Social and action theories

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Compare and Contrast Social Action Theories and Structural Theories.

Sociological perspectives on society are divided into two areas; Structural and Action Theories. Both these theories aim to describe how society is structured, and what contributes to that make up.

This document will look at the theories on which both structural and action perspectives are based. One aspect of society will be used as an example to show how each theory can have differing views on the same subject.

The structural theory looks at society as a whole. This is called a macro theory as it takes an overall view of society. The basis of this theory is how the structure of society impacts on human behaviour. There are two approaches to the structural theory these are Functionalist and Marxist.

Action theories in contrast to structural theories look at society from a micro perspective as it looks at the individual. Their perspective is that individual choices shape society.

Structural Perspective

The social structure is the framework around which any society is based. Both Functionalists and Marxists are Structuralists as they are both interested in the institutions that combine to make up the fabric of society for example the family, education, religion etc.


A Functionalist study of society would look at Institutional arrangements and relationships and these would form the building blocks of society. The way in which institutions relate to each other determines the structure and basic character of any society. People are born into an existing system of institutional arrangements.

These institutions are often compared to the workings of a human body. When all institutions work together there is a healthy society likewise when all the organs in the human body are working well then you have a healthy body. When one of the institutions fails, then society can fall apart.

Functionalists (such as Talcott Parsons and Emile Durkheim) argue that any society is founded, maintained and reproduced through consensus. When there is a shared, common consensus around key values then the social behaviour will be regulated.

In society every individual performs a wide variety of roles such as employee, parent, and citizen. Functionalists believe that we all know how to play these roles through our effective socialisation, from parents bringing up their children properly and teaching them the norms and moral values of society to the point where they become part of the child’s own consciousness. Parsons considers that the roles played by the family and the education system are vital to social order and maintenance of the status quo.

The Functionalists believe that everybody has the same opportunities in life, if you work hard and follow the norms and values of society then your objectives in life can be met.

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Functionalist Evaluation

  • The concepts of Functionalists are attractive because of their simplicity and because they can be easily applied to society.

  • Marxists would argue that the Functionalist view of society is naïve in the way that it has an inability or reluctance to acknowledge that far from being a harmonious place based upon consensus, society is characterised by groups with conflicting interests seeking to gain power over others.

  • Where the Functionalist theory believes that the norms and values are a consensus a Marxists would argue that the norms and values are a dominant ideology used to ...

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