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Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

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Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

Sociology as science employs perspectives or theories to understand,  explain, analyze and interpret social phenomena.  To interpret social facts, they must be subjected to a theoretical framework. A theory may be defined as a general statement about how some parts of the world fit together and how they work (Macionis,1997). Scupin and DeCorse (1995) define a theory as a set of interconnected hypotheses that offer general explanations for natural or social phenomena. (major theoretical perspectives in sociology)

It should also be noted that the terms “perspectives” and “schools of thought” are often used interchangeably with the term “theory”.

There are three major theoretical perspectives in sociology that have provided an overall framework for sociological studies. These are structural functionalism, social conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.  Some theories have emerged challenging these major ones (see below).

Levels of Sociological Analysis

The Structural-Functionalist Theory

This is one of the dominant theories both in anthropology and sociology.  It is sometimes called functionalism. The theory tries to explain how the relationships among the parts of society are created and how these parts are functional (meaning having beneficial consequences to the individual and the society) and dysfunctional (meaning having negative consequences). It focuses on consensus, social order, structure and function in society. (major theoretical perspectives in sociology)

The structural-functionalist theory sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability; it states that our social lives are guided by social structure, which is relatively stable patterns of social behavior (Macionis, 1997). Social structure is understood in terms of social function, which are consequences for the operations of society. All social structure contributes to the operation of society. The major terms and concepts developed by anthropologists and sociologists in this theory include (or the theory focuses on):  order,  structure,  function (manifest or direct functions and latent or hidden, indirect functions), and equilibrium.

Those hold this view ask such questions as what holds society together? What keeps it steady? The Structural-functionalist theory pays considerable attention to the persistence of shared ideas in society. The functional
an aspect of the structural-functionalist theory stresses the role played by each party in the social system, whereas the structural perspective suggests an image of society wherein individuals are constrained by the social forces, social backgrounds and by group memberships.

Many of the great early founding sociologists such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, and Herbert Spencer and later American sociologists like Talkot Parsons and Robert  K  Merton.    Structural-functionalist theorists in modern sociology are more likely to follow in  the tradition of the writings of particularly Emile Durkheim, who is regarded as the pioneering proponent of this perspective (Hensiln and Nelson, 1995). (major theoretical perspectives in sociology)

The Social Conflict Theory

This theory is also called Marxism; to indicate that the main impetus to the theory derives from the writings of Karl Marx This theory sees society in a framework of class conflicts and focuses on the struggle for scarce resources by different groups in a given society. It asks such questions as what pulls society apart. How does society change? The theory holds that the most important aspect of social order is the domination of some group by others, that actual or potential conflicts are always present in society. The writings of Karl Marx are generally in the spirit of conflict theory, and Marxism influences most of the conflict theorists in modern sociology.

The theory is useful in explaining how the dominant groups use their power to exploit the less powerful groups in society. Key concepts developed in this perspective include conflict, complementation, struggle, power, inequality, and exploitation.

Although this theory gained fame in recent decades, it came under sharp criticism, for its overemphasis on inequality and division, for neglecting the fact of how shared values and interdependence generate unity among members of society; it is also criticized for its explicit political goals. Another critique, which equally applies also to structural functionalism, is that it sees society in very broad terms, neglecting micro-level social realities (Macionis 1997).

Symbolic Interactionism

This theory was advanced by such American sociologists as Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929) William I Thomas   (1863-1947) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) in the early 20th century. This perspective views symbols as the basis of social life. Symbols are things to which we attach meanings. The theory stresses the analysis of how our behaviors depend on how we define others and ourselves.  It concentrates on process, rather than structure, and keeps the individual actor at the center. According to symbolic interactionism, the essence of social life and social reality is the active human being trying to make sense of social situations. In short, this theory calls attention to the detailed, person-oriented processes that take place within the larger units of social life (Calhoun et al, 1994; Henslin and Nelson, 1996; Soroka, 1995).

As indicated above, there are contemporary sociological theories that have emerged in recent decades that have heavily influenced sociological and anthropological thinking. These include the following:


This theory takes as its central theme the place and facts of women’s underprivileged status and their exploitation in a patriarchally dominated society. Feminist sociology focuses on the particular disadvantages, including oppression and exploitation faced by women in society.  This theory ranges from liberal feminism, which recognizes inequalities  but believes that reform can take place without a fundamental restructuring of the social system, to radical  feminism, which advocates the fundamental need for societal change (Marcus and Ducklin, 1998: 32)

Social Exchange Theory

This theory focuses on “the costs and benefits which people obtain in social interaction, including money, goods, and status. It is based on the principle that people always act to maximize benefit. However, to receive benefits, there  must always be an exchange process with others” (Marcus and Ducklin, 1996: 26)

Public Choice Theory:

This theory states that collective organizations such as political parties act rationally to maximize their own benefits.  It argues that individual differences are best resolved by collective involvement within organizations. The role of the state is important in arbitrating between large-scale interests.

Rational Choice Theory:

This theory assumes that individuals will operate in a rational way and will seek to benefit themselves in the life choices they make.


This theory denies any basis for humans being active since human consciousness is no longer seen as the basis of meaning in language. Structuralism differs from the mainstream traditional theories in that it rejects objective social facts and a concept of society as an objective, external entity. It defines social reality in terms of the relations between events, not in terms of things and social facts. Its basic principle is that the observable is meaningful only in so far as it can be related to an underlying structure or order (Swingwood, 1984).

The equivalent of structuralism in anthropology, advanced by its famous French structuralist anthropologist,  Claude  Levi-Strauss, states that “the origin of universal principles that order the ways in which we behave and think about the world is to be found in the  structure  of  human  thought.”(Howard  and  DunaifHattis,  1992:373). The problem with this theory is that they view societies as static and do not help very much in explaining variation among societies.  The theory treats culture as a given order and fails to explain the adaptive dimensions of culture.



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