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2. Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology (LBC BMS Sociology Notes)

Learning Objectives

  • Explain sociological perspective.
  • Learn about functionalism, interactionism, conflict theory, and postmodernism.
  • Evaluate the contributions of key figures like Emile DurkheimTalcott ParsonsG. H. MeadHerbert BlumerKarl MarxMax WeberFredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard's to these perspectives.

What is Theory?

"A theory is a set of closely related ideas we use to make sense of things. It's like a puzzle where all the pieces fit together. It's a logical system made up of ideas, definitions, and statements that explain how different parts of something are connected. According to Abraham Francis, a theory has these traits:

  • It uses clear concepts and logical statements.
  • It's like a structured blueprint using symbols.
  • It's flexible - we can change it as we learn more.
  • It matches what we already know and can be tested with evidence.

Sociological Perspective

A sociological perspective is like putting on a pair of glasses to see society in a certain way. It's a bunch of ideas that help explain how society works.

A useful insight might be gained from the following situation given by Browne (2006).

Imagine there are five people looking at the same busy shopping street- a pickpocket, a police officer, a road sweeper, a shopper and a shopkeeper. The pickpocket sees wallets sticking out of pockets or bags, and an opportunity to steal. The police officer sees potential crime and disorder. The shopper might see windows full of desirable consumer goods to buy, and the shopkeeper sees only potential customers, and possibly shoplifters. All are viewing the same street, but are looking at different aspects of that street. What they see will depend upon their perspective'- what they are looking for. They might all be seeing different things, but you cannot really see any of their views is more correct than another though you might think some views provide a more truthful, rounded and fuller description of the street than others do.

Sociological perspectives are basically similar in that they are the different viewpoints from which sociologists examine society. We might say that different sociological perspectives and the different research methods they lead to, simply emphasize and explain different aspects of society.

Sociology, a branch of science studying society, uses theories to understand social things. These theories help to explain and analyze social facts.

To interpret these facts, they need to fit into a theoretical framework. A theory is like a big idea about how things in the world fit together and work. It's a bunch of connected guesses that try to explain stuff that happens in nature or society. Sometimes, people use the words 'perspectives' or 'schools of thought' instead of 'theory.' A sociological perspective might best be viewed as models in which:

  • Each perspective has its own ideas about society.
  • They try to put together different information about society.
  • Models help us understand what we see and experience.
  • Each perspective looks at different parts of society.
  • Using a particular model has certain outcomes.

So, a perspective is a way of looking at things, and a sociological perspective is a set of theories that affect what we look at when we study society.

Major Theoretical Perspective in Sociology

Modern sociologists recognize three main ways of thinking about how different social things are connected. These are called structural functionalismsocial conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. These ideas give a big picture for studying society. They help explain how society affects people and how people affect society. Each way of thinking sees society, social forces, and human behavior in its own special way. In short, these are the big ideas in sociology.

These three major perspectives in sociology can simply be summarized as:

Structural-Functional Perspective

Developed in

Early 20th century

Developed by

Emile Durkheim, August Comte, Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, Robert K. Merton.....

Scope of Analysis

Macro level

Point of View

Relationship between the parts of society; How aspects of society are functional (adaptive).

The various parts of society are interdependent and functionally related. Social systems are highly stable.

Social life is governed by consensus and cooperation.

Focus of Analysis

The functional and dysfunctional aspects of institutions and society

Conflict Perspective

Developed in


Developed by

Karl Marx, Max Weber

Scope of Analysis

Macro level

Point of View

Competition for scarce resources (property, prestige, power)

Society is a system of accommodations among competing interest groups.

Social systems are unstable and are likely to change rapidly.

Social life involves conflict because of differing goals.

Focus of Analysis

How social inequalities produce conflict

Who benefits from particular social arrangement, and how the elite control the poor and weak

Interactionist Perspective

Developed in

Early 20th century

Developed by

Charles Horton Cooley, William I Thomas & George Herbert Mead

Scope of Analysis

Micro level

Point of View

Most of what people do has meaning beyond the concrete act.

The meanings that people on their own and on another's behavior can vary.

Focus of Analysis

How people make sense of the world in which they participate.

Functionalism The structural Functional Perspective

What is Structure?

Social structure is how society is organized, including relationships and institutions. S.F. Nadel says it's like arranging parts in a certain order that stays mostly the same while other parts can changeRedcliff Brown says it's about how people are arranged in relationships that are defined and controlled by society.

You might not see social structures easily, but they're there and affect everything in society. For instance, social class is a type of social structure. It determines how different groups can access society's resources and affects how people interact. Social structure influences human behavior at all levels, whether we notice it or not.

What is Function?

Radcliff Brown, as cited by Gautam (2004:40), explains that 'function' means how a part of something helps the whole thing work. For example, in society, the way certain customs or behaviors contribute to the overall functioning of society. This suggests that in a society, everything works together smoothly without causing constant problems that can't be fixed.

