Introduction to Sociology/Sociological Theory
- 1 Introduction
- 2 Structural-Functionalism
- 3 Conflict Theory
- 4 Symbolic Interactionism
- 5 Role Theory
- 6 Social Constructionism
- 7 Feminist Theory
- 8 Integration Theory
- 9 Additional Reading
- 10 Discussion Questions
- 11 References
- 12 External links
Sociologists develop theories to explain social phenomena. A theory is a proposed relationship between two or more concepts. In other words, a theory is explanation for why or how a phenomenon occurs. An example of a sociological theory is the work of Robert Putnam on the decline of civic engagement. Putnam found that Americans involvement in civic life (e.g., community organizations, clubs, voting, religious participation, etc.) has declined over the last 40 to 60 years. While there are a number of factors that contribute to this decline (Putnam's theory is quite complex), one of the prominent factors is the increased consumption of television as a form entertainment. Putnam's theory proposes:
- The more television people watch, the lower their involvement in civic life will be.
This element of Putnam's theory clearly illustrates the basic purpose of sociological theory: it proposes a relationship between two or more concepts. In this case, the concepts are civic engagement and television watching. The relationship is an inverse one - as one goes up, the other goes down. What's more, it is an explanation of one phenomenon with another: part of the reason why civic engagement has declined over the last several decades is because people are watching more television. In short, Putnam's theory clearly encapsulates the key ideas of a sociological theory.
Sociological theory is developed at multiple levels, ranging from grand theory to highly contextualized and specific micro-range theories. There are many middle-range and micro-range theories in sociology. Because such theories are dependent on context and specific to certain situations, it is beyond the scope of this text to explore each of those theories. The purpose of this chapter is to introduce some of the more well-known and most commonly used grand and middle-range theories in sociology.
Importance of Theory
In the theory proposed above, the astute reader will notice that the theory includes two components: The data, in this case the findings that civic engagement has declined and TV watching has increased, and the proposed relationship, that the increase in television viewing has contributed to the decline in civic engagement. Data alone are not particularly informative. If Putnam had not proposed a relationship between the two elements of social life, we may not have realized that television viewing does, in fact, reduce people's desire to and time for participating in civic life. In order to understand the social world around us, it is necessary to employ theory to draw the connections between seemingly disparate concepts.
Another example of sociological theorizing illustrates this point. In his now classic work, Suicide, Emile Durkheim was interested in explaining a social phenomenon, suicide, and employed both data and theory to offer an explanation. By aggregating data for large groups of people in Europe, Durkheim was able to discern patterns in suicide rates and connect those patterns with another concept (or variable): religious affiliation. Durkheim found that Protestants were more likely to commit suicide than were Catholics. At this point, Durkheim's analysis was still in the data stage; he had not proposed an explanation for the different suicide rates of the two groups. It was when Durkheim introduced the ideas of anomie and social solidarity that he began to explain the difference in suicide rates. Durkheim argued that the looser social ties found in Protestant religions lead to weaker social cohesion and reduced social solidarity. The higher suicide rates were the result of weakening social bonds among Protestants.
While Durkheim's findings have since been criticized, his study is a classic example of the use of theory to explain the relationship between two concepts. Durkheim's work also illustrates the importance of theory: without theories to explain the relationship between concepts, we would not be able to hypothesize cause and effect relationships in social life or outline processes whereby social events and patterns occur. And to propose cause and effect relationships and / or outline processes in social experience are the major components of sociological theory.
Prominent Sociological Theories
As noted above, there are many theories in sociology. However, there are several broad theoretical perspectives that are prominent in the field (they are arguably paradigms). These theories are prominent because they are quite good at explaining social life. They are not without their problems, but these theories remain widely used and cited precisely because they have withstood a great deal of criticism.
As the dominant theories in sociology are discussed below, you might be inclined to ask, "Which of these theories is the best?" As is often the case in sociology (as in other scientific disciplines), just because things are different doesn't mean one is better than another. In fact, it is probably more useful and informative to view these theories as complementary. One theory may explain one element of society better than another. Or, both may be useful for explaining social life. In short, all of the theories are correct in the sense that they offer compelling explanations for social phenomena.
