Sociological Perspectives

What you’ll learn to do: differentiate between the three main theoretical paradigms in sociology and describe how they are used

Many people wearing business clothing are crossing the street at a big crosswalk in a city. There are stone buildings in the background and the sun is shining, casting peoples' shadows onto the street.

In this section, you’ll learn about how sociologists use paradigms to understand the social world. A paradigm is a broad viewpoint, perspective, or lens that permit social scientists to have a wide range of tools to describe society, and then to build hypotheses and theories. You can also consider paradigms to be guiding principles or belief systems. In the text, you’ll sometimes see the word paradigm used interchangeably with perspective, theory, or approach.

In sociology, there are three main paradigms: the functionalist paradigm, the conflict paradigm, and the symbolic interactionist paradigm. These are not all of the paradigms, however, and we’ll consider others as well as more specific topic-based variations of each of the “Big Three” theories. As you read through the material in this section, consider which paradigm resonates the most with your own views about society.

Learning outcomes

  • Explain sociological theories
  • Summarize the structural-functional theory
  • Apply the structural-functional theory
  • Summarize conflict theory
  • Apply conflict theory
  • Summarize symbolic interactionism
  • Apply symbolic interactionism
  • Differentiate between theoretical perspectives in the study of a particular social issue

The Main Sociological Theories

People holding posters and waving flags outside at a protest rally.

Figure 1. Sociologists develop theories to explain social occurrences such as protest rallies. (Photo courtesy of voanews.com/Wikimedia Commons)

Sociologists study social events, interactions, and patterns, and they develop a theory in an attempt to explain why things work as they do. A sociological theory seeks to explain social phenomena. Theories can be used to create a testable proposition, called a hypothesis, about society (Allan 2006).

Theories vary in scope depending on the scale of the issues that they are meant to explain. Macro-level theories relate to large-scale issues and large groups of people, while micro-level theories look at very specific relationships between individuals or small groups. Grand theories attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change. Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their predecessors and add to them (Calhoun 2002).

In sociology, a few theories provide broad perspectives that help explain many different aspects of social life, and these are called paradigms. Paradigms are philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them. Three paradigms have come to dominate sociological thinking, because they provide useful explanations: structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

Sociological Theories or Perspectives. Different sociological perspectives enable sociologists to view social issues through a variety of useful lenses.
Sociological Paradigm Level of Analysis Focus
Structural Functionalism Macro or mid The way each part of society functions together to contribute to the whole
Conflict Theory Macro The way inequalities contribute to social differences and perpetuate differences in power
Symbolic Interactionism Micro One-to-one interactions and communications

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Watch the following video for an overview of each of the sociological paradigms. First, the video introduces major sociological theories in general terms, then gives an overview of structural-functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Structural functionalism views society as an organism in which the various parts, or social structures, fulfill certain functions to meet the needs of the society. Conflict theory imagines society as a struggle for scarce resources and focuses on the conflicts created by competition and power differences. Conflict theory includes sub-categories such as class conflict theory, race conflict theory, and gender conflict theory. Symbolic interactionism focuses more on individuals and the shared reality that people create through their own experiences.

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Structural-Functional Theory

Sociological Paradigm #1: Structural-functional theory

Outline of a man with a briefcase inside of a gear, surrounded by other gears.

Figure 2. Functionalism emphasizes how various social institutions work together to meet the needs of a society.

Structural-functional theory, also called functionalism, sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of the individuals in that society. Functionalism grew out of the writings of English philosopher and biologist, Hebert Spencer (1820–1903), who saw similarities between society and the human body. He argued that just as the various organs of the body work together to keep the body functioning, the various parts of society work together to keep society functioning (Spencer 1898). The parts of society that Spencer referred to were the social institutions, or patterns of beliefs and behaviors focused on meeting social needs, such as government, education, family, healthcare, religion, and the economy.

Émile Durkheim, another early sociologist, applied Spencer’s theory to explain how societies change and survive over time. Durkheim believed that society is a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts that work together to maintain stability (Durkheim 1893), and that society is held together by shared values, languages, and symbols. Durkheim believed that individuals may make up society, but in order to study society, sociologists have to look beyond individuals to social facts. Social facts are the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all of the cultural rules that govern social life (Durkheim 1895). Each of these social facts serves one or more functions within a society. For example, one function of a society’s laws may be to protect society from violence, while another is to punish criminal behavior, while another is to preserve public safety.

