Two major approaches to contemporary social theory are the Marxian materialist approach and the structural functionalist approach. The materialist approach was developed from the work of Karl Marx, who believed that the economic order shapes society. The functionalist approach was developed from the work of Comte and Durkheim, stating that is the combination of all of society's institutions that shapes society.
An organic analogy is most often used to explain structural functionalism. The analogy represents society with the human body and social structures and institutions are represented by the body's organs. For a human being to survive, the body must perform certain functions to solve problems and meet needs. For example, we must circulate blood, remove waste, and biologically reproduce. Survival depends on the individual organs and how they perform together. Each organ does something to keep the system going. In order for society to survive and keep order, individual institutions must effectively perform together. The institutions must perform specific functions to meet problems or satisfy needs. This is achieved by institutions such as the family, economic, educational, and religious orders. It is the make up of the interrelated institutions that form society, as the interrelated organs make up the human body.
The materialist approach argues that humans are unique because we can produce solutions for material wants and needs; that material production is the most important human activity (Knuttila, 1996, p.163). It is the way we organize our solutions to wants and needs that shapes society. The manner in which we satisfy our needs is referred to as our modes of production. The modes of production include the tools people use, the technologies society has created, and the acquired skills and knowledge, all in relation to material production. The organization and social relations in material production forms an economic order...
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