Structural-Functionalism is a sociological theory that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to meet individual biological needs (originally just functionalism). Later it came to focus on the ways social institutions meet social needs (structural-functionalism).
Structural-functionalism draws its inspiration primarily from the ideas of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim was concerned with the question of how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. He sought to explain social cohesion and stability through the concept of solidarity. In more "primitive" societies it was mechanical solidarity, everyone performing similar tasks, that held society together. Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or systems of exchanges. In modern, complex societies members perform very different tasks, resulting in a strong interdependence between individuals. Based on the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole, Durkheim argued that modern complex societies are held together by organic solidarity (think interdependent organs).
The central concern of structural-functionalism is a continuation of the Durkheimian task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion of societies that are necessary to ensure their continued existence over time. Many functionalists argue that social institutions are functionally integrated to form a stable system and that a change in one institution will precipitate a change in other institutions. Societies are seen as coherent, bounded and fundamentally relational constructs that function like organisms, with their various parts (social institutions) working together to maintain and reproduce them. The various parts of society are assumed to work in an unconscious, quasi-automatic fashion towards the maintenance of the overall social equilibrium. All social and cultural phenomena are therefore seen as being functional in the sense of working together to achieve this state and are effectively deemed to have a life of their own. These components are then primarily analysed in terms of the function they play. In other words, to understand a component of society, one can ask the question, "What is the function of this institution?" A function, in this sense, is the contribution made by a phenomenon to a larger system of which the phenomenon is a part.
Thus, one can ask of education, "What is the function of education for society?" The answer is actually quite complex and requires a detailed analysis of the history of education (see, for instance, this article on the history of education), but one obvious answer is that education prepares individuals to enter the workforce. By delineating the functions of elements of society, of the social structure, we can better understand social life.
Durkheim's strongly sociological perspective of society was continued by Radcliffe-Brown. Following Auguste Comte, Radcliffe-Brown believed that the social constituted a separate level of reality distinct from both the biological and the inorganic (here non-living). Explanations of social phenomena therefore had to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively stable social roles. Thus, in structural-functionalist thought, individuals are not significant in and of themselves but only in terms of their social status: their position in patterns of social relations. The social structure is therefore a network of statuses connected by associated roles.
Structural-functionalism was the dominant perspective of sociology between World War II and the Vietnam War.
Structural-functionalism has been criticized for being unable to account for social change because it focuses so intently on social order and equilibrium in society. For instance, in the late 19th Century, higher education transitioned from a training center for clergy and the elite to a center for the conduct of science and the general education of the masses. In other words, education did not always serve the function of preparing individuals for the labor force (with the exception of the ministry and the elite). As structural-functionalism thinks about elements of social life in relation to their present function and not their past functions, structural-functionalism has a difficult time explaining why a function of some element of society might change or how such change occurs. However, structural-functionalism could, in fact, offer an explanation in this case. Also occurring in the 19th Century (though begun in the 18th) was the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, facilitated by capitalism, was increasingly demanding technological advances to increase profit. Technological advances and advanced industry both required more educated workforces. Thus, as one aspect of society changed - the economy and production - it required a comparable change in the educational system, bringing social life back into equilibrium.
Another philosophical problem with the structural-functional approach is the ontological argument that society does not have needs as a human being does; and even if society does have needs they need not be met. The idea that society has needs like humans do is not a tenable position because society is only alive in the sense that it is made up of living individuals. Thus, society cannot have wants and/or needs like humans do. What's more, just because a society has some element in it at the present that does not mean that it must necessarily have that element. For instance, in the United Kingdom, religious service attendance has declined precipitously over the last 100 years. Today, less than 1 in 10 British attend religious service in a given week. Thus, while one might argue that religion has certain functions in British society, it is becoming apparent that it is not necessary for British society to function.
