A sociological theory is a set of ideas that provides an explanation for human society. Theories are selective in terms of their priorities and perspectives and the data they define as significant. As a result they provide a particular and partial view of reality. Sociological theories can be grouped together according to a variety of criteria. The most important of these is the distinction between Structural and Social action theories.
Structural, or macro perspectives analyses the way society as a whole fits together. Structural theory sees society as a system of relationships that creates the structure of the society in which we live. It is this structure that determines our lives and characters. Structured sets of social relationships are the 'reality' that lie below the appearance of 'the free individual' of western individualism. Structuralism focuses on the particular set of 'structural laws' that apply in any one society.
Despite their differences, both functionalism and Marxism use a model of how society as a whole works. Many functionalists base their model of society around the assumption of basic needs and go to explain how different parts of society help to meet those needs. Marxists, on the other hand, see society as resting upon an economic base or infrastructure, with a superstructure above it. They see society as divided into social classes which have the potential to be in conflict with each other.
However, the main differences between functionalist and Marxist perspectives then, is the way they characterize the social structure. Functionalists stress the extent to which the different elements of the social structure fit together harmoniously. Marxists stress the lack of fit between the different parts, particularly social classes, and so emphasize the potential for social conflict.
Not all sociological perspectives base their analysis upon an examination of the structure of society as a whole. Rather than...