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Sociology's Four Theoretical Perspectives: Structural-Functional, Social Conflict, Feminism & Symbolic Interactionism

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  • 0:07 The Importance of Theory
  • 1:35 Structural-Functional
  • 3:17 Social Conflict
  • 4:57 Feminism
  • 6:35 Symbolic Interactionism
  • 8:37 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Wind Goodfriend
Theories are an essential part of the framework used to organize specific social phenomena within the social sciences. This lesson introduces the four major theoretical perspectives in sociology, including structural-functional, social conflict, feminism, and symbolic interactionism.

The Importance of Theory

When you were in junior high or high school and you ate lunch, did certain types of people sit at certain tables every day? Why do you think people tend to sort themselves into groups and stay with people they see as similar to themselves? If you have a guess as to why this happens, you could say that you have a theory regarding how social groups function. This lesson focuses on the importance of theory in the social sciences and the four main theoretical perspectives within sociology.

Let's start with a definition. A theory is a statement of how and why processes work or the world operates. Within sociology, theories attempt to explain why groups of people choose to perform certain actions and how societies function or change in a certain way.

It's important for social sciences, like psychology, economics, and sociology, to follow theoretical perspectives as a framework for understanding phenomena, such as the ways people form groups. Without theories, we'd just have a huge list of individual tendencies, or decisions people make, or types of people, but we wouldn't have any way of organizing the field. Theories help us see overall themes across many specific types of behaviors or decisions in the social world.

This lesson will briefly cover the four major theories in sociology, which are structural-functional theory, social conflict theory, feminism, and symbolic interactionism theory.

Structural-Functional Theory

Our first theory is called structural-functional theory. This approach views society as a complex, but interconnected system, where each part works together as a functional whole. A metaphor for the structural-functional approach is the human body. You have arms, legs, a heart, a brain, and so on. Each individual body part has its own neurons and system for working, but each part has to work together for a fully-functioning structure, or system. What are the different structures, or systems, in society? You can probably think of the government, businesses, schools, and families. We need all of these systems to work together for a fully-functioning society.

To make each of our four theories more memorable, let's think about each theory from the perspective of an example. We'll use sports. How would you apply the structural-functional approach or theory to sports? Well, for any given team to be successful, it needs to have a bunch of working parts, each functioning independently and cooperatively. I played soccer in high school, so think about soccer for a second. Of course, you'll have different positions on the team, such as the forwards, the fullbacks for defense, and the goalkeeper. But, you also need the coach, the referees, and someone to pay for the equipment; and it wouldn't be very fun to play without an audience. Each part has its own rules and systems. For example, the audience has to know when to cheer, how to purchase concessions, and where to sit. For the entire system to work, all of the individual parts need to work together. Structural-functional theory studies how each part of the larger social world works together.

Social Conflict Theory

The second major theoretical perspective in sociology is called social conflict theory. This theory views society as a system of groups that are not equal, and therefore consistently generate conflict and change. Think back to that example from the beginning of the lesson with the different groups of students in school.

In my high school, the athletes might have conflicts with the people in band or the people who were in the math club. There was a popular group of kids who were sometimes mean to the less popular kids. When you think about this type of social conflict on a large scale, it explains unfortunate social trends such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and so on, but the theory also predicts change. For example, in the 1960s, the United States saw a huge change in civil rights awarded to African Americans due to the political protests that highlighted the conflict between racial groups. While racism is still a problem in the United States, this social change helped the country make a lot of progress toward equality.

Protests highlighting social conflict led to more civil rights for African Americans.
Social Conflict Theory

Hopefully, it's easy to see how social conflict theory might be seen in our example of sports. Different teams will certainly conflict with each other as they compete for points, runs, or touchdowns. Actually, sports wouldn't make any sense without some form of conflict or competition. Fans of the different teams will display their loyalty using things like hats or jerseys, and they might conflict with each other.

Going back to my favorite sport of soccer, the fans are famous for causing trouble when they're upset. We even have the phrase 'soccer hooligan' or 'football hooligan' because of this tendency! Social conflict theory emphasizes how social conflict motivates people and societies to evolve over time.

Feminism

Theory three out of four is feminism. Feminism is often misunderstood as coming from a group of angry women who are trying to dominate men. That is not what feminism is! Understood correctly, feminism is a perspective that views society as traditionally unequal between men and women and strives for equality between the sexes.

For example, you might have heard the fact that men and women, on average, are not paid equally in the United States. Studies show that even with the same education and job demands, women are only paid $0.77 for the same job where a man would be paid $1.00. Women are less represented in the government, women are less likely to be business owners, and women are less likely to be college professors.

Women earn less than men, even with the same education level and job demands.
Women Paid Less

Of course, there are also examples of places in society where men are disadvantaged. Men are less likely to be given custody of children after a divorce, and men are less likely to be hired for certain jobs, such as elementary school teachers or flight attendants. Feminism, as a theory in sociology, tries to point out these inequalities and find solutions so that every situation is fair to everyone.

Again, think about how sports can be an example of the theory. What inequalities between men and women can you see in the athletic world? There are not very many professional sports available for women, unless you go to the Olympics. Many colleges don't offer equal sports for men and women, even though the U.S. government declared inequalities to be unconstitutional many years ago. Even when there are teams for both sports, such as basketball, the women's team usually doesn't get very much attention or economic support from the college compared to the men's team.

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