Main Theories of Sociology

In the study of sociology, humans are the main topic that will always be alluded to. Humans have a very complex and dynamic nature. To understand humans with these various characters and problems, various theoretical foundations are needed.

There are at least three main theories of sociology that can be used as perspectives in looking at various social studies. The three main theories of sociology include structural functionalism theory, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction theory.

These three perspectives are considered quite influential in various sociological studies and are often used to study various social phenomena. Even though the dynamics of social theory continue to develop so as to emerge new perspectives on sociology, but these three perspectives are still widely used and are still considered relevant for analyzing social phenomena taking place today.

In the study of science, theory is important for analysis in looking at a set of facts and their relationship with something else. The main theory of sociology will also help us better understand the social phenomena that occur in society and its relation to other things.

Both structural functionalism theory, conflict theory, and conflict theory and symbolic interaction theory will help explain what, why and how society works, so we can get conclusions about what we can do for our society to make it better.

In the context of sociology, this perspective is used as a basis for assessing a set of assumptions and ideas that occur in social processes. The perspective used in viewing this social process is not singularly right or wrong. Each perspective only looks at and analyzes the community in a different way.

It should also be understood that in this sociological perspective, there are two broad perspectives that are generally used to measure social problems that occur, namely micro and macro perspectives. Each sees a different perspective based on the scope of the community involved in it, while offering different answers to the problems identified.

In looking at this social process, the functional structural perspective and the perspective of social conflict use a macro perspective on society, while the perspective of symbolic interactionism takes a micro perspective. The difference is, this macro perspective looks at a broader scope of society in groups or social systems, while the micro perspective emphasizes more on relations between individuals.

Chapter List 

1 # Functional Structural Theory

1 # 1 Basic Assumptions Functional structural theory

The basic assumption of functional structural theory lies in the concept of community order. This theory views that society is static or in a change in a balanced manner, where every element of society has a role to maintain that stability.

As with the macro perspective, this theory reviews human behavior in the context of the organization (society) and how that behavior influences the balance conditions of the organization or society.

Functional structural theory has influenced the development of sociology theory until now. Central to the growth of social theory itself is in the United States . This country also became the site of the collapse of functional structural theory itself, which was popular in the 1930s to 1960s.

Budi Siswanto through his book “Social Theory” states that the root of functional structural theory lies in the work of Emile Durkheim and some of his generation anthropologists such as Auguste Comte and Herbet Spencer. They offer a comprehensive synthesis system in social thought systems (Siswanto, 2016: 1).

The main assumption of this theory is the assumption that society is a biological organism that consists of interdependent organs as a consequence for these organisms to survive. Through this functional structural approach, sociologists hope to achieve social order in society.

1 # 2 functional structural theory according to Emile Durkheim

Emile Durkheim was the main pioneer in the emergence of this functional structural theory. However, the roots of his thinking about this theory have begun from Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Comte. Auguste Comte first began his thoughts on organismic analogies. (Please read: the development of the sociology of the Auguste Comte era )

This Comte Thought was further developed by Herbert Spencer. Spencer made a comparison to find similarities between society and organisms. From his observations, Spencer developed the idea of ​​requisite functionalism, which later became a guide to Spencer’s substantive analysis and a driver of functional analysis.

Comte and Spencer’s study influenced Durkheim’s thinking so much that he could produce the organismic terminology. According to Durkheim, society is a unity in the form of a system in which there are distinct parts.

System balance can be created and maintained when each part of the system carries out its respective functions. Each part is connected and interdependent, so that even if one part does not function, a pathological condition will be created, where the balance of the system will be disturbed.

Examples of functional structural theories developed by Durkheim can be seen in the condition of modern society with all its needs in various aspects, including aspects of information and communication technology.

When access to information and communication technology is disrupted, for example because telecommunications satellites are disrupted, then this will affect other parts of this modern society system, until the whole system is disrupted. The economic life of the people for example, such as economic transactions will also come to a halt.

