, Austin, ed. 2005. Modern social theory: An introduction. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Covers virtually all fields in elementary and concise form, with a glossary and useful biographical materials.

  • Joas, Hans, and Wolfgang Knöbl. 2009. Social theory: Twenty introductory lectures. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139878432

    A more selective but still highly comprehensive guide, with detailed evaluative assessments of key schools of thought and debates.

  • Mills, C. Wright. 2000. The sociological imagination. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Stimulating classic work by the radical American sociologist, progenitor of the concept of the “military-industrial complex” and the “power elite.” Originally published in 1959.

  • Ritzer, George. 1993. The McDonaldization of society: The changing character of contemporary social life. Newbury Park, CA: Pine Forge Press.

    An engaging, easy read introducing the reader to Marxian and Weberian ideas about capitalism and rationalization, applied to contemporary capitalist mass consumer culture.

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