The Sociological Perspective
The Sociological Perspective
Sociological perspective is learning how to ‘see’ – seeing the strange in the familiar, identifying, respecting, learning from and questioning both our own and others’ values and belief systems. Several eminent sociologists have greatly furthered our understanding and the possibilities for application of such theories to daily life. These include Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Karl Marx (1818-1883), George Herbert Meade (1863-1931) and Robert Merton, whose theoretical perspectives give us understanding of the three social paradigms; structural-functionalism, social-conflict theory and symbolic interaction.
Each paradigm is a particular image of society that guides further thinking and research, allowing us to recognize opportunities and constraints, empowering us to participate knowledgeably. Theory itself is a statement of how and why specific facts are related.
Emile Durkheim was a structural functionalist. He was also a positivist, believing that society conforms to invariable laws and that there is an objective reality. He operated within a framework that sees society as a complex structure or system in which the parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. Structure in this context refers to any stable pattern of social behavior; the function aspect is the examination of the consequences of individual actions for the operation of society as a whole. If one action breaks down, or has undesirable consequences, dysfunction ensues. He wrote “The determining cause of a social fact should be sought among the social acts preceding it and not among the states of individual consciousness”.
A social fact and a clear dysfunction in society is suicide, and this intrigued Durkheim. He was curious as to why rates were higher in certain demographic situations although generally the whole suicide rate worldwide fluctuated little. He was therefore approaching the problem as the structure being the normal operation of society and the function being in fact dysfunction; undesirable, unintended in the norm of social integration. His theory was that social forces are a factor even in the ultimately self-centered act of suicide.
His study was both quantitative and qualitative in that he not only took suicide rates and statistics, but also looked carefully at religion, race, wealth and social standing of victims. His theory of social integration as a factor in suicide was soon proven as he identified that those more likely to take such a step were single, white, affluent Protestant males. He was of course studying during the nineteenth century, a male dominated era, but further studies in 1998 by Thorlindsson and Bjarnason upheld his theory
The reasoning behind the hypothesis was that Protestants, as opposed to Catholics or Jews, have less of a tight knit community; no parochial schools, social life is not organized around the church or a group of supportive fellow believers. Secondly, white people were more likely to feel isolated than other racial communities, which had and continue to have a stronger sense of identity and culture.
Isolation is also a factor on the wealth variable, as those who are independent have more autonomy, less reliance and therefore less integration with others – help is not sought for life decisions from external sources. This was particularly true in the 1800’s when social strata were more sharply defined than they are today. Isolation is also the basis for the unmarried variable as there is even less family contact necessary on a daily basis and ultimately less social bonding. The sex factor is pertinent due to the male disposition for choosing more violent methods that have a higher chance of success. The conclusion therefore was that suicide is less likely to occur amongst those who are fully socially integrated. He discussed this perspective in detail in his book, Suicide.
Durkheim also went on to propound the theory of anomie. This is a state of normlessness, norms being societal expectations of behavior. It is a breakdown of structure, where normal constraints fail to work, and the dark side of the individual can be unleashed. The extension of anomie is chaos; an overwhelming amount of individuality operating together to destroy stability and cohesion. Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) later expanded this theory, when shared sets of expectations, major tasks and ways to survive were identified.
Durkheim’s summation of his life’s work in his maturity was that only if all members of a society were anchored to common sets of symbolic representations, to common assumptions, could moral unity and integration be assured. The problem with the theory of social integration within the paradigm of structural functionalism is that race, class and gender divisions lose importance as great tension contributors. Pondering such a problem gave rise to the social conflict thinkers, such as Marx.
Karl Marx was also concerned about the destruction of stability, but from another perspective. As a social conflict proponent, he was troubled by the new industrial society, the striking inequalities he saw in Europe in particular, his homeland. He hoped that the emerging field of sociology would not only seek to understand, but seek to bring about change and ultimately social justice. He said “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point however, is to change it.”
He believed that society is an arena of inequality that can generate not only conflict but ultimately generate change. In that regard he looked at how race, gender, ethnicity, class and age are linked to the inequal distribution of wealth, power, education and social prestige. Why is it that social patterns benefit some more than others? In 1844 he wrote, “labor is a direct reflection of a man”, and this led to his basis thesis in Das Kapital. He observed that the bourgeoisie on the whole issued sufficient means only to the proletariat to “recreate” themselves i.e. supply basic human needs. Incompatible self interests fueled hostility and conflict.
