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Essay Theoretical Perspectives Sociology

This document is intended as an additional resource for undergraduate students taking sociology courses at UW. It is not intended to replace instructions from your professors and TAs. In all cases follow course-specific assignment instructions, and consult your TA or professor if you have questions.

About These Assignments

Theory application assignments are a common type of analytical writing assigned in sociology classes.  Many instructors expect you to apply sociological theories (sometimes called "perspectives" or "arguments") to empirical phenomena.[1]  There are different ways to do this, depending upon your objectives, and of course, the specifics of each assignment. You can choose cases that confirm (support), disconfirm (contradict),[2] or partially confirm any theory.   

How to Apply Theory to Empirical Phenomena

Theory application assignments generally require you to look at empirical phenomena through the lens of theory.  Ask yourself, what would the theory predict ("have to say") about a particular situation. According to the theory, if particular conditions are present or you see a change in a particular variable, what outcome should you expect? 

Generally, a first step in a theory application assignment is to make certain you understand the theory! You should be able to state the theory (the author's main argument) in a sentence or two.  Usually, this means specifying the causal relationship (X—>Y) or the causal model (which might involve multiple variables and relationships). 

For those taking sociological theory classes, in particular, you need to be aware that theories are constituted by more than causal relationships.  Depending upon the assignment, you may be asked to specify the following:

  • Causal Mechanism: This is a detailed explanation about how X—>Y, often made at a lower level of analysis (i.e., using smaller units) than the causal relationship.
  • Level of Analysis: Macro-level theories refer to society- or group-level causes and processes; micro-level theories address individual-level causes and processes.
  • Scope Conditions: These are parameters or boundaries specified by the theorist that identify the types of empirical phenomena to which the theory applies.
  • Assumptions: Most theories begin by assuming certain "facts." These often concern the bases of human behavior: for example, people are inherently aggressive or inherently kind, people act out of self-interest or based upon values, etc.

Theories vary in terms of whether they specify assumptions, scope conditions and causal mechanisms.  Sometimes they can only be inferred: when this is the case, be clear about that in your paper.

Clearly understanding all the parts of a theory helps you ensure that you are applying the theory correctly to your case. For example, you can ask whether your case fits the theory's assumptions and scope conditions.  Most importantly, however, you should single out the main argument or point (usually the causal relationship and mechanism) of the theory.  Does the theorist's key argument apply to your case? Students often go astray here by latching onto an inconsequential or less important part of the theory reading, showing the relationship to their case, and then assuming they have fully applied the theory.

Using Evidence to Make Your Argument

Theory application papers involve making a claim or argument based on theory, supported by empirical evidence.[3]  There are a few common problems that students encounter while writing these types of assignments: unsubstantiated claims/generalizations; "voice" issues or lack of attribution; excessive summarization/insufficient analysis.  Each class of problem is addressed below, followed by some pointers for choosing "cases," or deciding upon the empirical phenomenon to which you will apply the theoretical perspective or argument (including where to find data).

A common problem seen in theory application assignments is failing to substantiate claims, or making a statement that is not backed up with evidence or details ("proof").  When you make a statement or a claim, ask yourself, "How do I know this?"  What evidence can you marshal to support your claim? Put this evidence in your paper (and remember to cite your sources).  Similarly, be careful about making overly strong or broad claims based on insufficient evidence.  For example, you probably don't want to make a claim about how Americans feel about having a black president based on a poll of UW undergraduates.  You may also want to be careful about making authoritative (conclusive) claims about broad social phenomena based on a single case study.

In addition to un- or under-substantiated claims, another problem that students often encounter when writing these types of papers is lack of clarity regarding "voice," or whose ideas they are presenting.  The reader is left wondering whether a given statement represents the view of the theorist, the student, or an author who wrote about the case.  Be careful to identify whose views and ideas you are presenting. For example, you could write, "Marx views class conflict as the engine of history;" or, "I argue that American politics can best be understood through the lens of class conflict;"[4] or, "According to Ehrenreich, Walmart employees cannot afford to purchase Walmart goods."

