What are three major theoretical perspectives in sociology, namely, functionalism, conflict and symbolic interactionism. What is the level of analysis used by each perspective? What image of society does each perspective have? What core questions does each perspective ask?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Structural Functionalism

  • The level of analysis for this theoretical perspective is the macro level. Functionalism holds that every institution in society acts like an organ in a body.  Each one is important to the proper functioning of the society. Therefore, this is a macro-level perspective that looks at major institutions and their impacts on society as a whole.
  • Functionalism has a very positive image of society.  Society is like an organism and all of its parts work together to create and maintain order and stability.  This view sees society as essentially harmonious and stable. We will see how this contrasts with the next perspective.
  • The core questions that this perspective asks have to do with the functions of each institution in society.  For example, functionalists would ask why/how poverty helps to keep society stable and orderly.

Conflict Perspective.

  • This theoretical perspective also operates on the macro level of analysis. It is most concerned with different groups in society and the conflicts between them. 
  • The conflict perspective has a very negative image of society. According to this perspective, society does not function as a unified organism.  Instead, society is an arena for conflict between groups. This perspective owes its origins to Karl Marx and his idea of class conflict.  It believes that classes (and other groups) are constantly in conflict and that our society is shaped by the results of that conflict. This is a very critical view of society, one which sees social institutions rising out of oppression, not out of society’s need for order and harmony.
  • The core questions that conflict theorists look at have to do with the conflicts that arise between groups.  They look at various aspects of our society and they ask what conflicts caused those conditions to come about.  In other words, they might ask what group conflict or conflicts resulted in the particular kind of poverty that we have in the United States. They often ask how the results of the conflicts can be reversed because they tend to side with the underdog and want to improve the lot of the powerless in society.

Symbolic Interactionism

  • Unlike the other two perspectives, this perspective operates on the micro level of analysis.  It is mainly concerned with the ways in which individuals interact with and understand the world around them and how those understandings and interactions help shape society. It focuses on individuals as the creators of society.
  • We might say that this perspective sees society as being made up of individuals. Its image of society is neither positive nor negative.  Instead, it holds that society is created by the individuals who make it up.
  • Sociologists who operate from this perspective ask very different questions than functionalists or conflict theorists. They might ask, for example, how poor people see themselves and their situation.  Do they define themselves as poor?  Do they feel that they are underprivileged compared to other people? Do they feel pride in their socioeconomic status? In general, interactionists want to look at the ways in which individuals understand and define the other people and the institutions with which they interact every day.
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial