Theories of Sociology

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Structural functionalist theory

Structural functionalism, also referred to as functionalism, perceives the society as a multifaceted system whose units function coherently to enhance unity and stability. Two famous theorists, Herbert spencer an English philosopher in the 19th century and Robert Merton an American Sociologist played a major role in contributing to this perspective (Woody, 2015). Social construction (structure), manifest functions, social functions and latent functions are some of the important conceptions in this theory. A common example that could be derived from the traditional concept is the family basic unit where the father is the head of the family and provides for his family whereas the mother takes care of the children (Andres, 2016). As defined above, this enhances a stable strong and coherent family unit created by smaller parts. The functioning unit goes on further to form a much wider society or community. For further clarity, this section will indulge further into this theory and also examine some of the aforementioned examples.

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Structural functionalism puts emphasis on stability. Generally, the society functions towards social stability and social solidarity with several other smaller units adding up to construct a larger function. This theory assumes that it is in their natural character that human beings require and seek out stability in all levels of social integration. This can be characterized by a form as small as a simple handshake greeting to a more complex form such as education, religion on a larger community.

Structural-functional is an ideology that views the society as multifaceted system whose units function together to enhance solidarity and stability (Hitlin, 2003). It states that the lives of human beings are guided by social structures that are generally stable arrangements of social character. These structures ultimately shape their lives. Certain tendencies such as basic handshakes as a form of greeting to more complex religious ceremonials develop a structure to everyday lives. Every social arrangement has social functions or consequences for societies operation in general. For instance, it is characterized by important functions in the community such as learning, socialization and social placement (Madan, 2007).

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Structural functionalism defines a society to make up arrangements or institutions such as governments or religions that are cohesive, share similar norms and are characterized by a definitive traditions or cultures. Functionalism is generally a more static or stable aspects of the society (Hitlin, 2003). It is vital to note that any group big enough to form an institution is encompassed in structural functionalist ideology. The theory argues that the manner in which a society is structured is the most natural and proficient way to be structured.

However, this theory lacks favor among many commentators. For instance, it gives rise to gender inequality. According to the theory’s ideology, women fall subordinate to the men. The general idea is that the society functions effectively with each gender having its own role allocated in the society, meaning that women are well justified to fall below the men. The implication is that since the society functions efficiently regardless of the gender discrimination, the status quo should not be interrupted in any way.

Conflict theory

This theory developed by Karl Marx, a famous German philosopher, stipulates that entities or groups fight to make the most of their portion of the limited resources that exist and desired by humans in the society. Assuming that the resources available are limited, the struggles ultimately lead to competition and thus a conflict. These encounters lead to various individuals or groups rising into power as institutions and societies structures begin to change as well (Melnilkov, 2017). This section will discuss further into the topic and outline the various theoretical assumptions.

Conflict theory views the society as a showground for unfairness thus giving rise to conflict and changes in the society. The general ideology is that the society exists to benefit a few at the expense of the larger multitude. This assumption on the other hand links social inequalities to aspects such as age, race, class and gender (Andres, 2016). To conflict theory commentators, it all goes down to dominating groups versus the minorities. It was in this view that Karl Marx developed the capitalized ideology that humans, being productive in nature, need to work for survival. In reference to production, he argued that human beings are characterized by two relationships, owning the productive property or working for individuals owning that property (Madan, 2007). This ideology reputes the functionalist theory discussed earlier which assumes the society as a well-structured unit with each individual or group playing a specific role in the society. The society functions on the radical assumption that it exists in conflict, which explains the social change or the moderate assumption where custom and conflict always intermingle. This moderate assumption predicts functionalism to operate as a correspondingly acceptable ideology as it would allow even the negative social constructions to have a role in the society’s self-perpetuation.

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The essence of this theory embodied by the common “pyramid structured” dictates that an elite group of individuals edict terms to the larger multitudes (Hirshleifer 2001).  The idea stipulates that all social structures, traditions and laws are constructed to favor individuals who have traditionally had possession of power or rather groups perceived to have superiority in the society (Madan, 2007). Conflict theory commentators argue that all groups in the society are born from conflict. A common example is the trade unions. The trade unions are developed to fight and protect the interests of the workers while trade organizations are established to protect the interests of the classes in power. Groups in the society are antagonistic to one another as they both consider their own interests (Melnikov, 2017). Those owning the wealth intend to keep and extend their wealth whereas those with little or no wealth fight to increase their wealth in life. As earlier mentioned, this ideology extends to include the society’s morality and by extension to define defiance. The theory stipulates that any act challenging the control of the high class be considered as defiant or morally reprehensible. In conclusion, this theory seeks to explain the ways in which the elite seek to retain and increase their wealth while those with little or no power seek to fight for their interest and increase lot to their life (Roux & Courty, 2013).

