This document is intended as an additional resource for undergraduate students taking sociology courses at UW. It is not intended to replace instructions from your professors and TAs. In all cases follow course-specific assignment instructions, and consult your TA or professor if you have questions.
About These Assignments
Theory application assignments are a common type of analytical writing assigned in sociology classes. Many instructors expect you to apply sociological theories (sometimes called "perspectives" or "arguments") to empirical phenomena. There are different ways to do this, depending upon your objectives, and of course, the specifics of each assignment. You can choose cases that confirm (support), disconfirm (contradict), or partially confirm any theory.
How to Apply Theory to Empirical Phenomena
Theory application assignments generally require you to look at empirical phenomena through the lens of theory. Ask yourself, what would the theory predict ("have to say") about a particular situation. According to the theory, if particular conditions are present or you see a change in a particular variable, what outcome should you expect?
Generally, a first step in a theory application assignment is to make certain you understand the theory! You should be able to state the theory (the author's main argument) in a sentence or two. Usually, this means specifying the causal relationship (X—>Y) or the causal model (which might involve multiple variables and relationships).
For those taking sociological theory classes, in particular, you need to be aware that theories are constituted by more than causal relationships. Depending upon the assignment, you may be asked to specify the following:
- Causal Mechanism: This is a detailed explanation about how X—>Y, often made at a lower level of analysis (i.e., using smaller units) than the causal relationship.
- Level of Analysis: Macro-level theories refer to society- or group-level causes and processes; micro-level theories address individual-level causes and processes.
- Scope Conditions: These are parameters or boundaries specified by the theorist that identify the types of empirical phenomena to which the theory applies.
- Assumptions: Most theories begin by assuming certain "facts." These often concern the bases of human behavior: for example, people are inherently aggressive or inherently kind, people act out of self-interest or based upon values, etc.
Theories vary in terms of whether they specify assumptions, scope conditions and causal mechanisms. Sometimes they can only be inferred: when this is the case, be clear about that in your paper.
Clearly understanding all the parts of a theory helps you ensure that you are applying the theory correctly to your case. For example, you can ask whether your case fits the theory's assumptions and scope conditions. Most importantly, however, you should single out the main argument or point (usually the causal relationship and mechanism) of the theory. Does the theorist's key argument apply to your case? Students often go astray here by latching onto an inconsequential or less important part of the theory reading, showing the relationship to their case, and then assuming they have fully applied the theory.
Using Evidence to Make Your Argument
Theory application papers involve making a claim or argument based on theory, supported by empirical evidence. There are a few common problems that students encounter while writing these types of assignments: unsubstantiated claims/generalizations; "voice" issues or lack of attribution; excessive summarization/insufficient analysis. Each class of problem is addressed below, followed by some pointers for choosing "cases," or deciding upon the empirical phenomenon to which you will apply the theoretical perspective or argument (including where to find data).
A common problem seen in theory application assignments is failing to substantiate claims, or making a statement that is not backed up with evidence or details ("proof"). When you make a statement or a claim, ask yourself, "How do I know this?" What evidence can you marshal to support your claim? Put this evidence in your paper (and remember to cite your sources). Similarly, be careful about making overly strong or broad claims based on insufficient evidence. For example, you probably don't want to make a claim about how Americans feel about having a black president based on a poll of UW undergraduates. You may also want to be careful about making authoritative (conclusive) claims about broad social phenomena based on a single case study.
In addition to un- or under-substantiated claims, another problem that students often encounter when writing these types of papers is lack of clarity regarding "voice," or whose ideas they are presenting. The reader is left wondering whether a given statement represents the view of the theorist, the student, or an author who wrote about the case. Be careful to identify whose views and ideas you are presenting. For example, you could write, "Marx views class conflict as the engine of history;" or, "I argue that American politics can best be understood through the lens of class conflict;" or, "According to Ehrenreich, Walmart employees cannot afford to purchase Walmart goods."
Another common problem that students encounter is the trap of excessive summarization. They spend the majority of their papers simply summarizing (regurgitating the details) of a case—much like a book report. One way to avoid this is to remember that theory indicates which details (or variables) of a case are most relevant, and to focus your discussion on those aspects. A second strategy is to make sure that you relate the details of the case in an analytical fashion. You might do this by stating an assumption of Marxist theory, such as "man's ideas come from his material conditions," and then summarizing evidence from your case on that point. You could organize the details of the case into paragraphs and start each paragraph with an analytical sentence about how the theory relates to different aspects of the case.
Some theory application papers require that you choose your own case (an empirical phenomenon, trend, situation, etc.), whereas others specify the case for you (e.g., ask you to apply conflict theory to explain some aspect of globalization described in an article). Many students find choosing their own case rather challenging. Some questions to guide your choice are:
- Can I obtain sufficient data with relative ease on my case?
- Is my case specific enough? If your subject matter is too broad or abstract, it becomes both difficult to gather data and challenging to apply the theory.
- Is the case an interesting one? Professors often prefer that you avoid examples used by the theorist themselves, those used in lectures and sections, and those that are extremely obvious.
