The three key sociological paradigms are functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Each are explained below.
Sociologists explore social phenomena from different viewpoints and at different levels. They analyze specific events and social patterns (the micro level of analysis) as well as the big picture (the macro level of analysis).
Sociologists use three key theoretical perspectives to explain how society is structured and affects individuals and vice versa. These are:
- the functionalist perspective
- the conflict perspective
- the symbolic interactionist perspective
|Sociological Paradigms||Major assumptions|
|Functionalism||Social stability is a prerequisite for a healthy and strong society. Social institutions (e.g., education, religion) contribute towards social stability. Abrupt social change imperils social order.|
|Conflict theory||Society is built upon enduring and pervasive inequality on the basis of social class, gender, race etc. Structural social change is required to create an egalitarian society.|
|Symbolic interactionism||We construct society through a range of symbols (e.g., words, gestures) and social interactions. People make up their roles as they interact. They do not merely fit in the positions that society set out for them.|
In what follows, we look at
- what each sociological paradigm stands for (with real-world examples)
- their strengths and weaknesses
The 3 Sociological Paradigms
1. Functionalist Paradigm
The functionalist perspective (see: functionalism in sociology) understands society as a grouping of moving, interdependent parts. Think about how the human body needs all its parts to function healthily as a whole. Likewise, societal systems comprise several institutions performing good things for the individual and society’s functioning as whole.
For example, the government provides education for children. In turn, families pay taxes to support the welfare state’s provisions (e.g., education and health). In other words, families depend on schools to educate their children. This way, they can find a job and create/support their own families. Then, they’ll become taxpaying citizens. In turn, the state depends on its citizens to support it. In this viewpoint, institutions produce social stability and productivity.
The origins of functionalism can be found in the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He focused on the matter of social order and the favorable (and functionally necessary) contributions of social institutions to social cohesion (Whitney, 1975).
Example: Hand Sanitizer!
According to functionalism, social problems threaten social stability. But they do not mirror fundamental societal faults. In the case of the 2020 global crisis, there was a rise in demand for hand sanitizer. Simultaneously, restaurants were closed due to government regulations.
To ensure economic survival, distilleries started making their own hand sanitizer. At the same time, educational institutions moved to online teaching. Seen through a functionalist lens, this example indicates how parts of society slowly adapted to a new situation and sought to achieve the well-being of the community.
Read More: 10 Examples of Functionalism
Strengths of Functionalism
- demonstrates that social institutions can work at two distinct levels simultaneously
- Meeting the needs of individuals and social groups
- and fulfilling the needs of society as a whole
- The belief that social order is achieved through a shared culture and set of values that are formed by the members of society. This helps individuals cooperate by following a set of agreed norms that define their behavior and objectives.
Criticisms of Functionalism
- Offers a too harmonious view of society (Cheal, 2002).
- Not every social institution is functionally indispensable (Merton, 1961). For example, the traditional nuclear family may not be the best institution to raise and socialize children.
- Critics of functionalism stress that it discourages people from actively changing and bettering the social context. This is because it’s against social change. Other parts of society are expected to naturally resolve/balance existing social problems.
- Disregards the inherent conflict and inequality emphasized by the conflict paradigm, discussed immediately below.
2. Conflict Perspective
In essential ways, conflict theory lies on the opposite side of functionalism. Conflict theorists defy the status quo and support social change even in its rapid and violent form.
They presume all societies have inherent power struggles and resource inequalities. Unequal groups have conflicting values and interests; hence, they fight each other (Wells, 1979).
Let’s return to the example of the 2020 global crisis. Conflict theorists would argue that distilleries producing hand sanitizer are self-serving (intended to make a profit) rather than socially beneficial (protect public health).
The conflict paradigm is rooted in Marxist philosophy and the power struggle between the wealthy and the poor—a structural contradiction of capitalism. In the 1960s, American sociologists expanded Marx’s idea that the primary social conflict was economical, or class-based.
At that time, scholars introduced the parameters of gender and race. They argued that sexism and racism are the logical outcomes of capitalism—women and non-white people are subjugated in all aspects of social, political, and economic life.
Example: Social Deviance
According to conflict theory, social problems stem from structural societal faults and inequalities. People who break the law, it would note, are primarily poor people. They resort to deviant activity because of their social marginalization and inability to find a job.
In this viewpoint, deviant behavior merely mirrors and emphasizes class, race, gender, religion, and other inequalities. Simply put, society is as responsible as armed robbers. Conflict theory would ask for far-reaching change in the economy and society to combat it.
Read More: 14 Examples of Conflict Theory
Strengths of the Conflict Perspective
- It provides a lens through which to explore power structures and relationships in society.
- It identifies radical ways to diminish political and social conflicts.
Criticisms of the Conflict Perspective
- It has an overly pessimistic view of society—as opposed to functionalism. All humanitarian efforts and even civil rights movement are attributed to capitalism’s efforts to control the masses and maximize profit.