Marx ‘s theory was that there would be a worker’s revolution and eventually all would see sense in community property, equality. He denounced capitalism and the exploitation of the minority at the majority’s expense. Revolution did come, but it came by the gaining, and unfortunately the ultimate abuse, of union power. In this way the inequality of society has persisted and study continues into conflict theory and the way it shapes us. It is limited however by its broad stroke approach, a macro level orientation.
George Herbert Meade considered that we are shaped in a different way – he explored how we build our personalities from our social experiences, evolving a framework that sees society as the product of the everyday interactions of individuals – the symbolic-interaction paradigm, a micro level orientation.
It cannot be denied that much of our interaction is either symbolic or based upon our interpretation of symbols. Our lives are governed by our perception of status symbols, the concept of time, agreed values, understood procedures, fitting stereotypes. Our responses to symbols are reactionary – we do not need to even know let alone understand the history to assess the gravity and meaning in our culture. We can know and understand whether a symbol is positive or negative, and our symbols can be verbal or non-verbal. We can agree with the majority perception, and still remain individual.
Robert K. Merton is also a structural functionalist, and his work is important to us, as he was the first to clarify the notion of manifest and latent social functions. He is a contemporary U.S. sociologist who first defined such functions in 1968. A manifest function is a recognized and intended consequence of any social pattern of behavior, whilst we term those consequences that are unrecognized or unintended as latent.
Christmas is a time of year filled with symbolic social functions. Manifest functions of Christmas would include the celebration of Jesus Christ’s birth as a religious festival in the Christian calendar. It is clearly intended amongst Christians, and whosoever else cares to join in, that the day is intended to mark the significance of that event.
Another manifest function is the giving of gifts, to symbolize the gifts the Magi brought to the Baby Jesus at Epiphany. It also symbolizes the celebration of God’s greatest gift to Christians, Jesus himself.
Trees are exhibited at Christmas, with the manifest function of either celebrating the Tree of Life, the fir being dubbed as so by Saint Boniface, or if you are Protestant it signifies recreation of the beauty Martin Luther saw in God’ creation of the stars on a Christmas Eve walk through the evergreens. Interestingly, as a manifest function no one seems very certain of the symbolism. The function of scent and decoration was originally latent, but could it now be said that is manifest, as it is an intended part of the festivities and to most the tree is now the ultimate iconic symbol of the season?
Holly is also used as decoration, the sharp leaves representing the crown of thorns Jesus was ultimately to wear, the red berries for blood, and the evergreen for eternal life. The manifest function is a reminder that the Christmas story will be completed.
Latent functions are, as mentioned above, unintended, sometimes unrecognized and often undesirable. For example, no-one approaches the idea of Christmas with the full intention of creating debt and ensuing year long difficulty, but the effect of celebrating the manifest function using all the symbols that make the event into a celebration according to our culture costs money that many do not have. The latent function would therefore be a rising credit card or other loan debt. Following the same example, such debt could cause depression not only at holiday time but until the debt is paid. Extending from that, a latent function of Christmas could be the loss of a summer vacation, clearly unintended that previous November when shopping was the number one priority. Such latent functions are causing social dysfunction.
Another function of Christmas is the family reunion. This is latent in the sense that it is an unintended function of celebrating a religious festival, but maybe today it has become a manifest function in that our culture expects us to ‘go home for the holidays’ and it is clearly intended to happen.
Another latent function, which can ultimately be a dysfunction, arises from displaying Christmas trees – it was certainly not intended that such displays would ever lead to natural forest destruction, but also alteration of our delicate ecobalance by new afforestation to satisfy our demand for such ornaments. Neither would anyone desire having to pick needles out of the Berber rug in August – few are amused by that latent function.
In conclusion, all of the social paradigms and theories above are valuable to us in learning to use the sociological perspective, in realizing how experiences of different types can make us who we are, in increasing our understanding and respect for cultural diversity, and in challenging our ego- and ethnocentric worlds.
Macionis, John. Sociology. New Jersey : Prentice Hall, 1995.