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SOC 352 Chapter 2

SOC 352 Chapter 2 - HARPMC02_0131884980.QXD 12:01 AM Page...

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Our first chapter would lead you to believe that we’re going to provide a descriptive treatment of social change in the United States and elsewhere. Your hunch is true, but we’re also interested in discussing change in light of more general explanations— theories—that explain how societies work and how change comes about. Put simply, theory refers to how you explain things. Theories are general explanations that 13 The Causes and Patterns of Change Chapter 2 Big construction projects are symbols of the human capacity to produce change through cooperation. A Presidential inaguration is the type of symbolic political event that creates great expectations for change. HARPMC02_0131884980.QXD 11/7/06 12:01 AM Page 13
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14 Chapter 2 enable us to make sense of particular facts and events. They answer our questions about how and why things happen or develop the way that they do. The word theory usually has negative connotations in popular American usage: If something is described as “theoretical,” it usually means that it is overly abstract, impractical, too idealistic, unclear, or removed from any everyday significance. But theories are essential to everyday life and any scholarly or scientific enterprise. Without being aware of it, we theorize about things all the time. Science involves not only the collection of facts and data, but also attempts to provide coherent explanations about why the facts are arranged as they are. The real goal of any science is to discern meaningful patterns that explain things rather than to produce particular bodies of facts or evidence. Such explanations supported by empirical evidence are the ultimate goal of science, even though this goal is very elusive in short-run practical terms. There are usually competing theories and unfortunately the facts do not speak for themselves but have to be interpreted. More formally, a scientific theory is an abstract explanatory scheme that is potentially open to disconfirmation by evidence. The abstract quality means the explanation is composed of generalizations not tied to particular events. THEORY IN SOCIOLOGY Social science, like all science, assumes that events are not entirely random and that, in spite of the complexity and apparent unpredictability of the social world, there is at least a degree of order and predictability that underlies these appearances. Any sci- entific attempt to understand social change is centrally concerned with theories about change. Given the complexities of the social world, social scientists often use models, which are simplified theories shorn of much elaboration and detail. Models and theories always contain assumptions, beliefs about human nature and the human condition that are not testable in a strict scientific sense. Assumptions represent the starting point or basic building blocks for building the theory or model.
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