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Three Main Social Theories

Our three main sociological theories are merely different viewpoints that assist us in looking at social issues from different perspectives.  By being able to view social issues from different perspectives it allows us to be objective and fully analyze the issues.

  • Structural Functionalism
  • Conflict Theory
  • Symbolic Interactionism

Structural Functionalism Theory (Perspective)

Structural functionalism is a macro-level theory.  The main contributors to structural functionalism are:

  • Auguste Comte (the founder of sociology): viewed society as a living organism and made the comparison of society to the human body (all of the organs working together; if one organ stops functioning then the other organs are affected).
  • Herbert Spencer: the second founder of sociology; founder of the phrase “survival of the fittest”
  • Emile Durkheim: social integration and suicide; focused on the functions and needs of society; noted that there will be “pathology” (like a cancer) when functions and needs are not fulfilled
  • Talcott Parsons: focused on stratification, the layering in society and stated that each of the stratification layers are important to insure that all of the functions of society are fulfilled
  • Robert Merton: focused on the interrelated parts of society (that each part of society, institutions, are interdependent on one another) and the need for equilibrium

Talcott Parsons and “Society as a Social System”              

A good example of this theory is Parsons’ Society as a Social System’.  All parts of society (institutions and groups) must work and fulfill their function in order to maintain homeostasis and equilibrium.  Each part of society contributes to the larger system.  Components of society must contribute positively to the system and maintain equilibrium in order to be considered a functional system.  In terms of marriage and the family each individual within the family works together and contributes to the overall functioning of the family.

Functionalism is rooted in anthropology.  We can look at tribal societies as an example of functionalism.  Tribal societies are small self-sufficient societies and each member of the society affects the other members as well as the entire group.  Think about the roles/positions within tribal societies (chief, hunters, gatherers, medicinal person, religious leader, etc.).  Think about what would happen if one individual or specific group within the tribe does not to perform their role or dies.  Think about how the others and the entire group would be affected.

Manifest and Latent Functions (two types of functions)

Manifest functions are specific functions that society, a group, or individuals intend to do.  Latent functions are not intended and are a result of the way society works.  In other words, a manifest function is a specifically stated goal of one of our institutions, but due to that function there can be some unintended consequences that occur.

For example, (macro perspective) society has specific systems of social control.  Society intends to make sure that the groups within the society as well as individuals follow the rules of that society so systems of social control are developed and implemented.  From a macro perspective, we maintain social control within our society via laws, police, judicial system, and prisons.  The manifest function is to make sure members of society follow the rules or laws; however, there are problems within our criminal justice system.  Due to the way the system functions there are unintended consequences (latent functions) such as inequality in the criminal justice system.

Now, think about another example from a micro perspective.  One of the functions of the family is for parents to teach their children specific values or the difference between right and wrong.  We want our children to follow the rules in society; therefore, we discipline them when they break the rules.  But there are several different forms of discipline.  Think about the different methods that people use to discipline their children.  Think about the latent (unintended) consequences of the specific methods used to discipline a child.  Think about the result of having an authoritarian parent (also called drill sergeant parent; maximum control, demands obedience without question).  Research shows that those who have authoritarian parents and are always told what to do are more likely to not learn decision making skills and problem solving.  He/she may become an adult who cannot make decisions for him or herself (personally and professionally in the workplace).  Research also shows that those who have permissive parents (lenient; do not have any consequences for their behaviors, etc.) are more likely to have problems with authority figures later in life (often in the workplace, police, etc.).  As we can see there are latent functions/consequences of the manifest function of social control. 

Note: More on parenting styles later in the course.


The functionalist perspective of stratification (layering of groups or individuals in society) is that stratification may be necessary.  Groups and individuals in society have different amounts of power, prestige, and wealth…some have more and some have less.  Without some stratification in our society the functionalist perspective notes that it would not be possible to fill all of the necessary positions in society.  Society would cease to exist if every individual or group had equal opportunity to be in the upper layers of society as the lower layers or positions would not be filled.  Think about some occupations in the lower levels in our society…how important is it that we have individuals to fill those positions?  What would happen if we did not have people to fill those positions?  Functionalists at the extreme end of the continuum would go as far as to say that we should, and do, specifically socialize individuals and groups to fill specific positions and layers (lower, middle, and upper layers).  In a micro perspective we can look at the family and stratification.  We see that families are also stratified, we have different roles (i.e. instrumental leader and expressive leader) as well as different positions within the family (some positions having more power and prestige than others: fathers or parents).  From a functionalist perspective we would reflect on if each of the positions, roles, and jobs within the family are being met to determine if the family is functional.  Today, we are moving away from traditional gender norms/roles to determine roles and jobs within the family and focusing on the mere fact of if the roles and functions are being met.

