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The purpose of this assignment is to learn about social institutions and their importance in society by examining one social institution (social institution: EDUCATION). Each student will look at social institution (EDUCATION) and create a presentation that others students will look at. This assignment has multiple components and early due dates so make sure you start early.

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Step 1: Research about EDUCATION– This is your social institution.

Step 2: Read the course module on social institutions below. This will give you an overview of what a social institution is and how it works in society.

Step 3: Read the assigned sources listed below. You will use these sources to create a brief presentation about your social institution.

Step 4: completing the project;

Each student will complete the following

  1. A brief presentation about their social institution that answers some key questions (listed below) about that institution.
  2. 2 to 3 discussion questions about their social institution that will be added to the end of their presentation.
  3. 5 to 7 quiz questions about their social institution that will be included in this week’s quiz.

More information about the presentation:

Your presentation will be a combination of material from your class modules below, your sources and critical thinking.

It should answer all of the following questions:

  1. We defined a social institution as an organization that is formed to meet basic needs of society what basic needs does your social institution address
  2. What are some of the basic rules or social norms that are used to maintain order in your social institution?
  3. What are some of the major historical changes that have happened to your institution over time?
  4. Analyze your social institution from each of the three theoretical viewpoints (Below: Sociology’s Three Major Theoretical Perspectives).
  5. What are some social issues or problems that society deals with that are related to your institution?
  6. What are some solutions to those problems?
  7. What are other important things you can tell us about your institution (This is the place to summarize and include the other things about your sources that don’t really fit in these questions but are important)
  8. What do you see happening in the future with your institution?
  9. 2 to 3 discussion questions for other students to answer

Your presentation can be in any format. Most students prefer power point but you can use a document, prezi or any other format you would like. However keep in mind this is not an essay or a list of questions and answers. It should be creative and fun to look at.

Some hints and tips-

  • Do use pictures and graphics
  • Don’t use animations- they can be distracting and not work consistently
  • Keep answers short and simple- remember that you will be reading all of the other presentations. When putting yours together ask yourself would you want other students to be putting this much text on the presentation you have to read?
  • If slides are too crowded split them into separate slides
  • Stick mostly with given sources rather than outside sources
  • Critical thinking is important to answer some of these questions like what needs does your institution meet or what is the future of your institution but make sure you are staying factually correct and in line with the information and evidence given in your assigned readings
  • Do include citations and a list of references
  • Do read the rubric- this is what I use to grade your assignments


More information on the discussion questions

The 2 to 3 discussion questions should be able to be answered based on information that is included in your presentation.

These questions should focus on generally on getting students thinking and talking about social institutions in general and how your institution contributes to the social structure.

You will be answering the questions of other students so keep that in mind when constructing your questions.

Discussion questions should be the last thing on your slides- after your references.



More information on the quiz-

You will create 5 to 7 quiz questions that I will use to create this week’s quiz. Remember that you and other students will need to answer these. You will not be reading all of the assigned sources that other students will and they will not be reading your material. This means you need to provide any information students need to answer the quiz questions on your slide.

The most successful questions are those about theoretical perspectives- if you do a multiple-choice question for each of the 3 perspectives you are already mostly there. Other questions should be about the big general ideas in your resources about your institution.

Try to stay away from the questions pre-constructed in your sources- some of them presuppose you are reading all of the sources and tend to be very specific.


Module 4: Social Institutions


I. The Origins of Social Institutions
II. Two Examples of Social Institutions: The Family and Religion
III. Changing Institutions: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives

Civilization…is an inexorable result of the changes occurring in the volume and density of societies. The development of science, art, and economic activity derives from human necessity. Men cannot exist without them under new conditions into which they are thrust. When the number of individuals involved in social relations grows larger, they can survive only by increased specialization, by increased labor, by great refinement of their capacities. From this wholesale excitation there must come a higher degree of culture.

—Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society

In module 2, we learned that social institutions are stable, organized units of society developed to meet society’s needs. We gave you a few examples: education, the military, family, and medicine. We have come to depend on such institutions so much that they have become taken-for-granted aspects of life in the United States. Institutions organize social life in that they provide values, beliefs, norms, and social goals.

Historically, sociologists have identified five major social institutions: the family, the government, the economy, religion, and education. In addition, sociologists have noted that as society has become more complex, other sectors of the social world have become sufficiently patterned so that they now also functional as institutions. Among these are work, science, law, the military, health care, and the media.