This situation will eventually be resolved by itself until it creates a normal state that can be maintained. This normal state is commonly referred to by contemporary functionalists as equilibrium, or as a balanced system. Pathological conditions indicate conditions of imbalance or social change.

1 # 3 functional structural theory according to Talcott Parsons

In addition to Durkheim, functional structural theory was also influenced by the thinking of Parsons and Merton, Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown, and Max Weber. Max Weber’s thinking is one of the many that contribute to this theory, especially related to the existence of a substantive vision of social action, and how its strategy in analyzing social structure.

Talcott Parsons himself also took Weber’s thoughts. As for Parsons, he developed the existence of four basic components in functional structural theory in which can be used to explain the actions of actors in interpreting circumstances.

Four important components in functional structural theory according to Parsons are: Adaptation, Goal Attention, Integration, and Latency (AGIL). The following statement:

  • Adaptation: the social system or society always experiences changes so that they can adjust to the changes that occur, both internally and externally.
  • Goal Attention: every social system or community will always have various goals to be achieved by the social system.
  • Integration: every part of the social system is integrated with each other and tends to hold on to equilibrium (balance).
  • Latency: social systems always try to maintain forms of interaction that are relatively fixed or static, so that any deviant behavior is accommodated through agreements that are continually updated.

Parsons indeed contributed a lot of his thoughts in this structural functional theory, so that also known as Parsons’s functionalism theory.

1 # 4 functional structural theory according to Robert K. Merton

As a supporter of functional structural theory, Robert K Marton has only put forward more limited demands for this perspective. Merton considers that this functional structural approach has a major influence on the progress of sociological knowledge. Nevertheless, he considered structural functionalism would still not be able to overcome all social problems (Merton, 1975: 25).

Merton himself proposed the Merton functional analysis model which he obtained as a result of the development of comprehensive knowledge of classical theories, including from Max Weber’s work. Weber himself influenced Merton’s thoughts on bureaucracy, which made Merton more limited in viewing bureaucracy, as well as Weber.

The modern bureaucratic organization, according to Merton in it contains the following concepts:

  • bureaucracy is a form of social structure that is organized rationally and formally;
  • bureaucracy includes a pattern of activities with clear boundaries;
  • the activities that take place in the system are ideally connected with the goals of the organization;
  • positions in the organization are integrated in the whole bureaucratic structure;
  • Existing statuses in the bureaucracy, arranged in a hierarchical arrangement;
  • Obligations and rights in the bureaucracy are limited by detailed rules;
  • authority lies in office, not in people;
  • relationships that exist between people are formally limited.

The bureaucratic model as illustrated by Merton can be illustrated in the form of large scale organizations. For example, just like a company, university or academy.

The functional analysis paradigm Merton can be summarized in three postulates as a functional analysis which is then refined one after another. In summary, the first postulate, is the postulate of the functional unity of the community which shows that the functional unity of the community has parts that cooperate with each other in an adequate level of internal consistency, without producing prolonged conflicts that are unresolved (Merton, 1967: 80).

The second postulate is the postulate of universal functionalism , assuming that all social and cultural forms that have been standardized have their own positive functions, which in turn can establish a balance in the social system.

The third postulate completes the trio of functionalism postulates, in the form of indispensability postulates , namely in every type of civilization, every habit, ideas, material objects, and beliefs, all fulfill several important functions and tasks that must be carried out, so that they cannot be separated in system activities as a whole (Merton , 1967: 86).

Simply put, in this third postulate, all aspects of community standards not only have a positive function, but also represent parts that are inseparable from the whole. This postulate leads to the idea that all functional structures and functions are basically needed by society.