Another criticism often leveled at structural-functionalist theory is that it supports the status quo. According to some opponents, structural-functionalism paints conflict and challenge to the status quo as harmful to society, and therefore tends to be the prominent view among conservative thinkers.
Manifest and Latent Functions
Merton (1957) proposed a distinction between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are the intended functions of a phenomenon in a social system. Latent functions are the unintended functions of a phenomenon in a social system. An example of manifest and latent functions is education. The manifest purpose of public education is to increase the knowledge and abilities of the citizenry to prepare them to contribute in the workforce. A latent function of the public education system is the development of a hierarchy of the learned. The most learned are often also the most affluent. Thus, while education's manifest function is to empower all individuals to contribute to the workforce and society, it also limits some people by creating boundaries of entry into occupations.
A prominent sociological theory that is often contrasted with structural-functionalism is conflict theory. Karl Marx is considered the father of conflict theory. Conflict theory argues that society is not best understood as a complex system striving for equilibrium but rather as a competition. Society is made up of individuals competing for limited resources (e.g., money, leisure, sexual partners, etc.). Broader social structures and organizations (e.g., religions, government, etc.) reflect the competition for resources in their inherent inequalities; some people and organizations have more resources (i.e., power and influence) and use those resources to maintain their positions of power in society.
Conflict theory was developed in part to illustrate the limitations of structural-functionalism. The structural-functionalist approach argued that society tends toward equilibrium, focusing on stability at the expense of social change. This is contrasted with the conflict approach, which argues that society is constantly in conflict over resources. One of the primary contributions conflict theory presents over the structural-functional approach is that it is ideally suited for explaining social change, a significant problem in the structural-functional approach.
The following are three primary assumptions of modern conflict theory:
- Competition over scarce resources is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships.
- Inequalities in power and reward are built into all social structures. Individuals and groups that benefit from any particular structure strive to see it maintained.
- Change occurs as a result of conflict between competing interests rather than through adaptation. Change is often abrupt and revolutionary rather than evolutionary.
A heuristic device to help you think about society from a conflict perspective is to ask, "Who benefits from this element of society?" Using the same example as we did above, we can ask, "Who benefits from the current higher educational system in the U.S.?" The answer, of course, is the wealthy. Why? Because higher education in the U.S. is not free. Thus, the educational system often screens out poorer individuals not because they are unable to compete academically but because they cannot afford to pay for their education. Because the poor are unable to obtain higher education, this means they are also generally unable to get higher paying jobs which means they remain poor. This can easily translate into a vicious cycle of poverty. Thus, while the function of education is to educate the workforce, it also has built into it an element of conflict and inequality, favoring one group (the wealthy) over other groups (the poor). Thinking about education this way helps illustrate why both structural-functionalist and conflict theories are helpful in understanding how society works.
Conflict theory was elaborated in the United Kingdom by Max Gluckman and John Rex, in the United States by Lewis A. Coser and Randall Collins, and in Germany by Ralf Dahrendorf, all of whom were influenced by Karl Marx, Ludwig Gumplovicz, Vilfredo Pareto, Georg Simmel, and other founders of European sociology.
Not surprisingly, the primary limitation of the social-conflict perspective is that it overlooks the stability of societies. While societies are in a constant state of change, much of the change is minor. Many of the broader elements of societies remain remarkably stable over time, indicating the structural-functional perspective has a great deal of merit.
As noted above, sociological theory is often complementary. This is particularly true of structural-functionalism and social-conflict theories. Structural-functionalism focuses on equilibrium and solidarity; conflict-theory focuses on change and conflict. Keep in mind that neither is better than the other; when combined, the two approaches offer a broader and more comprehensive view of society.
In contrast to the rather broad approach toward society of structural-functionalism and conflict theory, Symbolic Interactionism is a theoretical approach to understanding the relationship between humans and society. The basic notion of symbolic interactionism is that human action and interaction are understandable only through the exchange of meaningful communication or symbols. In this approach, humans are portrayed as acting as opposed to being acted upon.