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Other industrialized countries, such as those in Europe, have institutional arrangements that are similar to those in the United States. Overall, institutions tend to be more formalized in societies that are highly industrialized and less formalized in non-industrialized, newly developing nations.

I. The Origins of Social Institutions

What Historical Factors Gave Rise to Institutions?

In history, the primary dimension of family life was the production, consumption, and later, the distribution of goods (food, clothing, and shelter). In primitive families, this function was accomplished in small groups or clans. Social organization was, by definition, simple. Over time, three “revolutions” necessitated changes in the organization of social life.

The agricultural revolution (approximately 5,000 years ago) brought about substantial changes to hunting-and-gathering societies. Animals were harnessed to improve agricultural yields and surplus food production resulted. Increased production allowed people to begin inventing new and better tools to do their work and even to specialize in their work. Because agriculture provided a better way of life, people began to stay put in one area and to trade with other communities. A new way of life resulted that began the expansion of the economy and several new patterns of social interaction developed to address the now stabilized aspects of family life. These new institutions were arranged around religion, power (political relationships), and authority (government regulation). This period lasted until the mid-eighteenth century.

The second great expansion, the Industrial Revolution, took place in the middle of the eighteenth century, first in England and then in the United States and other western societies. This revolution was associated with massive social changes:

  • Work previously done on farms was shifted to wage work in factories.
  • New forms of energy helped give rise to the development of factories and mass production of goods.

Increasing numbers of people working in factories required a new kind of organization of work. Thus a division of labor was developed and people began to specialize in certain tasks.

In the past 50 years, the former Industrial Revolution has developed into an “information revolution.” Instead of tangible products, we now sell ideas; instead of an emphasis on mechanical skills, we now focus on informational skills and higher education. What is more, communication is so rapid as to be instantaneous. Instead of huge, centralized factories that manufacture goods, companies tend now to decentralize their efforts and put production units in areas of cheap labor and raw materials, both at home and abroad.

Such changes have altered the way we live, work, and think about life. We now live in a global economy in which the products we use, the methods by which we communicate, and the ways in which we live are now almost seamlessly interconnected.

Think about this…

Take a product you use every day, such as a car. Do you know where all the parts of your car come from? Globalization is making it difficult to tell. This article provides a short history of the auto industry: http://www.aaca.org/autohistory/17.html

Why Are Institutions so Important?

Our basic human needs and desires are related to attachments to social groups. Small-scale relationships are connected to larger-scale relationships called social institutions and, ultimately, to society itself.

People associate themselves with institutions because institutions tend to reduce uncertainty in human life. More concretely, children must be socialized, the elderly and the sick must be taken care of, resources to live must be secured, and relationships among societies must be managed. Because we may well have a hard time meeting all of these needs alone, we align ourselves with institutions and the organized units of society to help us get our needs met. We rely on institutions to provide predictability and order. Formalized education, for example, has the main goal of transmitting the cultural knowledge and skills to allow full participation in society. We rely upon schools to educate our children not only in gaining knowledge, but in learning to act in socially acceptable ways. If schools fail in their institutional goals, our children can fail to learn, the family and community can be affected and, ultimately, social problems can result. Therefore, how well social institutions both care for and adapt to the needs of individuals, groups, and society is of key importance in social life.

What Are the Main Theoretical Approaches to Social Institutions?

Functionalists argue that social institutions exist because they are useful (or functional) to the operation of society. In fact, every society must replace members that die, socialize new members, produce and distribute goods and services, preserve order, and provide a sense of purpose. Institutions provide an organizational solution to the needs of individuals and groups.

Problems can arise, however, when economic or political factors change life conditions. An example that will help to illustrate this point can be found in education, a vast, interconnected and highly organized network whose main goal is to socialize children into expected ways of acting and living. Fifty years ago, this institution mainly concerned itself with the 3 Rs—reading, writing and ‘rithmatic (arithmetic, or math)—as basic competencies for occupational success. Due to technological change and global marketplace demands, however, educational systems are increasingly under pressure to widen their curricula to include computer and Internet literacy as well as foreign language and cultural competency skills. As a result, there is less time to devote to art, music, and physical education, subjects thought fifty years ago to be crucial cornerstones of education. Furthermore, schools are increasingly diverting resources to social control measures and security as a response to concerns about violence in schools. In addition, pressure for funding led schools to accept corporate sponsorship of teams and cafeterias, which has led at least one critic to claim that a fourth R has been added to the 3 Rs—retail!

