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The Sociological Imagination, Structural, Structuration and Functional Theories

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This article presents the sociological imagination, structural, structuration and functional theories. The article defines the theories, discusses their rationale and applications in sociology. The article examines the extent to which each theory fulfills the criteria of sound theory which include: if each theory makes falsifiable predictions with consistency and accuracy of scientific inquiry and if it is well-supported by other independent evidences rather than one foundation. A brief review of critique of each theory is also presented.

Definition of Concepts

This section defines the sociological imagination, structural, structuration and functional theories and related terms.

Sociological Imagination

According to Mills (2000), sociological imagination refers to the awareness of the relationships between personal experiences and the wider society. It is the ability to view things socially and how the things interact and influence each other. For one to have sociological imagination, he/she has to be able to pull away from situations and think from alternative points of view. The ability is central to development of a sociological perspectives of the world around.

Structural Theory

Structural theory defined as one which attempts to organizes propositions and observations to which they refer as a whole composed of interdependent parts. A structure refers to functional whole presiding over systems of transformation and governed by self-regulating mechanisms.

Structuration Theory

Structuration theory refers to a perspectives on human behaviour which is based on synthesis of structure and agency effects referred to as the “duality of structure”. It acknowledges the interactions of meanings, standards and values, as well as power and gives dynamic relationships between the different elements of the society.

Functional Theory

Functional theory is theory that explains the occurrence of repetitive practices and events in everyday life. The theory defines function as the intended purpose of a communicative act which is the outcome we seek to bring about with our action and known as a manifest function. It also defines function as unintended consequence of a communicative act, which results from an act regardless of our original intent, called a latent function.

Discussion of the Theories

Sociological Imagination

Social imagination was first postulated by C. Wright Mills in 1959. It is defined as a quality of mind, a capacity to understand the interplay of people and society, biography and history, of self and the world.

According to Mills, social imagination means a way of thinking and asking questions of life. To have sociological imagination means looking at the world sociologically, asking sociological questions and to provide sociological answers. Mills outlines three types of questions sociologists tend to ask. The first one is concerned with what the structure of society is. The aim of the question is to know how different groups of society are related. The second, is concerned with what the place of society in history is. The question aims to find out how societies change with time and how the society is related to other societies of the past. The third one focuses on what kinds of people the society produces. The question aims to describe how personalities, beliefs and values of people are shaped by the social world they live in.

Mills details the “promise” of this imagination as why it is important to ask these questions and what it helps to understand. To clarify the kind of work sociology does in connecting the personal and the historical, Mills distinguishes between personal troubles and public issues. Personal troubles are individual experiences in his/her milieu, the word Mills used to describe the immediate situation in which person is. Troubles are private matters while issues belong to a larger social structure. Issue is regarded as a crisis in an institution and not a crisis in an individual. In his view, issues are therefore public matters.

The sociological imagination is relevant today because it relates personal troubles and public issues, connects biographies and history, so as to give complete sense of the specific anxieties and crises in societies.

Structural Theory

The article will discuss structural theory postulated by Freud. Freud divided the mind into three provinces: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. These are translated words from German literally translated as the ‘It’, the ‘I’, and the ‘Above Me’ or ‘Higher I’. There are major differences that exist between the id and the ego.

The Id

It is regarded as the locus of primary or primitive drives of a person. The id is what pushes one toward that car in the showroom yet he/she knows he/she cannot afford or that makes one’s eyes move toward the person across the room even if he or she is with significant other. The id operates under the pleasure principle, meaning it does not regard reality, constraints, or consequences. Wild sexual fantasies or dreams are based on pure id.

The Ego

The ego balances the drives of the id against the realities of the world. It is more organized than the id and attempts to avoid displeasure and pain. In hospital, patients with good control of their impulses and ability to tolerate difficult emotional challenges have good ego strength. Freud felt the real action was viewed it in neurological terms, which he described it as critically involved in self-preservation of the organism through memory, awareness of stimuli, and making changes in the external environment to gain advantage. The ego also can delay or discharge various impulses of the id, leading to release or tension.

