Major Perspectives in Sociology

Perspectives in Sociology

There is no clearly identifiable date when sociological theory began. However, the mid-to-late 1800s marks the period when social thought turned to what we today call sociology. There are currently three major theoretical paradigms in sociology: the structural-functionalist paradigm, the social conflict paradigm, and the symbolic-interactionist paradigm (Babbie 1994). No one of these three perspectives is singularly “right” or “wrong.” Each provides a different way to view and analyze society. They can reveal different issues and suggest different answers to tackling any problems they identify. Two of the major paradigms, the structural-functionalist, and the social-conflict perspective, take a macro perspective on society. The third perspective, symbolic-interactionism, takes a micro perspective.

Perspectives in Sociology
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Structural-functionalism is the earliest sociological paradigm. It is rooted in the scientific advances of the physical sciences occurring in the nineteenth century. Based on these advances, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) approached the study of social structures through an “organic analogy” that emphasized evolutionary laws (Spencer 1898). In this model, Spencer viewed society as being similar to a body.

In the most simplistic terms, just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society (the economy, the polity, health care, education, etc.) work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated. Spencer also saw similarities in the way physical bodies and societies evolve. Spencer actually coined the term survival of the fittest, which is often incorrectly attributed to evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin. Spencer influenced early French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), who is profiled in chapter 10. Durkheim took this organic analogy and refined it into a perspective that would become structural functionalism. The perspective is also called functionalism, or the functionalist paradigm. This paradigm views society as a complex system of interrelated parts working together to maintain stability (Parsons 1951; Turner and Maryanski 1979). According to this perspective; (1) a social system’s parts are interdependent; (2) the system has a “normal” healthy state of equilibrium, analogous to a healthy body; and (3) when disturbed, the system parts reorganize and readjust to bring the system back to a state of equilibrium (Wallace and Wolf 1999, 18). Any changes in society occur in structured, evolutionary ways. Durkheim realized that society influences our human actions but that society is also something that exists beyond individuals. He felt that society must be studied and understood in terms of what he called social facts. These social facts include laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and the myriad cultural and social rules governing social life. Durkheim (1964b) saw this system of social facts as making up the structure of society. He was interested in how these social facts are related to each other. He was also interested in the function each of the parts of a social system fulfill as well as how societies manage to remain stable or change. In other words, how do social facts fit together? What needs do the various parts of society serve? What part does each segment of society play in keeping the system operating and balanced? How and why do systems change? Functionalism has been very influential in sociology. It was especially popular in the United States when championed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–79) during the 1940s and 1950s. Parsons, profiled below, is known for his grand theory, an abstract level of theorizing that tried to explain the entire social structure at once and was difficult, if not impossible, to test through research.

Robert K. Merton (1910–2003), Parsons’s student, who is also profiled below, turned away from these grand theories in favor of what he called theories of the middle-range. These middle-range theories are theories that are more limited and can be tested through research. They explain, for example, deviant behavior (further discussed in chapter 6), public opinion, or how power is transmitted between generations. He also showed that social patterns are complex, with the various parts of society fulfilling different types of functions. Some functions, which Merton called manifest functions, are obvious and intended. Other functions, called latent functions, are less recognized and unintended. These functions may be either beneficial or neutral. However, some functions may be undesirable. These are called social dysfunctions.

A simple illustration of these concepts is the widespread use of cars in America and many other countries (Macionis 1995, 17). Cars provide transportation and status. Both are manifest functions. Cars also provide personal autonomy, allowing drivers to come and go as they please, on their own schedules. This is a latent function of the vehicular transportation system as it currently exists. However, cars also pollute the environment. Thus, relying on cars as a major means of transportation is also dysfunctional in that regard.