Think about this…

There is a growing trend for schools to accept free or reduced-price goods and services in exchange for logo placement and marketing products on school property. What are the advantages and disadvantages for schools and the children they wish to educate? This article provides an introduction to the issues: http://www.alissaquart.com/articles/2003/01/unbranding_boston_globe.html.

The point here is that although institutions such as education are able to adapt to new demands, teachers can be overwhelmed by the responsibilities for both teaching and maintaining social control, parents can become dismayed when there is more classroom time spent on computers than on reading and writing, and children who attend schools full of corporate logos may learn more about consumerism than about math and science.

Conflict theorists see social institutions as a forum for social order, but that social order is characterized by a struggle over power and wealth. To use the example of education mentioned above, conflict theorists believe that educational institutions tend to perpetuate inequality. One way they do this is through the unequal funding of schools. Wealthier communities with high property taxes can afford to hire more teachers (and thus ensure low class size) and spend more money per pupil than poor communities can. In addition, salaries for teachers can be higher and student resources, such as computers, science labs, and sports facilities, can impart a better chance for success to students than is the case in poorer communities.

A third perspective, symbolic interactionism, concerns itself with how institutions shape the behavior, thoughts, and beliefs of individuals and groups, including interaction within and across institutions. Recall, from module 3, for example, how religion was used to justify interactions between slaves and slave owners. One additional example can be found in the military, an institution with formalized power and authority hierarchies. This institution has a profound influence on individuals and family members. The deployments and relocation that is required by the military clearly shape behaviors, beliefs, and on a very personal level, the feeling, values, and perspectives of its members.

Functionalist, conflict, and symbolic interactionist perspectives are useful frameworks to explore various institutions such as the military, law, media, or the economy. You will see these approaches reappear as you study the different institutions discussed in your textbook.

II. Two Examples of Institutions: The Family and Religion

The Family

How Has the Family Functioned as an Institution?

In early America, the family was the main provider of food, clothing, health care, education, and religious instruction. Family members were collectively involved in making a living, from the child who could hoe or care for animals to young adults who were socialized by their parents into their parent’s own gender-specific roles and responsibilities. Emotional and material security were among the results of this arrangement. These securities, however, were not provided to all families. By way of illustration, African American families within the American slave system were often not permitted these securities or even the opportunity to create them: children were sold, families were split up and, in some cases, people were not permitted to have a family.

Think about this…

Read his article and imagine the different worlds of early free and enslaved families.

The Industrial Revolution brought massive changes to family life. Work that previously took place within the household was moved outside of the home into factories. Over three centuries, responsibilities for heath care, education of children, and even religious participation shifted from the self-sustaining unit of the family to institutions physically outside of the family home. This change brought major implications for family ties. Because the labor-intensive work requiring the efforts of all family members gradually decreased, it was no longer of value to have a large family.

Other changes also occurred in the family structure in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, for example, women began working for pay outside of the home in various textile factories, particularly the textile mills in Massachusetts. In fact, the first labor organization for women was established in Massachusetts in 1844 (Bolden, 2002). In the twentieth century, the onset of world war saw unprecedented numbers of married and unmarried women entering the labor force.

The two wars, particularly World War II, fundamentally changed the number and perception of women in the workforce. As men went to fight in the war, women were needed to fill the labor gaps at home and they did. Moreover, in spite of the return of many women to domestic roles following the war, their role in the workforce during the war permanently changed attitudes about women as workers and mothers. A majority of women today, including women with children, work outside of the home (Lindsay, 1997).

It is important to note that family life varies throughout the United States by such factors as social class and culture. For example, significant cultural differences distinguish Latino and Hispanic families from Asian-, Native-, or African American families. In general, the more resources the family has, the more it seems to assume middle-class characteristics of a nuclear family. Last, as family members age, family structure shifts when children leave or spouses separate through divorce or death.

How Have Changes in the Family Affected Other Institutions?

We can see from the history of the family that as the family changed over time, some functions seemed to break down. As industrialization seemed to weaken the family, new formal organizations began to replace some of the family’s traditional functions. For example, medical treatment began to be provided by hospitals, child care moved from the home to day care facilities and schools, and higher education institutions, such as high schools and colleges, arose to take over the education of young adults—education that was previously provided by the family or by guilds.

