SOCIOLOGICAL THEORY –

  1. Read the following guide to the three central theories of sociology.
  2. Choose one social issue or problem that you know something and attempt to apply each theory to the problem.
  3. on what aspect of the problem would your theory focus (i.e. macro structure, micro relationships)?
  4. according to this perspective, what might be considered causal factors?
  5. what might be considered solutions?

SOCIOLOGICAL THEORIES — A LAYPERSON’S GUIDE

Macro Perspectives

Structural Functionalism

Functionalists view society as a stable, well-organized system in which the parts function to maintain the whole. When disequilibrium occurs, there is a tendency for balance to be restored. In general, there is consensus regarding the basic values in a society. These folks are interested in how the various parts of the social system — its major social institutions –function to contribute to the maintenance of social order. When all members of the group perform their roles correctly, based on societal norms, the group is said to be functioning well. The main reason for the existence of social problems is that societies are always changing and having to adapt to new conditions; failure to adapt successfully leads to social problems.

  • society is viewed as a smoothly functioning organism
  • parts work together to contribute to well-being of the whole
  • values are the “glue” which hold society together
  • dysfunctions are the result of dysfunctions within a mechanism (institution) which is a result of deviance from the “norms”
  • social change often triggers problems — change in values

CENTRAL QUESTION: HOW DOES A PART CONTRIBUTE TO OVERALL STABILITY?

Conflict Theory

       Conflict theorists, in contrast to the functionalists, believe that conflict, especially class conflict, is the process that shapes society. Society is in a constant process of change and is marked by conflicts due to inequalities of class, race, ethnicity, gender, age, and other major divisions. The origins of social problems may be found in the way societies organize access to wealth and power. There is a great disparity in the wealth of the powerful and the powerless. Because the resources that people value are always in short supply, there is a struggle for them. Those who gain control of scarce resources (i.e. money) have an interest in keeping them for themselves and will exploit the masses in order to gain more power over them. Those who lose out have an interest in wresting control from those in power. This conflict between the “haves” and the “have-nots” provides the fuel for history. The major figure associated with this school is Karl Marx.

  • conflict is normal in the functioning of society
  • focus on the unequal divisions in society
  • problems are natural outcome of struggle for scarce resources
  • powerful want to keep control and exploit the powerless in the process

CENTRAL QUESTION: WHO BENEFITS?

Micro Perspective

Symbolic Interactionist

The interactionist perspective gets us closer to the individual level of behavior. According to the interactionists, the fundamental social process is face-to-face interaction between actors playing roles. These interactions are the building blocks of society and are what sociologists ought to study. It is in groups of people much like ourselves (family, peer groups) that we draw much of our identity. To study society, one must study actors in situations and grasp the meaning that the actors invest in their behavior (using empathy). The actor’s reality is the only reality. Social structures and institutions are merely abstractions (not external and coercive social facts). Society is created, maintained and changed through the interaction of individual, living actors.

  • most important aspect of society = humans are symbolizing creatures who  
    • create the world they inhabit via communication
  • problems are created and defined through interaction
  • the individual’s or group’s definition of the situation is central to understanding the actions of that individual or group
  • social construction of reality — reality is socially created and maintained

CENTRAL QUESTION: HOW ARE SYMBOLIC MEANINGS GENERATED AND SHARED IN INTERACTION?

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