- It disregards how several social institutions (e.g., family, education, religion) have key functions in society and can create a sort of social coherence.
- The biggest weakness of the conflict perspective is its association with socialism. It assumes all social problems can be pinned to social class. It also posits that capitalism corrupted the principally good human nature; if this is removed, problems will be solved.
Read More: Pros and Cons of Conflict Theory
3. Symbolic Interactionist Perspective
The symbolic interactionist perspective is based on the idea that society is shaped by various symbols. People understand them as a means of communication.
For instance, the word “mother” is just a series of six letters. But words are not static things; their symbols to which we attach specific meanings. So, when we see or hear the word “mother”, we think of various things: love, fertility, patience, family, responsibility etc.
Symbolic interactionism originates from Max Weber’s (1885) arguments that
- people act according to their understanding of the meaning of their environment (see: Weber’s social action theory);
- society is a creation of human activity;
- when analyzing society, we should focus on social (inter)action.
The American philosopher George H. Mead (1967) popularized Weber’s sociological perspective in the 1920s and 1930s. But Herbert Blumer (1969) coined the term “symbolic interactionism”. He was the first to formulate Mead’s and Weber’s ideas into a comprehensive theory.
Example: Government Restrictions
For its part, symbolic interactionism would focus on how people perceived and experienced the unprecedented 2020 government restrictions. It would also investigate the various meanings ascribed to facemasks, social distancing, staying at home, etc. (St-Amant et al., 2022).
It would explore social perceptions of vaccination to understand the reasons behind science deniers. It would advocate social awareness-raising campaigns (especially regarding vaccination), to protect public health.
Read More: Examples of Symbolic Interactionism
Strengths of Symbolic Interactionism
- it does not suggest a theory of a specific society, as opposed to the other sociological paradigms. Instead, it explores small-scale human interactions. It also lets us compare how we behave and think with different people (Carter, 2016).
- Considers individuals as active, inventive agents constructing their social world environment—rather than passive objects subject to socialization (Blumer, 1969).
- Stresses that people’s perceptions of reality are different and ever-changing.
Criticisms of the Symbolic Interactionism
- It underplays the role of the macro-level of social interpretation (Manis and Meltzer, 1978). In the above 19 example, it doesn’t explore the “big picture”; the role of large social, economic, and political structures in the management of the 2020 crisis.
- It is challenging to test the accuracy of symbolic interactionism. That’s because it deals with distinct and ever-shifting interpretations that are subjective by definition.
- Overestimates the power of people to create their own world. It neglects the power structures that subjugate and shape humans (Goffman, 1974).
- Neglects the emotional dimension of human conduct, focusing strictly on logical behavior (Manis and Meltzer, 1978).
Graph: Key Takeaways
The key takeaways regarding sociological paradigms are
|Sociological Paradigms||Level of analysis||Major assumptions|
|Functionalism||Macro||Social institutions are key in producing social stability. Focus on the positive aspects of society. People and institutions work together to create social order.|
|Conflict theory||Macro||Society is characterized by one group dominating the other (e.g., the wealthy rule the poor). Focus on the negative nature of society as unjust. Revolutionary violence will eventually eliminate capitalism and all its faults (poverty, injustice).|
|Symbolic interactionism||Micro||People create their social environment as they interact. Human interactions are done through the exchange of meaningful communication or symbols.|
Consider all three perspectives to reach a more comprehensive understanding of a social problem. Also, think if you’re exploring the “micro” or “macro” level. Then choose the most appropriate sociological perspective.
Read Next: Functionalism vs Conflict Theory
Blumer, Herbert (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Carter, M. J., & Fuller, C. (2016). Symbols, meaning, and action: The past, present, and future of symbolic interactionism. Current Sociology, 64(6), pp. 931–961. doi: https://doi.org/10.1177/0011392116638396
Cheal, D. (2002). Sociology of family life. Houndmills: Palgrave.
Erving, Goffman (1974). Frame Analysis: An essay on the organization of experience. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974, page 21.
Merton, R. (1961). Social theory and social structure. (Revised and enlarged ed.). Glencoe, Ill; New York: Free Press.
Pope, W. (1975). Durkheim as a Functionalist. Sociological Quarterly, 16(3), pp. 361-379.
Wells, A. (1979). Conflict Theory and Functionalism: Introductory Sociology Textbooks, 1928-1976. Teaching Sociology, 6(4), pp. 429-437.
Manis, Jerome G. and Bernard N. Meltzer (1978). Symbolic Interaction: A Reader in Social Psychology. Third Edition. Bostyn: Allyn and Bacon.
Mead, G.H. (1967) Mind, self, and society: from the standpoint of a social behaviorist. Chicago.
St-Amant O., Rummens J.A., Parada H., Wilson-Mitchell K. (2022). The COVID-19 Mask: Toward an Understanding of Social Meanings and Responses. Advances in Nursing Science, 45(2), pp. 100-113.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]