Sociological perspective is a means of connecting our individual lives with the world we live in. By retrospectively observing our private problems with relation to the rest of society, we are more apt to turn them into public problems. As individuals become more aware of their own problems and how they are interconnected among the mass majority, they are encouraged to expand their awareness of the problem, while becoming more connected to others who are experiencing the same crisis. In short, the existence of a sociological perspective empowers individuals to take an active part in the way society operates.
The unification of individuals in society creates a strong infrastructure to withstand change and reformation. As more and more people recognize a specific problem, it becomes more and more likely that the problem will be addressed and, hopefully, resolved. Sociological Theory encapsulates the use of scientific approaches to support and explain social behavior in the real world. By using a theoretical approach, sociologists are able to form a basic image of society that guides their thinking and more importantly, their research.
When using a theoretical approach, sociologists face two basic questions: What issues should we study? And how will we go about connecting the facts? Therefore, the theoretical approach they choose will act as their “road map” in guiding their research methods and their line of thought. As outlined in chapter 1 of John Macionis’ book, Society: The Basics, three major theoretical approaches are introduced: the structural-functional approach, the social-conflict approach, and the symbolic-interaction approach.
The Structural-Functional Approach The nature of this theoretical approach takes stake in the social structure and the functions that influence the stability and solidarity of society. This approach views society as a complex system with interacting parts that create a foundation that will thrive and preserve society; much in the same way the structural parts of the human body work together to carry out the functions that are deemed necessary for survival.
This perspective of interrelating parts leads sociologists to find interest in identifying the various structures of society, as well as a reason to investigate its social functions. In the Structural-Functional approach, a macro-sociological analysis is utilized to examine the broad aspects of a society’s structure. In this broad-spectrum analysis approach, sociologists often observe a structure’s social functions as the underlying source of stability and/or order. As defined by Macionis (pg. 13), social functions are “the consequences of a social pattern for the operation of society as a whole”.
Among these functions are manifest functions, the more obvious and recognized consequences of any social pattern, and latent functions, which are unrecognized, unintended consequences of a social pattern. For example, the obvious function of employing “credit” cards is to extend the funds of an individual who does not currently have the needed monetary reserves. Establishing credit would be considered a manifest function of society; maintaining a good credit, however, may appear to be a latent function—an invisible consequence that is not always recognized when an individual decides to open a credit card account.
This example can also be used to exhibit social dysfunction. When an individual uses more credited monetary funds than they are able to pay back on a monthly basis, they begin to spiral downward in their ability to maintain sufficient funds. Interest, which is the price a person pays to borrow money, is often compounded and therefore grows exponentially—tying an individual to a debt that they often cannot pay off.
Although inequalities based on social class, race, ethnicity, and gender are often disregarded in the Structural-Functional Approach; sociologists view these functions as a means for society to operate in an orderly way. They also have the viewpoint that members generally agree on morality issues. Sociologists studying society by this theoretical approach often ask questions such as: How is the society held together? What are the major parts and how do they link together? And, what function does each of these parts contribute to help society work?
The Social-Conflict Approach As sociologists observed the Structural-Functional Approach they saw inequalities in its focus on stability at the expense of conflict. The Social-Conflict Approach views society as an arena of inequality that generates conflict, which often generates the need for change in order to subdue these conflicts. A conflict analysis rejects the idea that a social structure promotes the operation of society as a whole, but instead it focuses on social patterns (or functions) and how they are beneficial to some while hurtful to others.