The Sociological Perspective


The sociological perspective is defined by three philosophical traditions (or "paradigms"): structure-functionalism, Marxism, and symbolic interactionism. Structure-functionalism focuses on how society is organized and how social institutions meet the needs of people living within a collectivity. The Marxian paradigm guides inquiries into the use and misuse of power within and across social systems. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals influence and are influenced by society. It guides investigations into how the rules of society are re-created everyday through our interactions with one another.

The following introduction to these paradigms relies in part upon materials found in The Structure of Sociological Theory, written by Jonathan H. Turner. To help us learn about these paradigms, we will apply them to an example of gender inequality after they are described in this introduction.


Structure-functionalism relies upon an "organic" analogy of human society as being "like an organism," a system of interdependent parts that function for the benefit of the whole. Thus, just as a human body consists of parts that function as an interdependent system for the survival of the organism, society consists of a system of interdependent institutions and organizations that function for the survival of the society.

Relying upon the successes of biologists in understanding the human body, functionalists took a similar approach to understanding human social systems. Social systems were dissected into their "parts," or institutions (family, education, economy, polity, and religion), and these parts were examined to find out how they worked and their importance for the larger social system. The rationale was that if scientists could understand how institutions worked, then their performance could be optimized to create an efficient and productive society. This approach as proved to be very successful and is the predominant philosophy guiding macro-level sociology today.

Structure-functionalism arose in part as a reaction to the limitations of utilitarian philosophy, where people were viewed as strictly rational, calculating entrepreneurs in a free, open, unregulated, and competitive marketplace. The tenet of functionalism, and the fundamental building block of all sociology, is that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals. Groups have "lives of their own," so to speak. Or, as you might hear from a sociologist, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Anyway, the point is, that just as the "invisible hand of order" can guide economic relations, "social forces" can guide social relations, and thus yield for society very positive outcomes (volunteerism, democracy, laws, moral and ethical standards for behavior, family and educational systems, communities) and very negative outcomes (discrimination, organized crime, moral decay, warfare, poverty).

The idea of the functionalists was to create a science of society that could examine the parts of human social systems and make them work for the betterment of all. And it is the task of sociologists to use scientific principles to help create the best form of society possible.

Listed below are the central tenets of the functionalist approach to understanding human social systems. We will use these tenets throughout this course to gain a functionalist perspective on social issues facing rural America today.
  1. Society as a system of interrelated parts functioning for the good of the whole.

    Keep in mind that functionalism is always oriented toward what is good for the whole. As we examine different philosophical foundations of sociology, we will note the advantages and disadvantages of this perspective.

  2. All social systems have four key functions: Adaptation, Goal-Attainment, Integration, Latency.

    These functional imperatives roughly correspond to the five institutions of human societies (economics, politics, family/education, and religion). By understanding which functional imperative is most closely related to current issues of rural America, we can understand the importance of the issue and its likely impact on the well-being of rural America.

  3. Social action takes place within a social system of cultural norms and institutional structures.

    In Sociology 130, we will use structure-functionalism primarily as a guide for understanding macro-level (societal) issues. And, although structure-functionalism is well equipped to analyze and understand societal conflict, we will use it mainly for understanding how social order is possible.


Although Karl Marx's idea of a communist utopian society failed due to an inadequate understanding of human motivation and organization, his identification of potential problems with human social systems still is a crucial element of all the social sciences. His hypotheses that human societies can experience sufficient organized and intentional exploitation by powerful elites to lead to their collapse have received enough support that citizens should be aware of these potential problems and maintain a constant vigil against their becoming too severe.

Listed below are the central tenets of the Marxian approach to understanding human social systems. We will use these tenets throughout this course to gain a Marxian perspective on social issues facing rural America today.

  1. Society as a system of competing parts in conflict for scarce resources.

    From the perspective of Marxism, the fundamental processes of society are competition and conflict, rather than cooperation for the good of the whole, which we noted (with qualifications) was the emphasis in structure-functionalism.

  2. All social systems have a small minority of powerful elites.

    For Marx, these persons/organizations were those most closely linked with the means of production: the owners of large industries.

