ATT4: Sociology’s Major Theoretical Perspectives

This one is a post I sent to students in an online course to help them understand a key matter in introductory sociology: the distinction between some core theoretical perspectives. As an anthropologist, I’m often struck, while teaching introductory sociology, how consistently these perspectives come up. This specific course is based very directly on Richard T. Schaefer’s Sociology: A Brief Introduction. So a few points are specific to that book (and the exam students will take is based on that textbook). But I’ve seen a number of other textbooks in introductory sociology, using some as inspiration for questions in other exams or as required rteadings in other courses: the very same perspectives come up all the time.
Not that other disciplines don’t have this. But I really don’t see anything similar in cultural anthropology even though introductory courses in anthropology, like introductory sociology, is very standardized in terms of chapter headings.
The reason I post here as a tidbit, apart from the fact that I happen to think it could be useful for other people, is that there’s a teaching angle to this.
This is a course which is really based on content. It’s a “GenEd” course for nurses at a school of health professions associated with a health system with five hospitals in Texas. What I’m doing here, in terms of “instruction,” is very different from my usual teaching strategies in that it’s very directly related to an exam. I usually wait until my last interactions with students before I build the exam, so that I don’t “teach the exam.” In this case, though, these theoretical perspectives are so fundamental that it’s very far from telling them about things they should memorize. Besides, it’s easy enough to do a copy-paste like this and it might encourage me to post more tidbits (something which has been on my mind, recently).
Making Sense of Major Theoretical Perspectives (MTPs)
As I’ve said so many times, these perspectives are really key to introductory sociology. And they’re really not that hard to spot, once you get the differences. So I’ll give you a few tricks. This isn’t a thorough analysis of their differences but kind of a “cheat sheet.” Of course, you can’t use cheat sheets (or any documentation) on exams. But if you understand what it’s about, at this point, you won’t need a cheat sheet.
So, the Major Theoretical Perspectives.


To summarize:

  • Functionalism
  • Conflict Theory
  • Interactionism

With these three, you can understand a lot of what’s going on in sociology. Because they’re associated with Durkheim, Marx, and Weber, I tend to call them the “WMDs.” (DMW would also work, and it vaguely sounds like a car manufacturer, but “WMD” makes the point more strongly.)
You could argue that feminism is the fourth one and I’ll talk about it But the first three are what can guide you.
One thing to notice is that the order I listed them is pretty much the order in which they appear in most places. Not that they’re really in chronological order. But there’s a notion that conflict theory was a response to functionalism and that interactionism contextualizes the other two.

Recognizing Functionalism

  • As I hinted in another post, any mention of “stability” should give you a clue that it’s probably functionalism. Functionalism is about seeing society as a funcitoning system: stable, balanced, durable. A well-oiled machine (the mechanical metaphor) or a living organism (the organic metaphor). In a functionalist’s view, everything in society has a purpose and the overall purpose is the functioning of the society as a whole.
  • You recognize the early signs of functionalism in Auguste Comte (the guy who coined the term «sociologie» which is the origin of “sociology”) but Émile Durkheim was pretty much the founder of modern, functionalist sociology. In the US, Talcott Parsons and his “equilibrium theory” are the most obvious examples of sociological functionalism. In a way, the 1950s were the heyday of functionalism in North American social sciences.
  • Functionalists make models which are very “scientistic.” In some forms of functionalism, you even perceived society as a “lab.”

Recognizing Conflict

  • People perceive “conflict theory” as a critique of functionalism. Conflict theory is all about inequalities. You see some comment about problems associated with inequality, exploitation, poverty, classes, chances are it has to do with conflict theory. For conflict theorists, social life is a constant struggle between haves and have-nots, those who are given access to resources and those who are unlikely to ever get much resources. This goes for any kind of inequality: class inequality, inequality based on gender, inequality based on race, global inequality…
  • The “struggle of classes” angle makes it clear that many of these have to do with Karl Marx. Because other people have used ideas from Marx, it’s not uncommon to call the conflict theory “Marxian” to distinguish it from Marxism in the political domain. Schaefer tends to use “Marxist” for both, which can get quite confusing (for one thing, many conflict theorists are against governments).
  • In some ways, conflict theory became mainstream with the human rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Unsurprisingly, some of the most vocal activists in sociology can be heard using concepts from conflict theory.

