Social Theory Research Paper Topics

Social theory begins with ordinary questions, like why do some passively accept authority while others respond with political violence? Religions provided answers in a distant past. Social theory emerged as a secular alternative, often joining ethical and positive elements. Three traditions of social theory are important for the social sciences.

115 Social Theory Research Paper Topics

  1. Actor Network Theory
  2. Affect Control Theory and Impression Formation
  3. Annales School
  4. Attribution Theory
  5. Behaviorism
  6. Biosociological Theories
  7. Birmingham School
  8. Cognitive Balance Theory (Heider)
  9. Cognitive Dissonance Theory (Festinger)
  10. Comparative-Historical Sociology
  11. Computational Sociology
  12. Conflict Theory
  13. Constructionism
  14. Control Balance Theory
  15. Conversation Analysis
  16. Critical Realism
  17. Critical Theory/Frankfurt School
  18. Decision-Making Theory and Research
  19. Demographic Transition Theory
  20. Dependency Theory
  21. Deterrence Theory
  22. Dialectical Materialism
  23. Diffusion Theories
  24. Economic Determinism
  25. Elementary Theory
  26. Emergent Norm Theory
  27. Essentialism and Constructionism
  28. Ethnomethodology
  29. Exchange Network Theory
  30. Existential Sociology
  31. Expectation States Theory
  32. Expectation States Theory
  33. Field Theory
  34. French School of Sociology
  35. Functionalism and Structuralism
  36. Game Theory
  37. Game Theory and Strategic Interaction
  38. German Sociology
  39. Grounded Theory
  40. Hermeneutics
  41. Human Sociobiology
  42. Humanism
  43. Identity Control Theory
  44. Identity Theory
  45. Information and Resource Processing Paradigm
  46. Labeling Theory
  47. Labor Process
  48. Major Personality Theories
  49. Management Theory
  50. Marxism and Sociology
  51. Mate Selection Theories
  52. Mathematical Sociology
  53. Mathematical Sociology
  54. Meta-Analysis
  55. Metatheory
  56. Micro–Macro Links
  57. Modernization Theory
  58. New Institutional Theory
  59. Organization Theory
  60. Organizations and the Theory of the Firm
  61. Personality Theory
  62. Phenomenology
  63. Poetics in Social Science
  64. Political Process Theory
  65. Positivism
  66. Posthumanism
  67. Postmodern Social Theory
  68. Postmodernism
  69. Poststructuralism
  70. Power Dependence Theory
  71. Practical Knowledge
  72. Pragmatism
  73. Probability Theory
  74. Psychoanalysis
  75. Queer Theory
  76. Rational Choice Theory
  77. Recognition
  78. Regulation Theory
  79. Relational Cohesion Theory
  80. Resource Mobilization Theory
  81. Role Theory
  82. Routine Activity Theory
  83. Scripting Theories
  84. Self-Control Theory
  85. Situationists
  86. Social Comparison Theory
  87. Social Darwinism
  88. Social Disorganization Theory
  89. Social Exchange Theory
  90. Social Identity Theory
  91. Social Learning Theory
  92. Social Network Theory
  93. Social Resources Theory
  94. Society and Biology
  95. Society and Technological Risks
  96. Sociocultural Anthropology
  97. Sociolinguistics
  98. Status Construction Theory
  99. Strain Theories
  100. Stratification: Functional and Conflict Theories
  101. Stress and Stress Theories
  102. Structural Functional Theory
  103. Structuration Theory
  104. Symbolic Interaction Theory
  105. System Theories
  106. Theoretical Research Programs
  107. Theories of Aging and the Life Course
  108. Theories of Deviance
  109. Theories of Power
  110. Theories of Self Esteem
  111. Theories of Social Justice
  112. Theories of Stratification and Inequality
  113. Theory and Methods
  114. Theory Construction
  115. Value Theory and Research

A first tradition comes from Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679). After years of bloody warfare between Catholics and Protestants, Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651) offered a worldly theory of social order. What was really at issue was power. As an early example of what would be termed ideology critique, Hobbes asks “cui bono?”—whose interest does this idea serve? People obey, he argued, because of fear of violent death. Social order thus turns on who has ultimate power over violence. If there is not one final authority, there would be war of all against all, and life would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Better, he argued, is a society founded on fear of a great leviathan, whose power guarantees stability.