Durkheim says a social institution's function is how well it meets the needs of society. Radcliffe-Brown suggests replacing "needs" with "necessary conditions of existence." Robert K. Merton defines function as the observed outcomes that help a system adapt and adjust.

Functionalism: Meaning and Context

Functionalism is a big idea in sociology that looks at how different parts of society work together. It says that society is like a machine with many parts, and each part has a job to keep the whole thing running smoothly. This idea came from thinkers like Auguste Comte, Herbert SpencerEmile DurkheimTalcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton.

Comte, one of the earliest thinkers, saw sociology as studying how society changes and stays the same. He called the changing parts "social dynamics" and the stable parts "social statics."

Functionalism sees society like a living organism, where all parts work together for the whole. It believes that everything in society serves a purpose. Unlike evolutionism, which looks at society's development over time, functionalism looks at how society operates as a system in the present. It sees society as a system made of interconnected parts. Functionalism focuses on the structurefunction, and order of society.

The functionalist view explains that social institutions, like schools or governments, exist to meet the needs of individuals and society together. Functionalists think society stays together because everyone agrees on what's best and works together for it. This is different from other views like symbolic interactionism, which looks at how people behave based on what things mean to them, and conflict theory, which focuses on the problems and changes in society.

Functionalists say social changes happen because of things like more people, new technology, or contact with other societies. They believe rapid changes are hard for society to handle because it aims for balance. So when things change too quickly, society's institutions work to get back to a stable state.

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) added to functionalism theory. He said social actions can have effects on society that we don't always see right away or expect. He talked about two types of effects: the ones we openly aim for (manifest) and the ones we don't talk about (latent). For example, if we change welfare programs to save money, it might also lead to more crime or homelessness.

Key Principles/Assumptions

Dahrendorf (quoted in Rao, 2011) purposes the following assumptions of functionalism:

  • A society is a system of integrated parts;
  • Social systems tend to be stable because they have built-in mechanisms of control;
  • Dysfunctions exist, but they tend to resolve themselves or become institutionalized in the long run;
  • Change is usually gradual;
  • Social integration is produced by the agreement of most members of the society on a certain set of values.

Functionalism studies how societies stay together. They have three main ideas:

  • Stability: Societal structures should help keep society stable.
  • Harmony: Just like how different parts of a machine work together, different parts of society should work well together.
  • Evolution: Societies change over time by adapting to new needs and getting rid of old, unnecessary things.

Emile Durkheim and Functionalism

Functionalism is a theory inspired by Emile Durkheim. Durkheim wanted to understand how societies stay stable and last over time. He said societies stick together through solidarity (unity/harmony). He talked about two kinds of solidarity: "mechanical" for simple societies and "organic" for modern ones. In simple societies, people are similar and connected by strong family bonds and shared tasks. Modern societies have weaker family bonds and diverse jobs. Durkheim thought modern societies would break apart without traditional bonds, but they don't. Instead, they rely on people needing each other because of their different jobs.

Functionalism looks at how each piece of society helps keep the whole society stable. Durkheim said that functionalism sees society as more than just its parts added together. Each part of society serves a purpose - it helps keep the whole society stable. These parts are mainly the different institutions in society, each designed to meet different needs and affecting society's form and structure in specific ways. These parts rely on each other to make the entire society work well.

Talcott Parsons and Functionalism

Functionalism in many different fields is a theory that says structure and function are related and help form one another. In architecture, functionalism means that physical structures in buildings should serve a support function. In linguistics, functionalism means that grammar has to function to convey meaning. In sociology, functionalism means that social structure is based on social function.

Talcott Parsons was one of the most important scholars of functionalism. He focused on how society achieves social stability, which he referred to as ‘dynamic equilibrium (balance/equality)’.

Parsons is best known for assigning functional roles to members of society. He believed that women's function in society was to play an expressive role as nurturers and homebuilders. According to Parsons, men served an instrumental role as breadwinners. He invented the "sick role," which excused service to others when ill, and he suggested that elderly people should have better social roles.

According to functionalistsall institutions and individuals serve a certain function in society, thus making sure of the smooth working of the whole social system.

Parsons identified four functional sub-systems and their purposes in society. These subsystems are:

  1. economic subsystem,
  2. political subsystem,
  3. family subsystem, and
  4. cultural subsystem.

These subsystems work not only in and of themselves but also for the other subsystems to be able to function properly. For example, families can only perform their role of socialization well if the economic sub-system provides work for the family members to earn their living. At the same time, the families are responsible for socializing children well and raising suitable workers for the economic sub-system of society.

According to Parsons, stratification (the arrangement or classification of something into different groups.: "wealth is the main symbol of social stratification") is an inevitable and necessary part of society.

He believed in effective role allocation, which meant that all individuals in society get roles that were best suited to their abilities, work ethic and qualifications. They were also rewarded for their work according to the importance of their jobs.

