Functionalism is the oldest, and still the dominant, theoretical perspective in sociology and many other social sciences. This perspective is built upon twin emphases: application of the scientific method to the objective social world and use of an analogy between the individual organism and society. The emphasis on scientific method leads to the assertion that one can study the social world in the same ways as one studies the physical world. Thus, Functionalists see the social world as "objectively real," as observable with such techniques as social surveys and interviews. Furthermore, their positivistic view of social science assumes that study of the social world can be value-free, in that the investigator's values will not necessarily interfere with the disinterested search for social laws governing the behavior of social systems. Many of these ideas go back to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), the great French sociologist whose writings form the basis for functionalist theory (see Durkheim 1915, 1964); Durkheim was himself one of the first sociologists to make use of scientific and statistical techniques in sociological research (1951). The second emphasis, on the organic unity of society, leads functionalists to speculate about needs which must be met for a social system to exist, as well as the ways in which social institutions satisfy those needs. A functionalist might argue, for instance, that every society will have a religion, because religious institutions have certain functions which contribute to the survival of the social system as a whole, just as the organs of the body have functions which are necessary for the body's survival. This analogy between society and an organism focuses attention on the homeostatic nature of social systems: social systems work to maintain equilibrium and to return to it after external shocks disturb the balance among social institutions. Such social equilibrium is achieved, most importantly, through the socialization of members of the society into the basic values and norms of that society, so that consensus is reached. Where socialization is insufficient for some reason to create conformity to culturally appropriate roles and socially supported norms, various social control mechanisms exist to restore conformity or to segregate the nonconforming individuals from the rest of society. These social control mechanisms range from sanctions imposed informally--sneering and gossip, for example--to the activities of certain formal organizations, like schools, prisons, and mental institutions. You might notice some similarities between the language used by functionalists and the jargon of "systems theorists" in computer science or biology. Society is viewed as a system of interrelated parts, a change in any part affecting all the others. Within the boundaries of the system, feedback loops and exchanges among the parts ordinarily lead to homeostasis. Most changes are the result of natural growth or of evolution, but other changes occur when outside forces impinge upon the system. A thorough-going functionalist, such as Talcott Parsons, the best-known American sociologist of the 1950s and 60s, conceptualizes society as a collection of systems within systems: the personality system within the small-group system within the community system within society (Parsons 1951). Parsons (1971) even viewed the whole world as a system of societies. Functionalist analyses often focus on the individual, usually with the intent to show how individual behavior is molded by broader social forces. Functionalists tend to talk about individual actors as decision-makers, although some critics have suggested that functionalist theorists are, in effect, treating individuals either as puppets, whose decisions are a predictable result of their location in the social structure and of the norms and expectations they have internalized, or sometimes as virtual prisoners of the explicit social control techniques society imposes. In any case, functionalists have tended to be less concerned with the ways in which individuals can control their own destiny than with the ways in which the limits imposed by society make individual behavior scientifically predictable. Robert Merton, another prominent functionalist, has proposed a number of important distinctions to avoid potential weaknesses and clarify ambiguities in the basic perspective (see Merton 1968). First, he distinguishes between manifest and latent functions: respectively, those which are recognized and intended by actors in the social system and hence may represent motives for their actions, and those which are unrecognized and, thus, unintended by the actors. Second, he distinguishes between consequences which are positively functional for a society, those which are dysfunctional for the society, and those which are neither. Third, he distinguishes between levels of society, that is, the specific social units for which regularized patterns of behavior are functional or dysfunctional. Finally, he concedes that the particular social structures which satisfy functional needs of society are not indispensable, but that structural alternatives may exist which can also satisfy the same functional needs. Functionalist theories have very often been criticized as teleological, that is, reversing the usual order of cause and effect by explaining things in terms of what happens afterward, not what went before. A strict functionalist might explain certain religious practices, for instance, as being functional by contributing to a society's survival; however, such religious traditions will usually have been firmly established long before the question is finally settled of whether the society as a whole will actually survive. Bowing to this kind of criticism of the basic logic of functionalist theory, most current sociologists have stopped using any explicitly functionalistic explanations of social phenomena, and the extreme version of functionalism expounded by Talcott Parsons has gone out of fashion. Nevertheless, many sociologists continue to expect that by careful, objective scrutiny of social phenomena they will eventually be able to discover the general laws of social behavior, and this hope still serves as the motivation for a great deal of sociological thinking and research.
