Sociology as an academic discipline is composed of various theories and resultant perspectives by which we explain and understand our social world. This paper will seek to list out and examine the different complementary perspectives in sociology, and assess the ways in which they are relevant to the study of societies.
Introduction to Sociological Perspectives
Sociology is universal but it is not linear. The discipline of Sociology spans over various tangents by means of numerous theories postulated by renowned researchers and theorists. These theories preset us with various perspectives by which we can view our social world. By means of these theories enabling different sociological perspectives, different narratives of the characteristics of our society are made. Each perspective is important to offer various crucial explanations about our society that helps us predict and assess the world we live in.
There are three main sociological perspectives that is accepted all over in the discipline of sociology, and they are the Functionalist, Conflict, and Symbolic Interactionalist Perspective (Mooney et al., 2007). Beyond these perspectives, there are also complementary perspectives such as the Religious Perspective, Feminist Perspective, Historical Perspective, Cross-species Perspective, Statistical Perspective, and Cross-cultural Perspective. I will explore each in further detail.
“The functionalist perspective is based largely on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. According to functionalism, society is a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole” (Mooney et al., 2007). This perspective gives huge importance to the interconnectedness of society and how each member and social institution contributes to the whole. Theorists of this approach use the terms ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ to describe the different effects social elements have on society. They are functional if they actively contribute to social harmony and stability, and are dysfunctional if they only contribute to societal turmoil and disruption. For example, crime is often viewed as dysfunctional due to obvious reasons of creation of violence and disharmony. But there are some theorists like Durkheim who believe that crime also has an indirect functional aspect to it, as it promotes a heightened sense of moral awareness and increased sense of ethical cohesion to maintain social stability.
Contradictory to the functionalist perspective that views society’s function to be a sum of different parts or factors working together, the conflict perspective perceives society to be composed of various types of groups in a competition for resources and power. It seeks to assess the differential power and unequal resource accumulation between different groups within the society and how these differences result in conflict. The founding of the conflict perspective was through the works of Karl Marx. Marx devised theories that explained how societies go through different economic developmental stages. Concern is diverted from meeting survival needs to the making of profit, during the shift from agricultural to industrial societies. This eventually leads to the creation of two classes; that is, the bourgeoisie- the ones who own the means of production and the proletariat- the workers. This division is also characterized by the development of two groups known as the “haves” and “have nots” adhering to the bourgeois-proletariat dynamic. According to Marx’s theory, the bourgeoisie controls and monopolizes the economy and resources to their advantage, while the proletariats are to work for the bourgeoisie for minimum wages and are denied any share or access to these resources (Mooney et al., 2007). Conflict theory does not only explain economic conflict, it’s aim is to explain the existence of conflict within any social sphere where one party gains at the expense of another. For example, in the institution of family, especially in patriarchal societies, the design of the family is made to naturally benefit men. The social arrangement of this system, guarantees a status of power for the men, and this lifestyle being enforced on women as the traditional family form, puts them at a disadvantage and creates a breeding ground for conflict.
The two perspectives covered so far constitute an area of sociology called Macro Sociology, which is essentially concerned with the manner in which broad aspects that constitute the society like the various social institutions and social groups work towards contributing to the functioning of a society.
Symbolic Interactionalist Perspective
The symbolic interactionalist approach is under Micro Sociology, that is focused on analyzing the social-psychological characteristics of the lives of individuals and their interactions with small groups. This sociological perspective was greatly influenced by the works of Erving Goffman, George Simmel, Charles Cooley and George Herbert Mead (Mooney et al., 2007). This theory suggests that we develop and create our self-concepts and identities through our various interactions with ones around us and the environments we are exposed to. Our individual identities are shaped and maintained by the interactions with our surroundings and the resultant relationships we form. For example, from the moment we are born, we form primary and secondary identities. Our primary identities constitute the family, ethnic identities, race, gender, etc. Our secondary identities are more fluid in nature and include school, occupation, friend groups, marital status, etc. All these constituents of society contribute to the shaping of each person’s individual identity.
The three perspectives so far are the main, distinct overarching perspectives of sociology that are crucial to be covered to analyze the role of the complementary perspectives that the essay will now go into.
6 complementary perspectives: Explained
Religious beliefs, scriptures, and spirituality have an impact on individuals and society, according to the religious worldview. The doctrines, morals, and values promulgated by organized religion can play a strong effect in people’s lives, whether they are healthy, destructive, or neutral. This viewpoint is concerned with how people perceive their religious experiences. It highlights how beliefs and rituals are not sacred unless they are regarded as such by the people who hold them. They take on a special significance and give meaning to people’s lives once they are viewed as sacred. For example, for Max Weber, Christianity is a religion of salvation, claiming that people could be “saved” by adhering to particular doctrines and moral precepts. The concept of “sin” and its atonement by God’s grace is central to Christianity. Unlike Eastern faiths, which take a passive approach, salvation religions such as Christianity take an active approach, requiring constant battles against sin and harmful parts of society. But for some others like Marx, who believed that religion stands in the way of social and cultural change by forcing and conditioning people to accept without question, the way of life they were forced to endure, through means of encouraging nonresistance against oppression.
