Sociology is the study of society through many theoretical perspectives. The most important lesson of sociology is that society is not an external object to be studied. Instead, all of us are active members of society and constantly influence it. Thus, sociology can be applied in everyday life by all members of society. This article discusses three major theoretical traditions associated with the classical founders of sociology. The theories of functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism and their applications in everyday life are elaborated upon. This is followed by an introduction to the concept of sociological imagination. The article concludes with examples from the everyday life of a sociology student.
Functionalism in Everyday Life
Functionalism proposes that society is a complex system consisting of various parts that work together for smooth functioning. The French sociologist Emile Durkheim compared society to the operation of any living organism. According to this organic analogy, society works similar to a body comprising multiple organs in sync. A single organ such as the heart can only be studied by looking at its relationship with the rest of the body. Similarly, functionalist theorists stated that society must be studied by investigating the relationships of different institutions. Multiple social institutions such as education, legal and family systems work together to maintain order in society. For example, in our daily lives, we adhere to many laws that are stated in the Indian constitution. The Motor Vehicles Act passed in 1988 provides laws that regulate traffic on roads. These are guidelines stated for our safety and protection. Each time we step onto the road with our cars, we must keep in mind to wear our seatbelts, not drink and drive and follow speed limits. Without these rules, there would be chaos on the streets, and our normal everyday life would be largely disrupted. Hence, the legal institution of India is one of many that helps to maintain order in society by socializing citizens to obey laws.
Durkheim emphasized the concept of moral consensus, which was essential to maintain the smooth functioning of society. Moral consensus existed when all members of a society shared similar values and beliefs. Such consensus could be grounded in a particular religion. For example, in India, many Hindus collectively participate in worship, pilgrimages and annual festivals. Functionalism emphasizes that the natural state of society is that of balance and order. This social equilibrium is maintained by moral consensus (Giddens & Sutton 2017).
Robert K. Merton also proposed two types of functions present in every social activity. The manifest function is that which is known to and intended by the participant in a particular activity. However, the latent function refers to an unintended consequence that a participant may not be aware of. For example, the manifest function of attending school is that of obtaining an education. But students often use peer groups to form romantic relationships. Hence, schooling also fulfils the latent function of courtship in the daily lives of students.
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Conflict Theory: Real-Life Examples
Conflict theorists like Karl Marx reject the functionalist view of a balanced and consensual society. Instead, they emphasize the importance of divisions in society and the subsequent issues of inequality and power. Marx focused on the class inequalities between the rich (bourgeoisie) and the poor (proletariat). These inequalities are still present in the 21st century. For example, in India business magnate Mukesh Ambani recently became the world’s sixth-richest person by passing Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla. But while Ambani and his family live in a 27-story skyscraper in Mumbai, more than 1.7 million people in India do not have a house to live in. We interact with the homeless population of India every time we step onto the streets and they beg us for money. Marx blamed capitalism for helping the rich become richer while the poor remained where they were. This is especially true in the case of India where economic inequality is exacerbated through the accumulation of wealth by the rich due to capitalist systems.
Another important example of the conflict theory in India is the caste system. Many students from wealthy backgrounds have often complained against the reservation system employed in prominent universities such as Delhi University. But the reservations made for scheduled castes were introduced as a method to uplift those that have experienced generations of inequality and discrimination. The reservation system affects all students willing to study in public universities. But those belonging to privileged backgrounds must view it as more than an inconvenience and respect why it is still required in today’s age as a solution to caste conflict.
Another influential strand of conflict theory is feminism. Feminists concentrate on gender inequality and sometimes even consider it more significant than class inequality. They focus on issues on both the micro and macro levels. Micro-level issues include looking at women in the domestic sphere or other private situations such as sexual relations. On the other hand, macro-level issues involve the representation of women within legal, government and political systems.
Symbolic Interactionism in Everyday Life
Symbolic interactionism is a micro-perspective theory that focusses on face-to-face interactions among people in everyday life. George Herbert Mead argued that language allowed humans to become self-conscious beings.
Erving Goffman introduced the concept of how people in their everyday lives behave like actors performing on stage. He termed this dramaturgical analysis that referred to the study of social interaction in terms of theatrical performance. According to Goffman, people adopted different roles based on their situations and used various behaviours to emphasize those roles. Like on stage, individuals may use props to divide their spaces into the ‘front’ and the ‘back’. For example, a doctor’s office comprises a front region, including a receptionist and waiting area and a back region consisting of their private office and examination room. Such a division of space helps the doctor establish their authority and convey a sense of power to his/ her patients.
Charles Cooley also proposed the idea of the looking-glass self. According to him, people present themselves in their daily lives according to how they imagine others might view them. For example, while going for a job interview, a woman might wear makeup, dress formally and style her hair in a particular manner. This is all done in the hopes of forming a good impression on others. Thus, according to Cooley, a person’s sense of self is developed on the basis of others’ reactions to their presentation.