The main principles of symbolic interactionism are:
- human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that things have for them
- these meanings arise from ongoing processes of social interaction and interpretation
- social action results from a "joint action", or the fitting together of individual lines of action
This approach stands in contrast to the strict behaviorism of psychological theories prevalent at the time it was first formulated (in the 1920s and 1930s). According to Symbolic Interactionism, humans are distinct from infrahumans (lower animals) because infrahumans simply respond to their environment (i.e., a stimulus evokes a response or stimulus -> response) whereas humans have the ability to interrupt that process (i.e., stimulus -> cognition -> response). Additionally, infrahumans are unable to conceive of alternative responses to gestures. Humans, however, can. This understanding should not be taken to indicate that humans never behave in a strict stimulus -> response fashion, but rather that humans have the capability of not responding in that fashion (and do so much of the time).
This perspective is also rooted in phenomenological thought (see social constructionism and phenomenology). According to symbolic interactionism, the objective world has no reality for humans, only subjectively-defined objects have meaning. Meanings are not entities that are bestowed on humans and learned by habituation. Instead, meanings can be altered through the creative capabilities of humans, and individuals may influence the many meanings that form their society. Human society, therefore, is a social product.
Neurological evidence based on EEGs supports the idea that humans have a "social brain," that is, there are components of the human brain that govern social interaction. These parts of the brain begin developing in early childhood (the preschool years) and aid humans in understanding how other people think. In symbolic interactionism, this is known as "reflected appraisals" or "the looking glass self" and refers to our ability to think about how other people will think about us. A good example of this is when people try on clothes before going out with friends. Some people may not think much about how others will think about their clothing choices, but others can spend quite a bit of time considering what they are going to wear. And while they are deciding, the dialogue that is taking place inside their mind is usually a dialogue between their "self" (that portion of their identity that calls itself "I") and that person's internalized understanding of their friends and society (a "generalized other" called the "me"). An indicator of mature socialization is when an individual quite accurately predicts how other people think about him/her. Such an individual has incorporated the "social" into the "self" and will thus experience the world through an ongoing internal communication process that seeks to determine "if I do this, what will be thought of me."
It should also be noted that symbolic interactionists advocate a particular methodology. Because they see meaning as the fundamental component of human and society interaction, studying human and society interaction requires getting at that meaning. Thus, symbolic interaction tends to take two distinct, but related methodological paths. Processual Symbolic Interaction seeks to uncover the elaboration and experience of meanings in natural settings of social interaction through primarily qualitative methods (e.g., examining the process whereby people become and signify selves) while Structural Symbolic Interaction seeks to map the contours of the self through primarily quantitative methods (e.g., examining the structure of the self by asking who people believe themselves and others to be).
Symbolic Interaction arose through the integration of Structural Functionalism and Conflict Theories. Specifically, Symbolic Interaction seeks to uncover the ways "meanings" are deployed within interactions and embedded within larger social structures to facilitate social cohesion (Structural Functionalism) and social change (Conflict Theories). To use the case above, Symbolic Interaction may be used to explain the distinction between Conflict and Structural Functionalist approaches to education. If people act toward education based on the meaning they have for it, for example, then people that believe (or are taught to believe) that education serves an important function for all of society (e.g., Structural Functionalism) will be hesitant to change this social structure. On the other hand, if people believe (or are taught to believe) that education transmits social inequalities from generation to generation (e.g., Conflict Theory), then they will be more likely to attempt to change this structure over time. In either case, societies (and the people that form them) will move towards cohesion (Structural Functionalism) or conflict (Conflict Theory) concerning educational structures based upon the meanings these people have for the current educational structure. Symbolic Interaction thus often focuses on elaborating the multitude of ways that micro patterns of interaction and interpretation justify, sustain, and / or change large scale social structures and patterns of activity within the world.
