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Contemporary School of Sociological Thought


Functionalist Theory

Views society as a system of interrelated and cooperating parts. Some functionalists compare society to a living organism: Just as the heart pumps blood and the lungs take in oxygen, different social institutions perform various tasks that are vital to society’s survival. Many assume that these components function harmoniously to sustain societal viability and progress; if a part is not beneficial it will disappear. Others allow that some aspects of society are destructive. Important functionalists: Auguste Comte (1798–1857), Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), Robert Merton (1910–2003).

Key Concepts
  • Functional prerequisites: Needs that all societies have and must meet in order to survive. Some examples: communication, social control, provision for sexual reproduction.

  • Function: Consequences of an institution or practice that are beneficial or essential to the social system.

  • Dysfunction: Consequences of an institution or practice that are destructive to the social system. It may be that these institutions and practices were once beneficial, but social change altered their effects.

  • Manifest function: The intended and/or obvious function of a social institution or practice.

  • Latent function: The unintended and/or hidden function of a social institution or practice.


Conflict Theory

Includes a variety of theories that emphasize social division rather than unity. Society is divided into a number of groups with different resources, power, and prestige that often exploit and struggle with one other. Different theorists focus on different group divisions. This approach has three sources: (1) reaction against functionalism’s over-emphasis of social harmony; (2) continuation of Marx’s and Weber’s focus on division, inequality, and conflict; (3) newer studies of social differences such as gender and ethnicity.

Key Concepts
  • Conflict: The social interaction in which participating individuals and/or groups all seek, but cannot all achieve, the same goal. Goals can include control of scarce resources and power over others. Conflict may be contrasted with cooperation, the interaction in which individuals or groups work together to achieve common goals. Competition is an orderly, rule-governed form of conflict.

  • Power: Conflict theorists believe that power is present in all social relationships. Three important sociological definitions of power: (1) the probability that a social actor (individual or group) will be able to carry out its will regardless of resistance (Weber); (2) the capacity of social structure and culture to shape human action, leaving actors little control; (3) the capacity of actors to alter the natural and social world.

  • Domination: Power exerted systematically and continuously by one individual or group over another.


Symbolic Interaction, Dramaturgy

Symbolic interactionism focuses on people’s active construction and use of symbols and meanings to interact with their environments and with others. Prominent theorists include George Herbert Mead (1863–1931), Charles Horton Cooley (1864–1929), and Herbert Blumer (1900–1987). The dramaturgical approach, a variant developed by Erving Goffman (1922–1982), employs theatrical metaphors to describe social interactions as dramatic presentations in which people attempt to manage others’ impressions of themselves. (Another variant is ethnomethodology, developed by Harold Garfinkel (1917–).It focuses on the joint creation and use of taken-for-granted assumptions and rules that people bring to social interactions.)

Key Concepts
  • Social construction of reality: Individuals and groups jointly define reality through social interactions. These definitions, not any objective realities, shape our perceptions, feelings, and behaviors.

  • Definition of the situation: The understanding of what is going on that each individual or group brings to a social interaction. Though definitions of a situation might differ initially, features of the setting and continued interaction may help bring them into alignment.


Social Exchange Theory, Rational Choice

Assumes: (1) individuals try to interact so as to maximize rewards and minimize costs, where rewards and costs involve resources, esteem, prestige, and power; (2) all social interactions are structured by reciprocity, or the giving and receiving of equivalent values; and (3) people act rationally and on the basis of past experience. Exchange theorists believe that all social interactions and institutions can be understood in terms of the exchange and balancing of rewards and costs. Exchange theory is identified with George Homans (1910–1989) and Peter Blau (1918–2002).


Formal Sociology

Focuses on the forms, or recurring and abstract patterns, of social groups and interactions rather than on their varying contents. Georg Simmel (1858–1918), a founder of this approach, analyzed the properties and implications of group size and divisions. Contemporary network theorists map out networks of relationships among social actors; they see institutions and interactions as products of these networks’ formal characteristics, such as density and pattern of relationships. See Elements of Society > Social Structure > Key Concepts > Social Tie, Network.