Although suicide is generally considered an individual phenomenon, Émile Durkheim was interested in studying the social factors that affect it. He studied social ties within a group, or social solidarity, and hypothesized that differences in suicide rates might be explained by religion-based differences. Durkheim gathered a large amount of data about Europeans who had ended their lives, and he did indeed find differences based on religion. Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than Catholics in Durkheim’s society, and his work on this topic demonstrated the utility of theory for sociological research.

Another noted structural functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003), pointed out that social processes often have many functions. Manifest functions are the consequences of a social process that are sought or anticipated, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of college education, for example, includes gaining knowledge, preparing for a career, and finding a good job that utilizes that education. Latent functions of your college years include meeting new people, participating in extracurricular activities, or even finding a spouse or partner. Another latent function of education is creating a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. Latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Social processes that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society are called dysfunctions. In education, examples of dysfunction include getting bad grades, truancy, dropping out, not graduating, and not finding suitable employment.

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Criticism

One criticism of the structural-functional theory is that it can’t adequately explain social change. Also problematic is the somewhat circular nature of this theory; repetitive behavior patterns are assumed to have a function, yet we profess to know that they have a function only because they are repeated. Furthermore, dysfunctions may continue, even though they don’t serve a function, which seemingly contradicts the basic premise of the theory. Many sociologists now believe that functionalism is no longer useful as a macro-level theory, but that it does serve a useful purpose in some mid-level analyses.

A Global Culture?

A person is shown from the side, typing on a laptop.

Figure 3. Some sociologists see the online world contributing to the creation of an emerging global culture. Are you a part of any global communities? (Photo courtesy of quasireversible/flickr)

Sociologists around the world look closely for signs of what would be an unprecedented event: the emergence of a global culture. In the past, empires such as those that existed in China, Europe, Africa, and Central and South America linked people from many different countries, but those people rarely became part of a common culture. They lived too far from each other, spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and traded few goods. Today, increases in communication, travel, and trade have made the world a much smaller place. More and more people are able to communicate with each other instantly—wherever they are located—by telephone, video, and text. They share movies, television shows, music, games, and information over the Internet. Students can study with teachers and pupils from the other side of the globe. Governments find it harder to hide conditions inside their countries from the rest of the world.

Sociologists research many different aspects of this potential global culture. Some explore the dynamics involved in the social interactions of global online communities, such as when members feel a closer kinship to other group members than to people residing in their own countries. Other sociologists study the impact this growing international culture has on smaller, less-powerful local cultures. Yet other researchers explore how international markets and the outsourcing of labor impact social inequalities. Sociology can play a key role in people’s abilities to understand the nature of this emerging global culture and how to respond to it.

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Conflict Theory

Sociological Paradigm #2: Conflict Theory

Conflict theory looks at society as a competition for limited resources. This perspective is a macro-level approach most identified with the writings of German philosopher and sociologist Karl Marx (1818–1883), who saw society as being made up of two classes, the bourgeoisie (capitalist) and the proletariat (workers), who must compete for social, material, and political resources such as food and housing, employment, education, and leisure time. Social institutions like government, education, and religion reflect this competition in their inherent inequalities and help maintain the unequal social structure.

In the economic sphere, Marx focused on the “mode of production” (e.g., the industrial factory) and “relations of production” (e.g., unequal power between workers and factory owners). The bourgeoisie owns and controls the means of production, which leads to exploitation due to the profit motive. In this arrangement, proletarians have only their labor to sell, and do not own or control capital. False consciousness is Marx’s term for the proletarian’s inability to see her real position within the class system, a mis-recognition that is complicated by the control that the bourgeoisie often exerts over the media outlets that disseminate and normalize information. These are just some of the structural constrains that prevent workers from joining together in what Marx called class consciousness, or a common group identity as exploited proletarians and potential revolutionaries.

Watch It

Watch this video for an overview of Marx’s conflict theory.

portrait of Max Weber in 1894. He's wearing a suit, has a trimmed, full-beard.

Figure 4. Max Weber.

German sociologist Max Weber agreed with some of Marx’s main ideas, but also believed that in addition to economic inequalities, there were inequalities of political power and social structure that caused conflict. Weber noted that different groups were affected differently based on education, race, and gender, and that people’s reactions to inequality were moderated by class differences and rates of social mobility, as well as by perceptions about the legitimacy of those in power.