Central to Symbolic Interaction is the notion that selves and societies exist in an ongoing reciprocal relationship wherein each acts back upon the other. Stated another way, Symbolic Interactionism argues that people become selves by learning and internalizing the symbolic materials of the social and historical context and culture they are born into and raised within (e.g., the individual is formed by the society), and then act back upon and alter societies (e.g., norms, cultures and structures) by deploying the symbolic resources at their disposal throughout the course of their ongoing lives (e.g., the society is formed by the joint action of individuals). As a result, Symbolic Interactionists argue against the division of society into micro, meso, and macro forms, and instead focus on the ways that interconnected people continuously construct, alter, signify, and affirm themselves and others in ways that create, sustain, and change existing social structures. They thus argue that society is always an ongoing information exchange between individuals, groups, and social structures that each depend on the other for their meaning and by extension their existence and survival.
The most significant limitations of symbolic interactionism relate to its primary contribution: it focuses on the ongoing construction and contestation of meanings in society (e.g., norms, rules, cultures, and interpersonal experiences), which can only be grasped via examination of small groups or individual beings. As a result, Symbolic Interactionism typically focuses on "how" things are done (e.g., the ways people accomplish things that can be observed in real time and in the natural world) rather than "why" things are done (e.g., hypotheses that can only be examined within mathematical and / or experimental settings disconnected from the natural world). As a result, Symbolic Interaction is more adequately suited to explaining how the world is, but is unable to demonstrate and document predictions about how the world might differ, if circumstances were hypothetically altered.
Another more micro-oriented approach to understanding social life that also incorporates the more structural elements of society is Role Theory. Role theory emerged from the integration of Structural and Processual Symbolic Interactionist insights, and often draws heavily upon both of these theoretical traditions (see also dramaturgy). Role theory posits that human behavior is guided by expectations held both by the individual and by other people. The expectations correspond to different roles individuals perform or enact in their daily lives, such as secretary, father, or friend. For instance, most people hold pre-conceived notions of the role expectations of a secretary, which might include: answering phones, making and managing appointments, filing paperwork, and typing memos. These role expectations would not be expected of a professional soccer player.
Individuals generally have and manage many roles. Roles consist of a set of rules or norms that function as plans or blueprints to guide behavior. Roles specify what goals should be pursued, what tasks must be accomplished, and what performances are required in a given scenario or situation. Role theory holds that a substantial proportion of observable, day-to-day social behavior is simply persons carrying out their roles, much as actors carry out their roles on the stage or ballplayers theirs on the field. Role theory is, in fact, predictive. It implies that if we have information about the role expectations for a specified status (e.g., sister, fireman, prostitute), a significant portion of the behavior of the persons occupying that position can be predicted.
What's more, role theory also argues that in order to change behavior it is necessary to change roles; roles correspond to behaviors and vice versa. In addition to heavily influencing behavior, roles influence beliefs and attitudes; individuals will change their beliefs and attitudes to correspond with their roles. For instance, someone over-looked for a promotion to a managerial position in a company may change their beliefs about the benefits of management by convincing him/herself that they didn't want the additional responsibility that would have accompanied the position.
Many role theorists see Role Theory as one of the most compelling theories bridging individual behavior and social structure. Roles, which are in part dictated by social structure and in part by social interactions, guide the behavior of the individual. The individual, in turn, influences the norms, expectations, and behaviors associated with roles. The understanding is reciprocal.
Role Theory includes the following propositions:
- people spend much of their lives participating as members of groups and organizations
- within these groups, people occupy distinct positions
- each of these positions entails a role, which is a set of functions performed by the person for the group
- groups often formalize role expectations as norms or even codified rules, which include what rewards will result when roles are successfully performed and what punishments will result when roles are not successfully performed
- individuals usually carry out their roles and perform in accordance with prevailing norms; in other words, role theory assumes that people are primarily conformists who try to live up to the norms that accompany their roles
- group members check each individual's performance to determine whether it conforms with the norms; the anticipation that others will apply sanctions ensures role performance
Role theory has a hard time explaining social deviance when it does not correspond to a pre-specified role. For instance, the behavior of someone who adopts the role of bank robber can be predicted - she will rob banks. But if a bank teller simply begins handing out cash to random people, role theory would be unable to explain why (though role conflict could be one possible answer; the secretary may also be a Marxist-Communist who believes the means of production should belong to the masses and not the bourgeoisie).