Where You Can Find Data
Data is collected by many organizations (e.g., commercial, governmental, nonprofit, academic) and can frequently be found in books, reports, articles, and online sources. The UW libraries make your job easy: on the front page of the library website (www.lib.washington.edu), in the left hand corner you will see a list of options under the heading "Find It" that allows you to go directly to databases, specific online journals, newspapers, etc. For example, if you are choosing a historical case, you might want to access newspaper articles. This has become increasingly easy to do, as many are now online through the UW library. For example, you can search The New York Times and get full-text online for every single issue from 1851 through today! If you are interested in interview or observational data, you might try to find books or articles that are case-studies on your topic of interest by conducting a simple keyword search of the UW library book holdings, or using an electronic database, such as JSTOR or Sociological Abstracts. Scholarly articles are easy to search through, since they contain abstracts, or paragraphs that summarize the topic, relevant literature, data and methods, and major findings. When using JSTOR, you may want to limit your search to sociology (which includes 70 journals) and perhaps political science; this database retrieves full-text articles. Sociological Abstracts will cast a wider net searching many more sociology journals, but the article may or may not be available online (find out by clicking "check for UW holdings"). A final word about using academic articles for data: remember that you need to cite your sources, and follow the instructions of your assignment. This includes making your own argument about your case, not using an argument you find in a scholarly article.
In addition, there are many data sources online. For example, you can get data from the US census, including for particular neighborhoods, from a number of cites. You can get some crime data online: the Seattle Police Department publishes several years' worth of crime rates. There are numerous cites on public opinion, including gallup.com. There is an online encyclopedia on Washington state history, including that of individual Seattle neighborhoods (www.historylink.org). These are just a couple options: a simple google search will yield hundreds more. Finally, remember that librarian reference desks are expert on data sources, and that you can call, email, or visit in person to ask about what data is available on your particular topic. You can chat with a librarian 24 hours a day online, as well (see the "Ask Us!" link on the front page of UW libraries website for contact information).
 By empirical phenomena, we mean some sort of observed, real-world conditions. These include societal trends, events, or outcomes. They are sometimes referred to as "cases." Return to Reading
 A cautionary note about critiquing theories: no social theory explains all cases, so avoid claiming that a single case "disproves" a theory, or that a single case "proves" a theory correct. Moreover, if you choose a case that disconfirms a theory, you should be careful that the case falls within the scope conditions (see above) of the given theory. For example, if a theorist specifies that her argument pertains to economic transactions, it would not be a fair critique to say the theory doesn't explain dynamics within a family. On the other hand, it is useful and interesting to apply theories to cases not foreseen by the original theorist (we see this in sociological theories that incorporate theories from evolutionary biology or economics). Return to Reading
 By empirical evidence, we mean data on social phenomena, derived from scientific observation or experiment. Empirical evidence may be quantitative (e.g., statistical data) or qualitative (e.g., descriptions derived from systematic observation or interviewing), or a mixture of both. Empirical evidence must be observable and derived from real-world conditions (present or historical) rather than hypothetical or "imagined". For additional help, see the "Where You Can Find Data" section on the next page. Return to Reading
 If your instructor does not want you to use the first-person, you could write, "This paper argues…" Return to Reading
- Summarize understandings of the family as presented by functional, conflict, and social interactionist theories.
Sociological views on today’s families generally fall into the functional, conflict, and social interactionist approaches introduced earlier in this book. Let’s review these views, which are summarized in Table 15.1 “Theory Snapshot”.
Table 15.1 Theory Snapshot
|Theoretical perspective||Major assumptions|
|Functionalism||The family performs several essential functions for society. It socializes children, it provides emotional and practical support for its members, it helps regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction, and it provides its members with a social identity. In addition, sudden or far-reaching changes in the family’s structure or processes threaten its stability and weaken society.|
|Conflict||The family contributes to social inequality by reinforcing economic inequality and by reinforcing patriarchy. The family can also be a source of conflict, including physical violence and emotional cruelty, for its own members.|
|Symbolic interactionism||The interaction of family members and intimate couples involves shared understandings of their situations. Wives and husbands have different styles of communication, and social class affects the expectations that spouses have of their marriages and of each other. Romantic love is the common basis for American marriages and dating relationships, but it is much less common in several other contemporary nations.|
Social Functions of the Family
Recall that the functional perspective emphasizes that social institutions perform several important functions to help preserve social stability and otherwise keep a society working. A functional understanding of the family thus stresses the ways in which the family as a social institution helps make society possible. As such, the family performs several important functions.
First, the family is the primary unit for socializing children. As previous chapters indicated, no society is possible without adequate socialization of its young. In most societies, the family is the major unit in which socialization happens. Parents, siblings, and, if the family is extended rather than nuclear, other relatives all help socialize children from the time they are born.
Second, the family is ideally a major source of practical and emotional support for its members. It provides them food, clothing, shelter, and other essentials, and it also provides them love, comfort, help in times of emotional distress, and other types of intangible support that we all need.