Ida B. Wells articulated the conflict perspective when she theorized a connection between an increase in lynching and an increase in black socio-economic mobility in the United States from the late 1800s into the mid-20th century. She also examined competition within the feminist movement as women fought for the right to vote, yet the presumably egalitarian mainstream suffragist movements were headed by white women who excluded black women from suffrage. W.E.B. DuBois also examined race in the U.S. and in U.S. colonies from a conflict perspective, and emphasized the importance of a reserve labor force, made up of black men. Race conflict paradigms will be examined later in the course in the module devoted to race and ethnicity.

Race and Conflict Theory

W.E.B. DuBois is a classic sociologist who, after earning a Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1895 (the first black man to do so), went on to an extremely productive career with extensive publication, research, theorizing, and activism. The Philadelphia Negro (1896) is considered one of the first examples of scientifically framed and conducted sociology research. DuBois’ study included over 2,500 in-person interviews conducted with African American households in the seventh ward of Philadelphia and even had visual representations of data such as bar graphs to illustrate the realities of racism[1]

He entered the national stage with an article written for The Atlantic in 1897 in which he described double consciousness. Read the following passage from DuBois’ article as he articulates double consciousness:

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, — this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa; he does not with to bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he believes—foolishly, perhaps, but fervently—that Negro blood has yet a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without losing the opportunity of self-development.” [2]

C. Wright Mills, who coined the term sociological imagination, also used conflict theory to examine systems of power and the ways in which government, military, and corporations forming a power elite (1956) in the United States in the 1950s. Bernie Sanders raised these issues in the 2016 U.S. presidential election by pointing out that both Republican and Democrat candidates were accepting campaign contributions from banks and investment firms on Wall Street, which he argued would make them subject to corporate influence.

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Criticism

Just as structural functionalism was criticized for focusing too much on the stability of societies, conflict theory has been criticized because it tends to focus on conflict to the exclusion of recognizing stability. Many social structures are extremely stable or have gradually progressed over time rather than changing abruptly, as conflict theory would suggest.

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Gender and conflict Theory

Black and white photograph of two female suffragettes holding a poster saying "Votes for Women"

Figure 5. Over the years, feminist demands have changed. First-wave feminists fought for basic citizenship rights, such as the right to vote, while third wave feminists are concerned with more complex social movements, like post-structuralism.

Feminist theory was developed to fill a void in Marxism and neo-Marxism that examined class, but not gender as a distinct category. Feminist theory examines gender and gender inequality and also points out the male-centric aspects of conflict theory. It focuses on analyzing the limitations faced by women when they claim the right to equality with men. Additionally, feminist scholars examine the gendered nature of human interactions, which makes it a microsociological as opposed to a macrosociological theory.

Feminist scholars study a range of topics, including sexual orientation, race, economic status, and nationality. However, at the core of feminist sociology is the idea that, in most societies, women have been systematically oppressed, and that men have been historically dominant. This system of seemingly “natural” male control is referred to as patriarchy.

From the early work of women sociologists like Harriet Martineau, feminist sociology has focused on the power relationships and inequalities between women and men. How can the conditions of inequality faced by women be addressed?

Feminist theory has been criticized for its early focus on the lived experiences of white, educated women—which represent just a small subset within American society. Intersectional theory examines multiple, overlapping identities that include black, Latina, Asian, gay, trans, working class, poor, single parent, working, stay-at-home, immigrant, and undocumented women, among others. This synthesis of analytical categories takes into consideration the various lived experiences of a more diverse range of women.

To take a contemporary example, the #MeToo movement began when white actress Ashley Judd came forward in 2017 and claimed that film producer Harvey Weinstein invited her to his hotel room, greeted her in a bathrobe, and asked her to massage him or watch him shower. The phrase “me too” had actually been coined in 2006 by Turana Burke, a black activist who sought to bring attention to women who had been sexually assaulted. Many other wealthy, white, powerful woman came forward and said or tweeted #MeToo. Within one year, the #MeToo movement had become intersectional, stretching across industries, racial and ethnic backgrounds, age, sexual orientation, and gender identities.