Parsons believed that people competed on equal grounds, and they could achieve high status and high rewards if they worked hard and had talent, no matter where they came from. As such, he believed that society was meritocratic (a form of social system in which power goes to those with superior intellects).

His ideas on role allocation and stratification were later criticized by many sociologists, who argued that individuals do not compete on equal grounds and socio-economic status determines one’s status in society much more than their work ethic and abilities.

Basic Characteristics of Functionalism

  1. Society Consists of a Number of Interdependent Parts or Functional Interdependency: One of the most important principles of functionalist theory is that society is made up of interdependent parts. This means that every part of society is dependent to some extent on other parts of the society so that what happens in one place in society has significant effect/s elsewhere.
    Imagine a giant machine – society. This machine has many different parts, like gears. brakes. Each part has a specific job to do, and they all need to work together for the whole machine to function smoothly. Just like if one gear breaks in a machine, the whole thing might stop working, a change in one part of society (like a new law) can affect other parts (like the economy). This is the idea of functional interdependence – everything in society is connected! Because the different parts of society depend upon each other, a change at one point in society will have impact elsewhere.
    Auguste ComteHerbert Spencer, and Emile Durkheim all used the analogy in order to link the operation of society to that of a living organism: think of your own bodyThe entire body depends upon your heart, brain, lungs, and liver, and all other parts for its survival and each of these organs provides a very important function. A malfunction in any one of them can affect the health and growth of your entire body.
    According to this perspective, while performing different functions, the parts of society work together in order to maintain the stability of the whole social system. Therefore, every part of the society depends on other parts of it and hence a change in a part can easily affect the other parts as well.
  2. Functional Unity- Every Element Performs Some Common Function: All parts of the social system have the general purpose of holding society together. Functional unity says all the parts (like families, schools, businesses) work together to keep the whole machine (society) running smoothly. Every part has a job to do, and those jobs help hold society together. This often means people share some basic values, like freedom in America or family importance in Nepal. Sharing these values makes it easier for people to cooperate and get things done, instead of fighting all the time. Functionalists believe without this cooperation, society would fall apart.
    People are more likely to cooperate when they share similar values and goals. According to functionalists, inability to cooperate will paralyze the society, and people will devote more and more effort to fighting one another rather than getting anything done.
  3. Analysis of manifest and latent functions and dysfunctions: This talks about two types of purposes things in society serve: intended and unintended.
    Intended purposes (Manifest Functions): These are the obvious reasons things exist, like schools teaching basic skills.
    Unintended purposes (Latent Functions): These are hidden consequences, like college students making friends or learning about other cultures.

A sociologist named Robert Merton came up with these ideas. He also said that even bad things (like crime) can have unintended positive effects, like showing what's not okay and helping maintain order.
Basically, sociologists study how everything in society, good or bad, can have both intended and unintended effects.

  1. Societies Tend Toward Stability and Equilibrium: A drastic change somewhere in the system would be dysfunctional for the survival of the entire system. The idea here is that societies, like complex machines, like to stay balanced and avoid big changes. This helps them survive. Small adjustments are okay, but big upsets can be dangerous. Imagine a society as a bicycle. It works best when everything is in its place, but you can adjust the seat or handlebars a little. Big things, like a flat tire, throw everything off. However, sometimes new things come along, like a new kind of bike (technology!), a weather change (climate!), or meeting new people (contact with other societies), and these can force the bicycle (society) to change and adapt.
  2. Society Tends Toward Consensus (agreement/harmony): A consensus is necessary for cooperation (Farley, 2000:73). According to functionalists, conflict in society is undesirable because it destroys consensus. According to sociologists, big disagreements (conflict) can tear society apart. The idea is that while things change over time, big, sudden changes aren't good.

It's like a sports team - everyone needs to agree on the basic rules to play well together. For example, Americans believe in freedom and democracy as a shared value. Without these shared values, cooperation breaks down. A conflict between Hindus and Muslims in some parts of the world is a clear example of lack of consensus and cooperation.

  1. Functions of social structure and cultureSocial structure refers to the organization of society including its institutions, its social positions, and its distribution of resources. Culture is a set of beliefs, language, rules, values, and knowledge held in common by members of a society.
    Functionalists believe that both social structure and culture are important for society to run smoothly.


Functionalism is a theory about how society works, developed by thinkers like Emile DurkheimTalcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton. It was really popular in the 1940s and 1950s but has lost popularity since then. Critics say it focuses too much on keeping things the same and doesn't pay enough attention to power and conflict in society. They also disagree with its explanation of why there's inequality, saying it's not fair. Functionalists argue that inequality has a purpose, like giving people incentives and making groups stick together. They also say that if something exists in society, it must serve a purpose, but things can change over time.