Structural-functionalists also recognize that as one part of the system changes, other parts of the system have to readjust to accommodate the change that has taken place elsewhere. A change in one part of the system may have manifest, latent, and dysfunctional consequences. An example of a change that has had a number of consequences is the addition of lighting at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Wrigley Field is the home stadium of the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team. All games at Wrigley Field traditionally had to be played during daylight hours because the field did not have lighting for nighttime games. In 1988, lights were added to the field as a result of a lengthy and contentious process aimed at generating income and reviving the economy in the immediate area of the field.

Examining the Lake View neighborhood around Wrigley Field as a social system allows application of a functionalist perspective to this situation. Nighttime games can now be played at the field. This one change resulted in a number of other complicated neighborhood effects (Spirou and Bennett 2002).

The Cubs have a more flexible schedule and can take economic advantage of televised evening programming, thus achieving the manifest function of lighting the field. A number of other manifest and latent functions can also be noted. For example, the nighttime games have resulted in needed new investments in the surrounding area, population growth, and an acceleration of residential investments by affluent buyers. Sports-oriented businesses catering to a younger crowd, such as sports bars, have flourished. However, dysfunctions have also occurred. Some smaller businesses not catering to the baseball trade have suffered. For example, pharmacies, bookstores, dry cleaners, and restaurants have seen business decline as bar business increased. Automobile traffic around the ballpark has also increased, and area residents and businesses have been faced with more elaborate parking restrictions.

According to its critics, the functionalist focus on social order cannot adequately explain social change. They also argue that this focus on order discounts the conflicts and tensions that exist within society and downplays the impact of factors such as race, class, and gender that impact our lives and social positions. Some critics feel that the perspective also ignores the importance of small-scale, micro-level interactions. Structural-functionalism is also criticized as being tautological, meaning that it makes circular arguments. This criticism says functionalists argue that, because something exists, it serves a function for the system, and thus it exists. Such a view fails to satisfactorily explain how social structures arise in the first place. Functionalism lost favor in American sociology during the social upheavals of the 1960s. During the mid-1980s, there was resurgence in interest in Parsons’s work. Theorists, including Jeffrey C. Alexander (1998) and Neil Smelser (e.g., 1985) (profiled in chapter 9) in the United States and Niklas Luhmann (1982) in Germany, who is profiled below, revisited Parson’s perspectives on social systems. Their work became classified as neofunctionalism.

This new twist on the old theory draws on Parsons’s basic premises. Neofunctionalism expands the perspective by trying to respond to critics in such ways as incorporating some of the ideas of conflict theorists and also recognizing the importance of the micro perspective. Neofunctionalists argued that by rethinking some of the basics of functionalism and focusing on how it links with micro perspectives, much of this criticism can be overcome (e.g., Turner 2001). Structuralfunctionalism is also still widely used in sociological studies of the family (Mann et al. 1997, 340).

Conflict Perspective

The other major macro-sociological theoretical framework in sociological theory is the social-conflict paradigm, also referred to as the conflict perspective. Social-conflict theory focuses on competition between groups.

Whereas functionalists focus on balance and stability within a social system, conflict theorists view society as comprised of social relations characterized by inequality and change. According to conflict theorists, groups are constantly competing for unequally distributed resources, such as wealth and power, with each group seeking to benefit their own interests. In this scenario, one or a few groups control these resources at the expense of others. Thus, these theorists look at social structures and ask, “Who benefits?” This constant conflict between groups also results in social change.

Conflict theories did not arise with sociology. As Randall Collins points out, much of the history of the world is a history of conflict. This perspective has appeared repeatedly when social thinkers have written about what happened in society and the “whys” behind those events (Collins 1994, 48–49). In this tradition, conflict sociologists look at historical material and patterns of long-term change. They also now look at the world globally, for example, through the world-systems perspective discussed in chapter 7 on stratification. The works of Karl Marx (1818–83) are often credited with providing the sociological roots of the conflict perspective. Marx (profiled below) was born in Prussia, now Germany, during the stormy period in which western Europe was transitioning from feudalism to capitalism. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Marx observed inequality throughout the growing capitalist society.

