Using Puzzle Construction to Understand the Role of Theory in Sociology

By Caroline Hodges Persell

Inspired by Kathe Lowney, Valdosta State University, 2001. "Puzzling Over Theoretical Perspectives." Pp. 3-5 in Kathleen McKinney, Frank D. Beck, and Barbara S. Heyl (Eds.), Sociology Through Active Learning: Student Exercises. First Edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.

        Students are often uncertain and anxious about sociological theory.  One way to ease that anxiety is to suggest that theories are analogous to strategies for making jigsaw puzzles.  When people face a large number of seemingly unrelated pieces in a puzzle, they need some basis for organizing them.

Setting up Puzzle

Frequently they begin by sorting by color.

Beginning to order pieces

Further order

Then they may try to find all the edge pieces and complete the frame of the puzzle.  They may also be guided by the picture on the box.
framing the puzzle

Sociological theory operates in an analogous fashion.  It helps us to forge order out of chaos.  Theory provides frames of reference for organizing data.  It helps make sense, or meaning, out of all those little bits of everyday life.