Summary: Functionalism

Functionalism is a sociological perspective aimed at understanding how the various parts of society interconnect and function, emphasizing consensus (harmony), social order, and stability. According to functionalism, society operates as a complex system where its components work together to promote solidarity (cooperation/harmony) and maintain equilibrium (stability/balance/equality). Social structure, defined as stable patterns of social behavior, is integral to functionalism, with emphasis placed on social functions—the consequences for the functioning of society. Notable proponents (supporters) of functionalism include Emile DurkheimAuguste ComteHerbert SpencerTalcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton, who contributed significantly to its development. Durkheim, in particular, is regarded as a pioneering figure in advancing this perspective.

However, functionalism faced criticism from its detractors (critics), notably proponents of social-conflict theory, who challenged its focus on stability and order at the expense of acknowledging conflict and societal changes. Critics argued that functionalism overlooked the dynamics of conflict and change, which are essential elements in any society's functioning. Despite its dominance in sociology and anthropology for a considerable period, functionalism encountered opposition due to its perceived limitations in addressing societal tensions and transformations, prompting a shift in focus within sociological discourse.

The Conflict Perspective

The conflict theory came into existence from the writings of Karl Marx in criticism of structuralist - functionalist theory in the 1970s.

Conflict theorists believe that to truly understand society, we need to look closely at how people compete and clash with each other. They focus on how some people succeed while others don't, and how this creates tension and change in society.

Karl Marx and the Conflict Theory

The works of Karl Marx (1818-1883) are often credited with providing the sociological roots of the conflict perspective.

Marx was born in Germany during a stormy period in which Western Europe was transitioning from feudalism to capitalism. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and Marx observed inequality throughout the growing capitalist society. The economics of capitalism, he felt, resulted in social classes that were constantly in competition for society's limited resources.

Marx saw rich factory owners who obtained their wealth from the labor of factory workers who were paid little, often toiled long hours in dangerous conditions, and frequently lived in crowded and unhealthy spaces. Society, as Marx saw it, was an ongoing struggle between the classes: the "halves" (illustrated by the factory owners) and the "have nots" (illustrated by the workers).

The conflict theory, sometimes called Marxism because it's heavily influenced by Karl Marx's ideas, looks at society in a simple way: it sees people and groups always fighting over things they need or wantlike power, respect, or things they own. Marx thought society had two main groups: a small group that ruled over everyone else, and a larger group that didn't have much power. This theory asks questions like what makes society split apart and how society changes over time. Throughout history, Marx believed there has always been conflict between these two main groups. He thought that if resources were shared more equally, this conflict would stop.

In simpler terms, in early societies, there weren't rulers like kings or presidents. Everyone was seen as equal, and everyone could get what they needed. This is called an egalitarian society, where everyone has the same status and access to resources.

Conflict theory views society as a place where people constantly compete for things like power, money, and leisure time. Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, famously stated in their Communist Manifesto that throughout history, societies have been shaped by struggles between classes. This manifesto helps us understand how Marx emphasized conflict as a means to bring about social change.

In simpler terms, conflict theory tells us that society is like a playing field where everyone is competing for different things. Some people and groups end up with more than others, and they use their advantage to stay on top and keep others down. Karl Marx talked a lot about how these conflicts between rich and poor people have shaped society over time. He believed that by understanding and addressing these conflicts, we could create a fairer and more equal society.

Marx's "Communist Manifesto":

  • Capitalism causes inequality and oppression in society (but is an inevitable stage in societies' progression to equality through socialism "in Marx's view)
  • Capitalism produces two groups - Bourgeoisie (who own the means of production) and Proletariat (who don't, and must sell their labor for wages)
  • Because of the need for accumulation of capital, the Bourgeoisie must remain competitive by exploiting the workers (a process in which the owner extract the "surplus value," or profit, from the workers)
  • Because the worker is exploited, she becomes a "commodity," or a product, which for Marx means anything used for the purpose of exchange (the worker has to sell him/herself and his/her labor)
  • When the worker is commoditized and exploited, she becomes "alienated" isolated, disconnected - from the product and process of labor and from other workers and humanity
  • However, industrialization eventually creates the conditions for workers to develop CLASS CONSCIOUSNESS - to realize their common interests. the Bourgeoisie and unite in revolution The Proletariat, when they defeat the Bourgeoisie (which Marx sees as the necessary evolution of capitalist societies), will establish equality and common ownership of property (socialism)
  • For Marx, society is constantly moving toward the Communist Utopia 

Max Weber and the Conflict Theory

Marx focused on class conflict and economic systems, Max Weber (1864 - 1920) looked more at the combination of economic and political power. Weber expanded Marx's idea of class into three dimensions of stratification (the arrangement or classification of something into different groups): class (based on possession of economic resources- most important in industrial capitalist societies), status (prestige- most important in traditional societies), and power (organization formed to achieve a goal in a planned manner, like political parties, unions, and professional associations- most important in advanced industrial, highly rational societies). In most eras, there would be a great deal of overlap among the three dimensions. For example, someone high in class would also tend to be high in status and political power.

