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 less frequently. If this theory was correct a functional analysis would see ‘negative selection’ against some societies (those whose age limit was counter to theory) and ‘positive selection’ for others, based on the variance of the control variable (age limits). One might also note that functionalism describes social functions as usually in a process of evolution. The function of marriage in modern America is not perfect, for instance, as divorce rates and other issues make clear, but it still fulfills important socially stabilizing needs. The rising age of first marriage is one example of functional evolution, driven by social desire to preserve what has proved valuable but with (hopefully) useful modifications.

Symbolic Interactionism:
The sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) emphasized the need to understand a social situation from the perspective of its participants. Weber’s thinking and work by many others grew into the symbolic-interaction approach to sociology, a theoretical framework in which ‘society’ is a system of values, norms, and behaviors which arise naturally as the by-product of the interactions of individuals who attach meaning to things, places, and people (e.g. ‘symbols’). Symbolic Interactionism is a micro-level description of sociology, as opposed to the macro-level descriptions of Functionalism and Conflict Theory. As such the Symbolic Interactionism approach is able to analyze social functions which vary from society to society. The function of marriage is again a good example. In modern American society couples getting married are expected to be in love, but in many societies love has very little to do with marriage decisions. A symbolic interaction perspective explains such differences, and describes their effect on society, by focusing on the ‘meaning’ ascribed by participants to social ‘symbols’ (institutions, such as marriage, whose meanings might include financial security, family, etc.). While a functional analysis of...
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