Leviathan relied on no Absolute Good, whether God or Nature. In tracing all “higher” ideas to “lower” things—power, fear, death, the body, violence—Hobbes set the tone for one main strand of social theorizing. This approach continued in writers from Karl Marx (18181883) to Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002). While each differs, they are Hobbesian in asking “cui bono?”—and answering with a complex power struggle, even if it is denied, for example, in art, religion, and morality. This first type of social theory ferrets out hidden power structures behind everyday interactions and institutions.

Hobbes’s stress on fear led others to ask: Does not social order depend on more? What of obligation or love? How could the passions of a millennium and a half of Christianity be redirected onto earth, without producing the disastrous consequences Hobbes feared?

Such questions led to a second strand of social theory, stemming from Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). He emphasized not fear but devotion as the foundation of social order. In our long-forgotten natural condition, Rousseau argued, we were independent, loving ourselves for ourselves; but society creates new needs, amour prope We love ourselves based upon how much others love us. Not power, but the struggle for recognition and status regulates social order.

For Rousseau, justice can transcend nature and inequality. Justice depends in turn on the social contract, wherein each person must totally submit to the general will. Private freedom, he argued, depended on public equality, which required a “lawgiver.” Moreover, the social bond, to last, should be held sacred.

Karl Marx (1818-1883) and V. I. Lenin (18701924) transformed the lawgiver into the revolutionary vanguard; the redefined social contract was the abolition of private property, as the condition of freedom and justice. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) later pursued Rousseau’s connections between social solidarity and religious sentiment.

Critical theorists—Theodore Adorno (1903-1969), Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Herbert Marcuse (1898-1979), Axel Honneth—explored how modern societies create vast inequalities, not only in wealth, but respect and self-worth. They expanded Rousseau’s ideas that culture can create unnecessary dependencies, focusing on the “culture industry”—the popular press, music, movies, advertising, and fashions. These sought to promote “needs” like Marx’s false consciousness, where people became blinded to their own interests and dependent upon corporate and political masters. Some, like David Riesman (1909-2002), extended Rousseau’s amour propre to the 1950s conformism of American “other-directed-ness,” while others, like Daniel Bell, analyzed how politicians and corporations could shift the erotic into a political ideology. Thus social theory identified key foundations of power, even if exercised in subtle arenas.

These first two traditions invoke a strong state to right social wrongs, as theoretically defined. The third tradition is more cautious. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) was equally concerned with the roots of order and governance, but took a different course. Writing after the French Revolution (1789-1799), Tocqueville the aristocrat pondered the implications of equality. Societies emphasizing equality—like postrevolutionary America and France—were hostile toward exceptional talent and excellence; they could level out uniqueness and difference, generating a middling mediocrity. Moreover, equality threatened social identity and meaning: In a hierarchical society, one knew one’s place and did not have to anxiously make one’s place. In equalized societies, all is in doubt: Foreign observers regularly noted that Americans suffered a permanent “identity crisis,” which was spreading globally at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Traveling across America, Tocqueville commented on the deleterious effects of equality, and potential remedies. Loosed from primordial hierarchies, Americans, he argued, developed a passion for voluntary associations. The town hall and the local church were key examples, sustained by their members’ voluntary efforts more than the weight of tradition or the power of elites (or a leviathan or lawgiver). What mattered was commitment by each participant, and Americans were joiners. The strongest social structures, Tocqueville argued, emerged not just through struggles for power or regard of others, but by citizens voluntarily developing shared commitments in local associations, which trained future leaders.

