Sociologists view society in different ways. Some see the world basically as a stable and ongoing entity. They are impressed with the endurance of the family, organized religion, and other social institutions. Some sociologists see society as composed of many groups in conflict, competing for scarce resources. To other sociologists, the most fascinating aspects of the social world are the everyday, routine interactions among individuals that we sometimes take for granted. The four perspectives that are most widely used by sociologists will provide an introductory look at the discipline. These are the functionalist, conflict, interactionist and critical perspectives.
1. Functionalist Perspective
Also known as functionalism and structural functionalism, functionalist perspective is based on the assumption that society is stable, orderly system. This stable system is characterized by societal consensus, whereby the majority of members show a common set of values, belief and behavioral expectation. According to this perspective a society is composed of interrelated parts, each of which serves a function and contributes to the overall stability of the society. Societies develop social structure or institutions that persist because they play a part in helping society survive. These institutions include the family, education, government religion, and the economy. If anything adverse happens to one of these institutions or part are affected and the system no longer functions properly.
Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), a Harvard university sociologist was a key figure in the development of functionalist theory. Parson had been greatly influenced by the works of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and other European sociologists. Under the functionalist approach, if an aspect of social life does not contribute to a society stability or survival- if it does not serve some identifiably useful function or promote value consensus among member of a society- it will not be passed on from one generation to the next.
As an example of the functionalist perspective, let us examine prostitution. Why is it that a practice so widely condemned continues to display such persistence and vitality? Functionalists suggest that prostitution satisfies needs of patrons that may not be readily met through more socially acceptable forms such as courtship or marriage. The “buyer” receives sex without any responsibility for procreation or sentimental attachment; at the same time, the “seller” gains a livelihood through this exchange.
Through such an examination, we can conclude that prostitution does perform certain functions that society that seems to need. However, this is not to suggest that prostitution is a desirable or legitimate form of social behavior.
Manifest and Latent Functions
Manifest function are intended or overly recognized by the participants in a social unit. In contrast, latent function is unintended function that is hidden and remains unacknowledged by participants. For example, a manifest function of education is the transmission of knowledge and skills from one generation to the next, a latent function is the establishment of social relations and networks. Robert Merton noted that all features of a social system may not be functional at all times, dysfunctions are the un-desirable consequences of any element of a society. A dysfunction of education in United States is the perpetuation of gender, racial and clah inequalities. Such dysfunction may threaten the capacity of a society to adopt and survive.
2. Conflict Perspective
According to conflict perspectives, groups in society are engaged in a continuous power struggle for control of scarce resources. Conflict may take the form of politics, litigation, negotiations or family discussions about financial matter. Simmel, Marx and Weber contributed significantly to this perspective by focusing on the inevitability of clashes between social groups. Today, advocates of the conflict perspective view social continuous power struggle among competing social group.
Karl Marx viewed struggle between social classes as inevitable, given the exploitation of workers under capitalism. Expanding on Marx’s work, sociologists and other social scientist have come to see conflict not merely as a class phenomenon but as a part of everyday life in all societies. Thus, in studying any culture, organization, or social group, sociologists want to know who benefits, who suffers and who dominates at the expense of other. They are concerned with the conflict between women and men, parents and children, cities and suburbs and whites and African Americans, to name only few. In studying such questions, conflict theorists are interested in how society’s institutions- including the family, government, religion, education and the media- may help to maintain the privileges of some groups and keep others in a subservient position.
Like functionalist, conflict sociologists tend to use the Marco-level approach. Obviously, though, there is a striking difference between these two sociological perspectives. Conflict theorists are primarily concerned with the kinds of changes that can bring about, whereas functionalists look for stability and consensus.
The conflict model is viewed as more “radial” and “activist” because of its emphasis on social change and the need for redistribution of resources to eliminate existing social inequality. On the other hand, the functionalist perspective, because of its focus on stability, is generally seen as more “conservation”.
Currently, conflict theory is accepted within the discipline of sociology as one valid way to gain insight into a society.
One important contribution of conflict theory is that it has encouraged sociologists to view society through the eyes of those segments of the population that rarely influence decision making.
Feminist theory builds in important way on the conflict perspective. Like other conflict theorists, feminist scholars see gender differences as a reflection of the subjugation of one group (women) by another group (men). Drawing on the work of Marx & Engels, contemporary feminist theorists often view women’s subordination as inherent in capitalist societies. Some radical feminist theorists, however, view the oppression of women as inevitable in all male-dominated societies, including those labeled as capitalist, socialist and communist (Tuchman,1992).
3. Interactionist or Interpretive
The functionalist and conflict perspectives both analyze behavior in terms of society wide patterns. However, many contemporary sociologists are more interested in understanding society as a whole through an examination of social interactions such as small groups conducting meetings, two friends talking casually with each other, a family celebrating a birthday and so forth. The interactionist perspective generalizes about fundamental or everyday forms of social interaction. Interactionism is a sociological framework for viewing human beings as living in a world of meaningful objects. These “objects” may include material things, actions, other people, relationships and even symbols. Focusing on everyday behavior permits interactions to better understand the larger society.
George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is widely regarded as the founder of the interactionist perspective. Mead was interested in observing the minutest forms of communication-smiles, frowns, nods of the head and in understanding how such individual behavior was influenced by the larger context of a group or society.
Interactionists see symbols as an especially important part of human communication. In fact, the interactionist perspective is sometime referred to as the symbolic interactionist perspective. Such researchers note that both a clenched fist and a salute have social meaning which are shared and understood by the members of a society. In the U.S, a salute symbolizes respect, while a clenched fist signifies defiance. However in another culture different gestures might be used to convey a feeling of respect or defiance.
Let us examine how various societies portray suicide without the use of words. People in the U.S point a finger at the head (shooting); urban Japanese bring a fist against the stomach (stabbing); and the south fore of Papua , New Guinea , clench a hand at the throat (hanging). These types of symbolic interaction are classified as forms of nonverbal communication, which can include many other gestures, facial expressions, and postures.
Erving Goffman (1922-1982) made a distinctive contribution by popularizing a particular type of interactionist method known as the dramaturgical approach. The dramaturgist compares everyday life to the setting of the theater and stage. Just as actors present certain images, all of us seek to present particular features of our personalities while we hide other qualities. Thus, in a class, we may feel the need to project a serious image; at a party, it may seem important to look like a relaxed and entertaining person.
4. Critical Perspective
This perspective says that we live in a society dominated capitalist society, based on exchange principles of value and profit. Capitalist society is not a peaceful society but based on unequal exchanges of power and privileges. Critical theory is a social theory whose aim is critiquing and changing society and culture, unlike traditional theory whose aim is only understanding or explaining it. For eg. Instead of seeing the behavior of homeless youth as of criminal behaviour, the critical perspective would ask why did the youth become homeless and why are they connected to criminal behaviour?
Critical theorists like Horkheimer criticized science calling it harmful and destructive as it is controlled by the elite and powerful. They also critique the role of media in society, as it diverts the attention of people and only makes them consumers.