According to Weber, the level of inequalities could also be different for different groups based on education, race, or gender. 

Weber also identified several factors that moderated people's reaction to inequality. If the authority of the people in power was considered legitimate by those over whom they had power, then conflicts were less intense.

Marx focused on class conflict as the chief source of historic change while others, especially Max Weber and Talcott Parsons (a structural - functionalist), see conflict among groups and individuals as a fact of life in any society. Conflict can occur over many other aspects of society unrelated to class. For example, conflict can occur over water rights. Conflict occurs when two people have a car accident. Conflict occurs between men and women.

Giddens and Sutton (2013, p. 93) make broad comparison and contrast between Marxian and Waberian ideas of the modern world. This comparison and contrast between two influencing conflict theorists will help us understand the conflict theory more precisely.

Marxist Ideas

Weberian Ideas

The main dynamic of modern development is the expansion of capitalistic economic mechanisms.

The main dynamic of modern development is the rationalization of production.

Modern societies are raised with inequalities, which are basic to their very nature.

Class is one type of inequality among many- such as inequalities between men and women- in modern societies.

Major divisions of power, like those affecting the differential positions of men and women, drive ultimately form economic inequalities.

Power in the economic system is separable from other sources. For example, male-female inequalities cannot be explained in economic terms.

Modern societies (capitalist societies) are a transitional type- we may expect them to become radically reorganized in the future. Socialism will eventually replace capitalism.

Rationalization is bound to progress further in the future, in all spheres of social life. All modern societies are dependent on the same basic modes of social and economic organization.

The spread of western influence across the world is mainly the result of the expansionist tendencies of capitalist enterprise.

The global impact of the West comes from its command over industrial resources, together with superior military power.

Assumptions behind Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is derived from Marx's ideas. Brinkerhoff (2012) mentions the three primary assumptions of modern conflict theory:

  1. Competition: Competition over scarce resources (money, leisure, sexual partners, and so on) is at the heart of all social relationships. Competition rather than consensus is characteristic of human relationships.
  2. Structural inequality: 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.
  3. Social change: Change occurs as a result of conflict between competing interests rather than through adaptation. It is often abrupt and revolutionary, rather than evolutionary, and is often helpful rather than harmful for society.

Some of the notable assumptions/ principles of conflict theory can be mentioned in the following points:

  1. Bias in social structure and culture: The distribution of scarce and valuable resources such as money and power is usually unequal. Those who have money often have the power to shape society to their own advantages and thus the society tends to take on characteristics that work to the further advantage of the dominant (elite) groups within that society.
  2. Conflicting values and ideologies: According to conflict theory, each group in society will have different views about social issues because of their conflicting self-interests. Those in the dominant group use their power to promote belief in the values and ideologies in the society, which subordinate groups find conflicting.
  3. Conflict versus violence: Conflict theorists believe that conflict does not mean the same thing as violence, except in the case of riots (demonstrations) and revolutions. Conflict often occurs in institutional settings like legislatures (parliaments), courts, business (while determining prices) and so on. And if the disadvantaged groups believe that the means of society do not favor them, conflict may turn towards violence.
  4. The roles of conflict: Conflict theorists see conflict not only as natural and normal, but also useful to society. Conflict offers disadvantaged groups an opportunity to improve their position in society through equal distribution of scarce resources like money and power. It also helps to solve the misunderstandings between dominant and subordinate groups and so the society functions better.
  5. Conflict and social change: Conflict theorists see change as coming from within society (but functionalists see social change as a response to some new technology, some change in the environment or some interaction with another society). Different people have opposing interests and thus engage in conflict; that conflict brings change. For example, Nepalese people went against the autocratic monarchy in 2062/63 B.S., and as a result, the change occurred in the Nepalese political system and other institutions too.


Conflict theory, though widely known, has faced significant criticism in recent years. One main critique is that it places too much emphasis on inequality and division within society, overlooking how shared values and interdependence can bring people together. Critics argue that this theory ignores the unity that can arise from common beliefs and connections among members of a community. Additionally, some criticize conflict theory for its explicit political objectives, suggesting that it may not provide a neutral perspective on social issues.

Another criticism leveled at conflict theory, which also applies to structural functionalism, is its broad view of society. By focusing primarily on conflict and change, this theory often overlooks the stability present in many social structures. Many aspects of society are stable or have evolved gradually over time, rather than experiencing sudden upheaval as conflict theory might suggest. In essence, conflict theory's narrow focus on competition and change can lead to neglecting the more enduring and less politically charged aspects of social reality. Furthermore, it often fails to analyze society at the micro-level, missing out on the intricacies of individual interactions and smaller social dynamics.

Comparison between Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives

Functionalism and conflict theory can both be viewed as two faces of the same society.

Farley (2000:75-76) provides two observations regarding the nexus between these two. He contends that a synthesis of the two theories is possible.

