Where sociology gets interesting is in the understanding that there are numerous perspectives, all of which see the world in a different way. In this short article I’ll provide a brief overview of some of three of the main sociological paradigms and discuss there characteristics.
Functionalists see society as a being, like a living person. Just as all the organs of the body work together in harmony, so do all the different parts of society. Each part of society depends on other parts in order to function along the basis of social needs and social purposes. For example, work needs people who are socialised into the norms and values of society and the family exists for the purpose of socialisation. If one part of society stops functioning it causes problems for the rest of society.
In summary, from a functionalist perspective everything in society has a purpose or function adding to a general social consensus based around shared values.
Conflict theory sees society as made-up of social classes who have differing experiences and interest. These classes are defined by the type of work they do. There is an upper or ruling class consisting of people who own the means of production such as factories, companies and so on. Then there is the middle class consisting of professional workers such as lawyers, doctors and accountants. They do not own the businesses they work for but have gained their status through educational attainment. Finally there is the working, or lower class consisting of people who do not own business and have few, if any educational qualification. This group mainly consists of manual workers.
From this perspective people are seen to be encouraged into competing with each other through the socialisation process in order to either attain what they want or keep hold of what they have. However, conflict theories don’t only cover social class, they also encompass the gender divide and issues of ethnicity.
Although there are shared values in conflict theories, it is argued that this is because the powerful ruling class are able to impose their values on those below through agencies such as the mass media, education and religion etc. Like functionalists, conflict theorists argue that society is a force which pressurises individuals into activities such as work in order to exploit them.
Unlike functionalists and conflict theorists, interactionists focus on the individual rather than society as a starting point. They look at how individuals create the social world through their behaviour rather than how society creates the individual.
From this perspective society isn’t a living thing but a fiction we create to try and make our lives orderly and predictable. Society therefore, cannot force us to do anything as it is only real as long as we perceive it to be real. This pretence is aided by the fact that we lock ourselves into various social relationships which ground us in our reality through roles, rules and routines.
Social life from and interactionist perspective is much less predictable and focuses on individual lives and relationship. The focus is on the way people live their daily lives as individuals as part of larger social groups. This focus on small scale social interaction can be seen by comparing education with each of the perspectives.
Functionalist sociologists are interested in the function of education as a sub-system of society. It would primarily ask the question “How does education benefit society as a whole?”
Conflict sociologists on the other hand would study the education system as a whole but would ask “How is the education system biased towards the interests of the ruling class?” and “How does the ruling class use education to socialise people into accepting their position in life?”
Interactionists on the other hand would be much more interested in what goes on in the classroom at an individual level; the forms of interaction between teacher and pupil, teacher and teach, pupil and pupil. They would ask questions along the lines of “How do people cope with and make sense of life in the classroom?” and “How do teachers and pupils recognise and cope with deviant behaviour?”
In summary, it is important to note that the values and beliefs a sociologist brings into their own studies will affect their perspective, which in turn effects how they see the world. Furthermore, there are dozens of different sociological perspectives, some that have fallen out of use and others that are comparatively new.