1 # 5 Criticism of functional structural theory

Critics of functional structural theory are often leveled because this theory is still considered to have some weaknesses, such as:

  • this theory ignores conflicts that are a necessity in society. Adherents of this theory tend to demand that the community be in a level that is harmonious and stable so that it can run well. In fact, the fact is that in society it is often inevitable that contradictions can trigger conflict. This conflict can ultimately cause shocks in the system.
  • This theory is too rigid for changes, especially those from outside. This theory tends to focus on the system and its parts that are stable. In fact, people’s lives are dynamic, so they often have to face changes, both in the negative and positive directions.
  • This theory overestimates harmonization and underestimates social conflict. Adherents of this theory tend to impose all the rules in society and maintain it, also accepting change as a constant, without requiring explanation. Changes that are considered beneficial to the system are accepted, while other changes are rejected raw.

2 # Conflict Theory

Conflict theory or structural conflict theory was introduced in the 1960s. For the first time, this theory emerged in US sociology as a revival of the ideas expressed previously by Karl Marx and Max Weber.

So, the basic idea of ​​the conflict theory is taken from the thoughts of these two thinkers. Marx and Weber expressly reject the idea that states that society tends to lead to basic consensus or harmony, where the structure of society that works works for the good of everyone.

In fact, conflicts and conflicting interests of each individual and group according to Marx and Weber are conflicting, and are the main determinants in the organization of social life.

2 # 1 Conflict Theory according to Karl Marx

Karl Marx (1818-1883) is considered the main pioneer of conflict theory. In fact, Riyadi Soeprapto in “Symbolic Interactionism” refers to him as a master of conflict perspectives.

The basis of Marx’s thought which was taken was regarding the massive exploitation which was considered as the main driving force of historical forces. Marx views class differences, one of which is caused by the industrialization project, and this only pursues economic benefits alone. (Soeprapto, 2002: 72).

The struggle of class society was a fundamental conception which was then conceptualized by Karl Marx. This was triggered by the condition of society at that time which was surrounded by 19th century industrialization. Industrialization gave rise to the working class and industrialist class which in the end encouraged alienation.

The perspective of the conflict rooted in the thought of Karl Marx is recognized by sociologists as a way out so that it is very closely related to the revolution. Even so, the conflict here is not intended to be a radical revolution let alone to spill blood. Because, after all Marx is a humanist.

In essence, conflict theory sees disputes and conflicts in the social system. So, in society will not always be in order. In this theory, different authorities are also discussed, which results in superordination and subordination.

The differences in interests of these two things then lead to conflict. However, conflict theory itself also reveals that conflict in social processes is needed to create a social change, both in the negative and positive directions.

This theory of conflict brought up by Karl Marx has long been ignored by sociologists. However, it was only in the 1960s that this theory was re-emerged. Some sociologists who have revived conflict theories, for example C. Wright Mills [1956-1959], Lewis Coser: [1956] and others [Aron, 1957; Dahrendorf, 1959, 1964; Chambliss, 1973; Collins, 1975].

Unlike functionalists who see the normal state of society as a static balance, conflict theorists tend to see society as in constant conflict within groups and classes.

Conflict theorists, even claiming that functionalists have failed to raise the question “functionally useful,” to whom. The harmonious balance referred to in functionalists is considered only beneficial for some people, while for others it is detrimental.

Conflict theorists view that a balance of society as intended by functionalists is merely a delusion, because they are unable to explain how the dominant group exploits other groups and silences them.

In Marx’s theory, the existence of personal relationships in production and social classes is seen as a key element that exists in many societies. Marx also believes that the social changes created are greatly influenced by the conflicts between the dominant class and the subordinated class.

The marsian-modern conflict strategy, mentioned by Stephen K Sanderson (1993: 12), is as follows:

  • Social life is an arena of conflict or conflict within opposing groups.
  • Various economic resources and political power are important, so various groups try to seize them.
  • A typical consequence of this conflict is the division of society into economically determinants and subordinated groups.
  • The basic social pattern of a society is strongly influenced by the social conditions of the group which is economically a determinant group.
  • Conflict and social conflict within that exist in various societies give birth to forces capable of driving social change.
  • Because conflict and conflict are the basic crri of social life, social change also becomes a common thing that often occurs.

2 # 2 Conflict Theory according to Max Weber

Delivered by R. Collins, Weber believes that conflicts occur in ways that are far more than just material conditions. The basic characteristic of social life is in the form of conflict in fighting over economic resources.