  • Both Theories are Partially Correct: Society might operate according to both perspectives. Order and stability might exist in the presence of extreme income inequality. It is possible, for example, that a given institution might serve to make society efficient while at the same time serving the interests of the dominant elite.
  • Societies Go through Cycles of Stability and Conflict: Societies go through cycles of stability and conflict. Under different circumstances, people behave differently. At one point in time a society may be stable and orderly, where minorities are able to get ahead through hard work. At another point, however, society might be characterized by disorder and conflict where minorities might advance only via protest and rebellion.

Horton and Hunt (2004) make a meaningful comparison between functionalism and conflict perspective in the following table:



Conflict Theory


A stable system of cooperating groups

An unstable system of opposing groups and classes

Social Class

A status level of persons sharing similar incomes and life-styles. Develops from different roles, persons and groups.

A group of people sharing similar economic interests and power needs. Develops from the sources of some in exploiting others.

Social Inequality

Inevitable in complex societies. Due largely to different contributions of different groups.

Unnecessary and unjust. Due largely to power differences. Avoidable through socialist reordering of society.

Social Change

Arises from changing functional needs of society.

Imposed by one class upon another in its own interest.

Social order

An unconscious product of people's efforts to organize their activities productively.

Produced and maintained by organized coercion by the dominant class.


Consensus on values unites the society.

Conflicting interests divide society. Illusion of value consensus maintained by dominant classes.

Social Institutions: Churches, schools, mass media

Cultivate common values and loyalties which unite society.

Cultivate rules and loyalties which protect the privileged.

Law and Government

Enforce rules reflecting the value consensus of the society.

Enforce rules imposed by dominant classes to protect their privileges.

The (Symbolic) Interactionist Perspective

Interactionism is a micro-sociological perspective and believes that meaning is produced through the interactions of individuals. This theory was developed by Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), William I Thomas (1863-1947) and George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) in the early 20th century viewed symbols as the basis of social life.

Symbolic interaction theory, called symbolic interaction perspective, is a sociology theory that seeks to understand humans' relationship with their society by focusing on the symbols that help us give meaning to the experiences in our life. Social scientists consider symbolic interaction theory as a framework for building theories that see society as a product of everyday human interactions.

The symbolic interactionist perspective is based on the notion that people make sense of their social worlds through communication and social interaction - the exchange of meaning through symbols and language.

Sociologists believed George Herbert Mead, an American philosophy professor, was the true founder of symbolic interaction theory. His students gathered his teachings and lectures and published a book titled Mind, Self, and Society in his name. This book lays out the core concept of social interactionism.

Human beings are unique in that most of what they do with one another has meaning beyond the concrete act. According to Mead, people do not act or react automatically but carefully consider and even rehearse what they are going to do. They take into account the other people involved and the situation in which they find themselves.

In addition, people give things meaning and act or react on the basis of these meanings, for example, when the national anthem of Nepal is played, people stand up because they see or feel that the anthem represents their country.

Shortly after this publication, Herbert Blumer, a follower of Mead, invented the term symbolic interactionism. Blumer also identified three premises from George Herbert Mead's symbolic interactionism theory. These premises are:

  • People do things or treat others based on what those people or things mean to them.
  • The meanings we give to people and things come from how we interact with each other. Blumer said that objects don't have built-in meanings; we create them through social interactions.
  • People change the meanings they give to others or things by thinking about their experiences with the world.

Imagine you're at a restaurant. People around you are using forks and knives, so you do the same. This is how we act in social situations - we see what others do and follow along. Our understanding of the world and how we behave is all connected to how we interact with each other. Social situations are kind of like that. People interact with each other and figure out how to act together. This back-and-forth creates a social world where everyone kind of knows what to expect from each other. This is what George Mead called "social life."

According to Interactionism, the order we see in society isn't set in stone. Instead, it's kind of like a story we all agree on. We interact with each other, judge each other's actions, and imagine there's a certain way things should be done. This "make-believe" order helps us predict what others will do and keeps things running smoothly. It's different from other ideas that say society is like a machine with fixed parts. Interactionism says we're all constantly figuring each other out and creating this social order together, moment by moment.

Key Principles/Assumptions

Symbolic Interactionism bears the following key assumptions:

  • Society is always changing, not stuck in one place.
  • This change happens because people interact with each other.
  • These interactions are like small, everyday conversations, not big dramatic events.
  • By talking and acting together, people create society, like building a big thing out of tiny blocks.
  • Sociologists who study this way are interested in how people affect each other in these small conversations.


Some critics say this approach forgets about bigger things in society, like the whole country. They say focusing on small conversations misses the big picture, like how the country affects the way these friends talk and act.

But the other side says that society is made up of these small interactions. They believe that understanding these conversations is the key to understanding everything else, like how the country works!


