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.
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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- 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 justify and perpetuate ruling-class power.
- An Interactionist has a different interpretation of society and would criticise that no account is taken of individual actions, interests and intents – it ignores the micro perspective.
- Marxists would argue that it tends to avoid the analysis of class based conflicts that exist in all societies for example political corruption and white collar crime.
- Functionalists tend to see the benefits that various institutional relationships bring but this would be questioned by Marxists as it would be argued that they can be oppressive and that capitalist institutions benefit the ruling class rather than society as a whole.
Karl Marx was born in 1818 and was a German Jew. He believed that history is not a record of wars, monarchs or great statesman, but that it’s a record of how individuals organise themselves to satisfy their material needs for food, shelter and clothing.
Marxism is a theory of conflict and they claim that there is mass equality and class conflict in our society rather than consensus. There is no common consensus of shared values or interests in our society. There is a class system and the conflict occurs between these classes.
According to Marxists society is constructed upon an economic base which is capitalism and this determines social relations.
The conflict is between the Bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the Proletariat (working class). Conflict arises as each class pursues its own interests.
Power in society comes from owning the means of production and is in the hands of the minority capitalist ruling class. The Bourgeoisie are able to control the institutions in society such as education and law. The Proletariats are merely a labour commodity that can be sold or discarded at the discretion of the Bourgeoisie even though it is actually the Proletariats that create their wealth and power initially.
The Bourgeoisie ensure that Proletariats remain committed to providing their labour by convincing the Proletariat that the economic system is based upon freedom, fairness and equality.
Marx believed that the Proletariats should unite and bring about a new society where capitalism does not prevail.
Evaluation of Marxism
- Karl Marx theory drew attention to the plight of the disadvantaged in capitalist society and demonstrated how various aspects of the social structure function to perpetuate large scale social inequality.
- Marxists would argue that it is the working class that allow the ruling class to sustain capitalism and without them it would not exist. Whereas in contrast the Functionalist would say that the working class have the same opportunities as everybody else and they can make of life what they want.
- Interactionists would question the over concentration on economic relationships at the expense of social relationships such as family and friendship. They would argue that Marxists ignore the ‘actors’ choices in society.
- Functionalism emphasises shared values and harmony whereas the conflict view of society sees it as divided into groups or classes whose interests conflict with each other.
- The Marxist view ignores the subjective interpretations of class for example a persons subjective interpretation of their class might be quite different to their objective class position.
- One of the strongest criticisms of Marx’s work is that he predicted a revolution and as yet this has not occurred. He seemed to underestimate the flexibility of capitalism for example the Bourgeoisie can make concessions to the Proletariat by offering better wages and working conditions without relinquishing their power.
Social Action Perspective
These theories concentrate on relatively small scale levels of social interaction and are referred to as micro theories.
It focuses on how individuals interact with one another in society.
Interactionists liken society to a play. The actors are the individuals that live in society and the way those actors perform and interact with one another shapes society.
George H Meads (born?) theory is based on self-awareness (that is, the ability to “see ourselves” as others see us) he argued that truth is created through the actions of individuals and their interaction with others, and believed that any attempt to understand society should be based on the study of social action and interaction.
Meads’ studies show that humans use language to negotiate social roles; they pick up on body language and speech, process this in our minds and then alter the way they communicate back. His idea was that feedback from others shaped the way individuals develop. The self develops through a process known as ‘reflectivity’, where individuals use others reactions and their own experiences to alter their thinking and behaviour.
Mead identified the self as two elements – the ‘I’ and ‘ME’ the I aspect is the personal component of the self which provides the creativity and spontaneity whereas the ME relates to the attitudes of society and the awareness of how other people expect us to behave.
Interactionists’ claim that we, as individuals have free will and it is we who decides on our actions, not economic forces or the needs of the social system. It is men and women who create society – not an external force.
Evaluation of Interactionism
- Interactionanists focus on action at the expense of social structure and ignores the forces in place such as power, conflict, change that help to explain the nature of social life.
- Both Functionalists and Marxists would argue that the perspective concentrates too much on the small-scale aspects of social life ignoring the much bigger picture of life at a society-wide level. Although by focusing on the individual it allows for an understanding of social life free from structural constraints.
Macro and micro sociological perspectives both see cultures as specifying the ground rules for people’s social behaviour. By establishment, teaching and learning of these basic rules of behaviour, social interaction is made possible, orderly and reasonably predictable.
Macro perspectives do this by focusing on how rules affect our behaviour and how large social groups and institutions in society shape us.
Micro perspectives focus more on how and why these rules are created and look at the small-scale interaction between individuals.
Functionalist and Marxist theories both see institutions as significant objects of society.
They also see the socialisation process as significant for our understanding of both society and our general position within society.
Interactionists on the contrary look at the individual rather than the social structure.
Marxists do not see society like a living thing like Functionalists do. Where Functionalists see the basis of social order as being shared values and consensus, Marxists see the shared values and consensus as being mystifications – a way of manufacturing and manipulating people’s perception of the social world to suit the basic interests of the ruling class.
The structural and action theories can see one element of society in different was. One example would be crime. Crime and Deviance is part of our society. To clarify the meaning of both words in the context of this example; crime is an unlawful criminal act, whereas deviance is a behaviour which is not a social norm (breaking the social rules).
Functionalist perspective on crime
- Crime is normal
- View deviance in the nature of society and not in the individual
- Social stability is of paramount importance, problems in society can be solved through social reform rather than radical action
- Crime is a breakdown of normal behaviour
- Deviance can be necessary and shows us where the boundaries should be and then those boundaries can be made clear to everybody.
- Too much crime is bad for society as it can help bring about its collapse
Marxist perspective on crime
- Capitalist society is to blame
- Caused by the poverty capitalism created
- Ruling class make the laws, and control the police and courts
- White collar and corporate crime is not dealt with as severely
Interactionist’s perspective on crime
- Law is unclear and ambiguous so individuals may not see themselves as criminals.
- Social reaction to our behaviour dictates if we are committing a crime.
- All individuals must hold similar values to see crime in the same way.
Both the Functionalist and Marxist view crime from a society point of view whereas the Interactionists look at the individual, and how that individual views itself and the feedback from others.
There are similarities between the Interactionist perspective and the Marxist as they both see laws as something that the people in power have put in place. Both would argue that some laws are only clear to the people who make them, not to the people who commit crime.
By looking at all perspectives it’s easy to see the problems they have in explaining crime.
It can be concluded that both structural and action perspectives have advantages and disadvantages.
The sociological perspectives complement each other in the sense that each explains some aspect of our behaviour convincingly.
Interactionism could contribute to our understanding of society by taking the studies of individuals and combining with the Functionalist and Marxist theories to establish the relationship between the individual and the organised structure of rules, external to the individual.
Structuralism does not explain how and why social change occurs. Instead of recognising the roles of individuals shaping their own destiny, they just regard them as part of the pre-determined social structure.
The action theorists are humanists and are critical of this structuralist ‘puppet theory’, they recognise the impact individuals have on society but that society cannot function without humankind.
Both theories are valuable studies as they form the basis of further sociological studies. Without them, the new contemporary studies such as Keat and Urry (1975) and Moore (1988) may never have been initiated.
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