However, there are also other types of conflicts that can also occur. Weber stressed the existence of some of the most important conflicts affecting social perusas.

First, there is conflict in the political arena. This political conflict is something that is very fundamental, because social life in a certain degree is a form of conflict in order to obtain power and domination from certain individuals or groups. Weber also saw to a certain extent, that this contradiction was intended to obtain economic benefits.

Second, there are types of conflicts related to ideas and ideals. Weber revealed that people are often challenged to dominate their world view, whether in the form of religious doctrine, social philosophy or conception of the best cultural lifestyle.

This notion of ideals is not only disputed, but is also used as a weapon or tool for other conflicts, such as political conflicts. From this, it can be seen that Weber is not a materialist or idealist.

Weber tends to be regarded as a thinker who combines patterns of materialist and idealistic explanation in expressing a holistic sociological approach.

2 # 3 Conflict Theory according to Dahrendorf

Another conflict theory figure that is quite popular is Dahrendorf. Dahrendorf was a popular German intellectual through his 1959 ” Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society “.

For Dahrendorf, functionalist explanations regarding integration, values ​​and consensus, and stability were considered unbalanced. He rejected these functionalist assumptions and tried to base his theory on a modern Marxist perspective. For him, social conflict based on opposition to interests and consequences of conflict can be widespread and at the same time can give birth to social change. (Johnson: 1986: 183).

Although Dahrendorf has the same thought in viewing class conflicts, Dahrendorf does not agree with the propositions offered by Marx. Dahrendorf considers Marx’s view to be irrelevant to the situation of post-industrial society (modern industry).

That is why, Marx’s theories and concepts are recommended to be modified so that they can be adjusted in analyzing modern industrial society. Dahrendorf views Marx as only referring to capitalist society. In fact, since Marx wrote his thoughts, there have been significant changes in the social structure. (Dahrendorf 1988).

That is why, Dahrendorf offers a concept and theory that pays more attention to explain capitalist and post capitalist societies. Dahrendorf then built his new theory through this framework.

Dahrendorf did experience quite a lot of conflict with Marx. He even rejected the concept of classless society proposed by Marx. Dahrendorf considers that analysis without a classless society is very speculative and there is no empirical evidence that can be realized.

Furthermore, Dahrendorf considered a number of Marx’s theses were not supported by empirical reality. In reality, class division cannot only be based on the ownership of the means of production.

In conflict theory, Ralf Dahrendolf assumes that society is loyal when subject to the process of change and dissension. Conflicts and various elements of society in the social system are considered to contribute to disintegration and change.

For him, the order that can be created in society is nothing but because of coercion of its members, carried out by those who have power. This means that power in this social system plays a role in efforts to maintain order in society.

Dahrendorf also proposed the idea of ​​a dialectical conflict theory. In this theory it is stated that society is a subject with two faces, namely conflict and consensus. From here, Dahrendorf proposes the division of sociological theory into two parts, namely conflict theory and consensus theory.

In conflict theory, we can examine conflicts of interest and the use of violence in society. Whereas in consensus theory, we can test the value of integration that occurs in society.

Dahrendorf assumed that society would not exist without consensus and conflict because community unification occurred because of forced freedom. This also reflects that in certain positions in society, there is authority over other positions that delegate power.

2 # 4  Criticism of conflict theory

Similar to structural functional theory, conflict theory is also not immune from weakness. Some criticisms aimed at conflict theory include:

  • conflict theory is considered to ignore order and stability in society. Even though conflict and change are part of the community, it does not mean that the community has never experienced conditions with order and stability.
  • Conflict theory has a basis of radical ideology. Just as functionalism is criticized for its conservative ideology, both theories are considered inadequate in analyzing the social life of society because each can only explain a portion of social life. In fact, a theoretical perspective is needed that is able to explain conflict and order as well.

