A Comparison of Sociological Perspectives – Structural Functionalist Approach, Social Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism

A Comparison of Sociological Perspectives

Emile Durkheim is arguably one of the most renowned scholars in the field of sociology. Born in France in 1858, Durkheim would soon prove his intellectual prowess as the principal draughtsman of contemporary social science. Modernity had birthed a new era in Europe that required individuals and the society alike to embrace these changes and adapt accordingly. In 1895, Durkheim established the first department of sociology in Europe in and went on to conduct seminal systematic research to bolster his work.  He was profoundly passionate about sociology being an authentic science and even referred to it as a “legitimate institution”. Using social facts, he published numerous works, chief among them being On the Division of Social Labor (1893), The Rules of Sociological Method (1895), and Suicide (1897) (Thompson, 2012). Additionally, Durkheim was an exponent of structural functionalism that sought to introduce a comprehensive approach in sociology. Thus, it is fundamental to evaluate the structural functionalist approach, in comparison to the Social Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism.

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At the core of the Structural Functionalist perspective is the idea that society is held together by a system of codependence. It is through this symbiotic relationship that important contributions are made by major players to promote proper societal functioning (Mooney, Holmes, Knox, & Schacht, 2011, p. 34). In particular, the state is at the heart of this perspective; and plays its part by ensuring that it provides quality education to children in its jurisdiction. In turn, the families from which these children are from participate in this system by paying taxes which enable the state to fulfill its mandate.  Ultimately, the educated children complete their education and are gainfully employed as part of a wider scheme to support their individual families. Through this interdependence, school going children grow up with an acute awareness of their duty to the state and offer their support by being law-abiding individuals who pay their taxes regularly. Durkheim suggested that a social consensus is responsible for the cohesion that is often witnessed society, either as mechanical or organic solidarity. In essence, functionalism underscored the importance of societal equilibrium with each player having a specific role which they are required to play.

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On the other hand, the Social Conflict Theory was first presented by Karl Marx as an expression of his opinion regarding class struggles. Although ardent structural functionalists were optimistic about society, the conflict perspective explored some of its negative attributes which may ultimately lead to a host of challenges.  The central argument posed by the conflict perspective was the view that society was an ever changing entity bound to present new circumstances. Karl Marx hypothesized that individuals were bound to challenge the prevailing conditions in society which opposes the functionalist view of cooperation within such an entity (Kerbo, 2013). The conflict that results from this state of affairs ultimately results in social revolution as the only practical answer to widening disparities. Those clamoring for change only do so since their strongly believe that social order was constructed by the rich as a tool for control.  In describing this conflict, Marx was keen to point out that its basis was strictly economical and as a result of the inequalities ingrained in society. The presence of unequal groups with dissimilar values and objectives leads to aggressive competition between warring factions.

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The basis of Symbolic Interactionism is in the codes that exist in society and their meaning in the wider scheme of things. Max Waber is widely regarded as the originator of this perspective in which he suggests individuals actively seek to interpret and find meaning in the world.  At any given point, individuals are bound to attach meaning to various cyphers encountered throughout life and behave according to specific subjective interpretations. In this regard, society therefore becomes the sum of human interpretations made over a particular period (Quist-Adade, 2019, p. 54).

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These interpretations create a social bond among individuals who identify with others of the same ilk. For instance, colorism is an aspect of symbolic interactionism where African Americans of a light shade consider themselves better and intellectually gifted in comparison to their darker counterparts. Detractors of the interactionism perspective assert that it disregards the macro level of the perceived interpretation, which may miss crucial issues in society. Therefore, paying attention to unimportant perspectives may result in a situation where larger societal issues are ignored and individual reactions.            

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In conclusion, Emile Durkheim is still remembered as one of the most prominent sociology scholars responsible for establishing social sciences. His functionalist perspective explored society’s system of codependence which contrasted Karl Marx’s Social Conflict Theory of class struggles. Moreover, Marx Weber also introduced Symbolic Interactionism which explored the meaning that individuals attach to symbols. It is through these perspectives that leading sociologists have attempted to make sense of the society and all its intricacies.

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