Meaning and Context

'Post' means 'after' and 'modern' is 'up to date’ or ‘now’. Thus the term 'postmodern' could be translated as “beyond the now”, and postmodernism is the name given to a range of philosophical positions and aesthetic styles that have developed after World War- II since the 1950s.

Postmodernism emerged as Western society shifted from industrial to post-industrial after World War II. In this new era, power and social dynamics shifted away from manufacturing goods to knowledge and service industries like healthcare and finance.

Postmodern thinkers believe that current theories can't fully explain how society works today. This is because our world has changed a lot with things like factories becoming less important, people buying more stuff, and everyone being able to communicate worldwide. Globalization is a big part of this change. It's when countries start to share more things like money, rules, and ideas because borders between them aren't as strict. This means that countries become more connected and rely on each other more.

The word "postmodernism" means it's different from "modernism." Modernism started in the late 1800s and lasted until around World War II. Modernism came from the European Enlightenment:

Modernism (old way):

  • People are independent and can figure things out for themselves using reason.
  • There's one big truth out there waiting to be discovered.

Postmodernism (new way):

  • People are shaped by their culture and can't be totally independent.
  • Truth depends on where you're coming from - there's no single, absolute truth. Even how you use reason is influenced by your culture!

Basically, postmodernism says there's no truth because everything depends on culture. Even what we think is true is influenced by our culture. This idea is very different from modernism, which says people can use reason to find absolute truth.

The way we think about the world has changed a lot over time:

  • Pre-modern times: People relied on tradition and religion to explain the world.
  • Modern times: Science and reason became more important for understanding the world.
  • Postmodern times: We question absolute truth and focus on different perspectives and experiences.

In the olden days (pre-modern era), everyone mostly believed in God and religion for truth. Then, science came along (modern era) and became the new way to find truth, making religion seem less important. Today (postmodern era), there isn't just one answer for truth - it depends on each person.

Postmodernism is like a baby in the world of ideas, still growing and changing. Instead of being a set of rules, it's more about looking at how society works. Postmodernists think that powerful people pretend there's only one truth to keep control over others. They say this happens because it helps those in power silence anyone who disagrees with them. Postmodernism covers lots of areas like philosophy, movies, buildings, art, stories, and culture. It started as a response to modernism, which focused on certain ways of thinking and creating.

Key Assumptions of Postmodernism

Postmodern theory came from poststructuralism and has had a big impact on fields like art, philosophy, and sociology. It's a broad term that covers literature, art, architecture, and more. Postmodernism questions the idea that there's one objective truth. Instead, it says reality is shaped by how each person sees it. It's skeptical of explanations that claim to be true for everyone and focuses on individual truths. Postmodernism values personal experiences and sees interpretation as very important. It believes that what's true for one person might not be true for another.

To be specific, the following key assumptions behind postmodernism can be listed:

  • There's no one absolute reality—whether physical or spiritual.
  • Everything depends on how individuals see and understand things.
  • There's no clear way to judge what's true or right, or what's good or beautiful.
  • The universe is always changing, and there are no fixed rules.
  • Language is really important—it's how we make sense of things.
  • Unlike modernism, postmodernism is flexible and focuses on how things change and grow.

Fredric Jameson and Postmodernism

Fredric R. Jameson, born in Ohio, USA on April 14, 1934, is one of today's most important and most influential cultural theorists. Postmodernism in Jameson's view ought to be understood as a 'cultural dominant' rather than a single style, as modes rather than a genre.

Frederic Jameson believes that postmodernism is just another part of modern life. He thinks capitalism still rules how we live. Jameson says that even though culture has changed a lot, it's still shaped by the same economic systems Karl Marx talked about. So, even though some people try to use Marx's ideas to explain modern life, Jameson thinks Marx's ideas can help us understand postmodernism better. John Stephens says that grand narratives, which are big stories that explain everything, are important. These cultural changes we see are because capitalism is taking over even more parts of our lives, especially in what he calls "late capitalism." This comes after market capitalism and imperialism, according to Marx and Lenin. Stephens also says that different cultures are tied to different economic systems, like how postmodern culture is linked to big multinational companies.

Jameson talks about four main things in a postmodern society.

First, he says everything is very surface-level and lacks depth. For example, he mentions Andy Warhol's painting of Campbell Soup Cans, which looks like perfect copies but doesn't go deeper into their meaning. It's a copy of a copy, with no real depth or hidden meaning.

Second, Jameson says there's a lack of strong emotions in this society. People feel disconnected, and any feelings they have are vague and impersonal. People don't seem to feel things as intensely anymore. It's like there's a disconnect from strong emotions.

Third, he talks about how we've lost a sense of history. We can't really know what happened in the past; all we have are stories about it. The past is a mystery because we only have stories about it, not the real thing. It's hard to tell the difference between the past, present, and future.