Another common problem that students encounter is the trap of excessive summarization.  They spend the majority of their papers simply summarizing (regurgitating the details) of a case—much like a book report.  One way to avoid this is to remember that theory indicates which details (or variables) of a case are most relevant, and to focus your discussion on those aspects.  A second strategy is to make sure that you relate the details of the case in an analytical fashion. You might do this by stating an assumption of Marxist theory, such as "man's ideas come from his material conditions," and then summarizing evidence from your case on that point.  You could organize the details of the case into paragraphs and start each paragraph with an analytical sentence about how the theory relates to different aspects of the case. 

Some theory application papers require that you choose your own case (an empirical phenomenon, trend, situation, etc.), whereas others specify the case for you (e.g., ask you to apply conflict theory to explain some aspect of globalization described in an article). Many students find choosing their own case rather challenging.  Some questions to guide your choice are:

  1. Can I obtain sufficient data with relative ease on my case?
  2. Is my case specific enough?  If your subject matter is too broad or abstract, it becomes both difficult to gather data and challenging to apply the theory.
  3. Is the case an interesting one? Professors often prefer that you avoid examples used by the theorist themselves, those used in lectures and sections, and those that are extremely obvious.

Where You Can Find Data

Data is collected by many organizations (e.g., commercial, governmental, nonprofit, academic) and can frequently be found in books, reports, articles, and online sources.  The UW libraries make your job easy: on the front page of the library website (www.lib.washington.edu), in the left hand corner you will see a list of options under the heading "Find It" that allows you to go directly to databases, specific online journals, newspapers, etc. For example, if you are choosing a historical case, you might want to access newspaper articles.  This has become increasingly easy to do, as many are now online through the UW library.  For example, you can search The New York Times and get full-text online for every single issue from 1851 through today!  If you are interested in interview or observational data, you might try to find books or articles that are case-studies on your topic of interest by conducting a simple keyword search of the UW library book holdings, or using an electronic database, such as JSTOR or Sociological Abstracts.  Scholarly articles are easy to search through, since they contain abstracts, or paragraphs that summarize the topic, relevant literature, data and methods, and major findings.  When using JSTOR, you may want to limit your search to sociology (which includes 70 journals) and perhaps political science; this database retrieves full-text articles. Sociological Abstracts will cast a wider net searching many more sociology journals, but the article may or may not be available online (find out by clicking "check for UW holdings").  A final word about using academic articles for data: remember that you need to cite your sources, and follow the instructions of your assignment.  This includes making your own argument about your case, not using an argument you find in a scholarly article.

In addition, there are many data sources online.  For example, you can get data from the US census, including for particular neighborhoods, from a number of cites. You can get some crime data online: the Seattle Police Department publishes several years' worth of crime rates.  There are numerous cites on public opinion, including gallup.com. There is an online encyclopedia on Washington state history, including that of individual Seattle neighborhoods (www.historylink.org). These are just a couple options: a simple google search will yield hundreds more.  Finally, remember that librarian reference desks are expert on data sources, and that you can call, email, or visit in person to ask about what data is available on your particular topic.  You can chat with a librarian 24 hours a day online, as well (see the "Ask Us!" link on the front page of UW libraries website for contact information).


[1] By empirical phenomena, we mean some sort of observed, real-world conditions. These include societal trends, events, or outcomes. They are sometimes referred to as "cases."  Return to Reading

[2] A cautionary note about critiquing theories: no social theory explains all cases, so avoid claiming that a single case "disproves" a theory, or that a single case "proves" a theory correct. Moreover, if you choose a case that disconfirms a theory, you should be careful that the case falls within the scope conditions (see above) of the given theory. For example, if a theorist specifies that her argument pertains to economic transactions, it would not be a fair critique to say the theory doesn't explain dynamics within a family. On the other hand, it is useful and interesting to apply theories to cases not foreseen by the original theorist (we see this in sociological theories that incorporate theories from evolutionary biology or economics).  Return to Reading

[3] By empirical evidence, we mean data on social phenomena, derived from scientific observation or experiment.  Empirical evidence may be quantitative (e.g., statistical data) or qualitative (e.g., descriptions derived from systematic observation or interviewing), or a mixture of both. Empirical evidence must be observable and derived from real-world conditions (present or historical) rather than hypothetical or "imagined".  For additional help, see the "Where You Can Find Data" section on the next page.  Return to Reading

[4] If your instructor does not want you to use the first-person, you could write, "This paper argues…"  Return to Reading

Learning Objectives

  1. Distinguish macro approaches in sociology from micro approaches.
  2. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of functionalism and conflict theory.
  3. Summarize the most important beliefs and assumptions of symbolic interactionism and exchange theory.

We have talked repeatedly about “a” sociological perspective, as if all sociologists share the same beliefs on how society works. This implication is misleading. Although all sociologists would probably accept the basic premise that social backgrounds affect people’s attitudes, behavior, and life chances, their views as sociologists differ in many other ways.

Macro and Micro Approaches

Although this may be overly simplistic, sociologists’ views basically fall into two camps: macrosociology and microsociology. Macrosociologists focus on the big picture, which usually means such things as social structure, social institutions, and social, political, and economic change. They look at the large-scale social forces that change the course of human society and the lives of individuals. Microsociologists, on the other hand, study social interaction. They look at how families, coworkers, and other small groups of people interact; why they interact the way they do; and how they interpret the meanings of their own interactions and of the social settings in which they find themselves. Often macro- and microsociologists look at the same phenomena but do so in different ways. Their views taken together offer a fuller understanding of the phenomena than either approach can offer alone.

The different but complementary nature of these two approaches can be seen in the case of armed robbery. Macrosociologists would discuss such things as why robbery rates are higher in poorer communities and whether these rates change with changes in the national economy. Microsociologists would instead focus on such things as why individual robbers decide to commit a robbery and how they select their targets. Both types of approaches give us a valuable understanding of robbery, but together they offer an even richer understanding.

Within the broad macro camp, two perspectives dominate: functionalism and conflict theory. Within the micro camp, two other perspectives exist: symbolic interactionism and utilitarianism (also called rational choice theory or exchange theory) (Collins, 1994). We now turn to these four theoretical perspectives, which are summarized in Table 1.1 “Theory Snapshot”.

Table 1.1 Theory Snapshot

Theoretical perspectiveMajor assumptions
FunctionalismSocial stability is necessary to have a strong society, and adequate socialization and social integration are necessary to achieve social stability. Society’s social institutions perform important functions to help ensure social stability. Slow social change is desirable, but rapid social change threatens social order. Functionalism is a macro theory.
Conflict theorySociety is characterized by pervasive inequality based on social class, gender, and other factors. Far-reaching social change is needed to reduce or eliminate social inequality and to create an egalitarian society. Conflict theory is a macro theory.
Symbolic interactionismPeople construct their roles as they interact; they do not merely learn the roles that society has set out for them. As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction. Symbolic interactionism is a micro theory.
Utilitarianism (rational choice theory or exchange theory)People act to maximize their advantages in a given situation and to reduce their disadvantages. If they decide that benefits outweigh disadvantages, they will initiate the interaction or continue it if it is already under way. If they instead decide that disadvantages outweigh benefits, they will decline to begin interacting or stop the interaction if already begun. Social order is possible because people realize it will be in their best interests to cooperate and to make compromises when necessary. Utilitarianism is a micro theory.

Microsociologists examine the interaction of small groups of people, such as the two women conversing here. These sociologists examine how and why individuals interact and interpret the meanings of their interaction.

Functionalism

Functionalism, also known as the functionalist perspective, arose out of two great revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. The first was the French Revolution of 1789, whose intense violence and bloody terror shook Europe to its core. The aristocracy throughout Europe feared that revolution would spread to their own lands, and intellectuals feared that social order was crumbling.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century reinforced these concerns. Starting first in Europe and then in the United States, the Industrial Revolution led to many changes, including the rise and growth of cities as people left their farms to live near factories. As the cities grew, people lived in increasingly poor, crowded, and decrepit conditions. One result of these conditions was mass violence, as mobs of the poor roamed the streets of European and American cities. They attacked bystanders, destroyed property, and generally wreaked havoc. Here was additional evidence, if European intellectuals needed it, of the breakdown of social order.

