A sociological theory is a set of ideas that provides an explanation for human society. Theories are selective in terms of their priorities and perspectives and the data they define as significant. As a result they provide a particular and partial view of reality. Sociological theories can be grouped together according to a variety of criteria. The most important of these is the distinction between Structural and Social action theories.
Structural, or macro perspectives analyses the way society as a whole fits together. Structural theory sees society as a system of relationships that creates the structure of the society in which we live. It is this structure that determines our lives and characters. Structured sets of social relationships are the ‘reality’ that lie below the appearance of ‘the free individual’ of western individualism. Structuralism focuses on the particular set of ‘structural laws’ that apply in any one society.
Despite their differences, both functionalism and Marxism use a model of how society as a whole works. Many functionalists base their model of society around the assumption of basic needs and go to explain how different parts of society help to meet those needs. Marxists, on the other hand, see society as resting upon an economic base or infrastructure, with a superstructure above it. They see society as divided into social classes which have the potential to be in conflict with each other.
However, the main differences between functionalist and Marxist perspectives then, is the way they characterize the social structure. Functionalists stress the extent to which the different elements of the social structure fit together harmoniously. Marxists stress the lack of fit between the different parts, particularly social classes, and so emphasize the potential for social conflict.
Not all sociological perspectives base their analysis upon an examination of the structure of society as a whole. Rather than seeing human behaviour as being largely determined by society, they see society as being the product of human activity. They stress the meaningfulness of human behaviour, denying that it is primarily determined by the structure of society. These approaches are known as social action theory, interpretive sociology or micro sociology.
Max Weber was the first sociologist to advocate a social action approach. Symbolic interactionists try to explain human behaviour and human society by examining the ways in which people interpret the actions of others, develop a self-concept or self-image, and act in terms of meanings. Ethnomethodology moves even further from a structural approach by denying the existence of a social structure as such. They see the social world as consisting of the definitions and categorizations of members of society. The job of the sociologist, in their view, is to interpret, describe and understand the subjective reality.
Marxism is an economic and socio-political worldview and method of socioeconomic inquiry that centers upon a materialist interpretation of history, a dialectical view of social change, and a critique of capitalism. Marxism was pioneered in the early to mid-19th century by two German philosophers, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. Marxism encompasses Marxian economic theory, a sociological theory and a revolutionary view of social change that has greatly influenced socialist political movements worldwide.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex