Contemporary sociological thought demonstrates that individuals view the social world using different perspectives and theoretical frameworks. While a perspective is simply a way of assessing the social world, a theory can be described as a set of interconnected propositions or principles intended to provide answers to a particular phenomenon, hence assisting us to explain and predict the social world and other presenting social phenomena.
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The present paper looks into three of such theoretical frameworks which are firmly embedded in sociological thought, namely functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.
Based largely on the seminal works of scholars such as Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton, functionalism is a macro-level theory that looks at society as a system of interconnected components working together in harmony with the view to sustaining a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole.
This implies that each of the social institutions predominant in any given society contributes substantially to the maintenance of the whole society and that society is objective, stable, cohesive, and well documented.
In contrast, conflict theory is premised on the seminal works of Karl Marx, W.E.B. Du Bois and Ida Wells-Barnett, and provides a macro-level analysis of society as composed of diverse groups and interests competing for power and resources.
As such, conflict theory not only views society as objective, hierarchical, fragmented, and tension-filled due to the ongoing struggles between groups but is also instrumental in explaining various perspectives in our social world by looking at which interest groupings have power and benefit from a particular social orientation.
Symbolic interactionism is a micro-level theory premised on the influential works of George Herbert Mead, Charles Horton Cooley, and Erving Goffman, with available literature suggesting that it views human behavior as being influenced by definitions and meanings largely created and sustained through symbolic interaction with others.
Consequently, this theoretical framework not only views society as subjective because it is perceived in the minds of people but also project an orientation that individuals manipulate symbols and create the social world through interaction and interdependency.
Clear differences exist between the three theoretical frameworks which have been instrumental in defining sociological thought.
For example, while functionalism stresses the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each component influences and is influenced by other components, conflict theory divides society into two broad categories (rich and poor) based on inequality, capitalism, and stratification, and symbolic interactionism emphasizes the fundamental importance of definitions and meanings in social behavior and its consequences by taking into consideration various aspects such as symbols, non-verbal communication, and face-to-face communication.
Lastly, it is clear that the three theoretical frameworks have distinct explanations about important issues, such as the basis of social order and source of social change in society.
While functionalism argues that the basis of social order is consensus and cooperation among individuals based on common values, conflict theory argues that social order is maintained by power and coercion, and symbolic interactionism suggests that it is maintained through collective meaning systems.
In terms of social change, functionalism proposes that change is gradual and predictable, and is normally occasioned by social disorganization and the ensuing adjustment to attain equilibrium.
On its part, conflict theory maintains that constant social shifts in the society are as a result of the struggle and competition prevalent in the social arena. The symbolic interactionism school of thought argues that social change is not only made possible by the ever-changing web of interpersonal relationships predominant in the society, but also by the shifting meaning of things.