As a second example, religious participation within the home gave way to more formalized participation in religious organizations outside of the home, e.g., congregations, temples, or other places of worship. Overall, traditional functions become less a part of family life, other changes (often seen as dysfunctions) occurred. For example, traditional societies were marked by close kinship networks, small communities, and more often than not, large households that in many cases included not only children but extended family members and unrelated household workers. Today’s nuclear families are smaller, the networks around these small families can be greatly dispersed, and the families are dependent on fewer people for material and emotional support. This situation makes families vulnerable to stress when serious illness, job loss, or other disruptions occur.

Another type of family change related to trust and business dealings. Relations in traditional communities based on handshakes, family reputation, unwritten agreements, and so on, no longer could be trusted as society became larger. Witness today’s institutional norms of impersonal and bureaucratic interaction and the overlap of such institutions as the law, the courts, and the criminal justice system. As communities became interconnected and interrelated by mutual interests, the relationships between larger and larger groups, and the commerce within and between such groups, gave way to more formal aspects of the economy and government.

In sum, we can see that to meet the needs of people faced with change, there is a growing tendency toward the division of labor and specialization of function that accompanies increasing size and increasing complexity. This thinking is in line with the observations of Emile Durkheim over a century ago.

How Can the Family Be Understood in a Theoretical Context?

Functionalists argue that the family performs key functions that benefit society, such as regulating sexual activity; replacing, producing, and socializing new members of society; and providing the center of intimacy and companionship so necessary to human life. There are signs, however, that such traditional functions of the family are now changing. For example, with the advent of the Information Age, it is clear that children are being socialized, in part, outside of the traditional family by such factors as the Internet, video games, TV, and films.

A number of trends run in stark contrast to conventional television images of the 1950s. It seems that the structure of family life in America is under change. Trends, such as the delay in age of marriage and cohabitation, are related to the increased labor force participation of women and the increasing difficulty (at least in part) in securing the economic means for marriage. The birth of children outside of marriage and the high divorce rate have led to dramatic increases in the proportion of female-headed families in poverty. Rising divorce rates and remarriage requires that families rewrite the books on family arrangements as they struggle to incorporate step-children, ex-spouses, and ex-extended family members into new family forms that blend old and new relationships.

Finally, as a final illustration, given that families now are smaller and more isolated from support networks than they were fifty years ago, we’re finding that husbands and wives don’t always play the idealized roles of partners in harmony and bliss so prevalent in the 1950s. There is growing concern about the amount of violence within the family and the short- and long-term effects on children who grow up in violent households.

Think about this…

Go to The National Criminal Justice Reference Service at http://www.ncjrs.gov/app/topics/topic.aspx?topicid=179 to read more about domestic violence. What are the trends in domestic violence in America? How do rates of domestic violence in poor, middle class, and rich families vary? (When you go to the Web site, scroll down to select articles of interest to you.)

Whereas functionalists view the family as a relatively stable institution, conflict theorists emphasize that the family serves the interests of groups in power and plays a role in perpetuating inequality. For example, the family subordinates women, is the center of violence, and family structure perpetuates an unequal stratification system.

Friedrich Engels (1942/1884) wrote extensively on the family as a patriarchal system that justifies the primary position of the male in the family. Even today, women in the workforce continue to be paid less yet assume the major responsibility for child-rearing and housework. When wives concern themselves with the unpaid domestic labor in the household, the husbands are thus freed to devote all their attention to work. Sociologist Arlie Hochshild calls the double burden of domestic labor after coming home from a job the “second shift” (Hochshild, 1989).


How Do Sociologists Study Religion as an Institution?

Sociologists who research religion analyze the relationship between religion and society, looking at the role religion plays in people’s lives. Rather than evaluating religious beliefs as “the truth” or verifying or disproving scripture, sociologists concern themselves with empirical matters about religion and the impact religion has on social structures as well as on individuals in their personal life. This emphasis is illustrated in sociological studies that look at, for example, the effect religion has on voting practices, political beliefs, or such topics as abortion, the death penalty, or cloning. In addition, how behavior is shaped by religious beliefs is also of interest.

How Are Theoretical Perspectives Used to Study Religion?

Classical definitions of religion reflect the early functionalist views of religion as an institution. Emile Durkheim defined religion this way:

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them. (Durkheim, 1964/1915, p. 37, cited in Morris, 1987.)

