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The Three Major Sociological Theories

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Topics: Sociology

As a science that is concerned with the systematic study of human society,

sociology has three major theories for its backbone:

structural-functional, social-conflict and symbolic-interaction.


Is a framework for building theory that sees societies as a complex social

organism. August Comte who is considered the father of sociology held the

view that society’s social structure help to promote solidarity and stability.

Functional theorists are concerned with how patterns of behavior help

Societies function. It was also Comte’s idea that sociological investigations

should be carried out scientifically - an approach known as positivism.

Emile Durkheim work advanced the structural-functional theory by viewing

society as built on social facts, or patterned ways of acting and thinking.

According to Robert Merton, some of these social patterns have intended

consequencies – manifest function; while the purpose of other behaviors are

not obvious – latent functions


Conflict theorists view human society as an arena of inequalities that breed

conflicts and changes. They are concerned about how social class, race, gender and sexual orientation affect society’s distribution of wealth, power

and prestige. While structural-functional approach is concerned with how a

social structure promotes stability within a society, the social-conflict

approach focuses on the social struggle between the dominant and the

disadvantaged groups within a society - an analysis that Herbert Spencer

referred to as Social Darwinism. He likened the society to the human body

with different organs necessary for survival.

For conflict theorists like Carl Max, the twentieth was a very important

century, in terms of sociological events.

His socio - economic ideas were adopted by the Bolsheviks who won

the class struggle of the Russian society. On the US home front,

race and gender conflict analysis required new approaches.


The gender-conflict perspective focuses on gender inequality, and is

linked to feminism which advocates equality between men and women.

The approach acknowledges the contributions to sociology by women such

as Jane Adams, Susan .B. Anthony and Harriet Martineau who was

considered the first woman sociologist. Jane Adams campaigned for

the underclass and women’s social equality, and was credited with founding

the Hull House Settlement for poor immigrant families.

The race-conflict approach focuses on social inequality and conflict between

groups of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, and advocates social

equality for ethnic minorities who endure social and economic

disadvantages. The approach also highlights the contributions by minorities

such as Ida .W. Barnet and W .E. Du Bois to the development of sociology.


The symbolic approach is a framework for advancing sociological theory

based on close-up analysis of interactions between individuals in specific

settings, a process known as micro-level orientation.

The name most associated with symbolic approach is Max Weber who

emphasized the need to understand a society from the point of view of

individuals who live in it. In the symbolic approach view of society, the

reality people experience is variable and changing, depending on the

symbolic meaning they attach to it.

In conclusion, each approach helps to analyze human societies, but a fuller

understanding can only be attained by applying all three approaches.


Macionis, John J., Sociology, 11th Edition, New Jersey, Pearson, 2007.

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