The main aim of sociology is to seek an understanding or explanation as to how society functions or operates. There are numerous sociological theories, some dating back as early as the 19th century, these include Structural and Marxist Functionalism and Social Action theories. Throughout the years these perspectives have gradually been modernised due to the changes that have occurred in society.
In this assignment I shall be looking at the key theories of the more notable exponents of the different sociological perspectives from pre-industrialisation times to the modern age and their interpretation of how society works. The term ‘sociology’ was coined by the French philosopher Auguste Comte in his Course of Positive Philosophy; the Course had 58 lessons in 6 volumes and two main goals, a foundation for sociology, which at that time was known as social physics and the second was the “coordination of the whole of positive knowledge”. (stanford. du 2010) Comte theorised that the average human went through three stages during their life: the theological, the metaphysical, and the positive, this is where the ‘positivism’ sociological theory started. By the end of the First World War there was a shift away from Comte’s thinking as new theories began to spring up but his work has been a major influence on sociologists and sociology as a whole. The three perspectives mentioned above share some similar objectives, they all sought to explain how society functions and changes, also how the use of social science methods are favoured amongst the sociologist.
Their theories are generally split into two groups: social systems and social action theories, their ideas tend to overlap and critique one another. The social system or structuralism approach places a greater emphasis on the theory that human behaviour is determined and structured by social forces and that individuals are an end product of society. Muslim philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun argues that “man is a child of the customs and the things he has become used to”. (Callinicos 1999 p. 11).
There are two approaches which make up the structural theory; these are Functionalist and Marxist and they are both interested in the institutions that combine to make up the fabric of society. (O’Donelle 1997) The two theories look at the overall picture of society and are referred to as being macro. Although these two theories are structural, the manner in which they view society and its institutions differ, one sees consensus as the primary characteristic of society whilst the other views it as conflict. Taylor 1998) The functionalist theory can be traced to a movement in the late nineteenth-century beneath the influences of Darwinism on the biological and social sciences. It is an effort to comprehend the humanity and it tests the reason and consequence of sociological activities. Two of the more well-known functionalists are Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Functionalism, or structural consensus, was developed in the 19th century by French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).
The 19th century was regarded as a period of enlightenment where superstitious explanations for human behaviour and the development of society were slowly being replaced by new scientific knowledge. Functionalists see society as a social system based on consensus, a set of parts which work together harmoniously to form a whole. These parts consist of social institutions such as the family and the education system and they work cooperatively to maintain social order and social solidarity. Taylor 1998) For example, Durkheim believed that the main purpose of the family was to socialise new members of society by teaching them the appropriate norms and values that are suitable for society, the education system continues the process of socialisation begun in the family home. Durkheim referred to the education system as a miniature society preparing individuals for adult life. Durkheim touched on many aspects of Comte’s work; he believed like Comte that sociology should be viewed as a type of science and that sociologists should approach their work with an open mind.
Also he believed that society should be studied from a scientific objective. He argued that sociology should be based on the methodology of natural science and claimed that this would result in positive science of society. (Giddens 1997) Talcott Parsons was an American sociologist whose main contribution was to add to the view of society the notion that functional relationships within and between institutions contributed to harmony in the system thus society involves at least a level of integration between the parts.
Parsons stated that the central value of the system of a society provides the basic glue that shapes and holds the society together and therefore provides the base for integration. He continued in saying that members of society share the same goals, thus persons may have different roles and perform different functions, but once they all agree on the values that underpin the goal to be attained, they are likely to have equal commitment to attain the common goal. Baert, Carreira da Silva 2010) According to Parsons, society is based on a value consensus, which is a set of agreed goals, values and roles that standardise and determine behaviour. This value consensus is established and maintained within the institutions of society. Society is therefore a system and has to meet certain needs to survive. Just as the parts of a biological organism function to meet its’ needs so the parts of the social system function to meet the needs of society. The social needs are adaption, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance, Parsons calls these social prerequisites. Baert, Carreira da Silva 2010) Social equilibrium is the result of social institutions working effectively to meet these needs and produce social stability. Social institutions can also be studied in terms of the functions they perform for society. However Parsons is criticised as this represents bias, in that he assumes that if an institution exists, it serves a positive role. As the role of one institution changes, the role of another amplifies in order to maintain equilibrium, i. e. as the role of religion has declined, the role of education has increased to compensate.
Marxism was named after its founder Karl Marx who was a German born philosopher and sociologist (1813-1883). This theory has some similarities to functionalism as they both regard society as a system and human behaviour as a response to that system. However, Marx believed that conflict rather than consensus is the primary characteristic. The Marxist theory is about transformation. Marx saw that in such rich countries there are still many poor people, he sought to change the way things were.