3 # Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic interaction theory needs to be understood to achieve an interpretative understanding of existing social phenomena. The main idea of ​​this perspective refers to the social reality that arises through the process of interaction, and is closely related to the ability of humans to create and manipulate symbols.

The approach used in symbolic interactions tends to focus on the open discussion of the situation definition of shared meanings.

There are several figures of modern sociology who helped bring up and support the theory of symbolic interactionism, such as James Mark Baldwin, William James, Charles H. Cooley, John Dewey, William I. Thomas, and George Herbert Mead. Among these figures, Mead is the most popular figure as the basic pioneer of the theory.

The theory of symbolic interactionism began to be developed by Mead in the 1920s and 1930s. At that time, Mead was a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago. As a professor, he expressed many of his ideas about symbolic interactionism to his students.

It was from these students who published many notes and lectures that Mead’s symbolic interactionism theory began to develop pesetas. Moreover, when the book became the main reference for symbolic interaction theory, namely: Mind, Self, and Society (1934) which was published shortly after Mead’s death.

It was Mead students who then did a lot of creativity and developed this theory. Herbert Blumer, as one of his students, was the person who coined the term “symbolic interaction” in 1937. He also later popularized it in the academic community (Mulyana, 2001: 68).

In this theory, Mead views action as the “most core unit” in the theory (1982: 27). Mead conducts an analysis of actions by focusing on the stimulus and response.

Symbolic interaction itself is an activity that is characteristic of humans, namely in the form of communication or exchange of symbols that are given meaning. These ideas about symbolic interactions were rewritten by Blummer in his writings, which were then enriched with ideas from John Dewey, William I. Thomas, and Charles H. Cooley (Mulyana, 2001: 68).

If referenced more broadly, the perspective of symbolic interaction is under a broader perspective, namely the phenomenological perspective or interpretive perspective. The term phenomenology is used by Maurice Natanson as a term that refers to all views of social science which assume that to understand social action, we must focus on human consciousness and its subjective meaning

In the early stages of its development, the theory of symbolic interaction seemed to be hidden behind the dominance of Talcott Parsons’s phenomenological theory. However, functionalism which continued to decline in the 1950s and 1960s, then led to the reappearance of symbolic interactionism theory.

This symbolic interaction theory has developed rapidly until now. Symbolic interactionism figures of the 1960s, such as Howard S. Becker and Erving Goffman, have produced interpretive studies that offer alternative views on socialization and the relationship between individuals and society (Mulyana, 2001: 59).

The main essence of symbolic interactionism itself is to focus on studying the nature of interaction which is a dynamic social activity of humans. This perspective considers that individuals are basically active, reflective, and creative, interpret, and display complex and also difficult to predict behaviors.

So, simply put, the perspective of symbolic interaction rejects the idea that individuals are passive organisms, with behavior determined by forces or structures outside themselves.

Individuals are creatures that are dynamic and constantly changing. Because this individual is the main element of forming society, this means that society also changes through the interactions that occur between these individuals.

In conclusion, this interaction is considered as an important variable in determining human behavior, and not on the structure of society. The structure of society itself can be created and changed influenced by human interaction.

Schutz’s phenomenology also agrees with this understanding, which states that the actions, speech, and interactions of individuals are prerequisites for anyone’s social existence. Schutz considers that this first category of knowledge is essentially personal and unique for each individual in face-to-face interactions with others (Mulyana, 2001: 61-62).

3 # 1 Criticism of Symbolic Interaction Theory

Symbolic-Interaction Theory is also not free from the existence of weaknesses and criticism. The weaknesses of the symbolic interaction theory that can be summarized are as follows:

  • The interactionist is too concerned about the daily life of the individual and the social formation of himself. However, they tend to ignore social structures. In fact, social structure for individuals is important.
  • symbolic interaction ignores psychological factors such as needs, motives, and intentions, and instead focuses more on the study of actions, symbols and interactions. Therefore, the attention of adherents of this theory cannot be too deep.
  • this theory only focuses on everyday human life, and does not see the things that make or background the action happens, until finally done.


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