The Family

Reflect on what the functions of the family are.  How the functions have changed throughout history.  How some functions of the family have been replaced by other institutions (educational institution for example).  How culture plays a role in the functions of the family.

As noted each individual within a family has a specific role and perform specific functions.  Think about your own family and who does what and what role does each individual has.  What would happen if someone in your family decided to stop performing their role or function or if there is a death in the family and how this would affect the family?  The family be in a state of disequilibrium or dysfunction and there would need to be changes within the family in order for the family to get back to equilibrium or homeostasis (others taking on the roles/functions that are not being met).

Conflict Theory (Macro Level Theory)

Conflict theory states that our society is made up of groups and individuals who struggle and compete over the limited resources and rewards that are available in our society.  Resources and rewards do not necessarily mean money.  For example, a valuable resource is education…and there is not enough to go around (education is not equally distributed).  School funding is based on property taxes and the quality of education is not equally distributed; public school vs. private school and the costs; only so many people are accepted to prestigious universities.  Also, as many of you may know, it is even difficult to get in to the Cal State schools…there is not enough room!

Conflict theory focuses on the unequal distribution of power, prestige, and wealth.  There is a constant struggle for power, prestige, and wealth in our society.  Also note that these do not always go hand-in-hand.  A person can have prestige but not wealth (teachers), or power and not wealth (police officers), or wealth but not prestige (higher level drug dealers).

This constant struggle shapes our everyday lives, interactions between groups and individuals, is the basis of racial, ethnic, gender, and class inequality, and affects the relations between nations.  One of the major concepts behind conflict theory is inequality.  Remember functionalists say the unequal distribution is necessary for all positions in society to be filled while conflictists say it is inequality and it should not be that way, that there should be a more equal distribution of wealth and power.

Karl Marx – The Father of Conflict TheoryKarl Marx

Karl Marx was a historian and economist.  He focused on conflict as an economical issue.  He stated that “class conflict is the struggle between the bourgeoisie and proletariat.”  The bourgeoisie, or capitalists, owned the means of production, while the proletariat were the workers.  The bourgeoisie had the power, prestige, and wealth.  During Marx’s time workers did not have any rights, worked long hours, and lived in close living quarters.  Marx felt that the proletariat would come together and revolt, fight for their rights.  Marx was optimistic that the proletariat would overcome their situation via a social revolution.

Conflictists view conflict as good as it leads to social change and is the only way we can move towards more equality.

If the US land were divided like US wealth showing the amount the top 1% would own, the top 9% would own, and how little the rest of the 90% would own

In our society today we see a very unequal distribution of resources and power.  Those at the top own and control most of the resources and have most of the power.  The gap between the rich and the power continues to widen and has never been larger than it is today while the middle is shrinking (some say it is disappearing).  We will discuss more on this issue when we discuss social class and the gap between the rich and the poor.

Another Example: The Family (micro perspective)

Our society as well as our families are male dominated…yes, in general, it still is.  Now, from a conflict perspective look at war and men going off to war.  Historically, what happened within our society when men went off to war (WWII)?  How did women’s roles change?  Women were housewives and now they began working, in factories.  What happened when the men returned?  Some of the women did not want to return home (some of the women did not have a choice in the matter and needed to work as their husbands did not return from the war).  Then we have the Women’s Movement, a social revolution to fight for equality (which is still being fought for today).  We also say other changes within the family due to women obtaining more control over their lives and their economic situation such as an increase in divorce due to unhappy marriages.

Reflect on how a conflictist vs. a functionalist would view divorce (Causes disequilibrium?  Is due to unequal distribution of power?  Less divorce when there is more equality within the marriage?).  It is important to look at social issues from varying perspectives.

Other Examples of Conflict Theory and Effects on the Family:

  • Male domination in the family
  • Women’s economic dependence on men
  • Wage gap, women earning less money than men when occupying similar positions
  • Feminization of poverty, the majority of those who live in poverty are single women with children

Symbolic Interactionism (Micro Level Theory)George Herbert Mead

George Herbert Mead is the father of symbolic interactionism.  This theory focuses on the relationship between individuals and the society they live in, how we make sense of and interpret our social world, and how our perspectives, beliefs, and values are communicated and interpreted.

Mead said, “Humans should be understood in terms of their behaviors.”  In other words, we understand others in terms of how they behave.  In each interaction we have we are observing others behaviors and coming to specific conclusions about others and about the interaction itself.  We utilize symbols in interactions which give meaning to behavior.

Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals communicate with one another, the basis of that communication, and the results and consequences of each interaction.