He wanted a just social order and therefore saw that once society understands their situation between classes they will want to change the way things are. He viewed class conflict between the rich and the poor as the drive for historical change and development. (Callinicos 1999) He illustrated this by comparing the inequality in all historical societies, he stated that in the feudal society lords exploited their surfs and now in capitalist society employers exploit their employees. Marx believed that revolutionary change was the only solution to solve the contradictions within society. Haralambos, Holborn 2004) Social action theorists on the other hand stress that individuals control their own choices. This perspective places a greater emphasis on that individuals or groups shape society through their own beliefs and ideas and looks at society from a micro perspective as it’s concerned with individuals and how they interpret their surroundings. The leading social action theorist Max Weber (1864-1920) was intrigued by the development of modern societies and its impact on the social world. Giddens 1997) He began developing and creating theories and ideas and in doing so sought to explain not only how society functioned and changed but that which would explain the nature and functioning of society itself. Weber believed that individuals in society are characterised by agency; this means that they have the freedom to create, change and influence events. (Bilton 1996). Social action theory differs from Functionalism and Marxism mainly because it focuses on small scale interactions rather than society as a whole.
Weber developed this concept in order to understand why individuals or groups function in a certain way. Social action perspectives focus on how people interact with one another in small group settings such the classroom and hospitals. (Taylor 1998). From a social action perspective roles are not prescribed by the social systems, in fact social action theorists believe that they develop from negotiated meanings during the process on interaction. This is a creative process with individuals projecting and learning from their own actions.
Weber referred to this as orientations to values. Weber also believed in sociology of religion, he theorised that religion has an enormous place in the way society acts. (Bilton 1996). He linked this to the protestant work ethic; the belief that if you did good, worked hard and saved your money it would result in personal salvation, he saw this ethic was dominant in the principles of Calvinism. Weber goes on to say that now in modern society those religious values have been dissipated and absorbed by what he called the “spirit of capitalism”.
He attributes the economic development of capitalism to the protestant reformation. This change in social styles is partly responsible for the new economic system. The message being put across is that an individual’s actions can have large social change on society. The empirical approach of social science is a method adopted mainly by Functionalists and Marxists; they support the view that sociology should be studied as a type of science. Positivists use scientific methodology when onducting their research; this means that their procedures resemble methods of collecting data that are usually seen in the practises of natural science. (Frankfort-Nachmias, Leon-Guerrero 2009) Some examples of these methods are questionnaires and statistics, using methods like these will produce a reliable knowledge of body and could be used to improve the human condition, whereas qualitative research methods are implemented in a completely different way, examples of qualitative methods include participant observations and cause studies.
This specific method tries to interpret meaning that people give to particular actions; this is done by engaging with those who involved and trying to understand their position. (Frankfort-Nachmias, Leon-Guerrero 2009) This method provides a clear first hand picture of groups in society as it focus on small scale research and this type of approach is more commonly associated with Max Weber. In conclusion we can understand that sociology is a scientific discipline used to study human social life, groups and societies, it helps us understand our lives more clearly and about the influences that shape our lives and the world.
Although the perspectives and methodology developed and adopted by the founding fathers differ, they each offer a vulnerable and valid insight on human behaviour and society which is helpful in improving human conditions and society. The use of social science methods are profoundly effective in sociology, the techniques used in qualitative methods usually involve studying large numbers, in contrast with quantitative research which tends to focus on smaller scale research.
The availability of such wide methods enables sociologists to make sense of issues or problems more accurately therefore appropriate policies or legislation can be designed to eradicate the issues.
References: Baert, P. , Carreira da Silva, F. (2010) Social Theory in the Twentieth Century and Beyond Polity Press, Cambridge Bilton, T. (1996) Introduction to Sociology Macmillan Press Ltd. , Basingstoke Callinicos, A. (1999) Social Theory: An Historical Introduction Polity Press, Cambridge Frankfort-Nachmias, C. , Leon-Guerrero, A. 2009) Social Statistics for a Diverse Society 5th Ed. , Pine Forge Press, California Giddens, A. (1997) Sociology 3rd Ed. Blackwell Publishers Ltd. , Oxford Haralambos, M. , Holborn, M. (2004) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 6th Ed. HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. , London O’Donnell, M. (1999) Introduction to Sociology 4th Ed. Thomas Nelson and Sons, London Taylor, P. (1998) Introduction to Sociology Causeway Press Ltd. , Bath Stanford. edu, [online], available: http://plato. stanford. edu/entries/comte/ (26/11/2010)