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The OCR Glossary

Social Theory

Øyvind Ihlen & Piet Verhoeven

Social theory refers to the use of analytical frameworks for examining society and social phenomena. While the term is often used interchangeably with sociology, it is nonetheless considered to be a broader concept that also includes perspectives from the humanities. Social theory asks questions such as “What is society?” and “What are the driving forces for social change?” It points to socials ills and suggests remedies. Among the main topics it discusses are social systems and agency. Among the many key figures in the field of sociology are Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, John Dewey, Max Weber, Niklas Luhmann, Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jean-François Lyotard.

Social theory includes research streams such as structural functionalism, poststructuralism, symbolic interactionism, critical theory, feminist theory, postmodernist theory, and globalization theory. The approaches are widely disparate concerning most aspects, and it is impossible to give a good and concise overview in a single encyclopedia entry. This entry will thus focus on some implications that social theory has for the study of corporate reputation and the areas of public relations and strategic communication. Choosing a social theoretical approach by implication means that (a) the domain of research includes the social level, (b) a description of society is sought, (c) key concepts like legitimacy and reflection come to the fore, and (d) key issues for research concern power and language. This entry reviews what is encompassed by social theory, the context of social theory, central concepts of social theory, and its linkage to power, communication, and reputation.


Social theory challenges practitioners and scholars to focus on how organizations relate to the public arena or society at large. At the heart of social theory lies the idea that a society comes about through a collective process and that actors should include thinking of the social consequences of their actions, not just the effectiveness of their own actions. This also applies to the strategic use of communication to strengthen reputation. Building on social theory means recognizing both the negative and the positive influences of the practice and taking a step back and evaluating the latter in the social and political sphere.

Prominent social theorists such as Habermas have criticized public relations for undermining the rational debate in the public sphere. A whole strand of books has been published that are critical of how the communication industry and profession further corporate goals. The claim is that this typically happens at the expense of the public interest. In contrast, public relations textbooks have a tendency to present a progressive history of the profession where manipulative, self-interested practice has given way to professional ethical and enlightened communication forms. A sobering look at the practice, such as that suggested by a social theoretical perspective, would indicate that both types of practice exist.

A lot of effort has gone into constructing ethical codes and ethical principles for the practice to handle public relations, strategic communication, and reputation management ethically. Theorists have drawn on ethical theory to suggest different ethical ideals and also suggested that public relations and strategic communication should attempt to make society effective. Here, social theory has an obvious role to play in asking the crucial question “Effective for whom?” In many respects, the strategic use of communication still seems to be put to use for self-interested purposes, often tied to corporate interests, where a key aim is privileging particular meanings and actions and the reputation of the corporation. This is of course only one side of the coin, since strategic communication is also the instrument whereby those opposing corporate exploitation try to improve their reputation as well. The strategic use of communication in itself is not good or bad, but it can be used for good or bad purposes. A research perspective building on social theory recognizes this and serves as a compass for research and for practitioners.


Social theory, in all its facets, also provides a range of different descriptions of society. It calls for an analysis of how society works and questions the value and meaning of what we see around us. Depending on the diagnoses of social ills that are presented, we are provided with views of what is needed for social change. Importantly, communication has increasingly been placed at the center of such analyses. Looking at the larger picture, society has seen several changes in its metanarratives, which have been described as, for instance, a change from a society where individuals act based on tradition to the contemporary, (hyper-)modern society dominated by goal-oriented rationality. Applying means to particular ends, like an engineer constructing a bridge, is central in our society today. Such a view, however, is contrasted by analyses that characterize today’s society more as postmodern and argue that emotional and value-oriented orders coexist with rational ones. Both perspectives are important for studying reputations.

Communication has played a key role in the rise of our current society. It is an increasingly common view that this society is not only maintained by communication but also actually constituted by it. Public relations and the strategic use of communication are therefore closely connected to (hyper-)modernity and postmodernity, especially in the economic context of commercial and administrative organizations, not-for-profit organizations, and nongovernmental organizations. Communication is key to how we come to understand something as “true” when something is declared as a fact, as well as how we interpret that fact and justify our actions. Thus, in much of social theory, there is a focus on how language, communication, and relations (or networks) help us interpret, deconstruct, and reconstruct meaning. In short, constructing social reality is a shared process of meaning construction and the most important context for attempts to strengthen reputation.

Again, social theory often points to social ills. This can, for instance, take the form of self-interested strategic action where private interests dominate and overrule public interests. The remedy here has been a call for communicative action that furthers societal dialogue and consensus. In the writings of Habermas and his proponents in the public relations field, consensus and shared meaning are appreciated. Through rational debate, communicators can address issues of truth, truthfulness, and legitimacy and thus facilitate a “smooth” communication process. Indeed, some scholars see public relations as an important civic instrument. We need it to establish, acquire, and hold on to social capital. Society needs communication systems for collaboration, community, and cohesion.

