Theory of Sociology
Sociology is the study of human relationships and social institutions. This means that sociology tends to look at both individual behavior (micro) and society as a whole (macro). Sociologists study social occurrences, interactions, and patterns; then develop theories to explain why these happen and predict possible outcomes from them. Sociology has a variety of perspectives that simultaneously try to offer reasonings for phenomena. There are three major theories that are the most important to sociologists: symbolic interaction, structural functionalism, and critical sociology (conflict).
Symbolic interactionist theory is an example of micro sociology - a level of analysis which focuses on the dynamics of individual’s interactions in small groups. Its emphasis is on the idea that human behavior and social interaction are driven by communication through language and symbolic meaning. This perspective was founded on the work of the American philosopher George Herbert Mead during the 1920s. In his book Mind, Self and Society, the notion of “self” is established and developed through interactions with other people; it is not something that is present at birth. Herbert Blumer further expanded on Mead’s idea, identifying its three foundational truths:
1) Human actions towards things are based on what meaning they attribute to those things.
2) The meaning of those things comes from social interaction (words, rituals, gestures etc.) that an individual has with other people and society.
3) And finally, the meaning is received and even changed through a subjective interpretation in dealing with the things the individual has experienced.
The ultimate goal of symbiotic interactionist theory is to attain understanding and agreement among societal persons through meaning-oriented action. One criticism of this theory is that the individualistic natural perspective ignores the “big picture” and the impact of larger social forces.
Structural functionalism theory falls under positivism - a paradigm that emphasizes observation through the five senses, objectivity, and universal laws about the social world. According to this perspective, each part of society is dependent on one another and plays a part in functioning holistically. If any aspect of the society fails, they must develop a new order to foster stability and functionality. Émile Durkheim believed that it was important for sociologists to look beyond individual factors and focus on social facts instead. The cohesion of society was based on two forms: mechanical solidarity and organic solidarity. Mechanical solidarity is common in simple societies that share the same values and belief systems. Organic solidarity does not necessarily arise from similar values or beliefs but from a society with interdependent parts. Critics of structural functionalism often state that this perspective encourages passivity and discourages individual action since society naturally corrects any problems that inhibit stability.
Critical sociology theory or conflict theory is another example of macro sociology. This perspective rose out of radicalism and social movements. In direct contrast to structural functionalism which focused on how parts of society contributed to a society’s overall functionality, critical sociology stresses the conflicted and competitive nature of society. This idea came out of the writings of Karl More who wrote on class struggle. Social order is seen as something that is imposed on the poor and weak by the rich elite. Critical sociology encourages action in order to be liberated from oppressive power dynamics. Some specific subjects that lie under critical theory are feminism, sexual identity studies, and environmentalism. Critics often point to the negative aspect to this perspective, as democracy and humanitarian action is seen as a way to placate members of society and preserve an inherently immoral and oppressive societal order.
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