  3. Social action takes place within an arena of conflict and exploitation between dominant and secondary segments of society.

    With the Marxian approach, it is instructive to identify the dominant and secondary segments that affect and will be affected by the outcome of social action regarding current issues. Using Marxism, we anticipate that dominant segments will use their power to exploit resources from secondary segments of society.

Marx's Dialectical Materialism

To understand Marxian social philosophy, it is instructive to review its underlying principle, which is dialectical materialism. The dialectic consists of three parts: the thesis (the status quo, or our current understanding of "reality"), the antithesis (a contradiction to the status quo, or a recognized flaw in our current understanding of "reality"), and the synthesis (a suggested alternative to the status quo, or an improved understanding of "reality"). In one sense, the dialectic refers to inherent, inevitable conflict. Thus, citizens must inevitably wrestle with society as it is, the recognized flaws in society, and suggested alternatives for an improved society. In another sense, the dialectic is a method for achieving progress. Thus, citizens can use the dialectical way of thinking to constantly improve society by recognizing and attempting to overcome its flaws.

Marx focused on material conditions (e.g., food, clothing, housing, access to health care and education). For Marx, the dialectic represented inherent conflict between the means and relations of production. Owners were forced to exploit labor to achieve the competitive edge over their rivals in the capitalist economy, but in the process, destroyed the very source of their profit: labor.

Thus, Marx used dialectical materialism to understand capitalist society and its flaws for the purpose of suggesting an alternative that would create a better society. Marx's understanding of societies, the people that live in them, and capitalist economy was sufficiently flawed that his suggested solution to capitalism was itself inherently flawed. Marxian social philosophy is valuable today, however, because it reminds us of the potential exploitation of the less powerful by the more powerful and of the need for the less powerful to be mindful of this potential. "We are so trusting in our ignorance," says Mrs. LaVon Griffieon in her essay, Food for Thought. She has learned first-hand, as a "farm wife living in Iowa," that the forces of multinational agribusiness organizations might create a structure of agriculture that will be detrimental, rather than beneficial, to the well-being of rural society.

Symbolic Interactionism

Where did society come from, anyway? Well, from us! From the perspective of symbolic interactionism, society is in a constant state of re-creation through interaction and negotiation of meanings. We created the rules we live by, and, importantly, we re-create these rules everyday through our interactions with one another. Mostly, societies are conservative with respect to social change. But, our redefining of: 1) the symbolic meanings we attach to things and events, 2) our sense of morality and ethics, and 3) what we choose to value have important implications for the rules we create and the ways we choose to live with one another.

Listed below is a very abbreviated outline of the central tenets of the symbolic interactionist approach to understanding human social systems. We will use these tenets throughout this course to gain a symbolic perspective on social issues facing rural America today.

  1. Key concepts: definition of the situation, perception, social construction of reality, morality.

    From the symbolic interactionist perspective, morality, ethics, values, even reality are not "given," we create them, through our interactions with one another. Reality is a marketplace of ideas, where not everyone has an equal say-so.

  2. Social action is influenced by person's beliefs, attitudes, perceptions, and negotiations of meanings.

    The rules are open for grabs. If you do not like your society: work hard to change it!

Example: Gender Role Inequalities

For the same job, job experience, and education, women typically earn significantly less income than their male counterparts. This gap in income earnings is one example of gender role inequalities. The question is, "So What?" Are these inequalities bad for society as a whole. If so, how do we change them? To provide some experience in applying sociological theory to issues facing contemporary society, the following example interprets gender role inequalities from the perspectives of structure-functionalism, Marxism, and symbolic interactionism.

Some important definitions and concepts:

SOCIAL STRATIFICATION: Positions in a social system are organized into layers with resultant inequalities.

SOCIALIZATION: Learning of cultural norms through language and behavior.
Structure Functionalism

Structure functionalism focuses on what is good for the whole of society. The SF perspective argues that social stratification can be good for society if it motivates persons in lower SES positions to better themselves so they can experience upward social mobility.

Conflict theory focuses on the exploitation of power and the means to achieve power in society.
Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism focuses on the effect of language and behavior and how it affects and is affected by groups, organizations, and society.