It is important to know the difference between three main sociological perspectives in order to see the world and society through each lens and analyze various communities and human behaviors. Firstly, the functionalist theory focuses on function. This means that it studies and criticizes how a society is organized and how it works within that organization. Functionalists believe that all societies have specific organization and structure, where members of those societies share basic values. Structures and values connect people and make all parts of a working community depend on each other to function as a single unit. These parts include the government, state, schools, families, and individuals. For example, family members, mainly parents, rely on schools to educate their children for the future. In their turn, schools depend on the government for funding and resources. The government in its turn relies back on families and individuals to keep it in power and support it by paying taxes.
When conflicts occur in a society, functionalist theorists point to problems in the structural system and inspect system’s various parts in detail by breaking them down and tracking the starting point of a problem. A crucial aspect of the functionalist theory is known as social consensus. Also known as social cohesion, social consensus is what is believed by functionalists to hold a society together. This is because it involves ideas and norms that society members agree upon. Furthermore, an important part of social cohesion is that community members set similar goals and work together to achieve them. Most problems in a society arise due to the lack of social cohesion. To avoid such problematic situations, functionalists avoid social changes and emphasize the status quo.
Secondly, power and social control are at heart of the social conflict theory. Conflict theorists believe that society is always changing and is filled with negative dilemmas and conflicts. These are the people who blame rich members of elite classes for creating social inequalities and rigid social caste systems, which are designed for the rich to stay in power, while the poor are forced to struggle eternally. Conflict theorists encourage social change, often in rapid and violent ways such as social revolutions. Modern conflict theorists point out to various factors leading to social conflicts and injustices including race discrimination, gender inequalities, political and economic power, lust and hunger, religious brainwashing and cults. Ultimately, these theorists blame the system, or social organization, and hierarchy to be the roots for all social evils. Those against the conflict theory blame it for being too negative. It punishes leaders and communities for things they cannot always fully manipulate and control, such as a person’s poverty level.
Thirdly, interactionist theories are a mixture of the two above mentioned theories with a focus on analyzing social relationships and human interactions with one another to better understand the society. Their main assumption is that every day individual behavior is based on personal choices and interactions with others which come together and affect the entire community behavior and lifestyle. Furthermore, these theorists argue that human nature and behavior behind the choices is unpredictable and always changing. They focus on cause and effect relationships. Another major element of the interaction theory is the use of symbols which are the minute details in daily interactions and individual behaviors.
These theorists believe that habits, symbols, and behaviors of people that are utilized on a daily basis are the ones that become part of their nature and affect their interaction with others. According to interactionists, problems in society occur when interactions are not equally understood by two or more parties. For instance, if sender’s information does not match recipient’s information, problems will arise leading to social disorder and chaos. Interaction theorists observe all types of interactions such as verbal communication, physical body language, and various communication mediums such as dance, music, and sign language. Critics often complain that interaction theorists heavily rely on larger institutions to influence individual interactions and behaviors such as religion, school, and government.
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In order to properly understand these three main social theories, one needs to take an issue and look at it through the theorist lens. This paper discusses race and gender for an example. Functionalists believe that race and gender fulfill specific social functions and contribute to the entire social structure. For instance, working class men are fulfilling an essential role in society by contributing their skills and abilities to the greater cause. For a functioning society, certain races must be on top while others act the bottom. Without such hierarchy and organization, there will eventually be instability and constant battles for top positions. When considering the fact that an increasing number of illegal Mexican immigrants are working at cleaning services and landscaping projects, functionalists will see no issue with this since they will point out that immigrants are necessary for doing jobs Americans are not willing to do. In this way, according to functionalists, social balance is maintained.
These theorists also believe that certain roles are predetermined for each gender in order for it to contribute to the overall structure of the society. If one race or gender steps out of set boundaries, the equilibrium is threatened. Moreover, functionalists believe that those races and genders with better skills and more numerous resources will reach higher success levels. They perceive racial inequality to be a good thing because it motivates people to stay and work within the structural system to succeed. Looking at a specific example, functionalists believe that the white race is inherently more capable of achieving social success than any other race because of higher social ranking.