Gender disparities and the constraints associated with traditional, male-dominated ideas of society are central to the feminist worldview. Feminists also say that their perspectives add to the understanding of both male and female experiences. This viewpoint has been chastised for exaggerating the extent to which men wield power and control over women. It investigates women’s social roles, experiences, and interests in order to better understand the nature of gender disparity that exists within society. While the feminist theory is primarily concerned with the nature of social interactions, it also examines gender inequality and the advancement of women’s rights. While in most cases, feminist theorists have been women throughout history, the subject now employs individuals of all genders. Feminist theorists have established social theories that are more inclusive in nature and innovative than those that presume the social actor is always a male, and this is done by changing the focus of social theory away from men’s viewpoints and experiences. For example, feminist theories in sociology become vital to examine the gendered wage gap in professions and why women generally have to work twice as hard to prove their worth and establish themselves in male-dominated fields. These theories also help assess why society has a tendency to gender occupations, resulting in the dominance of a certain gender in them; and also aids in devising solutions to the eradication of the construction of these gender binaries.
Historical sociology is an interdisciplinary field of study that integrates sociological and historical methods and perspectives to gain a better understanding of the past, the ways in which societies have evolved over the course of time, and how this has influenced the present. From the standpoint of historical attitudes, beliefs, practices, and settings, the historical perspective examines societal issues. Examining the roles that such challenges have played in history makes it simpler to make sense of the numerous complicated difficulties that plague society. Historical sociology studies how social institutions change and reproduce in order to better understand the obvious mechanisms and hidden structures that stifle some aspects of human growth while allowing others to flourish (John, 2014). For example, if we want to study nationalism in India sociologically, a historical analysis of colonialism, the various social movements, protests and reform movements etc., that contributed to these nationalistic sentiments is key and made possible by the historical perspective.
Human interaction with nonhuman animals is a common occurrence in modern society. However, because the social sciences prefer to focus on the discontinuity between people and animals also, despite the reality that human-animal interactions are ubiquitous, they have been completely neglected within sociology until lately (Noske, 1990). Humans are, without a doubt, animals. The cross-species perspective explores the similarities and contrasts in human and other animal social behaviors. Comparing social behavior across species has the potential to reveal a lot about the characteristics of human society. For example, various researchers seek to assess the relationship domestic pets have to humans and extent to which these animals pay a role in one’s identity creation process, socializations, interactions etc.
The statistical approach is based on the frequency with which a particular attitude or behavior is observed in a society. Statistics are a type of numerical data with the goal of quantifying some aspects of a person, or a group. Statistics essentially provide access to a large range of data that would otherwise be unavailable to a sociologist. Although extreme situations can occur and are bound to exist in most organizations, statistical measurement is mainly focused on examining the characteristics of the society’s largest number of members and further calculating the characteristics of the average of the whole. For example, during World War II, descriptive statistics and simple procedures were used in the use of quantitative approaches in sociology. More advanced statistical approaches began to be utilized in sociology after World War II, as the scope of data grew larger (Raftery 2000 as cited in Čobanović & Sokolovska, n.d).
Also Read: Sociological Perspectives on War
Sociology must take into account cultural differences and challenges. According to research studies and social investigations, beliefs, customs, and values change significantly from one culture to the next. What may be acceptable to one group might not possibly be acceptable or correct to another. As a result, the comparative nature of conventions and standards of behavior within a community or system is addressed by the cross-cultural approach. Maintaining a keen awareness of cultural variations raises the chances of challenging gender role stereotypes, or societal assumptions about how members of each sex should look and act. The cross-cultural perspective considers the significant differences that occur between societies and cultures. For example, cross-cultural perspective is often used and has a high potential in its effectiveness to study topics like the existence of gender roles in various cultures. This method would help analyze how the compositions of different cultures contribute to the creation and perpetuation of gender roles and differences.
The various theories and perspectives of sociology contribute the extensive research of our societies and how they help shape individual lives. The three main theories, functionalist, conflict and symbolic interactionalist perspectives are the major theories that are utilized within the discipline of sociology. Complementary perspectives such as the religious, historical, statistical, cross-species, cross-cultural and feminist perspectives aid in widening the scope and quality of research of the different patterns of change and development that happens in society.
Mooney, L. A., Knox, D., Schacht, C., & Holmes, M. M. (2007). The Three Main Sociological Perspectives . Understanding Social Problems, 5th Edition.
Noske, B. (1990). The Question of Anthropocentrism in Anthropology. Focaal.
Scott, J. (2014). A dictionary of sociology. Oxford : Oxford University Press.
Čobanović, K., & Sokolovska, V. (n.d.). Use of statistical methods in sociology . Challenges for Analysis of the Economy, the Businesses, and Social Progress, 879–892. http://eco.u-szeged.hu/download.php?docID=40429.