Another limitation of role theory is that it does not and cannot explain how role expectations came to be what they are. Role theory has no explanation for why it is expected of male soldiers to cut their hair short, but it could predict with a high degree of accuracy that if someone is a male soldier they will have short hair. Additionally, role theory does not explain when and how role expectations change. As a result, role theorists typically draw upon insights from Symbolic Interaction Theory and Historical Comparative analyses to address these questions.
An extension of role theory, impression management is both a theory and process. The theory argues that people are constantly engaged in controlling how others perceive them. The process refers to the goal-directed conscious or unconscious effort to influence the perceptions of other people by regulating and controlling information in social interaction. If a person tries to influence the perception of her or his own image, this activity is called self-presentation.
Erving Goffman (1959), the person most often credited with formally developing impression management theory, cast the idea in a dramaturgical framework. The basic idea is that individuals in face-to-face situations are like actors on a stage performing roles (see role theory above). Aware of how they are being perceived by their audience, actors manage their behavior so as to create specific impressions in the minds of the audience. Strategic interpersonal behavior to shape or influence impressions formed by an audience is not a new idea. Plato spoke of the "great stage of human life" and Shakespeare noted that "All the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players".
Social constructionism is a school of thought introduced into sociology by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann with their 1966 book The Social Construction of Reality. Drawing on Symbolic Interactionist insights about the ongoing production and affirmation of meaning, social constructionism aims to discover the ways that individuals and groups create their perceived reality. Social constructionism focuses on the description of institutions and actions and not on analyzing cause and effect. Socially constructed reality is seen as an on-going dynamic process; reality is re-produced by people acting on their interpretations of what they perceive to be the world external to them. Berger and Luckmann argue that social construction describes both subjective and objective reality - that is that no reality exists outside what is produced and reproduced in social interactions.
A clear example of social constructionist thought is, following Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim, religion. Religion is seen as a socially constructed concept, the basis for which is rooted in either our psyche (Freud) or man's need to see some purpose in life or worship a higher presence. One of the key theorists of social constructionism, Peter Berger, explored this concept extensively in his book, The Sacred Canopy.
Although women were primarily ignored, barred, and/or disenfranchised within most scientific communities prior to the women's rights movement of the 1960's and 1970's (for a notable exception in Sociology, see Dorothy Swaine Thomas), women have contributed to scientific disciplines, methods, and theories since at least the 1830's. Following the establishment of women's academic conferences and coordinated protests of the American Sociological Association's annual meetings during the 1970's, women made significant inroads into Sociology. For example, women such as Dorothy E. Smith, Joan Acker, Myra Marx Ferree, Patricia Yancey Martin, and bell hooks were all pioneers in Sociology who developed insights and empirical findings that challenged much of existing sociological practice, knowledge, and methods. These early scholars also founded women's academic organizations like Sociologists for Women in Society to lobby for the admittance and inclusion of minority people and perspectives within scientific disciplines. The theoretical perspectives these and subsequent scholars developed is broadly referred to as Feminist Theory. The name derives from the ties many of these individuals had and continue to have with women's movement organizations, the promotion of minority perspectives, their experience in relation to the subjective nature of scientific practice, and commitment to principles of social justice. Feminist Theory uncovered a vast "herstory" of women's (and other minority) academic thinking, writing, and activism, and integrated insights from these essays and studies into the scientific enterprise. In so doing, these scholars uncovered many ways that Feminist theorists from as far back as the 1830's had already introduced insights - such as Social Constructionism, Intersectionality, and the subjective nature and critical possibilities of scientific work - that have become crucial to scientific research and theorizing across disciplines.