The economics of capitalism, he felt, resulted in social classes that were constantly in competition for society’s limited resources. Marx saw rich factory owners who obtained their wealth from the labor of factory workers who were paid little, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions, and frequently lived in crowded and unhealthy spaces. Society, as Marx saw it, was an ongoing struggle between the classes: the “haves” (illustrated by the factory owners) and the “have nots” (illustrated by the workers). The result was social conflict and change as those without resources challenged those holding the resources for a piece of the proverbial pie.

Later conflict theorists have extended and adapted this idea of continuous tension between groups. They have moved well beyond Marx’s emphasis on class and economics, focusing on other areas such as inequality between races or sexes. This wider look at social inequalities has provided the basis for feminist theory. To be a feminist theory, “a theory must recognize gender as a system of inequality, assume that it is a mutable rather than constant or necessary feature of human societies, and [support] a commitment to a gender equitable system” (Chafetz 2001, 613). In other words, feminist theories argue that social systems oppress women and that this oppression can and should be eliminated. Feminists, however, differ greatly in their views on why inequality occurs and how to overcome it (Andersen 1993). Drawing from Marx’s emphasis on economics, Marxist feminism argues that capitalist economic structures favor men—for example, with higher paying jobs. Solutions rely on eliminating capitalism as the source of the problem. Liberal feminism argues that inequality lies in a lack of opportunity and education for women as well as traditional views of gender that limit women’s roles. Liberal feminists feel that if women are allowed to compete equally with men in all areas of society, they will do so successfully (Lorber 1998). Radical feminism argues that, regardless of economic system and other inequalities women face in their lives (e.g., racism), male domination is the most fundamental and violence is one key method of controlling women. Solutions lie in eliminating all forms of sexual violence and enhancing women’s culture and lives.

In the United States, feminism evolved as women sought the right to an education and joined the abolitionist movements of the 1800s. Many early female sociologists, including Jane Addams (profiled in chapter 11), Harriet Martineau (profiled in chapter 1), and Ida Wells-Barnett (also profiled in chapter 1) participated in this “first wave” of the women’s movement, as did some male sociologists. The second wave of feminism was established amid the social movements of the 1960s, when conflict theory overall was gaining popularity. Many changes were occurring in women’s lives (e.g., increasing women’s labor-force participation, the development of the birth-control pill) during that decade with sociologists such as Jessie Bernard (profiled below) embracing the movement. An additional dimension has also been added to feminist perspectives. Many feminists from the 1960s were educated, white, and middle class. Today, feminist writings have expanded to encompass women of diverse backgrounds (e.g., Collins 2000) as well as the concerns of globalization and the circumstances of women in less developed countries. A multicultural global feminism has developed that recognizes the need to include the diversity of women’s voices by other characteristics such as race, ethnicity, class, age, sexual orientation, and able-bodiedness. Sociologists such as Patricia Hill Collins (profiled below) and Dorothy Smith (profiled in chapter 10) focus on what feminism brings to sociological theory and our understanding of society.

Critics have charged that the conflict perspective has become too politicized by its association with Marx and by its widespread use by advocates in numerous causes and movements. The women’s movement and feminist theory provides one example of its co-optation for political use. Critics also argue that the conflict perspective downplays the unity that exists in society and takes a negative view of society by overemphasizing conflicts, tensions, and coercion. At this writing, conflict theory is widely used in American sociology. It began to unseat functionalism as the dominant sociological paradigm with challenges C. Wright Mills (profiled in chapter 1) and others made to Parsons’s theory in the late 1950s, and grew in popularity during the social turmoil of the 1960s. The social-conflict perspective is sometimes combined with elements of micro-level theories to offer a more robust view of social life.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is the prevailing micro-theoretical framework in sociological theory. As a micro-level perspective, symbolic interactionism focuses on patterns of individual interactions.