Lastly, Jameson mentions new technology in postmodern society. Instead of machines like cars, we have things like TVs and computers that don't really create anything new but just show us stuff. These technologies shape the culture in a very different way than old machines did. Now it's all about copying and sharing things, like with TVs and computers. These technologies create different experiences than the older ones.

Jean Baudrillard and Postmodernism

Jean Baudrillard (27 July 1929 - 6 March 2007) was a French sociologist, philosopher, cultural theorist, political commentator, and photographer.

Baudrillard thinks today's society is mostly controlled by media, computers, and entertainment, rather than factories like in the past. He believes we live in a time where it's hard to know what's really true. Living in the postmodern world, people can no longer tell what is real.

Baudrillard talks a lot about how society has changed from making things to buying things and how this affects how we're controlled. He says that now, instead of just making stuff in factories, businesses try to control what we buy to make more money and keep things the way they are. How does this control work? Well, when we're encouraged to buy more than we really need, we end up in debt and have to keep working to pay off what we owe. Instead of just buying what we need, we end up buying things we want or things that make us different from other people.

Baudrillard, at first, tried to mix Marx's ideas with semiotics, which is the study of signs and symbols. But later, he felt Marx's ideas were too focused on staying the same and not enough on changing. Instead, Baudrillard suggested the idea of symbolic exchange, where people give and receive gifts in a never-ending cycle.

Baudrillard thinks that today's society is all about media, information, and technology. These things create a lot of symbols and signs. These signs don't always mean something real anymore; they often just refer to other signs.

Baudrillard also talks about the postmodern world using two main ideas: simulations and hyperrealitySimulations are like copies of reality, trying to look real. Hyperreality is when these copies become so important that they seem more real than actual reality. He talks about how modern society is changing. He says:

  • Media signs are becoming more important than real things. In the past, the focus was on making stuff, but now it's about the messages we see in the media.
  • There are a lot of copies of things, making it hard to tell what's real and what's not.
  • The media shows us exaggerated versions of reality, making it seem bigger and more important than it really is. TV, for instance, creates its own version of reality, not just reflecting what's real.

Baudrillard, unlike Jameson, has a negative view of how society reacts to life in the postmodern world. He doesn't see people taking action to change things. Instead, he sees them as becoming more passive. Baudrillard believes that the mass of people absorb all kinds of information, but it doesn't mean much to them. They go about their lives without caring much, even when messages try to influence them. They're described as inactive and indifferent, especially when bombarded with media and artificial reality.

Criticisms: Postmodern Social Theory

Postmodern theories say that as societies change from modern to postmodern conditions, it can hurt people. One big change is that traditional social institutions like families, religion, and education have less influence. In postmodern societies, people want more freedom and don't like being controlled by these institutions. But this can weaken the connections between people, putting them at risk.

Ritzer (2000) points out some common criticisms of postmodern social theory:

  • Postmodern theory doesn't follow the same strict standards as modern science, which makes it hard for some people to accept.
  • Postmodern ideas can be too vague and hard to understand, making it tricky to see how they relate to real-life society.
  • Postmodern thinkers are good at pointing out problems in society, but they don't offer clear solutions or ideas for how society should be.
  • Postmodern theory can make people feel really pessimistic about society's future.
  • Feminists don't always agree with postmodern ideas. They think postmodernism dismisses the importance of individuals and denies universal problems like gender inequality.

Discussion Questions

  1. What is sociological perspective? Critically review the major perspectives in sociology.
  2. What is the conflict perspective? Provide your critical views on conflict approach to social change in Nepal.
  3. What is an interactionist perspective? Discuss the main assumptions of interactionist perspective.
  4. Discuss the contributions of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons' in functionalism.
  5. What is structuralism? In what ways does functionalism differ from conflict theory?
  6. Discuss the conflict approach of Karl Marx. What is the relevance in the context of political change in Nepal?
  7. Discuss conflict approach of Max Weber.
  8. What is postmodern social theory? What are the basic tenets of postmodernism? Also state some major criticisms of postmodernism.
  9. Differentiate between the premodern, modern, and postmodern concepts in society.
  10. Discuss the contributions made by Fredric Jameson and Jean Baudrillard's contributions in the development of postmodernism.

Works Cited

Bhandari, L. P. Fundamentals of Sociology, Buddha Publication, Kathmandu.

Bhushan, Vidya. Fundamentals of Sociology. Pearson Education India, 2012.

Henn, et. al. (2006) A Short Introduction to Social Research. SAGE publications India Pvt. Ltd. New Delhi.

Horton, P. B. & Haunt, C. L. Sociology. New Delhi: Tata McGraw Hill.

Shankar Rao, C. N. Sociology of Indian Society. S. Chand Limited, 2004.

S.N. Shankar Rao (2013), Sociology: Principles of Sociology with an Introduction to Social Thought, New Delhi: S. Chand & Company Ltd

Tischler, Henry L. Cengage Advantage Books: Introduction to Sociology. Cengage Learning, 2010.


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