Key word definitions for the five major sociological perspectives: functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Social Action Theory, and Postmodernism. These perspectives have had a huge impact on sociology and continue to do so today.
The functionalist viewpoint, the conflict perspective, and the symbolic interactionist perspective are the three basic theoretical approaches in sociology (sometimes called the interactionist perspective, or simply the micro view). Functionalists believe that people act according to their functions in society. Conflict theorists argue that social action is driven by conflicts between groups or individuals. Symbolic interactionists maintain that people define themselves through their interactions with others.
Functionalism was the most popular approach in the United States until the mid-20th century. It can be seen in the work of such scholars as Charles Cooley, Lewis Henry Morgan, and John Stuart Mill. Functionalists believed that people have certain roles to fill in society and will do anything they can to fulfill these roles successfully. Because people want to be accepted by others and feel proud of what role they play, they will often go to great lengths to accomplish this. For example, a person might join a military service organization so that others will accept him as a soldier. Conflict theorists later replaced functionalism as the default approach in American sociology because many social problems could not be explained using the functionalist framework. Conflict theorists include George Herbert Mead, Morris Thomas Riesman, and Erving Goffman.
Symbolic interactionism became popular after the mid-20th century because it can better explain how societies function.
Sociological thought on social problems is guided by three theoretical perspectives: functionalist theory, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionist theory. These viewpoints examine the same socioeconomic issues, but in different ways. Functionalists believe that society has inherent structures that cause certain functions to be performed. Problems arise when these structures are altered in such a way that they no longer serve their original purpose. Conflict theorists argue that society is full of continuous tensions between opposing forces which produce changes as one force prevails over another. Finally, symbolic interactionists assert that people create meanings for events in their lives and these meanings affect how they respond to situations.
Functionalism was the first major school of thought on social problems. The idea was proposed by Émile Durkheim in an 1897 book called The Rules of Sociology. He argued that societies have rules which protect them from chaos and instability. When these rules are violated, something has gone wrong with the functioning of the society and we need to know what these rules are so we can fix the problem.
Criticism of any form is a social technique. Marxist critique, Feminist criticism, Formalist strategy, and Deconstructionist strategy are examples of critical approaches, views, ideas, or tactics. Criticism can be used to expose flaws in other people's thinking or behavior. It can also be used to encourage others to think more critically themselves.
Sociologists use three main types of criticism to understand society: formal analysis, which involves using mathematics to study social phenomena; empirical analysis, which means testing theories against data; and theoretical criticism, which aims to improve existing theories.
Formal analysis uses mathematical models to explain social facts. The most common tool in this approach is statistical modeling. Karl Pearson developed statistical methods that are still used by social scientists today. He showed how to test hypotheses about population parameters like mean and variance from samples of observations, and he proposed criteria for evaluating theories based on their ability to make statistical predictions.
Empirical analysis starts with a theory and looks for evidence that can be used to test it or refute it. The goal is to produce results that will help us choose between competing theories or explanations of some social phenomenon. Empirical analysis is different from descriptive statistics, which is the first step in many studies but does not necessarily lead to new knowledge.