Kenneth Allan proposed the distinction between sociological theory and social theory. In Allan's usage, sociological theory consists of abstract and testable propositions about society. It often heavily relies on the scientific method, which aims for objectivity, and attempts to avoid passing value judgments. In contrast, social theory, according to Allan, focuses on commentary and critique of modern society rather than explanation. Social theory is often closer to Continental philosophy; thus, it is less concerned with objectivity and derivation of testable propositions, and more likely to pass normative judgments.
Prominent sociological theorists include Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton, Randall Collins, James Samuel Coleman, Peter Blau, Niklas Luhmann, Marshal McLuhan, Immanuel Wallerstein, George Homans, Harrison White, Theda Skocpol, Gerhard Lenski, Pierre van den Berghe and Jonathan H. Turner. Prominent social theorists include: Jürgen Habermas, Anthony Giddens, Michel Foucault, Dorothy Smith, Roberto Unger, Alfred Schütz, Jeffrey Alexander, and Jacques Derrida. There are also prominent scholars who could be seen as being in-between social and sociological theories, such as Harold Garfinkel, Herbert Blumer, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Pierre Bourdieu and Erving Goffman.
The field of sociology itself–and sociological theory by extension–is relatively new. Both date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. The drastic social changes of that period, such as industrialization, urbanization, and the rise of democratic states caused particularly Western thinkers to become aware of society. The oldest sociological theories deal with broad historical processes relating to these changes. Since then, sociological theories have come to encompass most aspects of society, including communities, organizations and relationships.
Overall, there is a strong consensus regarding the central theoretical questions and the central problems that emerge from explicating such questions. Sociological theory attempts to answer the following three questions: (1) What is action? (2) What is social order? and (3) What determines social change? In the myriad attempts to answer these questions, three predominately theoretical (i.e. not empirical) problems emerge. These problems are largely inherited from the classical theoretical traditions. The consensus on the central theoretical problems is: how to link, transcend or cope with the following "big three" dichotomies: subjectivity and objectivity, structure and agency, and synchrony and diachrony. The first deals with knowledge, the second with agency, and the last with time. Lastly, sociological theory often grapples with the problem of integrating or transcending the divide between micro, meso and macro-scale social phenomena, which is a subset of all three central problems. These problems are not altogether empirical problems, rather they are epistemological: they arise from the conceptual imagery and analytical analogies that sociologists use to describe the complexity of social processes.
The problem of subjectivity and objectivity can be divided into a concern over the general possibilities of social actions, and, on the other hand the specific problem of social scientific knowledge. In the former, the subjective is often equated (though not necessarily) with the individual, and the individual's intentions and interpretations of the objective. The objective is often considered any public or external action or outcome, on up to society writ large. A primary question for social theorists, is how knowledge reproduces along the chain of subjective-objective-subjective, that is to say: how is intersubjectivity achieved? While, historically, qualitative methods have attempted to tease out subjective interpretations, quantitative survey methods also attempt to capture individual subjectivities. Also, some qualitative methods take a radical approach to objective description in situ.
The latter concern with scientific knowledge results from the fact that a sociologist is part of the very object they seek to explain. Bourdieu puts this problem rather succinctly:
How can the sociologist effect in practice this radical doubting which is indispensable for bracketing all the presuppositions inherent in the fact that she is a social being, that she is therefore socialized and led to feel "like a fish in water" within that social world whose structures she has internalized? How can she prevent the social world itself from carrying out the construction of the object, in a sense, through her, through these unself-conscious operations or operations unaware of themselves of which she is the apparent subject