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Sociological Perspectives And Their Application To Belief Systems In Contemporary Society

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Social science is the study of societies and relationships of individuals that make up those societies (Investopedia, 2020). Social sciences investigate questions around why people act the way they do, how social, cultural and economic aspects shape our lives and our world. The different branches of social science include anthropology, economics, education, geography, law, psychology and sociology (Investopedia, 2020). In this essay I will define sociology and how it differs from common sense and psychology. I will then detail Functionalism and Marxism, two sociological perspectives and look at their approaches to religion in modern society.

Sociology is defined as “the study of human social relationships and institutions” (UNC, 2020). It covers a range of subjects, from individual roles to the society as a whole. The purpose of sociology is to understand how human behaviours are formed by and themselves form culture and society. Sociology is a social science that uses a variety of investigative research methods to develop a growing body of knowledge about human behaviour (Ashley and Orenstein, 2005).

Sociology aims to explain matters in our individual lives, our communities and the world as whole (UNC, 2020). Sociological researchers use qualitative and quantitative research methods to assess the social causes and impacts of personal life events such as romantic love and its development and breakdown, gender identity, racial identity and racism, sexual orientation, family dynamics and conflicts, aging and faith (UNC, 2020). Societal level sociology deals with matters such as poverty and wealth, crime, education, prejudice and social movements while global sociology investigates the causes and impacts of war, famine, population growth and economic development (UNC, 2020). Sociology is a stringent science that can require extensive research and studies on the variety of topics described above.

Common sense and sociology are linked as sociology may seem like a study of the ‘obvious’ and some claim it is just the application of common sense (HMH, 2020). Common sense is centred around the assumptions that individuals make based on their societal positions. These theories vary from person to person but can be rooted in a common ground for individuals from the same family and/or societal background, hence the name ‘common sense’ (LeMoyne and Davis, 2011). Although the relationship between common sense and sociology is close, there is still a gap between them. In sociology, researchers evaluate fact and fiction by conducting elaborate research to build on an extensive evidence base. However, in common sense, people may have conflicting opinions based on their background and so there is no generation of theories that can be applicable across large groups. Although common sense may be used in certain cases, it is not a systematic study based on research protocols which differs it from sociology (LeMoyne and Davis, 2011). In using common sense, the individual makes assumptions based on their outlook on the world. It is centred around a person’s own experiences and differs from one person to another based on their society and role in it. There is no evidence-base for common sense as assumptions are not grounded in scientific research. Sociology is not based on assumptions, rather on sociological theories that are grounded in significant and in-depth research (LeMoyne and Davis, 2011).

Psychology aims to understand a wide variety of human behaviour, but its approach is centred around the behaviour of individuals (Goodman, 2019). Sociology meanwhile centres around group behaviour and how membership in societal groups due to factors such as race, class or gender influence individual behaviour (LeMoyne and Davis, 2011). Psychology has two main branches; applied psychology which is focused on therapeutic means of helping individuals to understand and manage their mental health; and academic psychology. Academic psychology aims to understand human experiences such as learning, thinking, the development of personality and how it works and other factors. Academic psychology can be similar to sociology as researchers investigate questions that are similar to those that concern sociologists. However, the emphasis is always placed on individual behaviour whereas sociologists focus on the societal impacts. Academic psychology can also be based in biology, with research focusing on the physiology and workings of the brain (Goodman, 2019). Psychology and sociology work together to form the subdiscipline of social psychology, which focuses on how human personality and behaviour is influenced by their social environment.

Functionalism is a sociological perspective that is based on the theory that all aspects of society – the institutions, societal roles of individuals and norms that are in place – serve a required purpose and are necessary for the development and survival of the society in the long term (HLS, 2020). It was developed in the 19th century by sociologists who looked at societies as living organisms with components that serve to aid their development. Functionalism assumes that every social system has a ‘functional unity’ which requires all parts of the system to work together with consistency. It also claims that all cultural or social factors have a function that is positive for the development of the society and are required for the society to function effectively (HLS, 2020).

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Functionalism states that societal norms are needed for society to function as needed. Norms are the normal, typical or expected patterns of behaviour associated with societies or specific contexts or social roles. Functionalists believe that shared values and beliefs are necessary to achieve social order which is crucial for the development and well-being of society. Values are the major and lasting ideas within society about what is desirable and undesirable. Important sources of values include an individual’s religious background, their political leanings and family background. The functionalist’s idea is that institutions generally benefit society and most people within a society. For example, the nuclear family provides a stable and secure environment in which to raise children, and school prepares individuals for work and is necessary for an advanced economy to work effectively.

