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01.02 Sociological Perspectives

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  1. What is a theoretical perspective?
    1. Theoretical perspectives are frameworks for building scientific theories. They involve basic assumptions and ideas about how the world works. Theoretical perspectives guide thinking and understanding of our social world.
  2. 3 major theoretical perspectives in sociology
    1. Structural-functional perspective
      1. This perspective views the world as a complex system of interconnected parts. These parts work together to make society fun in an efficient, harmonious fashion. Just as we view the human body as composed of different parts that each perform a different function, this perspective views society in the same manner. As an example, a structural-functional perspective view of our education system would highlight the functions that our education system provides to society. Our education system does many things including passing on knowledge and socializing younger generations. In order for society to run properly, the education system must provide these functions.
    2. Conflict perspective
      1. This perspective views inequality and conflict as the central dynamic of society. Researchers who use this perspective often focus on inequalities on the basis of social characteristics such as race, gender, age, and class. As an example, a conflict perspective view of our education system would highlight the inequalities that exist from one school district to the next. The inequalities in school resources foster a system in which social inequalities are maintained from one generation to the next. These inequalities generate conflict to the extent that people are aware of them.
    3. Symbolic-Interactionist perspective
      1. Unlike the previous 2 perspectives, this perspective is primarily used to examine the smallest parts of our society such as one-to-one interactions. This perspective draws attention to symbols, their meanings, and how these meanings are created during interaction. Notice for example that all of the words that you are currently reading are symbols. In other words, they stand for something else. If you couldn’t read English, these black markings would have no meaning for you. However they do mean something to you because you have learned their symbolic meanings through interactions with others. From this perspective, our entire society is built upon symbols and their meanings.
  3. Conclusions
    1. There are 3 major theoretical perspectives in sociology
    2. These perspectives are used by sociologists to guide their research and build scientific theories

Reference Links

Video Transcript

Today we’re going to be talking about theoretical perspectives in sociology. To begin, we will talk about what exactly a theoretical perspective is and distinguish this from scientific theory. Next we will tackle each of the 3 major theoretical perspectives in sociology; the structural-functional perspective, conflict perspective, and the symbolic interaction perspective. I will save talking about the particulars until we reach those sections. We will conclude with the major points and takeaways from today’s lesson. So, the goal in any scientific discipline is to develop theories that explain how the world works and are supported by evidence. Theoretical perspectives are not scientific theories, rather they are frameworks for building scientific theories. The way I like to think of theoretical perspectives is as eye-glasses that make you see the world a little bit differently. Just as if you put on a pair of glasses with red lenses you will see the world in a red shade, theoretical perspective can be thought of as lenses through which sociologists see the world with a different shade. Theoretical perspectives involve basic ideas and assumptions about how the world works that guide the thinking and research of sociologists. Each of the 3 major theoretical perspectives will draw a sociologists attention to a different aspect of reality.  

The structural-functional perspective views society as a complex system of interconnected parts that work together to promote consensus and harmony. Each part of the system performs its own function and works with other parts of the system to make everything operate smoothly. To understand this better, the human body is good example. Our bodies are made up of many different parts that do many different things. The heart, the lungs, our bones, our brain, all have their own individual functions and roles to play, but importantly, they all have to work together for our bodies to function properly. Sociologists that use this perspective view society just as we view the human body. Instead of looking at the function of the heart, sociologists might look at the function of our education system. A structural-functional view of our education system would say that the function of education is to pass on knowledge to younger generations, prepare students for the challenges of the modern world, and also to teach young people proper ways to behave. If the education system doesn’t perform these functions properly then society as a whole isn’t going to function properly, just as if your heart fails your body isn’t going to function properly. In brief, sociologists that use this approach see different parts of society as performing their own functions and working together with other parts to make society fun smoothly.


