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2.4: Sociological Theory

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    A sociological theory is a set of interrelated concepts used to describe, explain, and predict how society and its parts are related to each other. Let’s use eyeglasses as a metaphor to illustrate the usefulness of a theory. Glasses can serve to magnify, enlarge, clarify, or expand our view of the thing we are looking at. You can even have multiple pairs of glasses to help you see near or far or in sunlight or darkness. Unlike eyeglasses, you can’t see or touch a theory, but it is a framework to help you “see” the world sociologically. And we can use and change our “theory lenses” depending on what we’re trying to clarify, describe, or predict. “Some things need the lens of Conflict Theory, while others need a Structural Functionalist or Symbolic Interactionist lenses. Some social phenomena can be viewed using each of the three frameworks, although each will give you a slightly different view of the topic under investigation.”2

    Conflict Theory

    Conflict theory is a macro-level theory founded by Karl Marx. Marx was a witness to oppression perpetrated by society’s elite members against the masses of poor during the industrial revolution. Conflict Theory describes society as being defined by a struggle for dominance among social groups competing for scarce or valuable resources. Valuable resources in contemporary U.S. society include things like jobs, housing, safety, education, and health care. According to Conflict Theory, social actors are in a state of perpetual conflict competing for these valuable resources. Conflict Theory seeks to explain who might be benefitting and who might be exploited in a given social situation. Conflict Theory assumes that those who “have”, perpetually try to increase their wealth at the expense and suffering of those who “have-not.” It is a power struggle that is most often won by the wealthy elite.

    In the context of gender, some conflict theorists argue that gender is best understood as men (as a large group) attempting to maintain (masculine) power and privilege to the detriment of women (femininity). How might Conflict Theory help us describe or explain sex inequality? The traditional gendered division of labor and the social inequality it produces contributes to unnecessary social conflict and can be seen in wage disparity, the metaphorical “glass ceiling,” and the bread-winner still being traditionally thought of as being male.


    Functionalists focus on questions related to order and stability in society. According to functionalists, society is a system of interrelated, interdependent parts. The Functionalist Theory perspective claims that society is in a state of balance and kept that way through the function of society’s component parts. Society can be studied the same way that the human body can be studied: analyzing what specific systems are working or not working, diagnosing problems, and devising solutions to restore balance. The economy, religious involvement, friendship, schools, health care, peace, war, justice and injustice, population growth or decline, community, sexuality, marriage, and divorce are just a few of the evidences of functional processes in our society. To be clear, the functionalist approach does not condone functions or inequalities; rather the perspective identifies functions of such? For example, crime is considered to be a social problem, right? What are some functions of crime in contemporary society? Well, crime creates jobs. Police officers, detectives, social workers, judges, lawyers, insurance companies, self-defense companies, support groups, prison guards and staff, therapists, and burglar alarm manufacturers have jobs because we have crime. This is not a comprehensive list, of course, but it should serve as an example of the function crime is serving to create or maintain jobs.

    Arguing that all parts (even the undesirable parts) contribute in some way the overall stability of the larger system has become the most controversial part of functionalist theory. Herbert Gans argued this point in a functionalist analysis of poverty. He asked, “Why does poverty exist?” in other words, he was attempting to explain the functions of poverty. He concluded poverty had at least fifteen functions. A few of those functions included:

    1. Occupations (such as social workers or police officers) exist to serve the needs or to monitor the behavior of poor people. Therefore, poverty creates jobs.
    2. Affluent people hire poor people for many time-consuming activities such as house cleaning, child care, and yard work and pay them lower wages to give them more time for more “important” things.
    3. The poor buy goods others do not want, thereby prolonging their economic usefulness.

    Gans concluded that poverty—even though it is perceived as problematic—remains in tact because it contributes to the stability of the overall system.

    Functionalists maintain that for much of human history women’s reproductive role has dictated that their gender role be a domestic one. Given that women bear and nurse children, it makes sense for them to remain at home to rear them. Then, if women are already at home taking care of children, they will assume other domestic duties. Functionalist also argue women’s work is functional. Women reproduce society: by giving birth, socializing kids to accept traditional gender roles, and by providing others with affection and physical sustenance.

    A Structural Functionalist view of gender inequality applies the division of labor to view predefined gender roles as complementary: women take care of the home while men provide for the family. Thus gender, like other social institutions, contributes to the stability of society as a whole. While functionalist theory was the dominant theory used to describe gender roles and gender inequality in the early to mid-1900s, the theory falls short in explaining why or how gender roles and inequality are maintained. With widespread social protest and activism in the 1960s (Civil Rights, campus unrest, women’s movements) functionalism was unable to explain or keep up with the progressive, unfolding events.

