Three Major Sociological Perspectives on War and Society

Synopsis: War has been an integral part of human civilization as it has significant consequences on individuals, relations and systems in society. The concept of war, strategies and its function as a means of conflict resolution for international disputes have been widely studied under the fields of political science and international relations. However, considering its role and relation to society at large, the discipline of sociology has put forth certain theories or perspectives to understand war and its relation to society. Three major perspectives are discussed here. First, the structural-functionalist perspective views war as a tool to fulfill societal needs by performing its functions. Second, the conflict theorist perspective, which believes that war is created by differences and for the benefit of the societal elite. Third, the symbolic interactionist perspective focuses on the role of symbols and experiences associated with war and its influence on the members of society. The three perspectives are differing yet provide unique and pivotal views on war and society.

Keywords: War, Society, Structural functionalism, Conflict theory, Symbolic interactionism

Three Major Sociological Perspectives on War: Explained

“War” is a concept that had and still does has an important role in human civilizations across the globe. It is something that has a presence in every chapter of history and current events and even finds its way into the predictions for the future. Before we understand war through different sociological perspectives, it is important to clarify what war is. Conflict and war are often used synonymously, but it is not the case at all times. War is only one variety of the numerous conflicts that exist and occur at all levels, owing to a range of disagreements in human societies.

The definitions of war are innumerable as it changes according to time and type of war. Wars are fought both between and within countries when at least two parties engage in a violent struggle. War is considered international war when it occurs between nations and is considered civil war when it occurs domestically. However, the general characteristics of war can be put together as given by Bernard, “War is organized continuous conflict of a transient character between or among collectivities of any sort capable of arming and organizing themselves for violent struggle carried on by armies in the field (or naval units on water) and supported by civil or incompletely militarized populations back of the battle areas constituted for the pursuit of some fairly well-defined public or quasipublic objective” (as cited in Dennen, 2005).

Studies related to war are often considered an area of political science or international relations, but considering the fact that war has significant consequences for society as a whole, it is pertinent to understand war through a sociological lens via its theories. In this paper, we will look at the three major perspectives that form the sociological theory of war. They are the structural functionalist perspective, the symbolic interactionist perspective, and the conflict theory perspective.

Structural Functionalism

Functionalism, also called structural-functional theory, views society as a combination of parts forming a structure, and that each of these parts is developed to respond to the biopsychosocial necessities of the society’s members. Accordingly, any type of swift change in the socio-cultural aspects of society is regarded to emerge as and when socio-political unrests occur among two or more social units. Institutions, generally speaking, have had their origins in some collective action-some common enterprise or social movement that required concert and continuity of action over a considerable period of time (Park, 1941). War is one such tension that functionalists believe to have functions towards the development of society. Based on R.E Park’s work The Social Function of War: Observations and Notes (1941), we can outline the functions of war as follows:

  • War aids in the resolution of international disputes on issues including but not limited to territorial boundaries, religion and other ideologies.
  • War helps to build a strong sense of social bonding and solidarity within warring societies.
  • War creates in the state a political institution that has made collective action possible on a scale of which there is no promise in primitive society.
  • War aids in increasing employment rate as it boosts the growth of industries and the economy.
  • War inspires scientific and technological developments that are useful to civilians.

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory postulates that when resources, power and influence are inconsistently spread across groups in society, disputes and wars occur and such conflicts act as an accelerator of social reform. Conflict theory views the war in a more pessimistic manner as compared to the Functionalist perspective. War is a political activity in which violence and coercion are being employed as a (but by no means the only) tool to achieve particular objectives (Clausewitz in Sharma, 2014).

According to the conflict theory, nations spend more on the military and even go to war because defence leaders, arms manufacturers, and politicians work together to form a mutually beneficial relationship. The theory also states that, even if they claim that actions are intended to safeguard the state, their overall aim is to strengthen their political strength and economic status.