In contrast to the structural-functional perspective that focuses on harmony and consensus, the conflict perspective views inequalities and conflict as the central dynamic of society. This view of society draws focus to inequalities on the basis of social categories such as race, gender, age, and class and then examines how these inequalities shape society. Using education as an example, remember that the structural-functional approach views the education system as one component of a much larger system that provides certain functions for society. In contrast, the conflict perspective views the education system as an institution that creates and reproduces social inequalities that generate conflict. As an example, this perspective might draw a researcher’s attention to the differences that exist between school districts in rich communities vs poor communities. Schools in rich districts have more resources and thus provide a better educational experience than schools located in poor areas. In this fashion, students that are born into privilege get better schooling, are more likely to go to college, and thus more likely to have a successful career. On the other side, students born into poverty are less likely to get quality schooling, less likely to go to college, and thus less likely to have a successful career. All told, the conflict perspective draws our attention to the fact that the education system passes on inequalities from one generation to the next. In other words, it largely benefits the privileged few over everyone else. So remember, use of the conflict perspective points our attention to inequalities that exist in society and the conflict that they generate.


While both the structural-functional and conflict perspectives are macro-level perspectives, meaning they tend to focus on the largest parts of society, the symbolic interaction perspective takes a much smaller, micro-level view of society. The primary focus of this perspective is on the meaning of symbols and how the meanings of these symbols are generated and maintained during interaction. All of the letters that you currently see on the slide in front of you are symbols and so are all of the words coming out of my mouth. That is, they stand for something else. Because you can read English, all of these black markings carry meaning for you. However if you cannot read English, then these black markings mean nothing to you. 

From the perspective of symbolic interaction, our entire society is nothing more than our world of symbols. And in fact, there is no true reality as our reality is a process that is constantly being developed as we interact with others. As an example let’s examine the events of 9/11 as we call it in the United States. On September 11th, 2001, the terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four passenger planes, 2 of which were crashed into the world trade center resulting in thousands of deaths among many other important consequences. For those of us who are American, the reality of this event is defined as tragic and horrific. As such the first responders who arrived on the scene of the crash are honored as brave heroes. Each time that we revisit this event, whether it be in casual conversation, or a moment of silence on the anniversary, we reinforce the meaning of that event to us as one of tragedy and heroism on the part of the first-responders. But importantly, for members of al-Qaeda the reality of this event is likely defined very differently. Where we see tragedy, they likely see triumph, and where we see heroism on the part of the first responders they likely see heroism in the actions of the hijackers. And each time they talk about the events they discuss it in a very different manner, attach different symbols to that event, and thus define the reality of that event very different than we do.

All in all, the critical part to remember is that symbolic interactionists focus on symbols, what they mean and how those meanings are generated. From this perspective society itself is entirely built upon the symbols that are generated and maintained in small, face-to-face interactions.


Ok, let’s look at an example through the eyes of each of the 3 perspectives. Let’s say we are interested in understanding family life and one day we go to observe a family in action. When we arrive we see that the husband is mowing the lawn and the wife is cooking in the kitchen. If we view these behaviors through the lens of structural functionalism we might see an efficient division of labor. The husband does his part, the wife does hers, and all told these different roles combine to allow the entire system (which is the household in our example) to run smoothly.Alright, let’s put on our conflict-tinted lenses. Looking at this situation through the lens of the conflict perspective we might see this division of labor between a husband and wife as a representation of the inequalities between men and women. The women in the kitchen specifically might evoke thoughts of stereotypical gender roles in which women are largely constricted to household labor. As such, a conflict theorist would see the inequalities and conflict that are present in the situation. Lastly, let’s put on our symbolic interaction lenses. Symbolic interactionists are going to look for important symbols in the situation and focus on how these symbols shape interaction. A symbolic interactionist might explain the behaviors we are seeing by saying that the husband and wife are simply playing out the meanings that they attach to the symbols of ”husband” and “wife”. For example, many in our society define “wife” as someone who takes care of the home and does domestic work. Thus, the woman is simply playing out the meaning of that symbol which defines who she is.


Alright, to conclude, there are 3 major theoretical perspectives in sociology. These perspectives are tools that sociologists use to guide their research and build scientific theories.