Marxism is a social, political, and economic theory created by Karl Marx, which focuses on the struggle between capitalists and the working class (Investopedia, 2020). Marx stated that due to the power dynamics between capitalists and the working class, class conflict was inevitable. Marxism believes that the exploitative nature of the relationship will lead to capitalist society being overthrown by the working class and implement communism instead of capitalism. Marxism is both a social and political theory, which contains Marxist Class Conflict Theory and Marxian Economics. Marxist Class Conflict Theory states that capitalism is one step in the progression of economic systems that historically follow in a sequence (Investopedia, 2020). According to Marx, all societies are divided into social classes which are grouped together due to their similarities. In capitalist society, there are two major classes; the bourgeoisie – capitalists who are business owners and who control the means of production, and the proletariat – workers whose labour creates the valuable economic goods.

Marx argued that the bourgeoisie use their control of social institutions to gain control over the way people think in society. Marx argued that the ideas of the ruling class were presented in society as common sense and natural and, as a result, unequal, exploitative relationships were accepted by the proletariat as the norm. Marx felt that capitalism creates an unfair imbalance between capitalists and the laborers whose work they exploit for their own gain. In turn, this exploitation leads the workers to view their employment as nothing more than a means of survival. While laborers are focused on basic survival, capitalist business owners are concerned with acquiring more and more money. According to Marx, this creates social problems that would eventually lead to a social and economic revolution.

Functionalism is the only sociological perspective which has traditionally argued that religion is a source of value consensus, along with all other social factors. The remaining perspectives, including Marxism disagree that religion adds value, but not all believe that religion is necessarily a cause of overt conflict in the world. Durkheim states that in traditional societies, people were worshipping society through their worship of religion as religious symbols such as the totem represented their society (Durkheim, 2011). Parsons and Malinowski, both functionalists, argue that religious rituals help people deal with crises such as death and that religion is a force that keeps societies together during times of change. Parsons also believed that religion helps to form the moral basis of law and order in society; for example, the 10 commandments in Christian societies. Bellah also states that religions help to bind individuals together in contemporary society.

The functionalist perspective on religion may be criticised as it poses religion simply as a value for society and does not focus on the ways religion can promote conflict within society. These may be within religions such as The Troubles in Northern Ireland or between religions. Religious belief can also be a source of persecution, for example, the internment and treatment of Uighur Muslims in China. Secularisation also means that religion and religious organisations perform fewer functions nowadays and so, the functionalist view on religion may be less relevant.

The Marxist perspective on religion is that religion is “the opium of the people”, preventing revolution by pacifying people, making the proletariat believe that inequality is the ‘will of God’ and that suffering in this life is a virtue as it leads to entry to heaven or paradise in the next life (McKinnon, 2005). In Marxism, all religion is considered a tool of the bourgeoisie and a means of exploiting the working class. Marxist theory states that the masses will eventually see through the mask of oppression and the revolution and implementation of a communist society will lead to one free of religion completely. In Neo-Marxism, religion is seen as a source of conflict as it is separate from the economic base. For example, in Latin America, religious leaders took the side of the peasants against the elite. However, attempts at social reform were ultimately repressed. In communist states, such as Zedong’s China, atheism was implemented by the state. The Marxist view on religion can be criticised as persecution on the basis of religion can and has occurred in communist states, meaning that freedom of religion is not permitted (McKinnon, 2005).

Based on the discussion above, it is clear that the role of religion in society can be viewed differently. Religion can be seen as a force for good in the world as many people’s moral compasses are based on the rules set by their religion, many charities that work to improve lives across the world are set up through religious organisations and has been shown to improve people’s mental wellbeing. However, the negative aspects of religion cannot be forgotten. From religious wars during the Crusades to more contemporary examples such as the Troubles in Northern Ireland and the war on terrorism in the Middle East, religion has played a role in major conflicts throughout history. Additionally, the abuses that have come to light from major religious institutions such as the Catholic Church have highlighted how religion can be weaponised against vulnerable people. I believe that religion can be a force for good but religious institutions need to be monitored to ensure that the negative aspects that are associated with them are no longer accepted.

Reference List

  1. Ashley, D. and Orenstein, D.M., 2005. Sociological theory: Classical statements. Pearson College Division.
  2. Durkheim, É., 2011. Durkheim on Religion: A selection of readings with bibliographies and introductory remarks. ISD LLC.
  3. Goodman, B. (2019). Psychology and sociology in nursing. Learning Matters.
  4. HLS, 2020. Concepts of Functionalism [Online] History Learning Site Available at: [Accessed 22 December 2020].
  5. Investopedia, 2020. Marxism. [online] Investopedia. Available at: [Accessed 22 December 2020].
  6. McKinnon, A.M., 2005. Opium as dialectics of religion: Metaphor, expression and protest. Critical Sociology, 31(1-2), pp.15-38.
  7. UNC, 2020. What Is Sociology? | Department of Sociology. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 December 2020].
  8. Wallerstein, I., Alatas, S., Brumann, C., Calhoun, C., Hall, J., Madan, T.N. and Wallerstein, I., 2003. Anthropology, sociology, and other dubious disciplines. Current Anthropology, 44(4), pp.453-465.

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