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This paper discusses three approaches that can be taken when studying Sociology. There are many subjects to be studied and discussed in the field of Sociology, and the approach chosen to study a particular subject is called a perspective. There are three different perspectives, and they are functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspectives. This paper compares and contrasts these different perspectives with one another.
When studying in the field of Sociology everyone is going to approach topics in a different manner. No two people are going to have the exact same view on a particular subject. There are however, three major categories in which people might choose to approach topics. The approaches are know as sociological perspectives and are the functionalist, conflict, and interactionist perspectives. These perspectives name different ways in which different people choose to analyze a subject, and how they look at a society as a whole. The following paragraphs compare and contrast the three, and identify major characteristics of each.
"The functionalist perspective is a sociological approach which emphasizes the way that parts of a society are structure to maintain its stability,"(Schaefer & Lamm, 1998). This perspective looks at a society in a positive manner and sees it as stable, with all the parts working together. Under the functionalist view every social aspect of a society contributes to the society's survival, and if not, the aspect is not passed to the next generation.
There are two people who where mainly involved in the development of the functionalist perspective, they are Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons. Durkheim contributed to the functionalist perspective when she was studying religion, and how it was responsible for people feeling solidarity and unity in groups. Parsons was a sociologist from Harvard University who was greatly influenced by Durkheim. In return, he influenced Sociology by dominating the field, with his functionalist views, for four decades (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998).
When approaching a subject with the functionalist perspective, manifest and latent functions as well as dysfunctions are looked at and studied. A manifest function of an institution is one that is stated and expected. A latent function is one that is unexpected or can show a hidden purpose of an institution, and a dysfunction is a component of a society that can cause instability (Rothman, 1998). These functions and dysfunctions are use in analyzing a society.
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Functionalist perspective is an approach to studying a society on the macrosociological level. This means that a society is studied on a large scale as a whole. The view of the individual in a functionalist perspective is that people are socially molded, not forced, to perform societal functions. Order in a society, as viewed by a functionalist, is maintained when members of a society cooperated with one another. Functionalists view social change as being predictable and positive. The main idea of functionalist perspective is that of stability (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998).
"The conflict perspective is a sociological approach which assumes that social behavior is best understood in terms of conflict or tension between different groups," (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998). In contrast to the functionalist view of stability, conflict sociologist see a society as being in constant struggle. The idea of conflict is not necessarily violent; it could just refer to disagreements that are worked out through a mediator (Platt, 1999).
The two main contributors to the formation of the conflict perspective are Karl Marx and W. E. B. Du Bois. Karl Marx explained that conflicts between classes of society are inevitable, since workers will always be exploited as a result of capitalism. It is through the expansion of Marx's work that sociologist now apply conflict theory to all aspects of society. Even though there are parallels between Marxist theories and conflict perspective they are not the same. An important aspect of conflict perspective is that it encourages sociologists to look at a society through the eyes of those in the population who does not influence decision making. Du Bois contributed to the conflict perspective by studying society in reference to blacks and their struggles within society (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998).
The conflict perspective sees society as being full of tension and struggle between groups. It also, like functionalist, analyzes society on the macrosociological level. As for the individual, they are perceived as being shaped by power and authority. Social order is viewed as being maintained not through cooperation, but through force. And social change is not predictable, but is constantly taking place. The conflict perspective's main idea is that there are competing interests between groups and social inequality exists, therefore there is always conflict of some kind.
"The interactionist perspective is a sociological approach which generalizes about fundamental or everyday forms of social interaction," (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998). Interactionist perspective focuses on the way that small groups act, in order to understand society as a whole. Interactionists study people in their everyday behavior and how they react to their surroundings. Such surroundings may include material things, actions, other people, and symbols.
George Herbert Mead is most often credited with founding the interactionist perspective, but Charles Horton Cooley also shared Mead's views. Mead was a professor at the University of Chicago, and he focused on the analysis of one-to-one situations and other small groups. He paid particular attention to body language such as a frown or nod, and he also asked the questions of how other group members effected these gestures. His students passed down his views after his death, as a result of hearing his lectures (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998).
The interactionist view of society is that we influence each other's everyday social interactions. In contrast to functionalist and conflict perspectives, the interactionist perspective studies society on a microsociological level. In other words they study on a small scale in order to understand the large scale. Interactionists believe that an individual creates their own social world through his or her interactions, and it is thought that social order is maintained when people share their understanding of everyday behavior. Interactionists say that social change occurs when the positions and communication with one another change. The main idea of an interactionist sociologist is to study nonverbal communication and small groups paying particular attentions to objects and symbols (Schaefer & Lamm, 1998).
As one can tell from reading these three approaches are very different in the way in which they study sociological issues. They all strive to give meaning to why people do what they do, and neither is better than the other, they just go about reaching the same goal in a different way.
Platt, J. http://www.vcm.es/info/isa/contr1.htm
Rothman, R. A. http://www.phptr.com/ptrbooks/hss_0136128148.html
Schaefer, R. T., & Lamm, R. P. (1998). Sociology. New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.