(i) The Functionalist Perspective:
The functionalist perspective draws its original inspiration from the work of Herbert Spencer and Durkheim. In the view of functionalists, society is like living organism in which each part of the organism contributes to its survival. Therefore, the functionalist perspective emphasises the way that parts of a society are structured to maintain its stability.
Spencer compared societies to living organisms. Any organism has a structure, that is, it consists of number of interrelated parts, such as a head, limbs, heart, blood veins, nervous system, and so on. Each of these parts has a function to play in the life of the total organism.
Spencer further argued that in the same way, a society has a structure, it also further argued that in the same way, a society has a structure, it also consists of interrelated parts, such as the family, religion, state, education, economy, and so on.
Each of these components also has a function that contributes to the overall stability of the social system. Modern structural-functionalism [which is usually referred to as functionalism] does not insist much on the analogy between a society and an organism. However, the general idea of society as a system of interrelated parts, persists even now.
Emile Durkheim’s analysis of religion represented a critical contribution to the development of functionalism. Durkheim focused on the role of religion in reinforcing feelings of solidarity and unity within group life.
The work of Durkheim, Max Weber and other European sociologists greatly influenced Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), a Harvard University sociologist. For over four decades, Parsons dominated American sociology with his advocacy of functionalism.
He saw society as a network of connected parts, each of which contributes to the maintenance of the system as a whole. “Under the functionalist approach, if an aspect of social life does not serve some identifiable useful function or promote value consensus among members of a society – it will not be passed on from one generation to the next.
The functionalist theory assumes that society tends to be an organized, stable, well-integrated system, in which most members agree on basic values.
In the functionalist view, a society has an underlying tendency to be in equilibrium or balance. Social change is therefore, believed to be disruptive unless it takes place in a slow and gradual manner. Because changes in one part of the system normally brings about changes elsewhere in the system.
Functionalism presumes that a given element in the social system may have its own functions or dysfunctions. The proper ‘functions’ add to the stability of the order, whereas the dysfunctions may disrupt the social equilibrium.
Functionalism makes a distinction between ‘manifest functions’, that is, those that are obvious and intended, and “latent functions “, that is, those that are unrecognized unintended.
An important criticism of the functional perspective is that it tends to be inherently conservative. This theory, it is said, fails to pay sufficient importance to the changes that take place in the system. Further, it is commented that this perspective ignores the element of conflict and its role in the social system.
(ii) The Conflict Perspective:
The conflict perspective derives its strength and support from the work of Karl Marx, who saw the struggle between the social classes as the major fact of history. In contrast to functionalists’ emphasis on stability and consensus, conflict sociologists see the social world in continual struggle.
The conflict theorists assume that societies are in a constant state of change, in which conflict is a permanent feature. Conflict does not necessarily imply outright violence. It includes tension, hostility, severe competition, and disagreement over goals and values. Conflict is not deemed here as an occasional event that disturbs the smooth functioning of the system. It is regarded as a constant process and an inevitable part of social life.
Karl Marx viewed struggle between social classes as inevitable because of the exploitation of workers under capitalism. Expanding on Marx’s work sociologists and other social scientists has come to see conflict not merely as a class phenomenon but as a part of everyday life in all societies.
Thus in studying any culture, organisation, or social group, sociologists want to know “who benefits, who suffers, and who dominates at the expense of others “. They are concerned with conflicts between women and men, parents and children, cities and villages, rich and the poor, upper castes and the lower castes and so on.
In studying such questions conflict theorists are interested in how society’s institutions – including the family, government, religion, education, and the media, may help to maintain the privileges of some groups and keep others in a subservient position.
The conflict perspective dominated the Western European sociology and was largely neglected in American sociology until the sixties. Modern conflict theory, which is associated with such sociologists as C. Wright Mills (1956) and Lewis Coser (1956), does not focus, as Marx did, on class conflict. It sees conflict between many other groups such as the Whites and Negroes, Asians and the Europeans, and so on.
Conflict theorists are primarily concerned with the kinds of changes that conflict can bring about, whereas functionalists look for stability and consensus.
The conflict perspective is viewed as more “radical” and “activist”. This is because of its emphasis on social change and redistribution of resources. The functionalist perspective, on the other hand, because of its focus on the stability of society, is generally seen as more “conservative “. At present, the conflict perspective is accepted within the discipline of sociology as one valid way to gain insight into a society.
One important contribution of conflict theory is that it has encouraged sociologists to view society through the eyes of those people who rarely influence decision-making. Example, the Blacks in America and South Africa, the untouchables in India, the Hindu minorities in Pakistan, and so on.
Similarly, feminist scholarship in sociology has helped us to have a better understanding of social behaviour. Thus a family’s social standing is also now considered from the woman’s point of view and not solely from the husband’s position or income. Feminist scholars have also argued for a gender-balanced study of society in which women’s experiences and contributions are visible as those of men.
The conflict perspective has its own limitations. It is also criticized. “By focusing so narrowly on issues of competition and change, it fails to come to grips with the more orderly, stable, and less politically controversial aspects of social reality “.
The functionalist and conflict perspectives both analyse society at the macro-level. These approaches attempt to explain society — wide patterns of behaviour. However, many contemporary sociologists are more interested in understanding society as a whole through an examination of social interactions at the micro-level small groups, two friends casually talking with one another, a family, and so forth.
(iii) The interactionist perspective:
This is the integrationist perspective. This perspective generalizes about fundamental or everyday forms of social interaction. From these generalizations, integrationists seek to
The interactionist perspective in sociology was initially influenced by Max Weber. He had emphasized the importance of understanding the social world from the viewpoint of the individuals who act within it. Later developments in this theory have been strongly influenced by social psychology and by the work of early leaders in the Chicago School of Sociology, particularly George Herbert Mead.
“The interactionist perspective focuses on social behaviour in everyday life. It tries to understand how people create and interpret the situations they experience, and it emphasizes how countless instances of social interaction produce the larger structure of society – government, the economy and other institutions “.
This perspective presumes that it is only through this social behaviour of the people that society can come into being. Society is ultimately created, maintained, and changed by the social interaction of its members.