Theory is a statement of how and why specific factsare related. The job of sociological theory is to explainsocial behavior in the real world. For example why some groups of people havehigher suicide rates than others?

Inbuilding theory, sociologists face two basic facts: What issues should westudy? How should we connect the facts? How sociologists answer these questionsdepends on their theoretical “road map” or paradigm. (It is pronounced aspara-daia-um.)

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

Salient Paradigms

Sociologyhas three major paradigms reflecting different images of society:

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

1. The Structural-FunctionalParadigm:

It is a framework for building theory that seessociety as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity andstability.

Theparadigm 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 livesshape, whether it be in families, the workplace, or the classroom.
  • Social structures can beunderstood in terms of their social functions, or consequences for the operationof society as a whole. All social structures – from simple handshake to complexreligious rituals – function to keep society going. All social structurescontribute to the operation of society.

HerbertSpencer (1820-1903) compared society to the human body. The structural parts ofhuman body – the skeleton, muscles, and various internal organs – showinterdependence, 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.

TalcottParsons (1902-1979) saw society as a system, and sought to identify the basictasks that any and all societies must perform to survive and the way theyaccomplish these tasks.

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

  1. The consequences ofany social pattern are likely to differ for various categories of people. For example conventional family pattern provides for the support anddevelopment of children, but it also confers privileges on men while limitingthe opportunities for women.
  2. People rarelyperceive all the functions of a social structure. He therefore distinguishes between manifest functions the recognized and intended consequencesof 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 somany young people out of the labor market.
  3. Not all the effectsof any social system benefit everyone in society. There could be social dysfunctionsi.e. undesirableconsequences for the operation of society. Noteveryone agrees on what is beneficial and what is harmful. Is women empowermentfunctional?

Critical Evaluation

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

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

Howabout the inequalities in society that generate tension and conflict?

Approachappears to be conservative.

2. The Social-Conflict Paradigm

Thesocial conflict framework sees society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict andchange. Unlike structural-functional paradigm, whichemphasizes solidarity, this approach highlights divisionbased on inequality.

Factorslike gender, ethnicity, social class, and age are linked to the unequaldistribution of money, power, education, and social prestige.

Aconflict analysis suggests that, rather than promoting the operation of societyas a whole, social structure typically benefits some people while depriving theothers

  • There is an on-goingconflict between dominant and disadvantaged categories of people – rich andpoor, white and the colored, men in relation to women.
  • People on top strive toprotect their privileges, while the disadvantaged try to gain more resourcesfor themselves.
  • Schooling perpetuatesinequality by reproducing the class structure in every new generation.
  • Who goes to school, tocollege, to university, to vocational training institution?

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

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

Youngpeople from privileged families gain the best schooling, and, when they leavecollege, they pursue prestigious, higher income careers. That is not the casefor children from poor families. In both cases the social standing of onegeneration is passed on to another, with the schools justifying the practice interms of individual merit.

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

Critical Evaluation

Thisschool of thought has a large following.

Thisparadigm highlights inequality and division in society, but it largely ignoreshow shared values and interdependence can generate unity among members of asociety.

To agreat extent, this paradigm has political goals, therefore it cannot claimobjectivity. Conflict theorists counter that all approaches have politicalconsequences.

3. The Symbolic-Interaction Paradigm

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

Thesymbolic 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 everydayinteractions of individuals. “Society” amounts to theshared reality that people construct as they interact with one another.

  • Human beings are thecreatures who live in the world of symbols, attaching meaning to virtually everything.
  • Symbols attached toreality (material or non-material).
  • Meanings attached to symbols.
  • Symbols are the means ofcommunication. Therefore:
  • Symbols as the basis ofsocial life
  • Without symbols we wouldhave no mechanism of perceiving others in terms of relationships (aunts anduncles, employers and teachers). Only because we have these symbols like auntsand uncles that define for us what such relationships entail. Compare thesesymbols with symbols like boyfriend or girlfriend; you will see that therelationships change quite differently.
  • Without symbols wecannot coordinate our actions with others; we would be unable to plan for a futuredate, time, and place. Without symbols there will be no books, movies, noschools, no hospitals, and no governments. Symbols make social life possible.
  • Even self is symbol, forit consists of the ideas that we have about who we are. May be changing.

As weinteract with others we may constantly adjust our views of the self, based onhow we interpret the reactions of others.

Wedefine our realities. The definitions could vary. The definitions could besubjective. For example who is a homeless? Who is a police officer – a providerof security or creator of anxiety. It has a subjective meaning.

MaxWeber is an exponent of this paradigm. He emphasized the need to understand anysocial setting from the point of view of the people in it. A person is theproduct of his experiences with others

Critical Evaluation

Withoutdenying the usefulness of abstract social structures like the family, andsocial class this paradigm reminds us that society basically amounts to people interacting. Howindividuals experience society.

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