Durkheim thought of religion as a universal institution that was functional because it met basic human needs. Among its functions are:

  1. Religion provides emotional comfort and meaning to life. It assures people that there is a meaning to life and suffering.
  1. Religion unites people through shared norms, symbols, and values. It provides a community framework in which values and perspectives are shared. In this way, religion facilitates social order and social control.
  1. Religion often is used to support the political activities or governments of countries.
  1. Religion can be a catalyst for social change. (The Civil Rights Movement is a notable example).

As in all institutions, religion can be dysfunctional as well as functional and can be a disruptive force in society. In addition to Durkheim’s focus on the integration function of religion, Weber has shown how religion can contribute to social change.

The conflict perspective on religion focuses on how religion can be used to reinforce or establish inequalities. Karl Marx, himself a non-believer, felt that religion was a tool of those in power to control the oppressed. (He called it the opiate of the masses for the effect he thought it had on oppressed individuals.) When individuals are suffering, religion provides a justification for the suffering. When oppressed people fail to rise up, protest, or fight for a better life, those in power are advantaged. Thus, religion provides a legitimization of social inequalities.

Max Weber did not agree with the conflict theory perspective of religion; instead, he saw religion as a profound source of social change. Weber lived in Germany in the beginning of the Industrial Revolution at a time of great social change and when some countries were quite advanced while others seemed backward and behind. Weber concluded that religion was the key to the transformation of traditional societies to modern, industrial societies. In his book, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904-05/1958), Weber noted the significance of religion as the basis for modern economic systems. Whereas countries such as India or China had natural resources and big populations available for work, they did not modernize. He also looked at traditional countries, some with strong Roman Catholic traditions for example, and concluded that their traditional religious approaches tended to block new ideas and be resistant to change. Capitalism seemed to be flourishing wherever the Protestant religion was practiced. The principles of hard work, frugality, and thrift, all part of the Protestant Ethic, lead to the accumulation of money, the investment in capital, and, ultimately, to greater productivity (Landis, 1999).

What Does Religion Have to Do with Politics?

Sociologists have long noted that many issues facing society are influenced by religious perspectives. Such issues as family planning, abortion, and cloning stir up not only ethical concerns, but religious ones as well.

We have already mentioned that religion is used as an ideological support for the power of governments. An obvious example is national flags that are prominently displayed within religious institutions. Governments tend to reciprocate by using religious scriptures, symbols, or clergy in official state events.

When religion is closely tied to governments and power, religions might be used to provide the ideological justification for war, violence, or persecution. History is filled with examples of war based on the comingling of religion and politics. Religion can also be a force in social change. Civil rights efforts are often tied to religious ideals in the United States as well as in other countries. Places of worship can serve as centers in which individuals seeking social change organize their efforts and support each other (Aho, 2001, at http://www.cqpress.com/context/articles/epr_violence.html).

Think about this…

What is the relationship between religion and political unrest? Visit the Relgioustolerance.com Web site for an interesting discussion about this issue: http://www.religioustolerance.com/curr_war.htm

III. Changing Institutions: Cross-Cultural and Historical Perspectives

How Do Institutions Vary in Form?

Institutions vary in their form and content across cultures. All societies have families and religious institutions, but the structure of families and the types of religions vary enormously.

To return to the example of the family, around the world, love and personal decision are not the only way that one finds a marriage partner. In some places in the world, the man or his family pays for a bride through a bride price or bride service. In others, a dowry or an exchange of money between families secures a bride. Marriage by arrangement, common in India and Pakistan, is based on the importance of marriage in the society and the view that such a critical decision shouldn’t be left to the young. Of course, marriage by consent, the norm in the United States, emphasizes the personal happiness and fulfillment the couple expects in marriage. It is interesting to note that the contemporary American concept of love as the basis of marriage is largely a characteristic of modern societies and is not the rule around the world.

Think about this…

The custom of dowries in India can sometimes have serious consequences for poor women. To read more go to the article by Shravanti Reddy at the Digital Freedom Network:http://dfn.org/news/india/dowry.htm

Where couples live—and with whom—after marriage also varies cross culturally. In many countries, couples are expected to live with the bride’s or groom’s family; whereas couples in the United States are expected, upon marriage, to establish their own home away from either family. Social norms regarding residence are important because proximity plays a role in influence and power over the family.