  • The corporates benefit since war almost always leads to a winner gaining charge of the materials of the losing parties, thus creating a larger supplier base towards their own enterprises.
  • The armed forces’ leadership receives reputation and job opportunities for the personnel which are arrived at by the events of the war.

Another approach of conflict theory to war is that nations use armed forces along with other similar practices to extend their influence and dominance on other states (Worell,2011) as in the case of imperialism, for example. This perspective of sociological theory as given by Boggs (2011) also criticizes that war is non-beneficial to society as it consumes a significant part of the budget which could otherwise be allocated for societal needs.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is a theory that centres around the associations between people in a society. It is believed that communication and the transaction of meaning through signs and symbols, is the means through which people understand their social worlds.

This perspective concentrates on how concepts and interpretations have the ability to influence the opinions and actions of wars and that these notions are developed throughout individuals’ growth.

While functionalists focus on the purposes of war and conflict theorists focus on the differences that are associated with war, symbolic interactionists concentrate on the symbols, signs and objects associated with war and how they are used to influence the members of society. Symbols are used during the period of war, by leaders and media to promote the idea of patriotism, nationalism and create a sense of solidarity and support for the war. This is of large importance as the stakes of war are a function of the internal structures of the actors and how they relate, in terms of social organization, to one another (Sharma, 2014). Symbolic representations and shared experiences help the smooth functioning of the internal structures of the warring parties.

Symbolic interactionism also creates an idea of embodied war experiences of veterans and martyrs as symbols to influence the public and gather their support for the war. (McSorley, 2014)


In the mid-20th century, structural functionalism was the major sociological perspective, i.e. during World War II and the Vietnam war. However, post this period, its popularity diminished since several sociologists considered that the dramatic social changes occurring at that time could not be understood satisfactorily through this perspective. Much like structural-functionalism has been critiqued as concentrating more on societal stability, conflict theorists have been faulted as they are more likely to concentrate on war and excluding stability that is present. Several social systems are stable or progressed gradually after the war instead of abruptly altering them, as the theory suggests. Lastly, the perspective of symbolic interactionism is widely examined due to the difficulties of being objective. Critics also criticise that symbolic interactionists are extremely restricted in observing war as their focus is limited to symbolic communication.


While there exist several theories of war in fields concerned with governmental activities, there is less study in the sociology discipline. Although less than the others, the sociological theories or perspectives offer a range of ideas about war and its relevance to society. To summarise, the functionalist perspective states that war offers a number of functions, notably social cohesion strengthening. According to the conflict theory perspective, war enhances the military and industrial interests but also removes funds from unaddressed social demands. Symbolic interactionism stresses the relevance of symbolism, civil and veteran experiences for encouraging war.


Boggs, C. (2011). Empire versus democracy: The triumph of corporate and military power. New York, NY: Routledge.

Dennen, J.V. (2005). On war: Concepts, Definitions, Research Data: A short literature review and bibliography.

Kestnbaum, M. (2009). The sociology of war and the military. Annual Review of Sociology, 35, 235-254.

Markides, K., & Cohn, S. (1982). External Conflict/Internal Cohesion: A Reevaluation of an Old Theory. American Sociological Review, 47(1), 88-98.

McSorley, K. (2014). Towards an Embodied Sociology of War. The Sociological Review, 62(2), 107–128. doi:10.1111/1467-954x.12194

Conflict, war and terrorism. University of Idaho.

Park, R. (1941). The Social Function of War Observations and Notes. American Journal of Sociology, 46(4), 551-570.

Sharma, V. S. (2014). A social theory of war: Clausewitz and war reconsidered. Cambridge Review of International Affairs, 28(3), 327–347. doi:10.1080/09557571.2013.872600

Worrell, M. P. (2011). Why nations go to war: A sociology of military conflict. New York, NY: Routledge.

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Ruthu is a student of Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts, pursuing interdisciplinary studies in international relations, political science and sociology. She is passionate about current affairs, public policies, sustainable development, human rights and quality education. She aspires to have a career in research and academia that allow observation of social reality by combining her subjects and passions in writing.