How do competing sociological perspectives explain the occurrences of social problems?

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elenacaban eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There are countless competing perspectives within sociology. In order to answer this question, we should identify specific fields, or strains of thought, through which to consider the question.

Let us take, for example, the question of economic inequality. From a Marxist perspective, we could argue that capitalism — that is, the notion of private ownership of property, and the exploitation of workers by a capitalist owner class — causes such inequality. We could go further and say that, in our current society, workers have only their labor (that is, their ability to work) to sell, whereas a "capitalist class" would have accumulated wealth (land, invested wealth, and so on). If we wanted to conduct a more thorough, detailed analysis, we could turn to historical materialism, or associated schools of thought.

We could also argue that, from a feminist sociological perspective, that economic inequality is caused in part by the subjugation of women, and the separation of society into public (male) and private (female) spheres. Here, we could draw on Simone de Beauvoir, and other feminist scholars. However, we must recall that feminist thought owes a great deal to Marxist, or broadly leftist, thought; indeed, sociology is a tangled, intersecting web of ideas. Any discussion of feminism, sociology, and economic inequality would have to touch upon Marxism, and its many scholarly descendants.

What if we considered economic inequality from a post-colonial perspective? We could argue that economic inequality has a global antecedent; Western imperialism, and colonial exploitation of the "Third World," is a major cause of economic inequality. We could then delve into the writings of such scholars as Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.

If, however, we wanted to explore economic inequality in terms of mundane, or daily interactions, we could turn to the works of Erving Goffman. Goffman argues, in "Stigma," that when individuals depart from socially normative modes of behavior, they are stigmatized; stigma follows them, and may wreak havoc on their lives. For example, someone with a criminal record may be discriminated against in terms of housing, employment, and health care; a mentally ill person who behaves strangely may be cast out of mainstream society, and pushed into homelessness. An LGBTQ person may conceal their identity, or try to "pass," in order to avoid violence. Thus, we could argue that economic equality stems, in part, from stigma — that is, the ways in which stigma excludes certain individuals from the mainstream, and dehumanizes them.

msaimeej | Student

Social problems are defined as issues that are considered to have injurious consequences for society and are less than ideal circumstances. Some of these problems are universal and vary only slightly from one society to another.  Social problems are conditions that are perceived to be harmful to a portion of society. They occur in both objective and subjective reality; as they are harmful intrinsically, yet a matter of group perception. There are 3 main sociological perspectives recognized today; symbolic interaction, functionalism, and conflict theory.

            The Symbolic Interaction approach is considered a micro level approach. This is on an individual level approach, or rather a face to face approach. For example, homelessness would be addressed at the very street level through shelters and those working with actually homeless clients. In symbolic interaction, society is considered ongoing and ever changing. The primary focus in this approach is communication and exchange of ideas using symbols and how people use them.

Functionalism stresses that human behavior is governed by stable patterns of social structures. The social structures here are typically analyzed through macrostructures. They show how social structures can either maintain or undermine the social stability. Functionalism tells us that re-establishing equilibrium can best solve most social problems.  If there was more social solidarity and fewer people wanting more, then homelessness could be defeated.  

            The Conflict Theory was developed in opposition to symbolic interaction approach and is considered a macro level approach that focuses on inequality. Society is composed of unequal distributions of desired resources that benefit a minority at the expense of the majority. This unequal distribution of resources causes conflict within a society. Those that have the resources develop structures and methods to keep them, while those who do not have the resources are always creating new ways to acquire them.  For example, those with resources own or rent homes, while those without available funding to do that may live on the street or in a shelter or temporary facility

            Different social problems occur all over the world and most of these are universal in nature. The various sociological perspectives explain the occurrence of these social problems and the recommendations of how such problems should be addressed.