In response, the intellectuals began to write that a strong society, as exemplified by strong social bonds and rules and effective socialization, was needed to prevent social order from disintegrating (Collins, 1994). In this regard, their view was similar to that of the 20th-century novel Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954), which many college students read in high school. Some British boys are stranded on an island after a plane crash. No longer supervised by adults and no longer in a society as they once knew it, they are not sure how to proceed and come up with new rules for their behavior. These rules prove ineffective, and the boys slowly become savages, as the book calls them, and commit murder. However bleak, Golding’s view echoes that of the conservative intellectuals writing in the aftermath of the French and Industrial Revolutions. Without a strong society and effective socialization, they warned, social order breaks down, and violence and other signs of social disorder result.

This general framework reached fruition in the writings of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), a French scholar largely responsible for the sociological perspective as we now know it. Adopting the conservative intellectuals’ view of the need for a strong society, Durkheim felt that human beings have desires that result in chaos unless society limits them. He wrote, “To achieve any other result, the passions first must be limited.…But since the individual has no way of limiting them, this must be done by some force exterior to him” (Durkheim, 1897/1952, p. 274). This force, Durkheim continued, is the moral authority of society.

How does society limit individual aspirations? Durkheim emphasized two related social mechanisms: socialization and social integration. Socialization helps us learn society’s rules and the need to cooperate, as people end up generally agreeing on important norms and values, while social integration, or our ties to other people and to social institutions such as religion and the family, helps socialize us and integrate us into society and reinforce our respect for its rules. In general, Durkheim added, society comprises many types of social facts, or forces external to the individual, that affect and constrain individual attitudes and behavior. The result is that socialization and social integration help establish a strong set of social rules—or, as Durkheim called it, a strong collective conscience—that is needed for a stable society. By so doing, society “creates a kind of cocoon around the individual, making him or her less individualistic, more a member of the group” (Collins, 1994, p. 181). Weak rules or social ties weaken this “moral cocoon” and lead to social disorder. In all of these respects, says Randall Collins (1994, p. 181), Durkheim’s view represents the “core tradition” of sociology that lies at the heart of the sociological perspective.

Durkheim used suicide to illustrate how social disorder can result from a weakening of society’s moral cocoon. Focusing on group rates of suicide, he felt they could not be explained simply in terms of individual unhappiness and instead resulted from external forces. One such force is anomie, or normlessness, which results from situations, such as periods of rapid social change, when social norms are weak and unclear or social ties are weak. When anomie sets in, people become more unclear about how to deal with problems in their life. Their aspirations are no longer limited by society’s constraints and thus cannot be fulfilled. The frustration stemming from anomie leads some people to commit suicide (Durkheim, 1897/1952).

To test his theory, Durkheim gathered suicide rate data and found that Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics. To explain this difference, he rejected the idea that Protestants were less happy than Catholics and instead hypothesized that Catholic doctrine provides many more rules for behavior and thinking than does Protestant doctrine. Protestants’ aspirations were thus less constrained than Catholics’ desires. In times of trouble, Protestants also have fewer norms on which to rely for comfort and support than do Catholics. He also thought that Protestants’ ties to each other were weaker than those among Catholics, providing Protestants fewer social support networks to turn to when troubled. In addition, Protestant belief is ambivalent about suicide, while Catholic doctrine condemns it. All of these properties of religious group membership combine to produce higher suicide rates among Protestants than among Catholics.

Today’s functionalist perspective arises out of Durkheim’s work and that of other conservative intellectuals of the 19th century. It uses the human body as a model for understanding society. In the human body, our various organs and other body parts serve important functions for the ongoing health and stability of our body. Our eyes help us see, our ears help us hear, our heart circulates our blood, and so forth. Just as we can understand the body by describing and understanding the functions that its parts serve for its health and stability, so can we understand society by describing and understanding the functions that its “parts”—or, more accurately, its social institutions—serve for the ongoing health and stability of society. Thus functionalism emphasizes the importance of social institutions such as the family, religion, and education for producing a stable society. We look at these institutions in later chapters.

Similar to the view of the conservative intellectuals from which it grew, functionalism is skeptical of rapid social change and other major social upheaval. The analogy to the human body helps us understand this skepticism. In our bodies, any sudden, rapid change is a sign of danger to our health. If we break a bone in one of our legs, we have trouble walking; if we lose sight in both our eyes, we can no longer see. Slow changes, such as the growth of our hair and our nails, are fine and even normal, but sudden changes like those just described are obviously troublesome. By analogy, sudden and rapid changes in society and its social institutions are troublesome according to the functionalist perspective. If the human body evolved to its present form and functions because these made sense from an evolutionary perspective, so did society evolve to its present form and functions because these made sense. Any sudden change in society thus threatens its stability and future. By taking a skeptical approach to social change, functionalism supports the status quo and is thus often regarded as a conservative perspective.