Recognizing Interaction

  • While functionalists and conflict theorists debate one another, there are sociologists on the sidelines who focus on social behaviors, relationships, and meanings. Interactionism (or “symbolic interactionism,” as it’s often called) is recognized as a micro-level analysis and it’s one which may not be that interested in direct causal links of the big machine or big struggle types. It’s more about what happens between individuals and how things can make sense.
  • Interactionism is very recognizable in labeling theory or in the dramaturgical approach. But some people (including Schaefer) associate it with Max Weber. Weber also did work which was closer to macro-level analysis (including what he’s written about the Protestant Work Ethic, or PWE). But interactionists do turn to Weber as more of an inspiration than Durkheim or Marx.
  • Interactionism is very obvious in the work of many contemporary sociologists but it’d be difficult to say that it’s ever become dominant, in sociology.
  • Interactionists often do things which are close to ethnography, including participant-observation.

The Feminist Angle

Occasionally, people will propose feminism as a fourth member of the MTP group. Schaefer doesn’t really do it like that. In fact, sociological feminism is pretty much a reply to the WMDs. It’s much more clearly influenced by conflict theory, to the extent that some might think of feminism in sociology as a part of conflict theory. In fact, some early feminists in sociology saw women as suffering from gender inequality in pretty much the same terms as class inequality. But feminists also criticized conflict theory as exhibiting machismo at many phases in its development. Overall, feminism has been among the most important changes in the history of sociology during the 20th Century. As the notion that women and men should have equal rights, feminism is very strong throughout the discipline.

Potential Pitfalls

Now, this is all a very simplistic model. But I do think it helps, if you don’t get stuck in it. Which is probably why most introductory textbooks (including Schaefer’s) present some version of it. But you may still run into problems if you follow it blindly.
Here are a few things to be aware of:

  • Nowadays, sociologists mix and match ideas from these MTPs and it’s rare to find a “pure” functionalist, a die-hard conflict theorist, or an exclusive interactionist. Feminists are even more active in terms of using tools and concepts from diverse perspectives.
  • Because functionalism and conflict theory are both working at the macro-level, they often have more in common than one might think.
  • Though functionalism mostly talks about stability, they also talk about transition and adaptation. Going from one stable system to another causes some social problems, which may make them sound like conflict theorists.
  • Similarly, the notion of a “dysfunction” may sound like a conflict theory idea, since it has to do with social problems and even with inequality. But the perspective is still that societies “work.”
  • Many broad sociological concepts are carried across all MTPs. For instance, sociologists in general care about social roles. But the way people handle roles will depend on their major theoretical orientation. For instance, an interactionist will see how people “play” their roles in society, what it means to them. A conflict theorist might emphasize that roles are related to statuses and that statuses are often ascribed. Unsurprisingly, a feminist cares a lot about gender roles and might talk about the fact that these roles can be quite diverse, so that there are many ways to be a woman or to be a man. Finally, a funcitonalist is likely to see the set of roles played by different people in society as complementary to one another: society “needs” criminals, CEOs, students, sick people, homemakers, cousins, nurses…
  • Just so you know, there’s no such thing as a “global perspective” in Schaefer’s book. Sure, sociologists talk about globalization and about global inequalities. Immanuel Wallerstein proposed the World System Analysis. But none of the perspectives discussed by Schaefer is labeled as the “global perspective.”

(For the most astute observers among you, it may be obvious that I’m giving you a bunch of hints about the exam. Some clues were subtler than others, but I think they can all be useful.)

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