Further, historical research into the history of Feminist Thought has uncovered a litany of social theorists - including but not limited to early abolitionists and women's rights proponents like Maria W. Stewart, Elisbabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony; the first woman pastor of the African Methodist Episcopal Church Jarena Lee; early abolitionist writers and activists like Anna J. Cooper, Harriet Tubman, and one of the first African American women to earn a college degree, Mary Church Terrell; early black feminist writers promoting gender and sexual equality like Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Richard Bruce Nugent; early 20th Century writers and activists that sought racial civil rights, women's suffrage, and prison reform like Ida B. Wells, Alice Paul, Amy Jacques Garvey, and Lucy Burns; and mid 20th Century writers and activists that challenged unequal labor practices, racial discrimination, women's oppression, and homophobia like Bayard Rustin, Betty Friedan, Alice Walker, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, and Robin Morgan. Many of these individuals were disenfranchised, ignored, and/or silenced by the scientific communities of their time due to racism, sexism, and heterosexism. Feminist scholars across disciplines have continuously sought to expand scientific "facts" beyond their initial (and often continuing) white, male, heterosexual biases and assumptions while seeking knowledge as an entryway into a more just social world.
Similar to the other theories outlined in this chapter, Feminist Theory is far more expansive than can adequately be explored within one textbook, let alone within a single chapter in a textbook. Feminist theorists and methods, for example, can be found in wide ranging fields beyond sociology including biology, genetics, chemistry, literature, history, political science, fine arts, religious studies, psychology, anthropology, and public health. Feminist Theory often dramatically influences scientific theory and practice within such fields. Below we offer summaries of the major conceptual approaches within Feminist Theory. It is important to note, however, that while we outline these perspectives under distinct headings and within specific orders for the purposes of clarity and introduction, contemporary Feminist theorists and researchers across disciplines often draw upon more than one of these perspectives in practice and continually seek ways to refine and integrate each of these approaches. Before presenting this outline, however, it is important to be aware of three basic premises or foundational ideas within and between contemporary Feminist Theories.
- Scientific practice is subjective: If one admits that social experience and environment influence individual and collective perceptions, then one cannot form a question without expressing - implicitly or explicitly - a socially influenced perspective. As long as people are the "doers" of research, all research will ultimately be subjective and open to debate or refinement on some level. Feminist theorists thus argue that understanding the social or natural world also requires interrogating our own conscious or unconscious bias, perspective, beliefs, and values, and our own positions within systems of racial, class, gender, sexual, political, and scientific social systems.
- The personal is political: Experiences we consider personal are generally shaped by our social locations within existing systems of oppression and privilege. As a result, every personal decision or action ultimately reproduces and/or challenges systems of social inequality. Feminist theorists therefore argue that understanding and/or changing large-scale systems of oppression and privilege requires examining the ways people think, feel, and act in all aspects of life since all such endeavors will ultimately influence the social and natural worlds they experience.
- Everything is more than one thing: Rather than simple one to one relationships or isolated causal patterns, all social and natural systems are interlocked systems that may only be understood, reproduced or challenged in relation to the other systems they depend on. If one examines women's oppression, for example, one must also explore the ways of thinking and feeling that produce scientific categorization systems, the system of categorization that simplifies the world into only two sexes or genders, the social construction of the term "woman" within historical and contextual power relations, and the other systems that make up a given "woman". For example, in order to understand the experience of one woman requires examining the ways her position within racial, classed, sexual, religious, political, scientific, and other systems create the definition of what it means for her to be a "woman". Feminist theorists therefore argue that the social and natural worlds cannot be understood via the isolation or control of various parts of social and/or natural experience. As a result, scientific inquiries require attending to the whole entity, system, and/or structure in relation to other entities, systems, and/or structures in the world at that time.
With these foundational ideas in mind, we now present the primary Feminist theoretical perspectives.
Liberal feminists believe that men and women both are disadvantaged by society’s gender expectations. They advocate working within institutions to “level the playing field” through changing laws, education, and socialization to bring about gender equality.