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Symbolic Interactionist Theory

Sociological Paradigm #3: Symbolic Interactionist Theory

is a micro-level theory that focuses on meanings attached to human interaction, both verbal and non-verbal, and to symbols. Communication—the exchange of meaning through language and symbols—is believed to be the way in which people make sense of their social worlds.

Charles Horton Cooley introduced the looking-glass self (1902) to describe how a person’s self of self grows out of interactions with others, and he proposed a threefold process for this development: 1) we see how others react to us, 2) we interpret that reaction (typically as positive or negative) and 3) we develop a sense of self based on those interpretations. “Looking-glass” is an archaic term for a mirror, so Cooley theorized that we “see” ourselves when we interact with others.

George Herbert Mead (1863–1931) is considered a founder of symbolic interactionism, though he never published his work on this subject (LaRossa and Reitzes 1993). Mead’s student, Herbert Blumer, actually coined the term “symbolic interactionism” and outlined these basic premises: humans interact with things based on meanings ascribed to those things; the ascribed meaning of things comes from our interactions with others and society; the meanings of things are interpreted by a person when dealing with things in specific circumstances (Blumer 1969). This sounds close to Cooley’s looking-glass self, but Mead’s contribution was really to the development of self, especially in childhood, which we’ll discuss in more detail when we address theories of socialization. If you love books, for example, a symbolic interactionist might propose that you learned that books are good or important in the interactions you had with family, friends, school, or church; maybe your family had a special reading time each week, getting your library card was treated as a special event, or bedtime stories were associated with warmth and comfort.

Janitors and supporters strike with signs in front of MTV network in Santa Monica.

Figure 6. In symbolic interactionism, people actively shape their social world. This image shows janitorial workers on strike in Santa Monica, California. A symbolic interactionist would be interest in the interactions between these protestors and the messages they communicate.

Social scientists who apply symbolic-interactionist thinking look for patterns of interaction between individuals. Their studies often involve observation of one-on-one interactions. For example, while a conflict theorist studying a political protest might focus on class difference, a symbolic interactionist would be more interested in how individuals in the protesting group interact, as well as the signs and symbols protesters use to communicate their message and to negotiate and thus develop shared meanings.

The focus on the importance of interaction in building a society led sociologists like Erving Goffman (1922–1982) to develop a technique called dramaturgical analysis. Goffman used theater as an analogy for social interaction and recognized that people’s interactions showed patterns of cultural “scripts.” Since it can be unclear what part a person may play in a given situation, as we all occupy multiple roles in a given day (i.e., student, friend, son/ daughter, employee, etc.), one has to improvise his or her role as the situation unfolds (Goffman 1958).

Studies that use the symbolic interactionist perspective are more likely to use qualitative research methods, such as in-depth interviews or participant observation, because they seek to understand the symbolic worlds in which research subjects live.

Constructivism is an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans cognitively construct it to be. We develop social constructs based on interactions with others, and those constructs that last over time are those that have meanings which are widely agreed-upon or generally accepted by most within the society.

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WAtch It

The main tenets of symbolic interactionism are explained in the following video.

Criticism

Research done from this perspective is often scrutinized because of the difficulty of remaining objective. Others criticize the extremely narrow focus on symbolic interaction. Proponents, of course, consider this one of its greatest strengths and generally use research methods that will allow extended observation and/or substantive interviews to provide depth rather than breadth. Interactionists are also criticized for not paying enough attention to social institutions and structural constraints. For example, the interactions between a police officer and a black man are different than the interactions between a police officer and a white man. Addressing systemic inequalities within the criminal justice system, including pervasive racism, is essential for an interactionist understanding of face-to-face interactions.

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Reviewing Sociological Theories

The consumption of food is a commonplace, daily occurrence, yet it can also be associated with important moments in our lives. Eating can be an individual or a group action, and eating habits and customs are influenced by our cultures. In the context of society, our nation’s food system is at the core of numerous social movements, political issues, and economic debates. Let’s see how food consumption may be examined from each of the three main sociological paradigms.

A structural-functional approach to the topic of food consumption might be interested in the role of the agriculture industry within the nation’s economy and how this has changed from the early days of manual-labor farming to modern mechanized production. Another examination might study the different functions that occur in food production: from farming and harvesting to flashy packaging and mass consumerism. Functionalists would also examine how food production is related to social solidarity and equilibrium through the division of labor and interdependence among groups in modern society.

