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Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism: Critical Analysis

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction to Sociological Theories: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism
  2. Analyzing Society Through Structural Functionalism
  3. Conflict Theory: Understanding Social Inequalities
  4. Symbolic Interactionism: Interpreting Individual and Social Interactions
  5. Conclusion: The Relevance of Sociological Theories in Understanding Society

Introduction to Sociological Theories: Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism

Everything in society can be explained through different perspectives, have you ever wondered which perspectives sociologists use? There are endless perspectives used in sociology but there are three main viewpoints I will cover throughout this essay. The three perspectives are structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. Each perspective can be used to explain gender roles, racial relationships, and class differences in society. Jeffrey Alexander states in his article in the Cambridge University Press, “to grasp this, it is necessary to treat Durkheim’s theoretical statements analytically rather than concretely. That is to say, when he speaks of the principles of a “society” and its integration, we should not take this to mean empirically this necessarily refers to a “whole society” as conventionally defined.” (Alexander 109)

Analyzing Society Through Structural Functionalism

“The promise of structural functionalism is nothing less than to provide a consistent and integrated theory from which can be derived explanatory hypotheses relevant to all aspects of a political system,” (Lane 461) the nature of Lane’s statement outlines the true objective of structural functionalism as a perspective in sociology. Structural functionalism means a theoretical approach that sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of individuals that make up that society. Structural functionalism advocates the belief that society is held together by shared values like languages and symbols, this is considered a strength throughout this perspective. “Structural functionalism is notable not only for its breathtakingly high level of generalization but also for apparent inconsistency with its own claims…” (Lane 464) Structural functionalism states that in a perfect society all parts work together to maintain ultimate stability. However, with every strength, there is a weakness to follow. Some sociologists say that structural functionalism cannot adequately explain social change due to the circular nature of the theory and others argue that structural functionalism no longer is relevant or useful at a macro level. Structural functionalism explains gender roles as a family being the most important component of society where gender roles preserve and stabilize the family in the pre-industrial era. For example, men work outside and away from home. Women stay and care for the house and their families. This is considered a division of labor, arguably due to biological limitations like the strength differences between the groups, and other physical limitations like pregnancy and nursing. After the Industrial Revolution and World War 2, women were finally exposed to the workforce and then explored new capabilities and fulfillment due to the absence of being forced to be bound to their households. Racial relationships explained through structural functionalism say that race and ethnicity are useful measures of group solidarity. This promotes unity and strong bonds within a group, to stand together or fall alone. Racism is said to be simply another justification for the dominance of a particular group. Group A is dominant as they possess superior qualities. Whereas group B is on the bottom due to the fact they hold inferior qualities. Racism has dysfunctions that make official racism inefficient. Talent is ignored and limits contributions to the greater good, resources enforcing segregation are thought of as wasteful and could ultimately be used to better ends. The Davis-Moore Thesis explains class differences through structural functionalism as the greater the functional importance of a social role, the greater the reward must be. The theory deems that social stratification represents the inherently unequal value of different work. Certain tasks in society are valued more than others. The people more qualified to fill these roles must be rewarded more than others who lack to maintain the qualifications.

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Conflict Theory: Understanding Social Inequalities

