Theory is a statement of how and why specific facts are related. The job of sociological theory is to explain social behavior in the real world. For example why some groups of people have higher suicide rates than others?

In building theory, sociologists face two basic facts: What issues should we study? How should we connect the facts? How sociologists answer these questions depends on their theoretical “road map” or paradigm. (It is pronounced as para-daia-um.)

Paradigm is a basic image of society. A theoretical paradigm provides a basic image of society that guides thinking and research. For example: Do societies remain static? Do they continuously keep changing? What keeps them stable? What makes societies ever changing?

Salient Paradigms

Sociology has three major paradigms reflecting different images of society:

  1. The Structural-Functional
  2. The Social-Conflict
  3. The Symbolic-Interaction

1. The Structural-Functional Paradigm:

It is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.

The paradigm is based on the idea that:

  • Our lives are guided by social structure i.e. relatively stable patterns of social behavior. Social structure gives our lives shape, whether it be in families, the workplace, or the classroom.
  • Social structures can be understood in terms of their social functions, or consequences for the operation of society as a whole. All social structures – from simple handshake to complex religious rituals – function to keep society going. All social structures contribute to the operation of society.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) compared society to the human body. The structural parts of human body – the skeleton, muscles, and various internal organs – show interdependence, each contributing to the survival of the entire organism. Similarly various social structures, such as the family, educational system, and the economy are interdependent, working in concert to preserve the society.

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) saw society as a system, and sought to identify the basic tasks that any and all societies must perform to survive and the way they accomplish these tasks.

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) looked at functions in a different way:

  1. The consequences of any social pattern are likely to differ for various categories of people. For example conventional family pattern provides for the support and development of children, but it also confers privileges on men while limiting the opportunities for women.
  2. People rarely perceive all the functions of a social structure. He therefore distinguishes between manifest functions the recognized and intended consequences of a social pattern and latent functions the largely unrecognized and unintended consequences. Manifest functions of educational institution – imparting knowledge, preparing young people for job market – Latent function could be keeping so many young people out of the labor market.
  3. Not all the effects of any social system benefit everyone in society. There could be social dysfunctions i.e. undesirable consequences for the operation of society. Not everyone agrees on what is beneficial and what is harmful. Is women empowerment functional?

Critical Evaluation

The chief characteristic of structural-functional paradigm is its vision of society as orderly, stable, and comprehensible. Goal is to figure out ‘What makes the society tick.’

How can we assume that society has a “natural” order? If that is natural then there should be no variation in the social pattern of people at different places, and there should be no change over time.

How about the inequalities in society that generate tension and conflict?

Approach appears to be conservative.

2. The Social-Conflict Paradigm

The social conflict framework sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict and change. Unlike structural-functional paradigm, which emphasizes solidarity, this approach highlights division based on inequality.

Factors like gender, ethnicity, social class, and age are linked to the unequal distribution of money, power, education, and social prestige.

A conflict analysis suggests that, rather than promoting the operation of society as a whole, social structure typically benefits some people while depriving the others

  • There is an on-going conflict between dominant and disadvantaged categories of people – rich and poor, white and the colored, men in relation to women.
  • People on top strive to protect their privileges, while the disadvantaged try to gain more resources for themselves.
  • Schooling perpetuates inequality by reproducing the class structure in every new generation.
  • Who goes to school, to college, to university, to vocational training institution?

How do the structural-functionalists look at the above analysis? Structural- Functionalists assert that such tracking benefits all of society because students receive training that is appropriate to their academic abilities.

Conflict sociologists counter the argument saying that ‘tracking’ often has less to do with talent than with a student’s social background, so that the well to do are placed in higher tracks and the poor children end up in lower tracks.

Young people from privileged families gain the best schooling, and, when they leave college, they pursue prestigious, higher income careers. That is not the case for children from poor families. In both cases the social standing of one generation is passed on to another, with the schools justifying the practice in terms of individual merit.

Conflict sociologists not only try to understand the inequality in society but also try to influence to reduce inequality in society. They want to change the system.

Critical Evaluation

This school of thought has a large following.

This paradigm highlights inequality and division in society, but it largely ignores how shared values and interdependence can generate unity among members of a society.

To a great extent, this paradigm has political goals, therefore it cannot claim objectivity. Conflict theorists counter that all approaches have political consequences.

3. The Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm

The structural-functionalists and social-conflict paradigms share a macro-level orientation, meaning a focus on broad social structures that shape society as a whole.

The symbolic interaction paradigm provides a micro-level orientation, meaning a focus on social interaction in specific situations.

The symbolic-interaction paradigm sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals. “Society” amounts to the shared reality that people construct as they interact with one another.

  • Human beings are the creatures who live in the world of symbols, attaching meaning to virtually everything.
  • Symbols attached to reality (material or non-material).
  • Meanings attached to symbols.
  • Symbols are the means of communication. Therefore:
  • Symbols as the basis of social life
  • Without symbols we would have no mechanism of perceiving others in terms of relationships (aunts and uncles, employers and teachers). Only because we have these symbols like aunts and uncles that define for us what such relationships entail. Compare these symbols with symbols like boyfriend or girlfriend; you will see that the relationships change quite differently.
  • Without symbols we cannot coordinate our actions with others; we would be unable to plan for a future date, time, and place. Without symbols there will be no books, movies, no schools, no hospitals, and no governments. Symbols make social life possible.
  • Even self is symbol, for it consists of the ideas that we have about who we are. May be changing.

As we interact with others we may constantly adjust our views of the self, based on how we interpret the reactions of others.

We define our realities. The definitions could vary. The definitions could be subjective. For example who is a homeless? Who is a police officer – a provider of security or creator of anxiety. It has a subjective meaning.

Max Weber is an exponent of this paradigm. He emphasized the need to understand any social setting from the point of view of the people in it. A person is the product of his experiences with others

Critical Evaluation

Without denying the usefulness of abstract social structures like the family, and social class this paradigm reminds us that society basically amounts to people interacting. How individuals experience society.

This approach ignores the widespread effects of culture as well as factors like social class, gender, and race.