Which sociological theory is most effective in approaching social issues: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, or the conflict perspective?
Answering this question requires one to determine in what way they personally interpret the world. These aren't hard sciences, so it has some room for subjectivity (hence why they are defined as perspectives).
The functionalist perspective emphasizes the idea that society is made up of several social institutions working together. For example, family systems, school systems, business systems, and political systems are all cogs within a societal machine meant to promote social harmony. To approach social issues with this perspective is to deem some issues as "functional" or "dysfunctional." One potential problem when tackling social issues with the functionalist perspective is that this perspective is predicated on the idea that these social institutions are constructed for good, and it may be too lenient on possible malice amongst the institutions themselves because of a generalized hopeful outlook keen on maintaining the status quo.
The symbolic interactionist perspective is focused on...
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Sociological theories (also known as theoretical perspectives) are as diverse as theories in other disciplines. However, applying these theoretical perspectives together provides sociologists a wider lens in which to view societal issues. So, if we use the example of homelessness as a social issue that needs to be solved, we can then apply each of the following theoretical perspectives to it: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective.
The symbolic interactionist perspective (often called symbolic interaction) is rooted in the work of social thinker, Max Weber (1864-1920) and his ideas concerning rationalism, or how societies are built around the notion of a society founded on logic and efficiency instead of traditions and morals. Weber might note that homelessness is a symbol of the United States inability to adhere to the tenets of a capitalist society, and as such, has caused certain members of society to be homeless. Simplistic yes, but in this example, homelessness is seen as a “symbol” of a failing of the greater society.
The functionalist perspective, is named for Emile Durkheim’s (1858-1917) perspective that society is greater than the sum of its parts. Durkheim viewed society like a living organism, in that all the parts functioned together for the benefit of the whole. For a society to truly function in an efficient manner every part needed to work correctly. As this is applied to our example of homelessness it could be argued that because of circumstances like wealth inequality, or subpar social services, or a downtrodden economy an individual could become homeless as a result.
The conflict perspective (also known as conflict theory) was coined by Karl Marx (1818-1883) who viewed conflict as the primary driver of social change. He maintained that constant strife between the owners of the means of production (the bourgeoisie) and the laborers (the proletariat) is what propels and shapes societies. If we were to apply a conflict perspective to the homelessness example perhaps we as sociologists could deduce that homelessness is caused by large, monopolistic corporations laying off hundreds of thousands of workers every year in sake of the bottom line, thus consigning many to homelessness.
There is no sociological perspective better than the next. In fact, taken in concert, applying all three of these sociological perspectives will ensure that a broader social context is understood by all.