Essay on Theories of Society

Two of the major theories of society are: the Social Structure Theory and the Social Action Theory. In the following essay I will discuss the key concepts of both theories and then proceed to show the similarities and differences between both theories.

The Social Structure Theory that is the focus of this essay is the Functionalist approach. Two key theorists in this field are Durkheim – who worked on suicide and religion – and Parsons – who worked with the family. Functionalists view the various institutions of society [Family, education, religion, law] as being reciprocal and thus to understand any single part of society the society as a whole must be studied. Durkhiem and Parsons saw society in the form of a biological analogy, in that each parts of society were seen to be working together to the benefit of the other parts. Also each part of society depended on the other parts of society in order to function. For instance, in the Human body there are many vital organs and vessels that facilitate the continuation of the person’s life. The lungs are useless without the heart, arteries, stomach, brain, liver, kidneys, intestines and so on. In this analogy the human body represents society while the key parts of society [that is, the key institutions such as: Education; Family; Political System, Legal System, Economic Bodies, Media, Cultural Bodies and Religious Bodies] are represented by the vital organs of the body. Each institution relies on the other in order for society as a whole to operate.

The Institutions of society provide and satisfy certain needs while also determining our behaviour within the society through socialisation – the process in which we are adapted and changed to suit the restraints and laws of society. For instance, the family is the primary institution for socialisation and gives it’s members the roles and values that are necessary for social life and order. A typical role and value in a western family may be that of the mother, who must clean and cook for the family. The other institutions also play a part in the transmition and upkeep of these norms, values and roles, and in this way are said to shape and mould those in society and directly affect their behaviour.

The society is said to be one of consensus and harmony, where-by people identify common goals, in the form of shared norms and values, and form a “Value Consensus” with other individuals. In this way people “pull together” in order to attain their common goals. This “Value Consensus” is said to be vital as without it people would follow their own individual needs/wants and conflict would result. This positive view of society explains social order – that society determines, and inhibits, behaviour through its main institutions so that social unity is maintained.

Functionalist theorists do accept that conflict occurs in society and attempt to explain it by arguing that conflict is only a temporary occurrence and soon after the social order of society returns. It is also argued by functionalists that although social groups do have noticeable differences conflict is not the result, infact the outcome is, in the main, competition.

The Functionalist theory of society has been open to much criticism in its time. It has been argued that it underplays the degree of conflict within society, that society is infact not as harmonious as functionalists argue. Also anther major criticism is that the theory sees people as puppets, or creatures, of the society, in that people are not free to make individual choices or thoughts. The theory has gone out of fashion since it’s hey-day in the 1950, where it was the most popular theory of society.

At the opposite end of the scale is the Social Action Theory [Symbolic Interactionism] of society. Key theorists in this field are Max Weber and Goffman. This theory is focused on individuals and small groups within society. To understand action [behaviour] you must discover the meanings, which the “actors” [Individuals within the society] give to their actions.

The behaviour of individuals, according to Interactionists, is not shaped by the institutions of society, but is influenced by the behaviour of others. When going to a party a person, upon arrival, will asses the situation. They will look at the behaviour of others, their age, the number of people, the amount of alcohol and act according to how they see the situation. At first the person may interpret the situation as hostile, and thus may become withdrawn and quiet. This interpretation can be changed during the course of the party and the person may change his behaviour accordingly. As a result an individual’s perception of reality directly affects behaviour.

If a teacher assesses a pupil as a “trouble maker” then the teacher’s behaviour towards the child will differ from the pupils he/she sees as “good”. Also the pupil may adopt this “trouble maker” label and act it out as a result of the teacher’s stance. This is an example of “self fulfilling prophecy”: people are liable to act the way that people see them.

As has been touched upon, roles, interactionists reason, are open to negotiation and are not rigid pre-set moulds for a person to enter. When a couple marry both will have ideas on the roles within such a relationship. The roles of “wife” and “husband” are apparent but not fully defined. The couple negotiate the roles through their interaction. The roles are not “set in stone” but are flexible and open to re-definition.

One of the concepts of symbolic interactionism is that people interact in terms of symbols. Symbols can be many things but the most important is our language. Through language we develop self-conscious thought, talking about “I” and “me”. It enables individuals to “look at” themselves from the outside to see how other see them, giving people their “self-concept”. The basis of “self-concept” is that individuals see themselves how those around him/her see him/her, this “self-concept” effects how the individual behaves. For instance people may see a person as ugly and thus this may result in the individual forming the opinion that they are ugly and make them more reticent to approach people of the other sex. When talking to someone we look for symbols to enable us to find out what the other person may be thinking. The words they use and the way they move their body are symbols for us to interpret. For instance, if someone has prepared a meal for a friend, the friend may say “That was a lovely meal” upon finishing the meal. Although the words themselves were complementing the tone of the person and facial expressions are symbols, which might indicate a different opinion of the friend.

Interactionists are concerned not only with the definitions of situation and self, but also with how exactly those definitions came to be. Many factors affect the definition of someone: the way they dress, use the language, use their body, the area that a person is from, the car they drive, the way they style their hair. These all play a part in the definition of a person, but these definitions are open to change. An initial definition of a police officer may be that he is a power hungry fool, but during interaction with the police officer the definition may change.

The action theory has gained credibility and is a major competitor, along with the Structural theory, for the title of most popular theory. It’s a theory that states that free will is something which individuals all have, people are not the creatures of society, but it’s creators.

One of the major similarities between both the structural theory and the action theory is that both attempt to explain the behaviour of people within society. Both are interested in explaining and interpreting human behaviour and also it’s consequences.

Both theories recognise that people within society adopt roles. For instance within the family there are the roles of mother, father, son, daughter, wife, husband and child. These roles are accepted by both theories but both differ in their interpretation. The structural theory states that roles are rigid moulds that shape behaviour. The action approach sees roles as a more fluid, flexible and open to re-determination.

The most apparent difference between the two theories is that the structural view emphasises wider society as a structure with the institutions linked together and how these institutions shape and mould behaviour. The action theory focuses on individuals and small groups and their interaction. Structural theories are described as “macro sociology” as they focus on large scale social structures and the institutions of society. Social action theories are known as “micro sociology” as they focus on the individual, the core relationships within society.

Furthermore there is a difference in the methods of research that both theories apply. Structural theories use quantitative methods of research. Quantitative methods produce results that are lacking in fine detail but can be generalised to a particular group. Action theories use highly qualitative methods, which produce data that is very detailed and precise but cannot be generalised to a wider population as data is specific to an individual.
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