Symbolic Interactionist Theory

This theory was formulated by Blumer, and it focuses on the language and symbols to explain or give meaning to various experiences in life. The theory is an approach that shows how humans interact with the society. The basic ideology explains human behaviors and how they intermingle and is well understood through the altercation of meaningful communication or symbols. (Weaver & Agle, 2002).  The theory views human beings “to be acting” rather than being “acted upon” as seen in the conflict theory. The theory argues on several principles such as individuals respond towards meaningful things that arise from social interaction. These social actions on the other hand arise from the lines of actions of individuals fitting together. This theory stipulates that humans are distinct from animals since the infrahuman only respond to their surrounding environment. The ideology develops on the symbolic understanding that humans develop in the event of social interaction. This section will discuss this theory more deeply.

This theory defines the society by addressing the individual meanings that humans levy on events, behaviors objects, and symbols (Andres, 2016). These subjective understandings are given primacy, as it is believed that humans behave or act in reference to their beliefs and not only to what is objectively right. Therefore, as people interact with the society, they alter their behavior with regard to the meaning they have on social interactions. The human nature imposes them to spend time thinking about their next move and adjust their approach depending on how they consider others to perceive them. Symbolic interactionist commentators argue that communications and symbols form reality as humans see it (LaRossa & Reitzes, 2009). Early commentators focused on face-to-face interactions and experiences in the society. However, recent developments in the world have expanded this notion due to the internet, text messaging through the phones among others. Therefore, individuals are powerful in the manner in which they shape the society or the world and not merely victims responding to bigger social forces as seen in other theories. Characters create and shape the society. The change observed is both constant and recurring. Commentators focus on the patterns constructed by human interaction and it is the reality that forms their very existence.

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To shine light on this theory, a good example is a rivalry between two siblings where each sibling views their counterpart as always receiving unbiased treatments and receiving anything they desire in life or rather getting more than they do. Therefore when interacting, they assume that each is picking on the other’s flaws. These experiences arise from a sequence of communications, beliefs and social circumstances that they have towards one another. In addition, events are symbolic to an individual representing more to them than what the objective facts might suggest (Andres, 2016). A similar example is in the workplace where an individual receives a promotion within a short period after they were hired. Thus since other employees who have worked longer do not believe that the promoted employee has the skills for the promotion, they translate the situation to a particular meaning which is in many times negative. Alternatively, if the same employee is demoted, and interacts better with the others, their view towards that employee changes to a positive representation. Symbolic interactionists focus on similar events and note human interactions and experiences in the society on how they form their understandings of the reality. (Botting, 2016).  However, the theory faces criticisms in that it has a wide range in what it tackles to assume clear directions on understanding the nature of how reality is socially constructed


In summary, these theories seek to explain the manner and factors that mold and construct the society, as it exists. However, they also face several criticisms towards their definitions. The first theory, the structural functionalist theory, suggests that the society is well constructed as a multifaceted system whose units function coherently to enhance unity and stability. This theory has its emphasis on stability and argues that the society functions towards social stability and solidarity with small units summing up to construct a larger function. However, this theory faces criticisms as it promotes social injustices such as gender inequality.

The other theory is the conflict theory. This theory stipulates that humans struggle to make the most out of the limited resources available in the society. The theory works on several assumptions such as limited resources in the society and the existence of two distinct economical groups, the elite who own majority of the society’s wealth and the lower class groups who work for those with the wealth. The limited resources available lead to conflict and competition where the elite fight to maintain and accumulate more wealth while the lower group who work for those with the wealth fight for their interests and desire more wealth to add to their lot.

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The final theory is the symbolic interactionist theory. The theory seeks to explain human behavior by giving meaning to individual’s experiences in life as they interact in the society. The theory stipulates that human behavior is a product of the meaningful interaction and symbols exposed to them resulting from their interaction with others in the society.

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  1. Andres, L. (2016) theories of the sociology of higher education access and participation. Rouledge Handbookof sociology of Higher Education. 1573
  2. Botting, E. (2016). Theories of Human Development: Wollstonecraft and Mill on sex, gender and education. In Wollstonecraft, Mill, and Women’s Human Rights.  NEW HAVEN; LONDON: Yale University Press.
  3. Hirshleifer, J. (2001). The dark side of the force: Economic foundations of conflict theory. Cambridge University Press.
  4. Hitlin, S. (2003) Values as the core of personal integrity: Drawing links between two theories of self. Social Psychology quarterly, 118-137
  5. LaRossa, R., & Reitzes, D., C. (2009). Symbolic interactionism and family studies. In sourncebook of family theories and methods (pp 135-166) Springer US
  6. Madan, A (2007) socialogising Merit. Economic and Political Weekly, 3044-3050
  7. Melnikov, A. (2017) The existential sociology of Edward Tiryakian: Toward an intergrated paradigm.
  8. Roux, V., & Courty, M., A (2013) Introduction to discontinuities and continuities: theories, methods and proxies for a historical and sociological approach to evolution of past societies. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory, 187-193
  9. Weaver, G. R. & Agle, B. R (2002) Religiosity and ethical behavior in organizations: A symbolic interactionist perspective. Academy of management review, 27(1), 77-97
  10. Woody, A. I. (2015). Re-orienting discussions of scientific explanation: A Functional perspective. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 53, 79-87
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