    Symbolic Interactionism

    In contrast to Functionalists (who ask how parts of society contribute to the overall stability of the larger system) and conflict theorists (who ask who is benefitting from a particular social arrangement) symbolic interactionists focus on how people make sense of the world, how people interpret what they and others are doing, and how they influence and are influenced by others. A symbol is any kind of physical phenomenon—such as a word, an object, or a feeling—to which people assign a label, a name, a meaning, or a value. According to symbolic interactionists, these symbols play a central role in our ability to interact with one another. Think about it: Have you ever tried communicating with someone who does not speak the same language as you? What do we (almost instinctively) do? That’s right, we almost always begin relying on non-verbal commination such as hand gestures, body language, etc. It becomes an impromptu game of charades! Consider some other non-verbal ways we communicate: A ring is just a ring, but if one wear’s a ring on the left “ring finger” we interpret that person is married. And usually we assume that person is married to someone of the opposite sex. That means that ring that was “just a ring” became a symbol of marital status and sexual orientation based on where it is worn. That’s a lot of information gathered from one little piece of jewelry.

    Symbolic Interactionism claims that society is composed of ever-present interactions among individuals who share symbols and their meanings. Symbolic interactionists argue people must share a symbol system if they are to communicate with one another (verbally or non-verbally). Without mutual understanding, interactions would be confusing. This is a very useful theory for understanding other people, improving communication, and in understanding cross-cultural relations. Symbolic interactionist theories of gender focus on gender roles, gender expectations, and gender values. Symbolic interactionist theories of gender inequality focus on how inequality is perpetuated by the transmission of traditional cultural definitions of masculinity and femininity from generation to generation. Learning these definitions influences people's expectations about the statuses that women and men are capable of occupying and the roles they are capable of performing.

    Feminist Theory

    Feminist theory acknowledges the significance of both nature and nurture in the attainment of gender. However, because gender socialization begins even before birth (choosing names, buying baby clothes, decorating the nursery) drawing a line between the two can be difficult. While gender is socially constructed and learned and produced through social learning, the fact remains that gender is largely assigned to people based on their biological sex category and often justified using biological components like hormones.

    Feminist theory is a theoretical perspective that is couched primarily in Conflict Theory assumptions, but has added the dimension of sex or gender to the study of society. Feminist theorists are interested in the inequalities in opportunities between men and women. To be clear, males are not always the beneficiaries of gender inequality. For example, think for a moment about how females might benefit from current gender roles in the form of gender expression, itself. Women are socially permitted to wear just about anything with very little to no social repercussions. Tube tops, crop tops, spaghetti tops, tank tops, t-shirts (form-fitting or loose), sweaters, sweatshirts, v-necks, scoop necks, turtle necks, booty shorts, low-rise shorts, high-waist shorts, short shorts, Bermuda shorts, mid-length shorts, coolotts, skirts (short, midi, long), gowns, dresses (form-fitting, smock, shift), high-heels, sandals, sneakers, slip- ons, wedges, knee-high boots, booties, whatever we want! And let’s not get started on the possibilities for self-expression through make-up, hair, or nails. Now, think for a moment what males are expected to wear to represent their masculinity in society. Masculinity has become a much more confining, restricting gender representation than femininity. Not to say the feminine ideal is easier to achieve, but there is much more room for self-expression within the structure of femininity than in the structure of masculinity. Unless a couple of gals want to play a game of shirts v. skins, that would still be a masculine form of expression and gender representation.

    Before the feminist perspective and through the mid 1900s, sociology was largely the male study of male society. Most sociological studies had been conducted by men and used male subjects, even though findings were generalized to all people. When women were studied, their behaviors and attitudes were analyzed in terms of a male standard of normalcy.

    Intersectional Theory

    Intersectional approaches arose from feminist scholarship, which recognized that there were important differences among women and men rather than simply between them. One critique intersectional theory offers of others theories is that others typically only explore one variable at a time. Feminist scholars argued that gender, race and class are interconnected as “intersecting oppressions.”3 Race, class and gender, have been the traditional triumvirate of intersectional studies, but we took a broad approach and also included studies that examine the intersections of any social statuses including sexuality, religion, ethnicity, and age. Intersectionality is practiced in a variety of ways by sociologists, but Patricia Hill Collins is largely considered the foremost theorist of intersectionality within sociology.

    Collins’ intersectional work begins with her own experiences as an African American female. Collins argues Black Feminism creates and validates knowledge in ways that are very different form the American educational system, which has been historically dominated by elite White men. Because Black women were long denied access to formal academic pursuits, their collective knowledge is less likely to be found in scholarly texts. Collins encourages us to find this knowledge elsewhere: poetry, music, oral histories, etc. Collins states, and this may be obvious for some readers, that in order to produce Black feminist theory, one would have to be a Black feminist. But she also stresses that does not mean that those of us who are not Black feminists cannot learn from these ideas. While the study of Black feminist thought puts Black women at the center of analysis of study, intersectionality is a broader and more general theoretical approach that can be used to examine any group or community by placing them at the center of study.

    2 Hammond, R. and Cheney, P, et all. Introduction to Sociology. 2012. Social Theories. Page 1.

    This page titled 2.4: Sociological Theory is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Katie Coleman via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.