Conflict Theory

In many ways, conflict theory is the opposite of functionalism but ironically also grew out of the Industrial Revolution, thanks largely to Karl Marx (1818–1883) and his collaborator, Friedrich Engels (1820–1895). Whereas conservative intellectuals feared the mass violence resulting from industrialization, Marx and Engels deplored the conditions they felt were responsible for the mass violence and the capitalist society they felt was responsible for these conditions. Instead of fearing the breakdown of social order that mass violence represented, they felt that revolutionary violence was needed to eliminate capitalism and the poverty and misery they saw as its inevitable result (Marx, 1867/1906; Marx & Engels, 1848/1962).

According to Marx and Engels, every society is divided into two classes based on the ownership of the means of production (tools, factories, and the like). In a capitalist society, the bourgeoisie, or ruling class, owns the means of production, while the proletariat, or working class, does not own the means of production and instead is oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie. This difference creates an automatic conflict of interests between the two groups. Simply put, the bourgeoisie is interested in maintaining its position at the top of society, while the proletariat’s interest lies in rising up from the bottom and overthrowing the bourgeoisie to create an egalitarian society.

In a capitalist society, Marx and Engels wrote, revolution is inevitable because of structural contradictions arising from the very nature of capitalism. Because profit is the main goal of capitalism, the bourgeoisie’s interest lies in maximizing profit. To do so, capitalists try to keep wages as low as possible and to spend as little money as possible on working conditions. This central fact of capitalism, said Marx and Engels, eventually prompts the rise among workers of class consciousness, or an awareness of the reasons for their oppression. Their class consciousness in turn leads them to revolt against the bourgeoisie to eliminate the oppression and exploitation they suffer.

Over the years, Marx and Engels’s views on the nature of capitalism and class relations have greatly influenced social, political, and economic theory and also inspired revolutionaries in nations around the world. However, history has not supported their prediction that capitalism will inevitably result in a revolution of the proletariat. For example, no such revolution has occurred in the United States, where workers never developed the degree of class consciousness envisioned by Marx and Engels. Because the United States is thought to be a free society where everyone has the opportunity to succeed, even poor Americans feel that the system is basically just. Thus various aspects of American society and ideology have helped minimize the development of class consciousness and prevent the revolution that Marx and Engels foresaw.

Despite this shortcoming, their basic view of conflict arising from unequal positions held by members of society lies at the heart of today’s conflict theory. This theory emphasizes that different groups in society have different interests stemming from their different social positions. These different interests in turn lead to different views on important social issues. Some versions of the theory root conflict in divisions based on race and ethnicity, gender, and other such differences, while other versions follow Marx and Engels in seeing conflict arising out of different positions in the economic structure. In general, however, conflict theory emphasizes that the various parts of society contribute to ongoing inequality, whereas functionalist theory, as we have seen, stresses that they contribute to the ongoing stability of society. Thus, while functionalist theory emphasizes the benefits of the various parts of society for ongoing social stability, conflict theory favors social change to reduce inequality. In this regard, conflict theory may be considered a progressive perspective.

Feminist theory has developed in sociology and other disciplines since the 1970s and for our purposes will be considered a specific application of conflict theory. In this case, the conflict concerns gender inequality rather than the class inequality emphasized by Marx and Engels. Although many variations of feminist theory exist, they all emphasize that society is filled with gender inequality such that women are the subordinate sex in many dimensions of social, political, and economic life (Tong, 2009). Liberal feminists view gender inequality as arising out of gender differences in socialization, while Marxist feminists say that this inequality is a result of the rise of capitalism, which made women dependent on men for economic support. On the other hand, radical feminists view gender inequality as present in all societies, not just capitalist ones. Chapter 11 “Gender and Gender Inequality” examines some of the arguments of feminist theory at great length.

