Since the founding of the department at UCR in the 1950s, theory has been a strong area in the department. While sociological theory is highly eclectic, most of those working in theory specialization are committed to the epistemology of science and to the development of general models and principles in explaining the dynamics of the social universe. This emphasis is at the core of what the department teaches, but at the same time the department does offer courses in the history of sociological ideas and in critical theoretical approaches to understanding the social world. Still, the specialty is built around scientific explanation more than alternative approaches. Students who specialize in theory will be expected to have a firm grasp of the classical theorists in sociology—particularly Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, Emile Durkheim, and George Herbert Mead but, potentially, others as well.

This base is to be supplemented by a thorough knowledge of contemporary theoretical perspectives and key figures working within these perspectives.

Within the theory specialization is a special sub-specialization in evolutionary sociology. This sub-specialization examines long-term cycles and stages of societal and inter-societal development, the rise and demise of world-systems, neurosociology, evolutionary psychology, cross-species comparisons, and more generally, analysis of the biological basis of human behavior and interaction, and social organization. This sub-specialty is oriented toward cross-disciplinary collaborations with other social sciences as well as with the natural sciences.

Each year, one and often more seminars are offered on a broad array of topics in theory with the goal of the program in theory to produce very broadly trained theorists who know the entire range of theoretical sociology, particularly across its scientific wing. Also included are more critical theorists and those less committed to the epistemology of science. Moreover, seminars in other areas of specialization outside of theory are often used to meet requirements for the theory specialization. There are, for example, courses in the Social Psychology, Political Economy and Global Social Change, and Gender Studies specialties that can be taken by students preparing for examinations in theory that follow the standardized procedures of the department.