Looking at the same race and gender category through a conflict theorist’s lens, one sees problems that differences between races and genders create. These theorists believe that no matter what the case is, certain race and gender must prevail over others at all times. This means that they cannot be all equal at one time. For instance, feminists are great examples of conflict theorists as they focus on gaining equal social rights for women. However, in doing so, they threaten current rights and status of men, so the conflict is always inherent in categories such as race and gender. Similarly, conflict theorists argue that white race must stay on top at all times in order to prevent social chaos since there can only be one leading race while other races have to carry out simpler, more mundane social tasks. Conflict theorists also emphasize lack of resources and skills which causes racial inequalities. They hold firmly to the belief that races with less skills and fewer resources continue to remain at the bottom of the social pyramid.
Interestingly, interactionist theorists view race and gender inequalities as a result of people’s interactions with certain races and the way they treat the opposite gender, often using symbols and labeling. For instance, certain races are labeled with specific stereotypes which affect their social status in a community and affect the amount of resources and opportunities they receive from others. Most Mexicans are viewed as second class citizens, therefore, they have access to fewer resources such as medical care and education in contrast to whites. These labels and stereotypes are created by those in power and they falsely identify other races. Similarly, women are viewed as weaker sex because of their interactions with men and the labels placed on them throughout time. Interactionist perspective claims that social order and reality is a socially constructed and negotiated process. Furthermore, this process involves taking power by certain race groups and this power itself is achieved by “controlling, influencing, and sustaining your definition of the situation”.
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If one takes a closer look at all three perspectives, one element that stands out and is common for all three is that of power. Whether one is a functionalist, conflict theorist or interactionist, power plays a crucial role in studying social structures and social dilemmas. This is why individuals possessing power are always the ones with the greatest advantages in all social aspects. Functionalists claim that whoever is in control of a family, group, or society has the ability to maintain social order and must be followed to avoid conflict. Furthermore, no group can have complete power as all groups are interdependent. As for the conflict theorists, they would argue that someone always has power and the power needs to be distributed. In a hypothetical scenario, if the poor had more power than the rich, this would still cause social disorder. The key is that power needs to be equally divided for social order to thrive. Finally, interactionists hold on to the belief that those with the strongest interaction skills, either verbal or physical, are the ones in power and the ones who have the ability to manipulate others into following them and believing their labels to be true. When those without power are followed in the interactionist theory, they spark social change and revolution, because they encourage others to get out of their comfort zones and challenge those who have developed false realities.
Functionalist theorists like Emile Durkheim and Robert Merton would support the notion that power is interdependent in society’s various groups, and that no social group or institution can successfully handle all power. Merton specifically divided human functions into manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions outwardly show people’s interdependence with each other e.g. during visiting churches or schools. On the other hand, latent functions are sociological expectations people have from social groups around them, such as expecting others to carry out their given roles and responsibilities that accompany certain power.
Conflict theorists like Karl Marx view power as the cause of all evil and would agree with my point that conflict theory requires power to be eliminated in order to reach social success. They believe that no power is good and that it is only used to fulfill selfish motives. For instance, when colleges raise tuition prices by claiming they will improve the quality of education, Marx would argue that there are selfish hidden motives in the picture.
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As for interactionist theorists, like George H. Mead, they would agree with my understanding that it is the powerful that design symbols and interactions and create the ways in which they are interpreted by society. He would argue that it is because of the misuse of power that the quality of the interaction is minimized and the focus is places on overt interactions and symbols.
Whether one is looking at society through the functionalist, conflict of interactionist lens, observing society is the imperative goal. Unless community members start observing and evaluating themselves as individuals within whole communities, social change of any kind is impossible. These theories aid sociologists in analyzing man and his dealings with those around him from different angles. They also constantly aim to solve problems of long held social discrimination, injustices, and dictatorships. Without the proper study of society through various lenses, people will simply go in circles, repeating history for eternity.