Karl Marx and his collaborator Friedrich Engels were intense critics of capitalism. Their work inspired the later development of conflict theory in sociology.

Symbolic Interactionism

Whereas the functionalist and conflict perspectives are macro approaches, symbolic interactionism is a micro approach that focuses on the interaction of individuals and on how they interpret their interaction. Its roots lie in the work in the early 1900s of American sociologists, social psychologists, and philosophers who were interested in human consciousness and action. Herbert Blumer (1969), a sociologist at the University of Chicago, built on their writings to develop symbolic interactionism, a term he coined. This view remains popular today, in part because many sociologists object to what they perceive as the overly deterministic view of human thought and action and passive view of the individual inherent in the sociological perspective derived from Durkheim.

Drawing on Blumer’s work, symbolic interactionists feel that people do not merely learn the roles that society has set out for them; instead they construct these roles as they interact. As they interact, they “negotiate” their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. In so doing, they rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction.

An example is the familiar symbol of shaking hands. In the United States and many other societies, shaking hands is a symbol of greeting and friendship. This simple act indicates that you are a nice, polite person with whom someone should feel comfortable. To reinforce this symbol’s importance for understanding a bit of interaction, consider a situation where someone refuses to shake hands. This action is usually intended as a sign of dislike or as an insult, and the other person interprets it as such. Their understanding of the situation and subsequent interaction will be very different from those arising from the more typical shaking of hands.

Now let’s say that someone does not shake hands, but this time the reason is that the person’s right arm is broken. Because the other person realizes this, no snub or insult is inferred, and the two people can then proceed to have a comfortable encounter. Their definition of the situation depends not only on whether they shake hands but also, if they do not shake hands, on why they do not. As the term symbolic interactionism implies, their understanding of this encounter arises from what they do when they interact and their use and interpretation of the various symbols included in their interaction. According to symbolic interactionists, social order is possible because people learn what various symbols (such as shaking hands) mean and apply these meanings to different kinds of situations. If you visited a society where sticking your right hand out to greet someone was interpreted as a threatening gesture, you would quickly learn the value of common understandings of symbols.

Utilitarianism

Utilitarianism is a general view of human behavior that says people act to maximize their pleasure and to reduce their pain. It originated in the work of such 18th-century thinkers as the Italian economist Cesare Beccaria (1738–1794) and the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832). Both men thought that people act rationally and decide before they act whether their behavior will cause them more pleasure or pain. Applying their views to crime, they felt the criminal justice system in Europe at the time was far harsher than it needed to be to deter criminal behavior. Another 18th-century utilitarian thinker was Adam Smith, whose book The Wealth of Nations (1776/1910) laid the foundation for modern economic thought. Indeed, at the heart of economics is the view that sellers and buyers of goods and services act rationally to reduce their costs and in this and other ways to maximize their profits.

In sociology, utilitarianism is commonly called exchange theory or rational choice theory (Coleman, 1990; Homans, 1961). No matter what name it goes under, this view emphasizes that when people interact, they seek to maximize the benefits they gain from the interaction and to reduce the disadvantages. If they decide that the interaction’s benefits outweigh its disadvantages, they will initiate the interaction or continue it if it is already under way. If they instead decide that the interaction’s disadvantages outweigh its benefits, they will decline to begin interacting or stop the interaction if already begun. Social order is possible because people realize it will be in their best interests to cooperate and to make compromises when necessary.

A familiar application of exchange theory would be a dating relationship. Each partner in a dating relationship gives up a bit of autonomy in return for love and other benefits of being close to someone. Yet every relationship has its good and bad moments, and both partners make frequent compromises to ensure the relationship will endure. As long as the couple feels the good moments outweigh the bad moments, the relationship will continue. But once one or both partners decide the reverse is true, the relationship will end.

Comparing Macro and Micro Perspectives

This brief presentation of the four major theoretical perspectives in sociology is necessarily incomplete but should at least outline their basic points. Each perspective has its proponents, and each has its detractors. All four offer a lot of truth, and all four oversimplify and make other mistakes. We will return to them in many of the chapters ahead, but a brief critique is in order here.

A major problem with functionalist theory is that it tends to support the status quo and thus seems to favor existing inequalities based on race, social class, and gender. By emphasizing the contributions of social institutions such as the family and education to social stability, functionalist theory minimizes the ways in which these institutions contribute to social inequality.