Third, the family helps regulate sexual activity and sexual reproduction. All societies have norms governing with whom and how often a person should have sex. The family is the major unit for teaching these norms and the major unit through which sexual reproduction occurs. One reason for this is to ensure that infants have adequate emotional and practical care when they are born. The incest taboo that most societies have, which prohibits sex between certain relatives, helps minimize conflict within the family if sex occurred among its members and to establish social ties among different families and thus among society as a whole.
Fourth, the family provides its members with a social identity. Children are born into their parents’ social class, race and ethnicity, religion, and so forth. As we have seen in earlier chapters, social identity is important for our life chances. Some children have advantages throughout life because of the social identity they acquire from their parents, while others face many obstacles because the social class or race/ethnicity into which they are born is at the bottom of the social hierarchy.
Beyond discussing the family’s functions, the functional perspective on the family maintains that sudden or far-reaching changes in conventional family structure and processes threaten the family’s stability and thus that of society. For example, most sociology and marriage-and-family textbooks during the 1950s maintained that the male breadwinner–female homemaker nuclear family was the best arrangement for children, as it provided for a family’s economic and child-rearing needs. Any shift in this arrangement, they warned, would harm children and by extension the family as a social institution and even society itself. Textbooks no longer contain this warning, but many conservative observers continue to worry about the impact on children of working mothers and one-parent families. We return to their concerns shortly.
One of the most important functions of the family is the socialization of children. In most societies the family is the major unit through which socialization occurs.
The Family and Conflict
Conflict theorists agree that the family serves the important functions just listed, but they also point to problems within the family that the functional perspective minimizes or overlooks altogether.
First, the family as a social institution contributes to social inequality in several ways. The social identity it gives to its children does affect their life chances, but it also reinforces a society’s system of stratification. Because families pass along their wealth to their children, and because families differ greatly in the amount of wealth they have, the family helps reinforce existing inequality. As it developed through the centuries, and especially during industrialization, the family also became more and more of a patriarchal unit (see earlier discussion), helping to ensure men’s status at the top of the social hierarchy.
Second, the family can also be a source of conflict for its own members. Although the functional perspective assumes the family provides its members emotional comfort and support, many families do just the opposite and are far from the harmonious, happy groups depicted in the 1950s television shows. Instead, and as the news story that began this chapter tragically illustrated, they argue, shout, and use emotional cruelty and physical violence. We return to family violence later in this chapter.
Families and Social Interaction
Social interactionist perspectives on the family examine how family members and intimate couples interact on a daily basis and arrive at shared understandings of their situations. Studies grounded in social interactionism give us a keen understanding of how and why families operate the way they do.
Some studies, for example, focus on how husbands and wives communicate and the degree to which they communicate successfully (Tannen, 2001). A classic study by Mirra Komarovsky (1964) found that wives in blue-collar marriages liked to talk with their husbands about problems they were having, while husbands tended to be quiet when problems occurred. Such gender differences seem less common in middle-class families, where men are better educated and more emotionally expressive than their working-class counterparts. Another classic study by Lillian Rubin (1976) found that wives in middle-class families say that ideal husbands are ones who communicate well and share their feelings, while wives in working-class families are more apt to say that ideal husbands are ones who do not drink too much and who go to work every day.
Other studies explore the role played by romantic love in courtship and marriage. Romantic love, the feeling of deep emotional and sexual passion for someone, is the basis for many American marriages and dating relationships, but it is actually uncommon in many parts of the contemporary world today and in many of the societies anthropologists and historians have studied. In these societies, marriages are arranged by parents and other kin for economic reasons or to build alliances, and young people are simply expected to marry whoever is chosen for them. This is the situation today in parts of India, Pakistan, and other developing nations and was the norm for much of the Western world until the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Lystra, 1989).
- The family ideally serves several functions for society. It socializes children, provides practical and emotional support for its members, regulates sexual reproduction, and provides its members with a social identity.
- Reflecting conflict theory’s emphases, the family may also produce several problems. In particular, it may contribute for several reasons to social inequality, and it may subject its members to violence, arguments, and other forms of conflict.
- Social interactionist understandings of the family emphasize how family members interact on a daily basis. In this regard, several studies find that husbands and wives communicate differently in certain ways that sometimes impede effective communication.
For Your Review
- As you think how best to understand the family, do you favor the views and assumptions of functional theory, conflict theory, or social interactionist theory? Explain your answer.
- Do you think the family continues to serve the function of regulating sexual behavior and sexual reproduction? Why or why not?
Komarovsky, M. (1964). Blue-collar marriage. New York, NY: Random House.
Lystra, K. (1989). Searching the heart: Women, men, and romantic love in nineteenth-century America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Rubin, L. B. (1976). Worlds of pain: Life in the working-class family. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Tannen, D. (2001). You just don’t understand: Women and men in conversation. New York, NY: Quill.
This is a derivative of Sociology: Understanding and Changing the Social World by a publisher who has requested that they and the original author not receive attribution, which was originally released and is used under CC BY-NC-SA. This work, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.