How Do Institutions Vary Across Time?

First, there has been a substantial increase in dual-earner families over the past half century, which has a number of important implications for social life and has affected other institutional arrangements in society. Women’s work and the shift of children to day care centers have triggered general concern about the quantity and quality of socialization children receive. Mothers can feel caught between society’s expectations that they work and the assumption that they should be the main socializers of their children.

Second, for a variety of reasons, cohabitation is on the rise in American and western societies. Proponents of the traditional family have become concerned about this rise, particularly when children are born. Are unmarried parents with children a family? What rights should they be given? Is the family changing to a new form or should traditional definitions of the family be redefined to include new family forms such as cohabiting adults, including those of the same sex, and adoptive families where parents and children are of different races?

Last, because institutions are interrelated, challenges and changes of one institution can affect other institutions. For example, changes in family institutions are interrelated with change in other institutions such as religion, the economy, work, or law. Two examples provide illustration of this point:

  • Controversial family issues such as proposals to allow homosexual adults to marry or adopt children or the issue of whether to allow the cloning of babies have stimulated not only strong debate among political, legal, and religious institutions.
  • The rising life expectancy and the improving economic situation for elderly Americans have caused changes not only in medicine but in the economy (because the elderly are an important consumer group that needs goods and services tailored to their needs) and politics (because the elderly constitute a well-organized voting constituency).

Think about this…

To what extent is pregnancy, marriage, cohabitation, and the birth of children a concern of society and not just a personal decision? What social problems arise when people have relationships and children without regard to the communities and society around them? How do such personal decisions relate to one’s participation in other related institutions such as work or religion?

How Do Institutions Change Over Time?

As you can see, institutions contain relatively stable elements but also change in response to internal factors (such as trends in behavior) and external factors (such as in response to economic downturns or war). Because institutions encompass value and norms, they tend to provide the basis on which to judge people’s actions. It is easy to understand why individuals and groups concerned with traditional family ideals would look critically upon dual working families, day care, cohabitation, and out-of-wedlock births.

Today, however, changes in the institution of the family are posing a number of challenging questions:

  • Are alternative family forms bad for society and for the children who are raised in them?
  • Should society try to control such family forms (by making them illegal or by forcing people into marriage, for example)?
  • Should society accommodate new family forms and, if so, what might those accommodations look like (for example, should homosexuals be allowed to marry)?

When we turn to the institution of religion, we can see that religions are also in a state of change. Because of the potential for religion to be used as an ideological support to governments, we often see that conflicts between governments and states can contain religious overtones.

Traditional religions that resist modernization and separate themselves from interaction with others can pose threats to social stability. Intolerance of religious beliefs can also pose real barriers to understanding and harmony between individuals, groups, and societies.

Think about this…

Go to Religioustolerance.org for a discussion about the relationship between religious intolerance and conflict. http://www.religoiustolerance.com

READ or VIEW: Sources 



Openstax Introduction to Sociology chapter 16- Introduction to Education

Sociology’s Three Major Theoretical Perspectives

Three classical research perspectives used in sociology are described in your textbook. You will note that two perspectives employ a macro level of analysis and the other employs a micro level of analysis. Macro-level analyses are research focused on large-scale patterns of society. Micro-level analyses focus on social interaction—what people think and do, what social influences are present, and how perceptions of those social influences shape behavior.

These perspectives are briefly described below to aid you in conceptualizing how they are interrelated. (Hold your cursor over the green type for key term definitions.)

Table 1.1
Comparison of Sociology’s Three
Major Theoretical Perspectives

Think about this…

Which perspective would best explain why there seem to be so many poor people in America although we are among the richest countries on earth?

Topic 3- The three sociological perspectives or paradigms

Although we have many theories in sociology we have 3 general ways of looking at the world that come from early sociological theorists. All three approaches have strengths for examining certain types of problems but all have weaknesses as well. One of the most challenging and important parts of an introductory sociology class is to understand the three basic approaches and how best to apply them. Here are the 3 sociological paradigms

Structural Functional theory– sometimes called structural functionalism or functionalism or functionalist theory

This paradigm is our oldest. It started with our early sociological theorists like Spencer and Durkheim. They started working toward ideas of sociology during the industrial revolution. While many theorists and others were concerned with how society was falling apart. Theorists like Spencer and Durkheim watched the farmers get up everyday and work their fields and the bakers make their bread and while everyone else was asking why is the world falling apart they started asking- how in times of turmoil does the world actually hold together. What they realized is that even during difficult chaotic times the world mostly works- people get up and do their thing. This was the beginning of Structural functional theory- this idea that the things in the world are mostly designed to function and that this function created stability in society.

