CLASSICAL SOCIOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES: All disciplines study the subject through different perspectives. These help in providing unique or objective insights into the field that is studied. There are many sociological perspectives that have evolved over time across its sub-fields. However, the three classical theories remain popular and applicable to various societies and the interactions within them. These are- structural functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory
Introduction: Every discipline or study conducted by humans is done from a unique perspective. It offers meaningful insights into the subject of study. Similarly, sociology studies society, its participants, and their interactions through a sociological perspective that overarches the individual perspectives of social beings. The view through the lens of sociology always remains at the social or group level.
What is a sociological perspective?
“The perspective of sociology involves seeing through the outside appearances of people’s actions and organisations” (Berger, 1963). The sociological perspective is one that observes society through a lens without personal opinions. It generalizes the causes and actions of individuals into patterns and categories. However, it not only observes these patterns of society but also tries to explain such patterns or behaviours. Sociologists are not concerned with personal characteristics; instead, they aim to find common attitudes and features as well as hidden patterns in those characteristics and behaviours across millions of people. One of the main objectives of the sociological perspective is to find and understand patterns behind recurring features of social interaction, as well as to examine the social impacts of these. With this objective in mind, there have developed many sociological perspectives but there are three major perspectives that have gained popularity.
Types of sociological perspectives
Structural functionalist perspective:
In sociology and other social sciences, structural functionalism serves as a thought school in which each institution, relation, position, and convention, that together make up a society, has a purpose and each is essential for the sustained functioning of other members and society in general. Social change has been seen in structural-functionalism to be an adaptive reaction to some of society’s difficulties. If one element of the interwoven social structure changes, friction is produced which is addressed by the change in the other areas between this and other aspects of the system. According to the sociologist Durkheim, social cohesion was brought about by the interrelationship between the various components present in society, which is a complex system that has its own dynamic traits, external to people, but that influences their actions. According to this perspective, different institutions, structures, and processes have a particular purpose, one that is beneficial to the members of society. This includes education contributing to the development of society, the legal systems check the deviations in society, the government governs people and protects citizens, families contribute to reproduction and many others. Even processes that others may regard through a negative lens have a purpose from the functionalist’s perspective. A criminal is someone who is normally thought to be harmful to society, but structural functionalists believe that criminals motivate people to behave morally and keep the justice system running.
The critiques of this perspective include its insufficiency to explain social and the continuance of non-functional aspects of society- that do not serve any purpose in society’s necessities. The idea that all the activities of society are useful to society is opposed by some.
The symbolic interactionist perspective, also called symbolic interactionism, encourages researchers to explore symbols and nuances, their meanings, and their influence on the interactive relationships of daily life. As per this perspective, symbols are connected with their meanings, and these symbols are perceived in a subjective manner. Communication and the exchange of meaning through words and symbols are thought to be the method by which humans comprehend their social environments. Such subjective perception is particularly evident through verbal interactions that use uttered words as main symbols. Conversations are symbolic exchanges between people who evaluate the environment surrounding them continuously. The symbolic interactionist perspective stems from Max Weber’s idea that humans have an interpretation of their world and its meaning and their actions are influenced by such meanings.
Symbolic interactionism as a perspective helps people understand each other’s viewpoints and also helps with the smooth functioning of society. It promotes commonality and motivates the development of society. Symbols such as flags are used during international conflicts, by politicians and broadcasters, to encourage the concepts of unity, social cohesion among citizens and seek their support to the armed forces. Society has promoted the cultivation of symbols for various occasions. In western countries, the symbols of carved pumpkins and horror stories are associated with Halloween. A dove with an olive branch indicates peace worldwide. Movements create symbols to spread their causes and meanings. A rainbow flag, when seen, is directly interpreted to relate to the LGBTQ+ community. Therefore, symbols and signs play an important in society. Due to the limitations of being objective, the viewpoint of symbolic interactionism is frequently investigated and critiqued. Opponents further criticise symbolic interactionists for their relatively limited focus on symbols and communication in understanding society.
Conflict theory argues that when assets, power and social reputations are divided unfairly across sections of society, then disputes develop and these conflicts form the source of social change. Power may be viewed in this sense as the control of productive capacity and acquired riches, the influence over political and social institutions, and the social position of everyone else. The theory of conflict emerges from Karl Marx’s writings, which concentrated on the determinants and consequences of the bourgeois-proletarian class conflict in a capitalist society. This system reinforced an uneven social order, producing a unanimity of values, objectives and standards by the intellectual compulsion of the bourgeoisie. When the proletariat’s social and economic situation deteriorates, Marx predicted that they will become aware of the class system, implying that the rich capitalist class exploits them, resulting in a revolution with a demand for social change. This perspective has evolved from Marx and includes a wide array of conflicts and disputes that contribute to social change in society. Even wars between nations are perceived to be caused by material or ideological differences and the settlement of these leads to structural change. Sociological perspectives like Marxism and Feminism are derived from conflict theory and they both focus on particular conflicts, differences, and their impacts on society.
The theory of conflict has been critiqued for its concentration on social stability change and neglect. Some opponents recognize that societies are continuously changing, but note that many changes are small or gradual, not dramatic.
Why is it important?
Sociological perspectives assist us in better understanding ourselves. People perceive society through their restricted experience of a tight circle of kin, acquaintances, and colleagues if they do not have a sociological perspective. The sociological perspective helps us to imagine and mentally separate ourselves from our limited experience, allowing us to understand the connection between personal worries and societal problems. It allows us to see how our own routines and activities relate to the trends and happenings of society. Sociology studies take us into aspects of society that we may normally overlook or misinterpret. Because our perspective is influenced by our own encounters, and individuals with various societal interactions have varying conceptions of social existence, sociological perspectives enable us to respect and comprehend the perspectives of others.
Sociological perspectives are important as they provide a lens to view society in a way that excludes personal biases and prejudices. It has its own applicability across societies and can be altered as times change. The three types of sociological perspectives discussed above are the classical perspectives of sociology. However, there are other perspectives like Marxism, feminism, and post-modernism among others that provide different insights into the happenings of societies. Sociological theory is constantly evolving and should never be considered complete. Classic sociological theories are still considered important and current, but new sociological theories build upon the work of their predecessors and add to them (Calhoun 2012). With the development of multiple branches of sociology, the perspectives and theories are bound to grow enormously, but, in the end, they aim towards understanding society.
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Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2020, June 17). Structural functionalism. Encyclopedia Britannica.
Parsons, T. (1961). Theories of society: Foundations of modern sociological theory. New York: Free Press.
Weber, Max. (1997). Definitions of sociology and social action. In Ian McIntosh (Ed.), Classical sociological theory: A reader (pp. 157–164). New York, NY: New York University Press. (Original work published 1922)
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