The Superego

The superego is the locus of the internalized moral values, prohibitions, and ideals of the person. The superego compels men to climb out of foxholes under fire to pull a wounded comrade back to safety. It is the repository of your ego ideal, your idealized self, the self you want yourself ideally to be. The superego is also where your conscience lives and is responsible for the experience of guilt.

Freud’s Idea of Oedipus Complex

The idea is based on the Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex, in which a boy banished as an infant by his father, the king, comes back and murders his father who was unaware of his identity then at cross-roads the child marries his mother who also was unaware of her identity until too late.

The Oedipus complex posits that 3-5 year-old boys go through a crisis in which they seek to seduce their mother while in fear of retaliatory castration by their father. Successful resolution of this conflict involves acceptance that mother is unattainable and belongs to father, but that one day a mate might be found who will be a substitute for the relinquished mother. The theory is one of the most controversial and widely criticized psychodynamic theory. The female equivalent of the idea has been criticized for phallocentrism. The questions are that why, for example, should a girl suffer penis envy while a man shouldn’t suffer breast envy?

Other criticisms noted that oedipal complex was not found in some other cultures outside Europe. This called into question the Euro-centricity of Freudian ideas. Freud’s goal in formulating his theories of what drives people to do the things they do was to create an all-encompassing theory of human behaviour and emotions, something corresponding to the universal laws of thermodynamics and physics that were under development and popularization during his life-time. In fact, many of Freud’s earlier models viewed the psychic apparatus in hydraulic or mechanical terms and that he referred to ‘psychical energy’ as ‘absorbed’ or ‘discharged’.

Later researchers and thinkers who advanced Freud’s works to the interpersonal realm, have enriched our view of human suffering. Kohut also stressed the importance of attempting to understand and empathize with the patient’s inner world. Empathy, however, does not preclude the therapist from confronting the patient when the patient is engaging in destructive or counter-therapeutic behavior.

Structuration Theory

Structuration concept was postulated by prominent scholar known as Anthony Giddens in 1984. Giddens argues that just as an individual’s autonomy is influenced by structure, structures are maintained and adapted through the exercise of agency. The interface at which an actor meets a structure is termed structuration.

Structuration theory aims to understand human social behaviour through resolution of the competing views of structure which are agency, macro and micro perspectives. This is attained through study of the processes which occur at the interface between the actors and the structures. Structuration theory takes show that social actions cannot be fully explained by structure or agency theories alone but recognizes that actors operate within context of rules given by social structures, and structures are reinforced only by acting in a compliant manner. Consequently, social structures have no inherent stability without human actions since they are socially constructed. Alternatively, through the exercise of reflexivity, agents modify social structures by acting outside the constraints the structures place on them.

Functional Theory

The functional theory was mainly contributed to by Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton, were in the perspective of structural functionalism. In this article, the perspective of George Casper Homans (1910-1989), the father of social exchange theory, and Talcott Parsons is considered. Main concepts of the theory are:

All social systems are characterized by functional requisites; functional requisite is hat which must be done by the members of a relationship or group so as to ensure the effective functioning of system. Functional requisites include adaptation – adjusting to changes in the environment and relationship/group; and expression – management of interpersonal tensions and conflicts among relationship/group members.

  1. The performance of functional requisite is essential for the success or survival of the social system.
  2. Functional requisites are performed by participants through communicative interactions with others within and outside the social system.
  3. Communicative acts which perform functional requisites are reproduced by participants as needed.
  4. The reproduction of communicative acts designed to perform functional requisites manifest themselves in emerging patterns of communication.
  5. Emerging patterns of communication eventually become regularized and institutionalized forms of communication in the social system.

The principles of the theory are outlined as follows:

  1. Principle of functional potential – all communicative acts have potential functions in a relationship/group;
  2. Principle of multi-functionality – communicative acts can function in more than one way)
  3. Principle of contextual functionality – the function(s) of a given communicative act is dependent on the context in which it occurs.
  4. Principle of functional alternatives – the same function can be performed by different communicative acts.


This article defined various sociological theories including social imagination, structural, structuration and functional theories. It also presented a discussion of the components of the theories including their postulations, applications and critique/criticism. It is concluded that each theory is important and applicable in its context and beneficial to the understanding of sociology.

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