Although sociologists working in this tradition recognize that larger social structures exist and are important in shaping our lives, they point out that society is actually created by people interacting together on a daily basis. It is these smaller interactions that actually make up the larger social structures that are of the focus of functionalists and conflict theorists. According to this perspective, society and these larger social structures must be understood through studying social interactions that are based on shared understandings, languages, and symbols. A symbol is something that stands for, represents, or signifies something else in a particular culture. Symbols can be anything—gestures, words, objects, or events—and they can represent any number of others things, ideas, events, or emotions. (Symbols are discussed in chapter 3.) Symbolic interactionists argue that we are able to interact with others because we create symbols and learn to interpret what those symbols mean in our interactions. Thus, symbolic interactionism is sometimes referred to as interpretive theory. Social change occurs as people develop a shared understanding that a change needs to take place and interact to make that change happen.

Symbolic interactionism is based partly on the writings of German sociologist Max Weber (1864 1920), profiled below. Unlike other sociologists who had focused only on large structural relationships, Weber was also interested in how individuals interact. The aspect of his work that influenced the symbolic-interactionist perspective was his focus on how we interpret and understand the situations we encounter and the interactions in which we participate. To Weber, the concept of verstehen, or subjective understanding, was central to explaining human behavior. Weber felt that we have to be able to take someone else’s position mentally, to stand in their shoes, so to speak, to understand their actions. From our own perspectives, we may not understand why a person acts in a certain way, what that behavior means to them, or the purposes it serves for them. For example, we may only be able to explain why an abused wife stays with her violent husband by understanding the totality of her situation from her perspective—her emotional attachment to him, her economic situation, her religious views, and so on.

Although it has German roots, symbolic interaction is a “distinctively American tradition . . . [and America’s] most original contribution to sociological thought” (Collins 1994, 242). The perspective was developed during the 1920s by George Herbert Mead (1863–1931). Mead (profiled in chapter 4) was a philosopher and social psychologist who was interested in how our personalities are formed through social interaction. The term symbolic interactionism was, however, not actually coined until a decade later. Herbert Blumer (1900–1987), a student of Mead profiled in chapter 9, expanded on Mead’s concepts and introduced the term in 1937. More contemporary theorists expanded symbolic interactionism in new directions. For example, labeling theory (discussed in chapter 6) analyzes how we define deviance. Other perspectives that incorporate interpretative approaches to understanding social behaviors include the concept of the social construction of reality, Erving Goffman’s (1922 82) concept of dramaturgy, and Harold Garfinkel’s (1917–) work in ethnomethodology (all discussed in chapter 4). Sociologists have drawn from interpretative perspectives and even other disciplines to develop more complex theories. For example, rational-choice theories examine how people make choices purposely, based on their preferences and evaluation of options and opportunities (Voss and Abraham 2000). In simple terms, of all the options or courses of action a person sees as being available, they act based on a calculation of pros and cons. Related to rational choice theories, exchange theories assume that people interact and trade the resources (money, affections, etc.) that they bring to interactions in ways that maximize benefits and reduce costs to themselves (Homans 1974; Blau 1964; Cook 1987; Coleman and Fararo 1992). These theories can become complex as they examine how people weigh such factors as perceived costs and benefits, the personal resources they can rely on (money, prestige, personal connections, etc.) and other factors in making decisions and determining courses of action.

Critics of symbolic interactionism often argue that the perspective focuses on specific, small-scale situations while overlooking the effects of larger society (e.g., the impacts of class, racial or gender discrimination). The result, they say, is a disregard for the larger social forces at work shaping our lives. Critics also argue that symbolic interactionism focuses on rational and conscious interactions at the expense of considering irrational or unconscious behavior. In American sociology, symbolic interactionism was popular in the early part of the twentieth century. It was widely developed and utilized by sociologists at the University of Chicago, the first American university to have a graduate department of sociology. Functionalism eclipsed the popularity of symbolic interactionism during the 1940s and 1950s. However, symbolic interactionism has continued to evolve and remains an important and vibrant sociological paradigm.


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