Theoretical Perspectives Term Paper

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Theoretical Perspectives

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism is a theory or sociological perspective that sees society as essentially functionally integrated. As will be discussed in this paper, conflict theory contrasts with Structural Functionalism in that it views society as an amalgam of conflicting interests. Structural functionalism therefore posits a model or interpretation of society that emphasizes harmony and supportive interaction between the various societal structures. To expand on this distinction, structural functionalism is seen as a "... theoretical approach to focusing on the structures of society and their functional significance for other structures..." (Compare and contrast structural functionalism and conflict theory)

This sociological perspective was developed by Talcott Parsons. Central to this theory is the view that society is composed of different structures, such as the economy, family, religious institutions and education. As posited by Parsons, this theory views these specific structures as having their own functions or contributions to make to the overall integration, interdependence and integrity of the larger society.

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An obvious example would be the way that the educational system socializes or prepares the individual for life within the society; and the way that religious institutions have the function of providing for spiritual and existential needs and integrating society. In other words, each structure performs a function or functions that are integrated within the societal complex. Structural functionalism therefore provides a positive view of the way that society 'works'.

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Parsons extends his view of the structural nature of society through a description of the formal functions that every institution or system in the society should have. This refers to his AGIL scheme; adaptive function; goal attainment; integration and latency. The adaptive function is the function "whereby a system adapts to its environment" (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory). The goal-attainment function refers to how a certain system defines its specific goals and the integrative function refers to the regulation of the various components of the system. The latency function, also known as the pattern maintenance function, refers to the methods in which the various aspects of culture related to motivation are stimulated. (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory)

Another important theorist in this field was Robert Merton. His work attempts to compensate for some of the perceived flaws in structural functional theory. His theory was concerned with adding depth and complexity to the way in which structure related to function in society. He also questioned the view that "...all parts of the system are functional, highly integrated, and indispensable..." (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory). As a result of this view, Merton introduced the concept of dysfunctionality into structural functional theory. This also relates to a central critique of the structural functional approach; namely, that it fails to deal with the concept and reality of social conflict.

Among the many other criticisms of this approach to the understanding society is the view that structural functionalism does not account for the process of historic change and that is lacks adequate methods for analysis of the variables and fluctuations in society - which means in essence that it is too conservative to deal with the complexities of societal interaction. A central critique is that structural functionalism relates to certain assumptions about society - such as the view that all social structures have a purpose - which is seen to be a limiting theoretical factor.

2. Conflict theory

Conflict Theory is associated with early twentieth century theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf. This theory arose essentially as a reaction to the perceived failings and the conservative approach of structural functionalism. Conflict theory actually begins with the opposite assumption about society to that of structural functionalism. Whereas structural functionalism envisages harmonic and integrated relationships between the different societal systems, conflict theory on the other hand analyzes society in terms of "...coercion, domination, and power" (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory).

Central to this theory is the analysis of the way that power and authority are maintained and instituted in society. Theorists like Dahrendorf claim that power in society does not lie with the ordinary individual but resides to various degrees in the societal institutions and structures that control the society. This results in an analysis of the different structures of power and authority in a society. This view states that, "Authority is created by the expectation of certain types of action associated with particular positions, including subordination of others and subordination to others. Various positions of authority exist within associations." (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory). Consequentially, this leads to competing interests and groups, which generates conflict. Therefore, in terms of this view, conflict is seen as a pivotal form of interaction that constitutes the dynamics of society.

Conflict theory can also be related the works of Max Weber and Karl Marx. Weber analyzed power structures in society, while Marx was more concerned with the economic aspects that generated class and other forms of structural conflict in society. One way of understanding this theoretical stance is that conflict theory tends to emphasizes interests over norms and values, and the "....ways in which the pursuit of interests generated various types of conflict as normal aspects of social life, rather than abnormal or dysfunctional occurrences" (MARSHALL G. 1998). Therefore, conflict is seen as a normal or natural aspect of the structure and functioning of society,

There are many permutations of conflict theory. Approaches that are more contemporary tend to emphasis subjective and interactionalist views of conflict analysis. For example, Randal Collins has developed a view of conflict theory that deals with more intimate interactions and conflict in society. This theory focuses on "...material arrangements and exploitation in real-life situations" and "... various dimensions of stratification, such as gender and age inequality..." (Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Conflict Theory).


The interactionist approach in sociology has become increasing well accepted in the contemporary intellectual climate. This theory emphasizes social interaction as a fundamental and essential component of any social system. The theory has its roots in the work of formidable sociological theorists like Max Weber. The theory is also based on the important idea that society is dynamic and not fixed or determined. This also relates to the assertion that the individual in society can be viewed without categories and labels.

This theory is linked to sociology at a micro level. " Interactionists look at society on a MICRO scale...They do not want to generalize their ideas to the whole of society" (Interactionism).

As Plummer states of this theory; " seeks to unify intelligent thought and logical method with practical actions and appeals to experience" (Symbolic Interactionism).

In essence, this view analyzes society in terms of the interactions between individuals and the way that these interactions constitute societal structures and institutions. Sociologists linked to this theoretical stance are Blumer, Becker, Goffman, Denzin, and Hochschild. (Symbolic Interactionism) Blumer (1962) is credited with the development of the symbolic interaction view of society. This is described as follows

The term "symbolic interaction" refers, of course, to the peculiar and distinctive character of interaction as it takes place between human beings. The peculiarity consists in the fact that human beings interpret or "define" each other's actions instead of merely reacting to each other's actions. Their "response" is not made directly to the actions of one another but instead is based on the meaning that they attach to such actions. Thus, human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's actions.

(Symbolic Interactionism).

Interactionism is therefore not a general theory of society, as are conflict and structural functional theories. It analyzes society from the perspective of social psychology and the way that individuals interact. The fundamental argument in this theory is "... that our sense of self is shaped and defined by the groups that we are part of and by their way of giving us feedback and reputation" (Theory, Theories, and Theorists) This in turn leads to view about the social construction of the self.

4. Analysis: sociological theories and religion

Both conflict and structural functionalist theories provide different perceptions of society. On the one hand, structural functionalist theory is a valuable tool for understanding consensus, whereas the elements of conflict theory are useful in analyzing and understanding the aspects of power and coercion in society. Both these aspects can, to a greater or lesser extent, be useful in the analysis of religion from a sociological perspective. Interactionist theory also provides a more subjective and interactive analysis of the way that religious groupings develop and function in society.

Conflict theory is important in the understanding of religion in that it places emphasis on the way that power is distributed and allocated within the society. As discussed above, theorists state that that conflict analysis relates to the way that power and authority are distributed in society. From this perspective, the religious institutions and churches can be analyzed. For example, the power and authority of the Catholic Church in Western society provides a clear view of the way that power and coercion have been a factor in the relationship between church, state and the people… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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APA Style

Theoretical Perspectives.  (2008, April 7).  Retrieved August 11, 2020, from

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"Theoretical Perspectives."  7 April 2008.  Web.  11 August 2020. <>.

Chicago Style

"Theoretical Perspectives."  April 7, 2008.  Accessed August 11, 2020.