Theories in sociology provide us with different perspectives with which to view our social world. A perspective is simply a way of looking at the world. A theory is a set of interrelated propositions or principles designed to answer a question or explain a particular phenomenon; it provides us with a perspective. Sociological theories help us to explain and predict the social world in which we live.
Sociology includes three major theoretical perspectives: the structural-functionalist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the symbolic interactionist perspective. Each perspective offers a variety of explanations about the causes of and possible solutions for social problems (Rubington & Weinberg, 1995).
The structural-functionalist perspective is largely based on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. According to structural-functionalist, society is a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole. For example, each of the social institutions contributes important functions for society: family provides a context for reproducing, nurturing, and socializing children; education offers a way to transmit society's skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth; politics provides a means of governing members of society; economics provides for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; and religion provides moral guidance and an outlet for worship of a higher power.
The structural-functionalist perspective emphasizes the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each part influences and is influenced by other parts. For example, the increase in single-parent and dual-earner families has contributed to the number of children who are failing in school because parents have become less available to supervise their children's homework. Due to changes in technology, colleges are offering more technical programs, and many adults are returning to school to learn new skills that are required in the workplace. The increasing number of women in the workforce has contributed to the formation of policies against sexual harassment and job discrimination. Consideration In viewing society as a set of interrelated parts, structural-functionalists also note that proposed solutions to a social problem may cause additional social problems. For example, racial imbalance in public schools led to forced integration, which in turn generated violence and increased hostility between the races. The use of plea bargaining was adopted as a means of dealing with overcrowded court dockets but resulted in "the revolving door of justice." Urban renewal projects often displaced residents and broke up community cohesion.
Structural-functionalist use the terms "functional" and "dysfunctional" to describe the effects of social elements on society. Elements of society are functional if they contribute to social stability and dysfunctional if they disrupt social stability. Some aspects of society may be both functional and dysfunctional for society. For example, crime is dysfunctional in that it is associated with physical violence, loss of property, and fear. But, according to Durkheim and other functionalists, crime is also functional for society because it leads to heightened awareness of shared moral bonds and increased social cohesion.
Sociologists have identified two types of functions: manifest and latent (Merton, 1968). Manifest functions are consequences that are intended and commonly recognized. Latent functions are consequences that are unintended and often hidden. For example, the manifest function of education is to transmit knowledge and skills to society's youth. but public elementary schools also serve as baby-sitters for employed parents, and college offer a place for young adults to meet potential mates. The baby-sitting and mate...
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