Sociologists analyze the social discipline at varying degrees and from different contexts. From well-founded interpretations to the various generalizations offered on social behavior, sociologists research everything; from the micro to the macro level analysis of social patterns. However, the pioneering European sociologists came up with a wide conceptualization of the principles of the society and how it works. The views of these pioneering sociologists provide us with a philosophical basis for answering tackling arising questions related to the society (Turner, 2002).
Towards this end, it can be inferred that today’s sociologists employ three fundamental theoretical frameworks: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the functionalist perspective. The above sociologist perspectives provide sociologists with theoretical frameworks for proving how society influences people and the other way round. Each of the above sociological paradigms uniquely hypothesizes sociology and human behavior as illustrated by the following table.
The Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
Also referred to as interactionism, this is one of the major theoretical paradigms. This theory is associated with the American philosopher, George Herbert Mead (1863-1931). Mead placed heavy emphasis on the subjective meaning of the social process and its interaction with the human behavior and practicality. Internationalism focuses on subjective perspectives of sociology rather than objective macro-structural contexts of sociology. As such, this theory focuses of human image rather than the image of the society. Thus, interactionists believe that human beings are pragmatic individuals capable of continually adjusting behavior to the action of other social forces. Humans are able to adjust the above actions because they are capable of interpreting them. As such, humans can symbolically denote and treat the actions and those who undertake them as symbolic objects (Blumer, 1969).
The process of making adjustments is guided by the human’s ability to imaginatively conceptualize alternative courses of action before we act. This process is further guided by the human ability to react to our own actions as symbolic objects. Virtually, interactionalism views humans as active and creative individuals capable of constructing their social world that conforms to the ideals of socialization. This theory further stipulates that society embraces well arranged and serial interactions among human beings. Symbolic interaction theorists focus on easy to observe face-to-face observations as opposed to macro-level structural relationships consisting of social relationships. The focus on human interaction and the effect of the various events on their behavior leads interactionists to shift their attention away from the conventional values and norms to the modern ones adjusting to the social processes (Taylor, 2011).
Whereas functionalists view socialization as the means of creating stability in the social system, interactionists view negotiation among society members as the means of creating short-term social relations likely to remain constant despite stability in the basic framework guiding these relations. The emphasis on symbols, the social reconstruction of society and negotiated reality all necessitate an insight into the roles people play. Role taking is a key to understanding human behavior because it allows to apprehend other people’s perspectives and conceptualize what our actions may mean to the other individuals with whom we interact. As such, social behavior can be perceived to be poorly scripted capable of being corrected by humans because they are improvisers.
Symbolic interactionists face criticism from other sociologists for being unsystematic and impressionistic in their theories. These weaknesses coupled with a fairly narrow emphasis on research have impacted negatively on this sociological perspective. This is because interactionists study sociology through participant observation as opposed to interviews and surveys. Thus, they believe that close interaction with participants is a key to understanding the meaning of actions and defining a situation.
Functionalism is the oldest and the most dominant sociology theory. This perspective is founded on two principles: application of the scientific knowledge to the social world and use of comparison between an individual organism and the society. Applying scientific knowledge proves that one can conceptualize the social world in the same way one studies the physical world. Functionalists perceive the social world to be observable through such techniques as interviews and surveys. In addition, functionalists apply a positivistic view of sociology, which assumes that the social world can be value-free. This means that the investigating sociologist’s values will not interfere with the search for social laws administrating the behavior of social systems. Functionalist theory can be attributed to Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). Durkheim was a great French sociologist, who was among the first to use scientific and statistical methods in sociological research.
According to functionalism, societal aspects are interdependent and contribute to the overall functioning of the society. Parts of the society ensure that there is an order, productivity and stability in it. However, if all does not go well according to the society expectations, parts of the society must undertake to create a new order that will ensure that all processes are working as initially planned. Functionalism stipulates that the society is bound together by social consensus, in which members agree to work together towards achieving what is best for the entire society. Emile Durkheim indicated that social consensus assumes two forms; organic solidarity and mechanical stability.
Mechanic solidarity is a form of unity that is achieved when the society maintains related values and beliefs while at the same time engaging in similar types of work. It is most common in conventional simple societies such as farmers and cattle keepers. Organic solidarity in contrast arises where people of a given society are interdependent but possess different values and beliefs while engaging in their varying jobs. It is most applicable in industrialized and complex societies. Thus, organic solidarity leads functionalists to speculate on the needs that are supposed to be met for a social system to prevail. The underlying functions in the society are vital in the survival of the social system. Functionalism has faced heavy criticism for reversing the cause effect relationship by explaining why things are the way they are as opposed to idealizing them according to what happened before.
Conflict theory was developed by Karl Marx (1818-1883). His ideas can be attributed to Karl’s works on class struggles, which add a new perspective to the society, different from symbolic interactionist and functionalist perspectives. While the latter theories placed emphasis on positive aspects of the society that can be varied to bring about stability, conflict theory contests the status quo and encourages social changes even though such will bring about a social revolution. In the present day conflict theorists try to find conflict between social groupings in which the potential for inequality is rife. This may be in the terms of sex, race, political and economic aspects. Conflict theory points out that conflicting values and beliefs cause societal members to compete against themselves. The intensifying competition in turn forms the basis for the changing nature of the society (Hirschman, 2008).
The materialist perspective proposed by conflict theory implies that the most important determinant of social life is the range of activities being performed by the society especially where such activities result in the provision of the basic necessities to society members. Thus, Marx deduced that social organization of work and technology applied will have a huge impact on the way other aspects of the society are organized. As such, to achieve wealth in the society, human labor must be actively involved. Conflict theory has, however, been criticized for providing a negative picture of the society. This is because conflict theorists attribute humanitarian efforts to be the controlling paradigms of the society as opposed to inherent values that maintain social order.
Similarities and Differences of the Three Perspectives
- The three theories offer a wide conceptualization of societal ideals and their workings.
- The standpoints of the three theories offer modern sociologists a philosophical standpoint for answering questions regarding the society.
- The different perspectives also offer sociologists a theoretical framework for explaining how the society influences people and vice versa.
- Whereas functionalists view socialization as the means of creating stability in the social system, interactionists view negotiation among society members as the means of creating short term social relations.
- While symbolism and functionalism place emphasis on an ideal society founded on stability and status quo, conflict theory and challenges the status quo even where such change is likely to bring about a revolution.
The Most Ideal Sociology Perspective
From the above study, I believe that conflict theory is the most appropriate paradigm for studying sociology. This is because it stipulates that a society would be dysfunctional if it was devoid of social, political and economic relations conducted through social processes. Conflict theory seems to liken economics and sociology as associated disciplines. Thus, it can be inferred that conflict theory is realistic because it stipulates that economic ideals help mold human relationships. This is synonymous with the modern society where traditional values and the status quo are no longer sociological determinants (Eby & Rioux, 1999).