Sociological Imagination in Everyday Life
The American sociologist C. Wright Mills proposed the concept of a sociological imagination in 1970. According to him, to study sociology, an individual must be able to break away from their familiar routines to look at their daily lives from a new point of view. The best example of the sociological imagination is to look at something millions in the world do every day, drinking a cup of coffee. One must look past drinking coffee as a simple refreshment and understand its symbolic value in our culture. While drinking alone, coffee may be a part of your personal routine, often an essential step to start a day. Later on, individuals may gather at coffee shops or cafes to grab a cup of coffee. Here one must recognize that the act of socializing or catching up is far more important than the coffee itself. The next interesting aspect of coffee is that it contains caffeine and is a habit-forming drink. Yet, most societies are accepting of coffee and thus do not frown upon its consumers. Finally, drinking coffee is a hugely social act since it links people across the world. Coffee is mainly grown in poorer countries like Colombia and Brazil and consumed by relatively more affluent countries such as the United States. Hence, the next time you pick up your cup of coffee, stop and think about how you are participating in various social relationships and interactions (Giddens & Sutton 2017).
Another relevant example of sociological imagination in everyday life is of eating disorders and body image issues. Many teenage girls are plagued by anorexia or bulimia. Often these issues are looked at as personal troubles and the girl is given medication to combat these diseases. But eating disorders are in fact social issues that impact a huge proportion of the population. By widening our lens, we can see that it is in fact society’s beauty standards enforced by family, friends and the mass media that lead to the development of such diseases. Hence, by opening up our minds about such issues, we are able to address them correctly instead of incorrectly blaming individuals for public issues.
The Life Of A Sociology Student
One of the first lessons that every student of sociology learns is that they must unlearn their previously socialized behaviours. During my first sociology lecture, I remember thinking that it was impossible to unburden myself from society’s rules, norms and expectations. Later, I realized that sociology teaches you how to do the same. It provides you with a sociological lens that helps you see the world in a new light. The best way to study sociology is to pay attention to our own lives. The families we are born into, the religions we practice and the schools we attend are all the subject matter of sociology. The most important teaching of sociology is not to take anything at face value. I employ this concept in my daily life. It has helped me remove my biases and understand why the world is the way it is. I have mentioned three relatable examples below to elaborate upon how sociology plays a role in my daily life.
The foremost social institution each of us come into contact with our families. We often take our parents or their marriage for granted. My parents have been separated for a long time, but not yet divorced. Despite living in a metropolitan city like New Delhi in the 21st century, the stigma surrounding the word divorce kept my parents together for many years. My mother was told by multiple relatives to put her family and children in front of her own happiness. After studying concepts like patriarchy and feminism, I was able to better understand my mother’s inability to divorce my father. Indian society prevents women from becoming financially independent, by overemphasizing their role as mothers. This is emphasized by the lack of financial remuneration women receive for housework. Moreover, the Indian divorce laws have been scripted to keep couples together rather than grant them a way out. As a sociology student, observing my family was a huge learning opportunity for me. I began to question the concept of marriage as a social institution. Many functionalists believe that families play an important role in maintaining order in society. This is done through the socialization of children, regulation of sexual activity and the provision of emotional and financial security. On the other hand, conflict theorists emphasize the perpetuation of social inequality through families. This is done by property and inheritance laws favouring men and patriarchal practices like that of dowry.
In the 21st century, technology plays an important role in all of our lives. Social media is a huge part of most urban citizens of India. While we may engage with different platforms like Instagram and Twitter through our individual smartphones, we are still part of a larger social phenomenon. The accounts we follow, people we message and information we share are all influenced by our experiences of social interaction. Personally, I find Instagram to be the best example of the presentation of self in everyday life. It lets us tweak our appearances so that we may present ourselves to the world in any manner we choose to. Another important role of Instagram in my life is that of keeping me up to date on current events. When the famous actor Sushant Singh Rajput died recently, I received the news via Instagram. As a sociology student, I was compelled to understand why he might have allegedly committed suicide. Emile Durkheim researched the relationship between individuals and society through the analysis of suicide rates. He argued that the seemingly personal decision was highly influenced by social forces external to the individual itself. I was able to apply Durkheim’s arguments to the actor’s death by viewing it as a social phenomenon. I wondered what external forces had prompted him to take this decision, and also whether if he had been married or had children, it might have prevented him from making this choice.
The study of sociology made me aware of concepts such as roles and statuses. I realized that each individual adopts multiple roles and associated statuses in their lifetime such as that of a daughter, friend, student etc. A master status refers to the social position of an individual, that shapes their entire life. When asked to identify my master status for a class assignment, I chose my gender. As a middle-class Indian woman, I am constantly reminded of my gender in all social interactions. From a very young age, I was socialized to my gender. This meant that I learned how to sit, dress and talk like a girl. As I grew up, I was taught how to behave in different public situations. When I studied about how public spaces are gendered, it helped me better understand why women don’t loiter on the streets and men do. Being a woman also influenced my choice to become a feminist from a young age because I faced injustice and inequality on a daily basis. Sociology has also taught me how to make my feminism intersectional. Earlier I would view the world from my privileged, middle- class and upper-caste point of view. But now I try to recognize that for many Indian women, their gendered oppression is also enhanced by their lower caste or class.
In conclusion, the life of a sociology student is tiring. The constant questioning of social institutions and practices keeps us on our toes. But it is also highly rewarding to understand how our society evolved into its modern form.
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Giddens, A., & Sutton, P. W. (2017). Sociology (8th ed.). Cambridge: Polity.