Conflict theory also has its problems. By emphasizing inequality and dissensus in society, conflict theory overlooks the large degree of consensus on many important issues. And by emphasizing the ways in which social institutions contribute to social inequality, conflict theory minimizes the ways in which these institutions are necessary for society’s stability.

Neither of these two macro perspectives has very much to say about social interaction, one of the most important building blocks of society. In this regard, the two micro perspectives, symbolic interactionism and utilitarianism, offer significant advantages over their macro cousins. Yet their very micro focus leads them to pay relatively little attention to the reasons for, and possible solutions to, such broad and fundamentally important issues as poverty, racism, sexism, and social change, which are all addressed by functionalism and conflict theory. In this regard, the two macro perspectives offer significant advantages over their micro cousins. In addition, one of the micro perspectives, rational choice theory, has also been criticized for ignoring the importance of emotions, altruism, and other values for guiding human interaction (Lowenstein, 1996).

These criticisms aside, all four perspectives taken together offer a more comprehensive understanding of social phenomena than any one perspective can offer alone. To illustrate this, let’s return to our armed robbery example. A functionalist approach might suggest that armed robbery and other crimes actually serve positive functions for society. As one function, fear of crime ironically strengthens social bonds by uniting the law-abiding public against the criminal elements in society. As a second function, armed robbery and other crimes create many jobs for police officers, judges, lawyers, prison guards, the construction companies that build prisons, and the various businesses that provide products the public buys to help protect against crime.

Conflict theory would take a very different but no less helpful approach to understanding armed robbery. It might note that most street criminals are poor and thus emphasize that armed robbery and other crimes are the result of the despair and frustration of living in poverty and facing a lack of jobs and other opportunities for economic and social success. The roots of street crime, from the perspective of conflict theory, thus lie in society at least as much as they lie in the individuals committing such crime.

In explaining armed robbery, symbolic interactionism would focus on how armed robbers make such decisions as when and where to rob someone and on how their interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies. Exchange or rational choice theory would emphasize that armed robbers and other criminals are rational actors who carefully plan their crimes and who would be deterred by a strong threat of swift and severe punishment.

Now that you have some understanding of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology, we will discuss in Chapter 2 “Eye on Society: Doing Sociological Research” how sociologists conduct their research.

Key Takeaways

  • Sociological theories may be broadly divided into macro approaches and micro approaches.
  • Functionalism emphasizes the importance of social institutions for social stability and implies that far-reaching social change will be socially harmful.
  • Conflict theory emphasizes social inequality and suggests that far-reaching social change is needed to achieve a just society.
  • Symbolic interactionism emphasizes the social meanings and understandings that individuals derive from their social interaction.
  • Utilitarianism emphasizes that people act in their self-interest by calculating whether potential behaviors will be more advantageous than disadvantageous.

For Your Review

  1. In thinking about how you view society and individuals, do you consider yourself more of a macro thinker or a micro thinker?
  2. At this point in your study of sociology, which one of the four sociological traditions sounds most appealing to you? Why?

To explain armed robbery, symbolic interactionists focus on how armed robbers decide when and where to rob a victim and on how their interactions with other criminals reinforce their own criminal tendencies.

Geoffrey Fairchild – The Robbery – CC BY 2.0.

References

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Coleman, J. S. (1990). Foundations of social theory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; Homans, G. (1961). Social behavior: Its elementary forms. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Collins, R. (1994). Four sociological traditions. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Durkheim, É. (1952). Suicide. New York, NY: Free Press. (Original work published 1897).

Golding, W. (1954). Lord of the flies. London, England: Coward-McCann.

Lowenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 272–292.

Marx, K. 1906. Capital. New York, NY: Random House. (Original work published 1867)

Marx, K., & Engels, F. (1962). The communist manifesto. In Marx and Engels: Selected works (pp. 21–65). Moscow, Russia: Foreign Language Publishing House. (Original work published 1848).

Smith, A. (1910). The wealth of nations. London, England: J. M. Dent & Sons; New York, NY: E. P. Dutton. (Original work published 1776).

Tong, R. (2009). Feminist thought: A more comprehensive introduction. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

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