The three dominant theories used in sociology are conflict theory, functionalism and symbolic interactionism. Although they have been complemented with more recent inventions such as feminism, post-modernism and post-structuralism, and social construction theory, the three remain a strong traditional framework within which a sociologist can craft hypotheses and evaluate facts.
These theories can explain a host of phenomena, including capitalism and class conflict and culture, suggesting differing accounts of them.
Functionalism is a macrosociological level theory that strives to explain various phenomena from the point of view of larger social structures. Concentrating on social order, it regards society as “a system of interrelated, interdependent parts, which are social institutions or structures, e.g. a part may be family, education, economic, religion, etc.” (van der Veen, 2003). Thus, society is perceived as objective reality measurable with the help of scientific methods, treated in the positivist vein. An individual is connected to the overall society through its structure. All the elements of structure are assumed to cooperate in a coherent manner for the improvement of the whole society. This theory is also called structural functionalism because it “emphasizes the functions within the structure of the main parts of society and the contributions of each for the overall society’s survival and growth” (Ferrante, 1998). Scholars have shown functions to be either manifest or latent, but they are inherent in every type of structure.
Conflict theory also works on a macrosociological level. Based on the theory of Karl Marx, it emphasizes that various parts of society are in conflict over control of resources and domination. In such structures “economic exploitation leads directly to political oppression, as owners make use of their economic power to gain control of the state and turn it into a servant of bourgeois economic interests” (McClelland, 2000). Society includes therefore dominant and subordinate groups that differ in their access to resources. Conflict arises out of inequality and is not always negative as “it produces social change” (van der Veen, 2003). This theory contrasts with functionalism because of its emphasis on the inevitability of social conflict and its positive role in social development as opposed to stability and order.
Symbolic Interactionism differs from the previous two theories as it is a microsociological level theory that operates with the mentality of an individual rather than large social structure. This approach “focuses on the symbols within a society, their meanings, and ensuing interactions between individuals and groups based on the meanings of the symbols as well as the subjective nature of the symbols’ meaning” (Ferrante, 1998). Social reality is constructed by people, and interactions among individuals determine the shape and culture of the whole society (van der Veen, 2003). Symbolic Interactionism is thus concerned with interpretation of cultural symbols, ways in which they make sense, and consistent patterns for explanation used by a number of individuals.
Given the diversity of approaches, the very same phenomenon such as class conflict and capitalism, can be given a variety of explanations. Within functional structuralism, the capitalist order can be treated as a complex of necessary social structures that play a crucial role in the formation of society. Each part of capitalist society combines with another to forward social development. When poverty and inequality exist, their function is to promote evolution by inspiring individuals to strive for advancement in order to escape indigence. Capitalism exists because there is normative consensus among individuals as to how society should function.
The conflict theory concentrates most explicitly on explanation of class conflict and capitalism. In fact, its critics would often say that it will “overemphasize tensions and divisions” and too much attention to economic drivers of human actions (van der Veen, 2003). Under the conflict theory, capitalism is based on exploitation of the subordinate group (workers) by capitalists, the dominant group that holds power since it owns the means of production. Class conflict is inevitable because of the struggle of the subordinate group for empowerment. Marxism, an integral part of the conflict paradigm, even treats criminals as protorevolutionaries who “come to recognize their true objective interests and engage in protorevolutionary action to bring about the end of capitalism and the start of socialist or guaranteed freedom from want and misery” (O’Connor, 2005). In this way, people are motivated by the need to grab a larger share of resources, and while capitalism does afford different level of opportunities to different groups, it makes conflict unavoidable.
Symbolic Interactionism does not deal with capitalism as manifestation of inherent conflict. Instead, it can focus on capitalist phenomena as making sense to people through special meanings assigned to its symbols. For example, it can explore how the stress of unemployment is reflected in different pieces of literature, poetry, music, drama, etc. Social reality of capitalism is created through negotiated roles that give each individual a place according to the agreed order of things.
Culture can also be given different treatments. From the functionalist standpoint, it is a part of social order with specific assigned functions. Besides, culture can legitimize existing social structures (van der Veen, 2002). The interest in exploring culture lies primarily in investigating its functions in society and other functions of different social institutions supported by it.
Within conflict theory, culture is to a great degree derived from the economic base of social order. In Neo-Marxism, it is a “symbolic realm of ideas, values and ideologies are semi-autonomous and not merely derivative of material base” (van der Veen, 2002). Conflict theorists assume that culture is a tool of social struggle. It can be used by the dominant class to assert its dominance and control subordinate groups. In contrast, ideologies arising within culture serve as a foundation for class struggle carried out by the subordinate group.
Within symbolic interactionism, culture is created through actions and meanings that result in consequence of interactions between individuals within society. It is full of symbols that arise are interpreted through these interactions. People are striving to derive meaning from the cultural assumptions ingrained in symbols they exchange.
Thus, functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism offer different interpretations for the same social phenomena. Each pattern of thinking has its own advantages and disadvantages, and can be applied with different degree of success. An in-depth analysis in most cases would have to rely on a combination of theoretical approaches.