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Sociological Theories Analysis: Symbolic Interactionism, Functionalism and the Conflict Theory

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To understand what a theoretical approach is, one first has to know what a theory is. Theory is a system of generalized statements or propositions about phenomena. With that in mind one can deduce that a theoretical approach attempts to understand the root causes of something, and to find the reasons as to why it happens and to find out if it will happen again. There are 3 major theoretical approaches, namely, Symbolic Interactionism, Functionalism and The Conflict Theory.

Symbolic Interactionalism

Sociologists use symbols to interact with the world around them, in a nutshell, within symbolic interactionism, people attach meanings to symbols. Symbols are social objects used to represent whatever people agree they shall represent. One example would be a wedding ring, the meaning attached to that ring is that the person is either engaged or married. Symbolic interactionism explains the individual in a society and their interactions with others and through that can explain social order and change. This theoretical approach focuses on a micro level of analysis, meaning that it is looked at from a day to day level and not on a larger scale.

Symbolic interactionism was traced back to Max Weber but George Herbert Mead introduced his perspective to American Sociology, he believed that the development of an individual was a social process and the meanings individuals assigned to things. We can best understand human society from this approach by the simple use of symbols or words (in the case of a text message). Everything is subject to interpretation and something is almost never interpreted the same by more than one person, like a text message that says “bye” can sound like there is an angry underlying tone for someone, whereas for someone else it is just a message with no underlying meaning. Anything can be a symbol as long as it refers to someone which is not itself.

Symbolic interactionist criticisms

The problem is that because symbolic interactionists focus on a micro level of interaction, they fail to see the larger issue or in other words “the big picture”. Another criticism would be that George Herbert Mead focused on human interaction but not on individual thinking capabilities.


Functionalism is an approach that attempts “to relate the parts of society to the whole, and to relate one part to another. What this means is that different parts of society are dependent on one another for the functioning of the society as a whole, for example, an increase in the crime rate can result in more arrests and in turn a need for lawyers and therefore more children going to school to study law to help society function better. Society is made from a lot of different, connected, structures.

One structure is institutions which are structures who meet the needs of society like marriage, businesses and laws. Another structure is referred to as social facts are ways of doing things and thinking formed by the society before any one individual, they are unique objects that cannot be influenced by an individual, for example religious faiths.

Every structure has a function that meets the need of a society and all structures work together to keep society balanced It is a macro level of analysis as it focuses on how the whole of society is affected by the different interdependent parts. This theoretical approach was introduced by Emile Durkheim and is not safe from criticisms. Functionalism Criticisms

It puts the social role the individual plays in society over the individual’s own needs. People within a society become dependent on each other for their well-being so there is no sense of individualism because each person relies on what the next person does or wants and this forces interdependence. Being human involves living in a world which has already been determined (Marsh, 2006) .

Conflict Theory

Conflict theory which was coined by Karl Marx sees society as divided along lines of economic class between the proletarian working class and the bourgeois ruling class. It focuses on the inequality of different groups within the society. It claims that society is in constant conflict because of the fight for limited resources. The working class which are the proletariats give their labour to the bourgeois and in return are given barely enough to survive while those upper class individuals remain in comfort while exploiting the labour of the working class. This conflict can arise between the working class in terms of fighting to give their labour to a better paying manufacturer and between the working class and the upper class in the class where the working class rises up to fight for the wages due to them.

This is free will in the sense that even though the working class have only their labour to offer to get an income, they have a choice to choose which manufacturer to give their labour to, so even though it might not seem like there is free will, being given the chance to dictate where to go is free will.

Criticisms for the Conflict Theory

It leaves society with an unequal balance of power. Creates the sense that society is formed on meritocracy when it is not, rather it is formed on the notion that the strongest will survive and therefore thrive. In the end their will be a surplus of goods manufactured and a decrease in the amount of people being able to buy those goods which in turn can end up as waste material.


Ultimately, in regards to all the information above, I have deduced that the functionalist theory is most appropriate compared to the other two theories. Symbolic Interactionism focuses on a micro level and doesn’t take into context the macro level of societal analysis and therefore cannot be the most appropriate sociological theory. In terms of the conflict theory, there is too much conflict that can result in societal downfall if there is an uprising and there is also an unequal distribution of pay and ownership. Whereas in the functionalist sense, each branch within society works together to form a more cohesive society where it is interdependent and what is needed within the society is provided by the members of said society.

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