Three Theoretical Approaches to Sociology

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3 Major Theoretical Approaches to Sociology

Functionalism (a.k.a. Structural Functionalism, Functional Analysis, Positivism): Until relatively modern times the prevalent sociological perspective was Functionalism, a paradigm which analyzes social structures (such as religion, schooling, or race relations) to deduce what social functions (such as marriage conventions, college attendance, or hiring practices) derive from them. This theoretical approach views society as a system of inter-dependent social functions each working to maintain equilibrium and stability within the whole. The social function of marriage, for instance, might be seen to derive from a religious structure. The values, norms, and behaviors surrounding marriage (such as age limits, ‘showers’, and marriage licenses), and the ways in which these aspects of the function benefit the participants, is the ‘society’ which rises from the initial structure. In a functional view social functions are seen to exist as they do because they are necessary and stabilizing influences. If the function existed otherwise (unnecessary and/or destabilizing) it would cease naturally or be changed by the participants. These natural conclusions of functionalism invited stern criticism during the mid-1900’s, when social upheaval was present in many parts of the world. Functional theory seemed to support the idea of a ‘status quo’, or an assumption that social functions are either fine as they are or are evolving toward something better. Rigid functionalism thus fell into disfavor as Neo-Marxist conflict theories gained more widespread acceptance and publication. Many of functionalism’s concepts are borrowed from organic biology. Societies are said to undergo ‘selection pressure’ and to respond in Darwinian ways. Again thinking of the social function of marriage a functionalist might theorize that age limits serve society by insuring better-prepared couples who will better adjust to married life and divorce...
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