While most social theorists would agree on the centrality of communication, they do differ in their views of, for instance, the driving forces of society. Bourdieu has argued that society is structured, constituted, and reproduced through individual and collective struggle. Conflict and difference form the fundamental core of human existence in this perspective and not consensus. Foucault harbored similar thoughts in the sense that he wrote about how certain discourse coalitions produce modern knowledge. Power is expressed through these discourses. Other authors have drawn attention to how such power relations find their expression in how risk is distributed in society and how the macrostructure of gender and patriarchy work. Following an analysis that points to social injustice, public relations practitioners in this perspective are urged by some scholars to become activists on behalf of an organization’s publics and to identify and learn to respect differences. Studying the strategic use of communication and its role in oppressing social and political projects then becomes a remedy in itself. In short, using social theory can help develop an ontology—an idea of what exists.


Among the many concepts found in social theory, legitimacy and reflection stand out. The profound social change mentioned earlier is how social authorities, under the influence of postmodern culture, have lost their previous privileged position and how decisions have to be legitimized on a continuous basis. Public relations will thus have to focus on “constituents of thoughts” such as legitimacy and reflection. These are abstract ideas that structure knowledge and are structured by knowledge and are helpful to understand communication at its most fundamental level.

Legitimacy, which has been defined as a justified right to exist, points not only to how communication is needed but also to how organizations are bound by what society finds acceptable. Some scholars thus argue that the most fundamental task of public relations is to see to it that the mission of the organization is considered legitimate. With a fast-changing society, organizations need to keep abreast of and map their environments. Social theory points to the need for reflection, for thinking through the relationship between an organization and society and what that means for the reputation of the organization.

A social theory perspective makes it clear that legitimacy is conferred on an organization by different publics and hence it cannot be managed. This leads to the conclusion that public relations has to do with the negotiation of knowledge, meaning, and behavior. Such concepts also articulate ideas about what the strategic use of communication is or could be about. This, in turn, can help in strengthening reputation.


Concerns or issues can be defined as matters of discussion. Put differently, issues are facts in the making. Concerns and issues can also lead to creative and fruitful discussions, in part as a result of involving the concepts discussed earlier. As already illustrated, power is a concern singled out by social theory. We have to use language to think and talk about what we consider to be reality and what we consider to be true. Framing and thereby using certain words instead of others, certain interpretations and causal relations over others, has implications for power. The processes make public relations, the strategic use of communication and reputation management, inherently political as it establishes and/or reinforces particular truths and power relations.

The articulation of all these particular truths from individuals, groups, and organizations has become increasingly mediated, first since the rise of mass media in the 20th century and second in the past decades with the rise of computer-mediated forms of (social) communication. Meaning construction nowadays increasingly takes place and materializes in the interplay between the traditional mass media and the new social media systems, often on a global scale. Apart from the intentions of the communicating actors, all these messages and communications have a dynamic of their own that influences the meaning construction process and the meaning that is constructed about an issue. New research methods are necessary to study this complex process of meaning construction and the dynamics of communication in the field of public relations and the strategic use of communication.

Linkage to Power, Communication, and Reputation

To be able to strengthen corporate reputation in a sustainable and ethical manner, it is necessary to think beyond instrumental approaches and what is immediately useful for an organization. Corporations need to create legitimacy, something that might be achieved by reflecting on what demands society poses. Social theory calls attention to the negotiation around knowledge, meaning, and behavior in this sense. That is, issues of power and language follow. Social theory can help provide a basic understanding of the societal role of a corporation and its communication practice and the ethical and political consequences stemming from this.

Beck, U. (1992). Risk society: Towards a new modernity. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The logic of practice (R. Nice, Trans.). Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Dillon, M. (2010). Introduction to sociological theory: Theorists, concepts, and their applicability to the twenty-first century. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Elliott, A. (2014). Contemporary social theory: An introduction (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Elliott, A., & Turner, B. S. (Eds.). (2001). Profiles in contemporary social theory. London: Sage.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. New York: Pantheon Books.

Habermas, J. (1984). The theory of communicative action (Vol. 1). Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Holtzhausen, D. R. (2012). Public relations as activism: Postmodern approaches to theory & practice. New York: Routledge.

Ihlen, Ø., & Verhoeven, P. (2014). Social theories for strategic communication. In D. R. Holtzhausen & A. Zerfass (Eds.), The Routledge handbook of strategic communication (pp. 127–140). New York: Routledge.

Smith, D. E. (1988). The everyday world as problematic: A feminist sociology. Milton Keynes, UK: Open University Press.

See Also

Communication Strategy; Legitimacy; Public Relations

See Also

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