Symbolic interactionism, or interactionism for short, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. This perspective has a long intellectual history, beginning with the German sociologist and economist, Max Weber (1864-1920) and the American philosopher, George H. Mead (1863-1931), both of whom emphasized the subjective meaning of human behavior, the social process, and pragmatism. Although there are a number of versions of interactionist thought, some deriving from phenomenological writings by philosophers, the following description offers a simplified amalgamation of these ideas, concentrating on points of convergence. Herbert Blumer, who studied with Mead at the University of Chicago, is responsible for coining the term, "symbolic interactionism," as well as for formulating the most prominent version of the theory (Blumer 1969). Interactionists focus on the subjective aspects of social life, rather than on objective, macro-structural aspects of social systems. One reason for this focus is that interactionists base their theoretical perspective on their image of humans, rather than on their image of society (as the functionalists do). For interactionists, humans are pragmatic actors who continually must adjust their behavior to the actions of other actors. We can adjust to these actions only because we are able to interpret them, i.e., to denote them symbolically and treat the actions and those who perform them as symbolic objects. This process of adjustment is aided by our ability to imaginatively rehearse alternative lines of action before we act. The process is further aided by our ability to think about and to react to our own actions and even our selves as symbolic objects. Thus, the interactionist theorist sees humans as active, creative participants who construct their social world, not as passive, conforming objects of socialization. For the interactionist, society consists of organized and patterned interactions among individuals. Thus, research by interactionists focuses on easily observable face-to-face interactions rather than on macro-level structural relationships involving social institutions. Furthermore, this focus on interaction and on the meaning of events to the participants in those events (the definition of the situation) shifts the attention of interactionists away from stable norms and values toward more changeable, continually readjusting social processes. Whereas for functionalists socialization creates stability in the social system, for interactionists negotiation among members of society creates temporary, socially constructed relations which remain in constant flux, despite relative stability in the basic framework governing those relations. These emphases on symbols, negotiated reality, and the social construction of society lead to an interest in the roles people play. Erving Goffman (1958), a prominent social theorist in this tradition, discusses roles dramaturgically, using an analogy to the theater, with human social behavior seen as more or less well scripted and with humans as role-taking actors. Role-taking is a key mechanism of interaction, for it permits us to take the other's perspective, to see what our actions might mean to the other actors with whom we interact. At other times, interactionists emphasize the improvisational quality of roles, with human social behavior seen as poorly scripted and with humans as role-making improvisers. Role-making, too, is a key mechanism of interaction, for all situations and roles are inherently ambiguous, thus requiring us to create those situations and roles to some extent before we can act. Ethnomethodology, an offshoot of symbolic interactionism, raises the question of how people who are interacting with each other can create the illusion of a shared social order even when they don't understand each other fully and in fact have different points of view. Harold Garfinkel, a pioneer in these investigations, demonstrated the problem by sending his students out to perform "experiments in trust," called breaching experiments, in which they brought ordinary conversations to an abrupt halt by refusing to take for granted that they knew what the other person was saying, and so demanded explanations and then explanations of the explanations (Garfinkel 1967). More recently, ethnomethodologist researchers have performed minutely detailed analyses of ordinary conversations in order to reveal the methods by which turn-taking and other conversational maneuvers are managed. Interactionists tend to study social interaction through participant observation, rather than surveys and interviews. They argue that close contact and immersion in the everyday lives of the participants is necessary for understanding the meaning of actions, the definition of the situation itself, and the process by which actors construct the situation through their interaction. Given this close contact, interactionists could hardly remain free of value commitments, and, in fact, interactionists make explicit use of their values in choosing what to study but strive to be objective in the conduct of their research. Symbolic interactionists are often criticized by other sociologists for being overly impressionistic in their research methods and somewhat unsystematic in their theories. These objections, combined with the fairly narrow focus of interactionist research on small-group interactions and other social psychological issues, have relegated the interactionist camp to a minority position among sociologists, although a fairly substantial minority.
