The Sociological Perspective
The sociological perspective is defined by three philosophical traditions (or "paradigms"): structure-functionalism, Marxism, and symbolic interactionism. Structure-functionalism focuses on how society is organized and how social institutions meet the needs of people living within a collectivity. The Marxian paradigm guides inquiries into the use and misuse of power within and across social systems. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals influence and are influenced by society. It guides investigations into how the rules of society are re-created everyday through our interactions with one another.
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This approach as proved to be very successful and is the predominant philosophy guiding macro-level sociology today.
Structure-functionalism arose in part as a reaction to the limitations of utilitarian philosophy, where people were viewed as strictly rational, calculating entrepreneurs in a free, open, unregulated, and competitive marketplace. The tenet of functionalism, and the fundamental building block of all sociology, is that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals. Groups have "lives of their own," so to speak. Or, as you might hear from a sociologist, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Anyway, the point is, that just as the "invisible hand of order" can guide economic relations, "social forces" can guide social relations, and thus yield for society very positive outcomes (volunteerism, democracy, laws, moral and ethical standards for behavior, family and educational systems, communities) and very negative outcomes (discrimination, organized crime, moral decay, warfare, poverty).
The idea of the functionalists was to create a science of society that could examine the parts of human social systems and make them work for the betterment of all. And it is the task of sociologists to use scientific principles to help create the best form of society possible.
Listed below are the central tenets of the functionalist approach to understanding human social systems. We will use these tenets throughout this course to gain a functionalist perspective on social issues facing rural America today.
1. Society as a system of interrelated parts functioning for the good of the whole.
Keep in mind that functionalism is always oriented toward what is good for the whole. As we examine different philosophical foundations of sociology, we will note the advantages and disadvantages of this perspective.
2. All social systems have four key functions: Adaptation, Goal-Attainment, Integration, Latency.
These functional imperatives roughly correspond to the five institutions of human societies (economics, politics, family/education, and religion). By understanding which functional imperative is most closely related to current issues of rural America, we can understand the importance of the issue and its likely impact on the well-being of rural America.
3. Social action takes place within a social system of cultural norms and institutional structures.
In Sociology 130, we will use structure-functionalism primarily as a guide for understanding macro-level (societal) issues. And, although structure-functionalism is well equipped to analyze and understand societal conflict, we will use it mainly for understanding how social order is possible.
Although Karl Marx's idea of a communist utopian society failed due to an inadequate understanding of human motivation and organization, his identification of potential problems with human social systems still is a crucial...