Over the last year I have read and listened to many views and opinions on CRT. In an effort to not be redundant since the previous contributors to this series provided a lot of information and thoughtful commentary on CRT, I hope to contribute to the conversation as not only a Christian but as a sociologist by profession. My contribution will consist of two parts. Part I is a discussion on four precursors on sociological theory one should know before approaching CRT. Since CRT is arguably a sociological theory, understanding sociological theory might be helpful in how we engage it. Part II is a discussion on four precursors on critical theory one should know before approaching CRT and a final admonishment for Christians.
I was a sophomore at a community college when I first heard of sociology. Sitting in class one day, my instructor grabbed my attention as she examined, analyzed, and explained the nuances of everyday social experiences that produced fascinating outcomes. What I remember most is learning about socialization and how who we were as individual persons had come from a host of influences such as our families, the media, and even our neighborhoods. I was intrigued and that intrigue began my path as a sociologist. After graduation, I enrolled in a Historically Black University and majored in sociology where I learned graduate social theory and became familiar with how sociologists like Karl Marx and Max Weber understood society. Two years later, I enrolled at Mississippi State University to pursue a Master of Science in sociology with an emphasis in social stratification and eventually graduated and became a sociology instructor. I have spent the last 14 years studying sociology, understanding the discipline, and the last 7 years teaching students at community colleges in Mississippi, Tennessee, and now North Carolina.
Within the last 14 years of engaging the discipline of sociology, I have spent time engaging sociological theory. Thus, I propose that there are four things you should know about sociological theories before engaging CRT that might be helpful.
1. Sociological theories are suggestions on how to see the world.
Sociologists use theories to observe, describe, and explain social patterns or phenomena (Macionis). For example, if a sociologist notices that women have higher rates of poverty, he or she might propose a theory to explain why more women have higher rates of poverty. Theories are proposals provided by sociologists that attempt to provide reasons for what we see in society. They provide possible explanations but are not mandated and are capable of being disproved. Basic sociological theories do not command allegiance nor do they yield authority to be followed and obeyed. Instead, a sociological theory is an option for understanding social patterns. While some sociologists will communicate their theories as absolute truth and warrant your full devotion and dedication to supporting their theories, this is sometimes more about the person than theory.
2. Sociological theories show us what to look for.
Theories tell researchers what to look for. Some sociologists refer to sociological theories as kaleidoscopes. A theory therefore can be explained “as a sort of kaleidoscope-by shifting theoretical perspective the world under investigation also changes shape...theories are like the lenses of the kaleidoscope; when you slot different ones into place things you could not see before suddenly become visible; patterns that were distinct become sharper...the role of theory is precisely to make things that were hidden visible, to define some patterns and give some meanings to the sorts of observations that social researchers continually make when investigating society” (Gilbert). Thus theories give a way of seeing things we might not otherwise notice.
3. Sociological theories morph into a multitude of ideas and assertions.
There are three foundational theories in sociology: structural functional theory, symbolic interactionist theory, and social-conflict theory. Over time these theories have given rise to a number of other theories multiplying the possible explanations for social patterns. The nature of a theory is to evolve. Theories take on new meanings and identities usually based on the proposer of the theory. This means that it is possible for two people to use one theory but expand both what the theory means and what the theory intends to assert.
4. Sociological theories are descriptive but are used with research orientations that aim at prescribing solutions.
Forming and utilizing theory is an early step in understanding social patterns. But theories are followed up with sociological research that usually involves three specific research orientations. One orientation, which is of importance to our conversation on Critical Race Theory is the critical orientation or critical sociology. Critical sociology is the study of society that focuses on the need for social change” (Macionis). This means two things. First, all sociological theories do not aim at social change. In fact, many critical sociologists criticize other research orientations for accepting the status quo and not seeking to change society. Second, sociological theories can involve both description and prescriptions for social change but we can choose not to accept their prescription without discrediting the description.
Hopefully, these precursors will help you as you think about engaging with sociological theory.
- Macionis, John J. Sociology, 15th Edition . Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2014.
- Gilbert, Nigel, ed. Researching Social Life. California: New Sage, 1993.
- Poythress, Vern S. Redeeming Sociology. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011.
- Denzin, Norman K., ed. The Values of Social Science. United States: Aldine. 1970.
- Royce, Edward. Classical Social Theory and Modern Society: Marx, Durkheim, Weber. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015.
- Kendall, Diana. Social Problems in a Diverse Society. 5th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012.