Sociology is the scientific study of society and human behavior. Webster’s Dictionary defines a perspective as a “view of things in their true relationship or importance”. Therefore, the sociological perspective provides viewpoints used to look at human behaviors and interactions as they relate to individuals and groups within a society. The sociological perspective stresses that to understand humans, not what is inside of them, but instead the external factors influencing them, should be observed. There are several theoretical perspectives in sociology that are used to understand social relationships and behaviors.
The three theoretical perspectives discussed here are symbolic interactionism, functional analysis, and conflict theory.
Symbolic interactionism is a microsociological theoretical approach that examines small-scale patterns of social interaction. Interactionists focus on how humans use symbols (signs, gestures, language) to develop views of the world, others, and themselves, as well as the importance of these symbols in social interaction and communication. Interactionists also believe that humans use these symbols to define the self, by comparing themselves to others and by constantly adjusting their view of themselves.
Interactionists see reality as being negotiated based on shared agreements and perceptions about events and therefore reality is not stagnant but instead fluid, ever changing. Also, symbolic interactionists try to understand how an individual feels in order to understand why they act the way they do.
For example, many female babies are killed in India. To understand why they are killed, Interactionists look at what makes people kill them. Raising a girl is very expensive in India. The meaning that Indians attach to the birth of a baby girl is that of a burden to the family. However, western cultures tend to think of every child as a gift and a blessing, no matter what gender. A doctor interviewed for a TV documentary said that she does not report families that kill their infant girls, because it is a generally accepted societal practice. A lot of people are poor and few can afford the cost associated with raising a girl. When getting married, the groom’s family is paid a dowry for taking over the obligation of the bride. Getting back to the doctor, comparing her own conduct to that of others, she does not find anything wrong with not reporting those murders since others do not report them either. By her own admission, however, if others were to begin reporting the murders of infant girls, she would then adjust her own conduct accordingly and also start to report the killings. The response to the killings depends on the meaning and significance that is attached to that death, and right now the doctor sees it as insignificant and not worth reporting.
Functional analysts (or functionalists) view society as a whole, a complex system of integrated, interrelated parts that work together to keep society balanced. Each part of society has a certain function that it has to fulfill in order to meet the needs of the society in which it exists, thus functionalists stress order and stability. If a part of society is in dysfunction – meaning it does not fulfill it’s role, the harmony is interrupted and the system is weakened. Through natural and gradual change, equilibrium has to be restored. To understand how society works functionalists examine how society operates, what needs must be met and how they are satisfied. They also examine what functions the various parts of society fulfill, and what the relationships between those parts are.
Take, for example, the female fighter pilot Lt. Col. Martha McSally, who fought for women stationed in Arabic countries to not have to wear the traditional head covering (abaya) and the changing roles of women in the military. Female and male service members had certain functions. Women often worked as nurses or as clerks whereas men filled combat positions. Each gender had roles assigned and the system worked together in harmony until women were allowed to serve in positions that once were meant for male service members only. Through a gradual and natural process the roles of men and women in the military will have to be redefined until previous balance is restored.
Another example would be Lt. Gov. Jane Swift of Massachusetts, who was pregnant when she entered office, and the functions of a mother and a politician. As a mother society expects her to care for her children and be there when her children need her. However, in her function as politician, she is expected to fully immerse herself in State politics. The functions of mothers and politicians are clearly defined, but, she is blurring the boundaries between the two functions and society (the system) has not yet adjusted to the changes associated with mothers of young children in politics. As more and more mothers with dependant children are entering politics, the system will have to adjust to their special needs, roles will have to be redefined for balance to be restored.
Like functional analysis, conflict theory focuses on large-scale patterns of society. However, whereas functionalists believe that society is composed of groups that work together, conflict theorists believe those groups are in constant disagreement with each other over limited resources. Conflict theorists also believe that societies are constantly changing and that some groups have more power then others and that norms and values of a society are made by those with power in order to keep those without power “down”. Conflict theorists believe that the way to change society is to change its structure and not the individuals within that society.
Going back to Lt. Gov. Jane Swift, power is seen as a result of her social position and not as a result of her character. As a politician she holds certain powers that conflict with those of non-politicians. For example, she excused her use of the state helicopter with her position as an important political figure. Non-politicians disagree with her right to use the helicopter, as they could not do that.
In India men and women are in a constant battle for scarce resources. In the case of the infanticides the resources are power as well as money. The only solution to that conflict would be for society to change its structure by, for example, removing dowries as a condition of marriage or removing the need for expensive ceremonies for daughters. Since those with power and money see no need to change the current structure, the only way the change would ever happens is if poor Indians stood up and protested current practices.
The same is true for the military. The problems that arose for Lt. Col. McSally while stationed in the Middle East came from inequality in the treatment of male and female service members. As a woman she was required to wear an abaya when leaving the base. This caused a problem since the abaya covered her from head to toe and therefore her social location, her rank as Lieutenant Colonel, was no longer visible to others. Her powers were diminished while male service members, even those of lower rank, did not have to remove or hide the signs of their social location within the military society, resulting in a struggle for power.
To summarize the three major theoretical perspectives described above it can, in most general terms, be said that structural functionalists would focus on what is common practice in a certain society and would also analyze the function of symbols used to interact and communicate in that society; whereas symbolic interactionists would try to determine how the individuals of a certain society interpret their environment or what effect others have on the development of an individuals self image; and conflict theorists would look at power differences between various groups of a society, where they come from and what effect they have on that society.