Interactionism focuses on the following:

  • Interactions or face-to-face encounters
  • Each interaction has an effect on us and affects subsequent interaction
  • We all come in to each interaction with our own perspectives
  • It is as if our past comes with us into each interaction
  • Each interaction will affect our perspectives
  • We all have specific expectations of what should happen in each interaction
  • Behaviors are a large part of the interactions and how people behave affects each interaction
  • Symbols or meanings of behaviors which we interpret
  • Interpretations: we are constantly interpreting each interaction
  • We all interpret situations differently, this is why two people who are part of the same interaction will explain what happened differently

 How We Interact Is Affected By:

Culture: Different cultures have different ways (norms) in which they interact and communicate.  They may greet one another in specific ways, have specific norms in terms of communication expectations, and different means of communication.  One example is eye contact.  What does it mean if a person does not look you in the eye?  He or she is dishonest?  Disrespectful? Shy?  Or, is the person showing you respect (as in some Asian cultures) when he or she does not make eye contact?  Different cultures have different norms in terms of eye contact and ways in which they interpret eye contact (or the lack of). 

Another example of interactions and culture is how parents discipline their children.  There are various ways in which parents discipline their children and we find there are trends in discipline techniques according to culture.  The ways in which we are disciplined as a child (which is considered an important interaction) definitely have long term effects, positive and negative.

Socialization:  We have all been socialized differently.  Our environment has taught each of us the acceptable ways to interact and communicate with others.

Family unit: We often interact in ways similar to our parents or other family members.  Essentially we have learned means of communication via our agents of socialization.  When faced with conflict we find ourselves interacting or dealing with the situation in the ways in which we have learned from families.

Self-concept: Individuals with a positive self-concept interact differently than those with a negative self-concept and our self-concept is developed through our interactions with our agents of socialization.  Each interaction we have in our lives (especially in our childhood) contributes to the development of our self-concept. 

Roles:  The specific roles we occupy dictate how we behave in our interactions.  We all have different roles we occupy and may behave differently depending on the role we are occupying at any given time.

What influences our interactions?

Personal Space and Touching: We allow different people different levels of personal space.  Touching is acceptable in certain relationships (i.e. your physician can touch you but you should not touch your physician).  Think about how you feel if someone invades your personal space or touches you, especially if you are not a “touchy person.”  We are socialized to adopt norms in terms of personal space and touching.

Status and Roles: We each occupy different status positions and roles within our different relationships we have with others and interact and behave differently depending on the status or role we occupy.

Socialization: We are socialized to interact and communicate in a specific way.  Our family plays a great role in how we interact with others as do our peers and other agents of socialization.

Stereotypes: A stereotype is a rigid preconception and often misconception about others who we perceive as belonging to a specific social group.  Stereotypes are often used to justify behavior towards another person.  Stereotypes are learned via our socialization.

Judith Cates reflected on how a stereotype can actually cause a person to become the stereotype due to how he/she is treated (labeled) and how it affects his/her self-concept (self-fulfilling prophecy).

Self-fulfilling prophecy: We hold stereotypes, treat the person a specific way based on the stereotypes we hold, then the person reacts according to how we are treating him/her or we provide an environment in which they can only become the stereotype, and the person become exactly what was expected of them.

For example:  A person is a manager of a five individuals in a specific corporation.  That person believes that all people that belong to a particular racial group are “lazy.”  One of the people he/she is managing belongs to that specific racial group.  Now the manager has to designate specific cases to these individuals; some of the cases require a lot of work and involve special “clients.”  Is that manager going to give the “lazy” person any of the important cases?  The manager assigns that person to the menial cases.  At the end of the year the manager assess what each individual has done throughout the year and decides that the “lazy” person really did not do much and realizes that the person always left work at 5:00 p.m. while the others worked overtime on their “important” cases and says to him/herself, “I was right, that person is lazy.”  Do you see how the person became the stereotype?

Another example: (unfortunately a true story)

A woman calls her child “stupid” every time he misbehaves or does not do what she says.  For instance, the child is afraid of swimming in the deep end of the pool.  She tells him if he can swim in the shallow end he can swim in the deep end and there is nothing to be afraid of.  He insists that he cannot swim in the deep end…she calls him “stupid.”  If a person, especially a child, is called “stupid” over and over will he/she become “stupid?”

Think about this.  What is the result of this important interaction?  Will the child excel in school?  Will the child go to college?  Is his/her self-concept that he/she is “stupid?”

The previous example is just one example of how our members of our family and our interactions with them can affect our self-concept.  Think about all of the interactions we have with our parents, siblings, and extended family members and how each interaction has affected us, sometimes in small ways, other times in significant ways, and sometimes the effects are short term and other times there are long term effects.  Think about some of the significant interactions you have had with members of your family and how these interactions have affected you, your self-concept as well as how it has affected how you interact with others.

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