The several social theories that emphasize social conflict have roots in the ideas of Karl Marx (1818-1883), the great German theorist and political activist. The Marxist, conflict approach emphasizes a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical method of analysis, a critical stance toward existing social arrangements, and a political program of revolution or, at least, reform. The materialist view of history starts from the premise that the most important determinant of social life is the work people are doing, especially work that results in provision of the basic necessities of life, food, clothing and shelter. Marx thought that the way the work is socially organized and the technology used in production will have a strong impact on every other aspect of society. He maintained that everything of value in society results from human labor. Thus, Marx saw working men and women as engaged in making society, in creating the conditions for their own existence. Marx summarized the key elements of this materialist view of history as follows: In the social production of their existence, men inevitably enter into definite relations, which are independent of their will, namely relations of production appropriate to a given stage in the development of their material forces of production. The totality of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which arises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness. The mode of production of material life conditions the general process of social, political and intellectual life. It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness (Marx 1971:20). Marx divided history into several stages, conforming to broad patterns in the economic structure of society. The most important stages for Marx's argument were feudalism, capitalism, and socialism. The bulk of Marx's writing is concerned with applying the materialist model of society to capitalism, the stage of economic and social development that Marx saw as dominant in 19th century Europe. For Marx, the central institution of capitalist society is private property, the system by which capital (that is, money, machines, tools, factories, and other material objects used in production) is controlled by a small minority of the population. This arrangement leads to two opposed classes, the owners of capital (called the bourgeoisie) and the workers (called the proletariat), whose only property is their own labor time, which they have to sell to the capitalists. Owners are seen as making profits by paying workers less than their work is worth and, thus, exploiting them. (In Marxist terminology, material forces of production or means of production include capital, land, and labor, whereas social relations of production refers to the division of labor and implied class relationships.) Economic exploitation leads directly to political oppression, as owners make use of their economic power to gain control of the state and turn it into a servant of bourgeois economic interests. Police power, for instance, is used to enforce property rights and guarantee unfair contracts between capitalist and worker. Oppression also takes more subtle forms: religion serves capitalist interests by pacifying the population; intellectuals, paid directly or indirectly by capitalists, spend their careers justifying and rationalizing the existing social and economic arrangements. In sum, the economic structure of society molds the superstructure, including ideas (e.g., morality, ideologies, art, and literature) and the social institutions that support the class structure of society (e.g., the state, the educational system, the family, and religious institutions). Because the dominant or ruling class (the bourgeoisie) controls the social relations of production, the dominant ideology in capitalist society is that of the ruling class. Ideology and social institutions, in turn, serve to reproduce and perpetuate the economic class structure. Thus, Marx viewed the exploitative economic arrangements of capitalism as the real foundation upon which the superstructure of social, political, and intellectual consciousness is built. (Figure 1 depicts this model of historical materialism.) Marx's view of history might seem completely cynical or pessimistic, were it not for the possibilities of change revealed by his method of dialectical analysis. (The Marxist dialectical method, based on Hegel's earlier idealistic dialectic, focuses attention on how an existing social arrangement, or thesis, generates its social opposite, or antithesis, and on how a qualitatively different social form, or synthesis, emerges from the resulting struggle.) Marx was an optimist. He believed that any stage of history based on exploitative economic arrangements generated within itself the seeds of its own destruction. For instance, feudalism, in which land owners exploited the peasantry, gave rise to a class of town-dwelling merchants, whose dedication to making profits eventually led to the bourgeois revolution and the modern capitalist era. Similarly, the class relations of capitalism will lead inevitably to the next stage, socialism. The class relations of capitalism embody a contradiction: capitalists need workers, and vice versa, but the economic interests of the two groups are fundamentally at odds. Such contradictions mean inherent conflict and instability, the class struggle. Adding to the instability of the capitalist system are the inescapable needs for ever-wider markets and ever-greater investments in capital to maintain the profits of capitalists. Marx expected that the resulting economic cycles of expansion and contraction, together with tensions that will build as the working class gains greater understanding of its exploited position (and thus attains class consciousness), will eventually culminate in a socialist revolution. Despite this sense of the unalterable logic of history, Marxists see the need for social criticism and for political activity to speed the arrival of socialism, which, not being based on private property, is not expected to involve as many contradictions and conflicts as capitalism. Marxists believe that social theory and political practice are dialectically intertwined, with theory enhanced by political involvement and with political practice necessarily guided by theory. Intellectuals ought, therefore, to engage in praxis, to combine political criticism and political activity. Theory itself is seen as necessarily critical and value-laden, since the prevailing social relations are based upon alienating and dehumanizing exploitation of the labor of the working classes. Marx's ideas have been applied and reinterpreted by scholars for over a hundred years, starting with Marx's close friend and collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1825-95), who supported Marx and his family for many years from the profits of the textile factories founded by Engels' father, while Marx shut himself away in the library of the British Museum. Later, Vladimir I. Lenin (1870-1924), leader of the Russian revolution, made several influential contributions to Marxist theory. In recent years Marxist theory has taken a great variety of forms, notably the world-systems theory proposed by Immanuel Wallerstein (1974, 1980) and the comparative theory of revolutions put forward by Theda Skocpol (1980). Marxist ideas have also served as a starting point for many of the modern feminist theorists. Despite these applications, Marxism of any variety is still a minority position among American sociologists.