So Structural functional theory is most interested in how society works and how society creates stability. But it is founded on a very basic premis- a working society is good for all member of that society.

Structural functional theorists became fascinated with ideas of different jobs in the world or what they called the division of labor. They came to see this as the foundation of a working society. They conceived society as much like the human body – our body has different systems – circulatory, digestive etc and they all work together to keep the body stable, functioning and healthy. In this way symbolic interactionists saw the division of labor as the way a functioning society met all of its needs to keep it functioning and healthy. To functionalists all things that exist in society exist to keep the society stable and functioning and if they are not helpful to society they will seize to exist.

This is where structural functional theory starts to fall apart- this means that the theory can’t explain bad things happening in the system. The best they can do is say that they are like a disease in the body- they call them dysfunctions and they believe the society will work (much like an immune system) to eradicate dysfunctions on its own without intervention.

So the main criticism of Structural functional theory is that they system does not seem to right itself without intervention. Structural functional theory is particularly bad at explaining inequality – if everything functions in a society for the stability and well being of all members then inequality can’t exist because that would mean the society functioned better for some than for others. Since we know inequality exists structural functional theory basically breaks.

Structural functionalist inability to explain inequality and their ties to eugenics has basically meant that it is no longer used as a macro level theory by sociologists very frequently. Instead it is used as more of an applied theory to explain how certain parts of society function (or fail to function). It is now much more often used to target potential solutions for intervention and change as a mid-range theory which is very different than its original intention.

We keep it around in introduction classes because it is still useful to explain how society continues to work on a day to day basis even in the most chaotic times and it is useful as a mid- level theory but students often go wrong when trying to apply this theory to larger social structural issues- particularly those involving inequality.




Conflict Theory (critical theory)

Where structural functional theory falls down is exactly where Conflict theory is at its best. Our first and most important contributor to Conflict theory is Karl Marx. Although he considered himself a philosopher and a political activist he is most fundamental in building this paradigm. Mark believed that the world was divided into those that owned the means of production and those that owned only their labor. He believed that history was a cycle of the tension between those that had resources and those that did not and this inherent inequality caused tension that resulted in conflict and this conflict resulted in social change. Marx was primarily concerned with economic inequality. He saw the fight for limited resources as the driving force of larger social structural realties.

While this does a much better job explaining social inequality compared to structural functional theory is it pretty simple and may not be as applicable to societies with many social levels. So future conflict theorists like Weber and others built on this theory to include other areas of inequality beyond economic- like power. They looked at other minority groups like race, or gender. Most importantly they started to focus on inequality in general and not inequality as only based on conflict. Because the focus on conflict can be both unrealistic and unhelpful newer conflict theorists are often called critical theorists because they critically look at the inequalities in the social structure. Thinking of this theory as critical theory is helpful for students who see the word conflict and think that any sort of contentious or violent or fighting type of behavior automatically means conflict theory applies.

Even Marx knew that conflict was not an inherent part of inequality. He claimed that often oppressed groups actively supported ideas that resulted in them supporting policies of the majority group that kept them in power . He called these legitimizing myths. He believed that social institutions (like religion and education) used these myths to keep control of exploited classes of people. This is because the people in power are generally a small group and they can be overthrown if the larger oppressed group if the group bands together. This means groups in power benefit when oppressed groups fight with each other over small amounts of resources rather than banding together to oppose the group in power.

Because of the power of legitimizing myths and the power of social structure often oppressed groups feel powerless and do not band together, rise up or create conflict but we still inherently care about the inequalities in the social structure.

In addition to thinking this theory applies to all conflict the other way students most often go wrong applying this theory is trying to apply it at a micro level. Conflict theory is always about the larger social structure. So when we examine concepts like racism, sexism and privilege there is a tendency to lose sight of the idea that this is about the larger social structure and think about individual experience or ideas.

Symbolic interaction

These theories actually developed out of psychological theories of development. Mead and his students developed these theories by considering the social nature of human development. They contend that all human behavior and activity is inherently social (even when you are alone) because it is all based on your socialization and social context.