A conflict theorist might be interested in the power differentials present in the regulation of food, and would explore where people’s right to information intersects with corporations’ drive for profit, and how the government mediates those interests. Or a conflict theorist might undertake a macro analysis that examines the power that large farming conglomerates like Monsanto have over comparatively powerless local farmers. The documentary film Food, Inc. (2009) gives an example of this as it depicts Monsanto’s patenting of seed technology. Other topics of study might include how nutrition varies between different social classes or racial and ethnic groups, or why there are food deserts (places that lack access to fresh produce) in densely populated areas.

A sociologist viewing food consumption through a symbolic interactionist lens would be more interested in micro-level topics, such as the symbolic use of food in religious rituals, or the role it plays in the social interaction of a family dinner. This perspective might also study the interactions among group members who identify themselves based on their sharing a particular diet, such as vegetarians (people who don’t eat meat) or locavores (people who strive to eat locally produced food). Interactionists might also examine the relationships between farmworkers and their employers, how workers or the owners of large farms identify/ see themselves, and/or specific symbols that have taken on importance (i.e. the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) use a bloody t-shirt to represent violence against farmworkers).

How Sociological PARADIGMS Might View Food Consumption

Just like food production and consumption, every society has a legal system in place to regulate human behavior. Examine the legal and justice system (policing, course, fines, jails, prisons etc.) and consider how each theoretical perspective might think about these things: 

  • How would a conflict theorist examine the criminal justice system in the U.S. and around the world? 
  • How would a functionalist examine the criminal justice system in the U.S. and around the world? 
  • How would an interactionist examine the criminal justice system in the U.S. and around the world? 

What other topics interest you and how can you begin to think about them using the theoretical paradigms? Which theories do you find yourself gravitating toward and why? 

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Glossary

bourgeoisie:
those who owned the means of production (i.e. factory owners in the Industrial Revolution)
class consciousness:
awareness that one is a proletarian, a worker, and has an understanding of solidarity in a class struggle against the bourgeoisie
conflict theory:
a theory that examines society as a competition for limited resources
constructivism:
an extension of symbolic interaction theory which proposes that reality is what humans cognitively construct it to be
double consciousness:
a term used to describe an individual whose identity is divided into several facets
dramaturgical analysis:
a technique sociologists use in which they view society through the metaphor of theatrical performance, including role improvisation
dysfunctions:
social patterns that have undesirable consequences for the operation of society
false consciousness:
proletarians are unable to identify and understand their own class position and exploitation
feminist:
one who believes that females should be equal to males
feminist theory:
the critical analysis of the way gender affects societal structures, power, and inequality
functionalism/structural-functional theory:
a theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society
grand theories:
an attempt to explain large-scale relationships and answer fundamental questions such as why societies form and why they change
hypothesis:
a testable proposition
intersectional theory:
utilizes multiple identities (such as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, economic class, etc.) as important to understanding inequality
latent functions:
the unrecognized or unintended consequences of a social process
looking-glass self:
concept that the development of self occurs through interactions with others, based on our understanding of how others perceive us
macro-level theories:
a wide-scale view of the role of social structures within a society
manifest functions:
sought consequences of a social process
micro-level theories:
the study of specific relationships between individuals or small groups
paradigms:
philosophical and theoretical frameworks used within a discipline to formulate theories, generalizations, and the experiments performed in support of them
patriarchy:
a set of institutional structures (like property rights, access to positions of power and sources of income) that are based on the belief that males (patri means “father”) are and should be dominant
power elite:
the dominant individuals and groups within the military, business world, governments, and other institutions who are at the top of the power hierarchy
proletariat:
those who labor in the means of production (workers) and who do not possess or control capital, as the bourgeoisie does
social facts:
the laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all of the cultural rules that govern social life
social institutions:
patterns of beliefs and behaviors focused on meeting social needs
social solidarity:
the social ties that bind a group of people together such as kinship, shared location, and religion
symbolic interactionism:
a theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society by studying their communication (language and symbols)
theory:
a proposed explanation about social interactions or society

  1. Cole, N.L. updated 2017. How WEB DuBois Made His Mark on Sociology. https://www.thoughtco.com/web-dubois-birthday-3026475
  2. Dubois, W.E.Burghardt. 1897. Strivings of the Negro People. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1897/08/strivings-of-the-negro-people/305446/