Marxist and Socialist Feminism
Marxist feminists believe that the oppression of women stems primarily from capitalism, which exploits women’s labor and is upheld through women’s unpaid domestic labor. They believe that economic inequalities are the most central form of inequality. Therefore, eliminating capitalism would get rid of gender inequalities.
Socialist feminists believe that women’s oppression is inseparable from class oppression. Therefore, to bring about gender equality, we must work to eliminate both capitalism and patriarchy in all social and natural fields of knowledge and experience.
Radical, Separatist, and Cultural Feminism
Radical feminists believe that women are oppressed by our patriarchal society. They do not believe that men are oppressed. They seek a fundamental reorganization of society because our existing political, scientific, religious, and social organization is inherently patriarchal.
Separatist feminists, like radical feminists, believe that women are oppressed by our patriarchal society. They, however, believe that we can’t get rid of this problem if women and men are together. In order to achieve equality, women need to separate themselves from men. Some believe this is a temporary stage while others see this as a permanent goal.
Cultural feminists, like radical feminists, believe that women are oppressed by our patriarchal society. They, however, focus on empowering women through valuing, emphasizing, and encouraging the positive qualities traditionally associated with women, such as nurturing, caring, cooperation, relationships with others, childbirth, morality, peace, pureness, and women’s connection to nature and the earth.
Black Feminist Thought and Queer Feminism
Black feminists believe that many inequalities are important in society today, not only gender. In addition to gender inequalities, they focus on race, ethnicity, and class — and sometimes also add sexuality, nationality, age, disability, and others. They believe that people experience gender differently depending on their location in socially constructed cultural, political, and biological structures of race, ethnicity and class. Therefore, there is no universal female experience. This perspective is sometimes referred to as multicultural feminism, multiracial feminism, or womanism.
Queer feminists - sometimes referred to as Postmodern Feminists - believe that gender and sex (as well as other social locations and systems of social and natural organization and categorization) are multiple, constantly changing, and performed by individuals and groups within situated social, historical, scientific, and political contexts. There are many (i.e., more than two) genders and sexes, and variations (biologically and socially) within other "accepted" or "normalized" categorizations. They focus on creating social change through challenging the existence and blurring the boundaries of these categories. This perspective shares many ideas with Queer Theory.
Recently, some sociologists have been taking a different approach to sociological theory by employing an integrationist approach - combining micro- and macro-level theories to provide a comprehensive understanding of human social behavior (while these studies rarely cite Symbolic Interaction Theory, most of their models are based heavily upon Herbert Blumer's initial elaboration of Symbolic Interaction in relation to social institutions). Numerous models could be presented in this vein. George Ritzer's Integration Model is a good example.
Ritzer proposes four highly interdependent elements in his sociological model: a macro-objective component (e.g., society, law, bureaucracy), a micro-objective component (e.g., patterns of behavior and human interaction), a macro-subjective component (e.g., culture, norms, and values), and a micro-subjective component (e.g., perceptions, beliefs). This model is of particular use in understanding society because it uses two axes: one ranging from objective (society) to subjective (culture and cultural interpretation); the other ranging from the macro-level (norms) to the micro-level (individual level beliefs).
The integration approach is particularly useful for explaining social phenomenon because it shows how the different components of social life work together to influence society and behavior.
If used for understanding a specific cultural phenomenon, like the displaying of abstract art in one's home, the integration model depicts the different influences on the decision. For instance, the model depicts that cultural norms can influence individual behavior. The model also shows that individual level values, beliefs, and behaviors influence macro-level culture. This is, in fact, part of what David Halle finds: while there are art consumption differences based on class, they are not predicted solely by class. Displayers of abstract art tend not only to belong to the upper-class, but also are employed in art-production occupations. This would indicate that there are multiple levels of influence involved in art tastes – both broad cultural norms and smaller level occupational norms in addition to personal preferences.
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- Why do sociologists need theories?
- How does sociological theory complement data?
- What is the difference between sociological theorizing and philosophy?
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