Tocqueville’s voluntaristic, bottom-up approach informs a third strand of social theorizing. Max Weber (1864-1920) stressed voluntarism in probing the religious roots of capitalism. Capitalists did not just strive to make money. Rather, Weber argued, Puritan sects encouraged their members to seek salvation in voluntary, committed “good works”—against the old nobility that valued leisure over work. Capitalism was the unintended consequence. Though Weber felt we inherited an “iron cage” of capitalist society that we did not choose, his response was volun-taristic: If you are a scholar, do it as a “vocation,” not as a heartless specialist; if you are a politician, lead, do not act as a technocratic bureaucrat. Voluntary commitment was key. In egalitarian America, every social interaction among equal citizens became a source of identity, obligation, and meaning, following G. H. Mead (1863-1931), C. H. Cooley (1864-1929), and Herbert Blumer (1900-1987). Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) extended voluntarism to critique past social theories, but like Weber joined basic values with individual choices. Edward Shils (1911-1995) and Daniel Elazar (1934-1999) continued Tocqueville’s concern for hierarchy, honor, and glory, noting that even within an egalitarian society, they remain social powers. Still others, such as Robert Putnam, suggest that the individualistic strain in voluntarism has gone so far in contemporary American life that the commonwealth Tocqueville saw had weakened, as more Americans “bowl alone.” Some postmodernists are so individualistic and egalitarian that they deny the possibility of meaning beyond the minds of separate individuals.

These three traditions have been revised and combined in efforts to interpret deep social changes. Consider the rise of industry, the division of labor, and bureaucratic organization in the theories of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber.

Marx, working in London, wrote of the English countryside transformed by industrial manufacturing; he saw people from all races and religions living near factories. These proletarians were a nascent class, opposed to capitalist/owners of the forces of production. In his theory, conflicts between such classes drove history.

Durkheim saw similar changes, but focused on the division of labor. Traditional societies, he argued, held together from pressures toward homogeneity. Modern societies are more like organisms. Social cohesion arises from interdependence; individuals perform specialized functions and develop a heightened sense of uniqueness. But without some firm social regulation, normlessness or “anomie” can undermine differentiated societies. Talcott Parsons and Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) extended Durkheim’s social differentiation into multiple, interconnected subsystems that fill different social functions, while others, such as Robert Merton (1910-2003), developed the idea of anomie and deviance as central to modern life.

Max Weber, writing in Germany, stressed the hierarchical rationality of government bureaucratic officials. Bureaucracies are ancient, but Weber stressed how modern organizations grew ever larger, more rational, and more hierarchical. Not only was the bureaucrat’s personality stunted by his duties, everyone risked bureaucratization— since it was balanced increasingly less by the charisma of religion or respect for tradition. Seeking a “value-neutral” perspective, Weber posited that modern society is increasingly subject to “rational authority,” as opposed to “traditional” or “charismatic authority.” But the theory also had a quasi-moral intent, namely, to provide modern models for styles of action—rooted in the bonds of tradition or the electricity of charisma—which Weber saw threatened by the cold, abstract rationalism of bureaucracy.

Rationality was a political weapon that Enlightenment philosophers used to attack the “irrationality” of the ancient regime before the French Revolution of 1789. The secular theories of Hobbes and Rousseau helped refocus thinking on specific secular arrangements, rather than divinities or kings. But the legacy of this rational approach proved so powerful that Weber feared its excess. Analysis and criticism of rationalism in modern society have been among the most doggedly pursued strands of twentieth-century social thought, especially by Jurgen Habermas and other critical theorists and postmodernists.

Since Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, social theories have continued to stretch the imagination, seeking to capture the times and perhaps guide them. New topics emerge with new social forces: the massive rise of cities and new urban lifestyles; mass media, electronic media, and mass education; increased global interconnection; general increase in leisure time across societies; and a resurgence in the global power of religions are but a few of the subjects whose causes and meanings social theorists continue to pursue.


  1. Lemert, Charles, ed. and commentator. 2004. Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings. 3rd ed. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.
  2. Parsons, Talcott, Edward Shils, Kaspar D. Naegele, and Jesse R. Pitts. 1965. Theories of Society. 2 vols. London: Collier-Macmillan.

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