Feminism, though not a unified theory, is among the most influential of current theoretical perspectives. Focusing their analyses on gender inequalities and on the institution of patriarchy, feminists have sought to understand society from the standpoint of women. Feminists have criticized all three of the traditionally dominant theoretical perspectives--functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory--as biased toward male points of view. However, the feminist movement has also had its limitations. Most feminists have been white middle-class women, and feminist literature from the early days of the movement (1965-85) often neglected the concerns of working-class women and women of color. In recent years, however, some feminists have begun to analyze the ways that race, class, and gender inequalities intersect. For instance, Patricia Hill Collins in her book, Black Feminist Thought (1990), argues that the common experiences of African American women have given them a unique perspective on social theory. Feminists come in a variety of theoretical stripes. Early feminists divided themselves up into liberal, radical, or socialist camps, depending on their political points of view. Today, many feminist sociologists continue to draw heavily on the conflict theory tradition, while many others have been influenced by symbolic interactionism. A few even call themselves functionalists or rational choice theorists (see below and see England 1993). (Return to top)
RATIONAL CHOICE AND EXCHANGE THEORY
Another perspective gaining popularity in recent years is known as Rational Choice Theory. Sociologists in this tradition have drawn heavily on the work of economists and political scientists in their analyses of the ways that economic incentives and other material considerations affect the choices people make. Some of the earliest sociological work of this type was known as Exchange Theory, exemplified in the works of George Homans and Peter Blau. More recently, James S. Coleman, with his monumental book, Foundations of Social Theory (1990), emerged as the leading sociologist in the field. Despite the name "rational choice," much of the sociological work in this tradition has focused on probing the limits of rationality and on devising mathematical models of the conditions needed for maintaining trust and solidarity within a social group. (Return to top)
PHENOMENOLOGY, ETHNOMETHODOLOGY, SOCIAL CONSTRUCTION THEORY AND FEMINIST STANDPOINT THEORY Yet another approach to sociological theory which has been gaining in popularity is Phenomenology. The approach is based on the ideas of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who insisted that the phenomena we encounter in sensory perceptions are the ultimate source of all knowledge His perspective was brought to the United States by sociologist Alfred Schutz and then was developed further by Harold Garfinkel, whose work on Ethnomethodology was described in the section on Symbolic Interactionism above. Another important development in phenomenological thinking can be found in the works of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, whose landmark book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), has been widely influential, especially among contemporary feminists. Prominent theorist Dorothy Smith draws heavily on Social Construction Theory, and also the ideas of Garfinkel and others, in her presentation of Feminist Standpoint Theory, arguing that sociological theory as constructed by men gives a distorted picture of women's experiences, and that any theory which ignores the perspectives of women (and of other excluded groups) is necessarily incomplete. (Return to top)
POST-STRUCTURALISM AND POSTMODERNSIM
Finally, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, perspectives developed on the French intellectual scene, have had considerable influence on American sociologists in recent years (as well as on scholars in many other fields, especially literary studies). Derived from (but largely rejecting) both the Marxist tradition and the works of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss--who developed a "structuralist" theory of culture--these theoretical schools seek to account for the apparent disintegration of modern culture over the past several decades. Among the tradition's major figures, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, perhaps the best known is Michel Foucault, a historian and philosopher. Tracing the historical changes in societal attitudes toward punishment, mental illness, and sexuality, among other topics, he argued that knowledge and power have become inextricably entwined. Foucault stressed the disciplinary nature of power, and argued that (social) scientific discourse as one such discipline may itself need to be questioned. Sociologists in this tradition seek not only to study the world differently, but to make the production of sociological knowledge, and thus our own situatedness within structures of knowledge and power, part of the study. American sociologists influenced by this tradition sometimes call their work Discourse Analysis or Cultural Studies. (Return to top)
OTHER INDIVIDUAL THEORISTS
Not mentioned in this quick review of the current sociological theories are some major theorists with their own influential perspectives. Jürgen Habermas, a leading German sociologist, Anthony Giddens, a leading British sociologist, and American sociologist Randall Collins are all noted for having constructed theories which synthesize ideas drawn from several theoretical traditions. For introductory students, the point is not to memorize all these names, but to be aware of the multiple points of view and the often contentious theoretical differences among contemporary sociologists. Sociology is in a theoretical ferment, as sociologists seek new ways to understand the formidable complexity of the social world.