Central to these theories are ideas of use of symbols (like language) and the way we use symbols to share meaning with each other. We interact with each other and build shared understandings through these shared understandings we build relationships, roles, habits, values. From those relationships, roles, habits and values we build and define situations and activities and with those we build our societies.

I think this is the most complicated and interesting paradigm but it is also pretty easy to get the basics. We use our daily interactions to build meanings we use meanings to create society and that created society then constrain future building of meaning. We are both constrained by our society and actively changing and constructing it.

The place students most go wrong with this theory is failing to see it as a social theory- they think only about individual actions and behaviors rather than how individual actions and behaviors build a social structure. This is still a sociological theory not a psychological one. We are still most interested in how the construction of meaning build our social worlds.

the fourth paradigm- Life course theory

The biggest limitation of the three social paradigms is that they don’t really talk to each other. They are all on different levels and in the case of structural functional and conflict theory even directly contradict each other. Life course theory started as a theory but it is quickly developing into a paradigm because of its ability to help us understand broad ideas about the world.

Life course theory is an interdisciplinary and micro, macro and mid level theory. Its strength is that it looks at how all aspects of our life both big and small work together to create our trajectory through life. Life course theory was originally developed by Glen Elder. He was interviewing adults who were children during the great depression and he realized that the great depression did not impact all children equally. Their age at the time of the great depression, their family structure, their location (urban or rural etc), their income level all impacted how the great depression influenced their outcomes as adults. He realized that social location mattered and came up with the main tenants of life course theory (Elder).




Grading rubric

criteria Excellent Level 5 Satisfactory Fair poor No participation
Group project 18-20 points

Project answers all questions about their social institution

Project does a clear and complete summary of key points their sources  with few organizational or grammatical errors

Project includes at least 2 good discussion questions

Project turns in at least 5 multiple choice questions by Thursday and all questions were used on quiz as is

Project was creatively presented and interesting to look at.

15-17 points

Project answers all questions about their social institution

Project does a  summary of key points of their sources with few organizational or grammatical errors

Project includes at least 2 good discussion questions

Project turns in at least 5 multiple choice questions by Thursday and all questions were used on quiz with minor revisions

Project was interesting to look at but not as creative as those earning an excellent.

12- 14 points

Project answers all questions about their social institution

Project does a  summary of their sources but may miss key points or have  organizational or grammatical issues

Project includes at least 1 good discussion questions

Project turns in at least 5 multiple choice questions by Thursday but some questions need revisions or were unusable

Project was not as interesting or creative as projects earning a good or excellent

9-11 points

Project  misses some questions about their social institution, misses key points from the sources, or misrepresents some concepts

Project has organizational or grammatical errors

Project includes discussion questions but they may not be very useful to enhance student understanding

Project turns in multiple choice questions but are missing some or some are of poor quality and need major revisions

Project was not  interesting or creatively presented

8 or less points

Project  misses questions about their social institution,  misses key points from the sources, or contains errors or misunderstandings about topic

Project has major organizational or grammatical errors

Project does not include discussion questions or includes poorly conceived questions

Project is missing multiple choice questions  or questions are of poor quality and need major revisions

Project presentation was distracting or detrimental to understanding

Group did not turn in a project – no points for entire group regardless of personal participation
Individual participation + 3-5 points to group grade  (up to 100 percent)

Individual was active throughout project, contributed to organization and generation of ideas. Person completed their parts and helped others where needed. Person was critical to success of project but did not overstep their role.

+ 1-2 points to group grade  (up to 100 percent)

Individual was active throughout project, contributed to organization and generation of ideas. Person completed their parts and helped others where needed. Person was important to success of project but did not overstep their role.

awarded group points

Individual was active throughout project, contributed to organization and generation of ideas. Person completed their parts.

– 1-2 points from group project

Was less active in participation needed help completing tasks or was difficult to contact and had to be asked to do tasks by other group members


Overstepped own role in project – dictated to other students or took over portions of their task without being asked or without attempting to contact them

– 3-5 points from group project

Was not active in participation needed lots of help completing tasks or was difficult to contact and had to be asked multiple times to do tasks by other group members or professor


Overstepped own role in project – dictated to other students or took over large portions of the project or attempted to do all of the project by themselves. Needed intervention by the professor to stop conflicts with other students

Individual did not participate in project- does not earn any group points


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