Conflict theory is defined as a theory that looks at society as a competition for limited resources. Sociologist Simmel says that conflict can help integrate and stabilize society. It brings groups together to battle inequity as well as there being lots of goodwill in the act of reducing inequity. Sociologist Simmel argues that this is a strength of the conflict theory perspective. A weakness discussed and mutually agreed upon by sociologists over this perspective is that there is too much focus on conflicts and ignores the effects of stability and it ignores any known stable element of society. Gender roles explained through the conflict theory state that society is a struggle, the dominant group in today's world would be male, and the subordinate group would be female. Examples of changes in gender roles over time would include women's suffrage, the right to choose, the wage gap in the working class, and the glass ceiling. The husband and wife power dynamic in sociology is comparable or thought of as equal to the factory owner and factory worker dynamic. Conflict theory interprets racial relationships as racism creating disenfranchisement and suppression of subordinate groups. This keeps the competition away from the dominant group, meaning that there will be less threat to power. Conflict theory covers the intersection theory, which is the suggestion that we cannot separate the effects of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, or any other attributes. Discrimination may be worse for others of a singular minority group. For example, a black person experiences discrimination, but changes if they were rich or poor, male or female, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim. In today's society conflict theorists believe that the straining working relationships between employees and their employers still exist, this is looked at through how the conflict theory explains class differences in today’s society. Jeffrey Alexander in the Cambridge University Press explains Durkheim’s theory and what it this theory means for class differences in conflict theory, “Durkheim’s theory provides a crucial means for showing what determines their internal group solidarity, as well as the nature of the symbols and sentiments that make up their class cultures.” (Alexander 109) Conflict theorists are deeply critical of social stratification, asserting that it benefits only some of society. Conflict theorists believe that social stratification perpetuates inequality. Conflict theorists push to bring awareness to inequalities, such as how a rich society can have so many poor members.

Symbolic Interactionism: Interpreting Individual and Social Interactions

Symbolic interactionism is defined as a theoretical perspective through which scholars examine the relationship of individuals within their society by studying their communication through language and symbols. The symbolic interactionism perspective says that language and symbols are believed to be the way in which people make sense of their social worlds and is also characterized as a strength throughout structural functionalism. “Modern societies are shaped by the communication process, public opinion, competition, conflict, and economic exchange.” Denzin goes on further to say “human nature is social in nature, nourished by primary groups whose values are mediated by social institutions, especially the economy.” (Denzin 4) Theorists Herman & Reynolds (1994) note that this perspective sees people as being active in shaping the social world rather than simply being acted upon, defenders consider this one of symbolic interactionism perspectives' greatest strengths. A weakness demonstrated by symbolic interactionism would be that the research done from this perspective is too often scrutinized because of the difficulty of the remaining objective. Furthermore, this perspective is extremely narrow-focused. Symbolic interactionism explains gender roles as the symbols of masculinity and femininity such as clothes, toys, and career choices. Both masculinity and femininity use different problem-solving techniques such as emotion versus logic. The Doing Gender theory comes up in this perspective, this is when people perform tasks or possess characteristics based on the gender role assigned to them. For example, using makeup, or choosing gender-appropriate careers are all socially taught. Symbolic interactionism justifies racial relationships as that race and ethnicity are strong sources of identity. Symbols of race and ethnicity may impact how impressions are made that in reality differ from real life. Social media and other people's stories can add to influencing and establishing prejudice. If exposure to second-hand knowledge about race or ethnicity didn't exist, people would not hold racist values. The theory of culture of prejudice states that the theory of prejudice is embedded in our culture, exposure to caricatures of different races and ethnicities, both good and bad but wholly unindicative of the majority. Prejudice is taught at a young age to categorize and spread to people and their cultures. Class differences explained through the symbolic interactionist perspective state that this theory examines stratification from a micro-level perspective. This means that the analysis strives to explain how people's social standing affects their everyday interactions. Symbolic interactionists note that people's appearance reflects their perceived social standing, like housing, clothing, and transportation indicate social status, as do hairstyles, take in accessories, and personal style.

Conclusion: The Relevance of Sociological Theories in Understanding Society

In conclusion, the perspectives used by sociologists to identify everyday interactions and functions in society are changing every day. The three perspectives are structural functionalism, conflict theory, symbolic interactionism, and how the perspectives have explained gender roles, racial relationships, and class differences in today’s society. Sociologists comb through perspectives and should recognize the changes in each as society moves forward and times change. Going back to structural functionalism, Ruth Lane suggests that this perspective has been improving as time moves forward, “structural functionalism will “liberate” the concept of political development from its western bias and “encompass the full range of cultural diversity” in human government. The framework seems, in hindsight, a transparently western model, and idealized model as well.” (Lane 464).

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Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism: Critical Analysis. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved March 5, 2024, from
“Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism: Critical Analysis.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022,
Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism: Critical Analysis. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 5 Mar. 2024].
Structural Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism: Critical Analysis [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2024 Mar 5]. Available from:
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