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Theories are an essential part of the framework used to organize specific social phenomena within the social sciences. This lesson introduces the four major theoretical perspectives in sociology, including structural-functional, social conflict, feminism, and symbolic interactionism.

The Importance of Theory

When you were in junior high or high school and you ate lunch, did certain types of people sit at certain tables every day? Why do you think people tend to sort themselves into groups and stay with people they see as similar to themselves? If you have a guess as to why this happens, you could say that you have a theory regarding how social groups function.

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This lesson focuses on the importance of theory in the social sciences and the four main theoretical perspectives within sociology.Let’s start with a definition. A theory is a statement of how and why processes work or the world operates.

Within sociology, theories attempt to explain why groups of people choose to perform certain actions and how societies function or change in a certain way.It’s important for social sciences, like psychology, economics, and sociology, to follow theoretical perspectives as a framework for understanding phenomena, such as the ways people form groups. Without theories, we’d just have a huge list of individual tendencies, or decisions people make, or types of people, but we wouldn’t have any way of organizing the field. Theories help us see overall themes across many specific types of behaviors or decisions in the social world.This lesson will briefly cover the four major theories in sociology, which are structural-functional theory, social conflict theory, feminism, and symbolic interactionism theory.

Structural-Functional Theory

Our first theory is called structural-functional theory. This approach views society as a complex, but interconnected system, where each part works together as a functional whole. A metaphor for the structural-functional approach is the human body.

You have arms, legs, a heart, a brain, and so on. Each individual body part has its own neurons and system for working, but each part has to work together for a fully-functioning structure, or system. What are the different structures, or systems, in society? You can probably think of the government, businesses, schools, and families. We need all of these systems to work together for a fully-functioning society.

To make each of our four theories more memorable, let’s think about each theory from the perspective of an example. We’ll use sports. How would you apply the structural-functional approach or theory to sports? Well, for any given team to be successful, it needs to have a bunch of working parts, each functioning independently and cooperatively. I played soccer in high school, so think about soccer for a second.

Of course, you’ll have different positions on the team, such as the forwards, the fullbacks for defense, and the goalkeeper. But, you also need the coach, the referees, and someone to pay for the equipment; and it wouldn’t be very fun to play without an audience. Each part has its own rules and systems. For example, the audience has to know when to cheer, how to purchase concessions, and where to sit.

For the entire system to work, all of the individual parts need to work together. Structural-functional theory studies how each part of the larger social world works together.

Social Conflict Theory

The second major theoretical perspective in sociology is called social conflict theory.

This theory views society as a system of groups that are not equal, and therefore consistently generate conflict and change. Think back to that example from the beginning of the lesson with the different groups of students in school.In my high school, the athletes might have conflicts with the people in band or the people who were in the math club.

There was a popular group of kids who were sometimes mean to the less popular kids. When you think about this type of social conflict on a large scale, it explains unfortunate social trends such as racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, and so on, but the theory also predicts change. For example, in the 1960s, the United States saw a huge change in civil rights awarded to African Americans due to the political protests that highlighted the conflict between racial groups.

While racism is still a problem in the United States, this social change helped the country make a lot of progress toward equality.

Protests highlighting social conflict led to more civil rights for African Americans.
Social Conflict Theory

Hopefully, it’s easy to see how social conflict theory might be seen in our example of sports.

Different teams will certainly conflict with each other as they compete for points, runs, or touchdowns. Actually, sports wouldn’t make any sense without some form of conflict or competition. Fans of the different teams will display their loyalty using things like hats or jerseys, and they might conflict with each other.Going back to my favorite sport of soccer, the fans are famous for causing trouble when they’re upset. We even have the phrase ‘soccer hooligan’ or ‘football hooligan’ because of this tendency! Social conflict theory emphasizes how social conflict motivates people and societies to evolve over time.


Theory three out of four is feminism. Feminism is often misunderstood as coming from a group of angry women who are trying to dominate men.

That is not what feminism is! Understood correctly, feminism is a perspective that views society as traditionally unequal between men and women and strives for equality between the sexes.For example, you might have heard the fact that men and women, on average, are not paid equally in the United States. Studies show that even with the same education and job demands, women are only paid $0.77 for the same job where a man would be paid $1.00. Women are less represented in the government, women are less likely to be business owners, and women are less likely to be college professors.

Women earn less than men, even with the same education level and job demands.
Women Paid Less

Of course, there are also examples of places in society where men are disadvantaged. Men are less likely to be given custody of children after a divorce, and men are less likely to be hired for certain jobs, such as elementary school teachers or flight attendants.

Feminism, as a theory in sociology, tries to point out these inequalities and find solutions so that every situation is fair to everyone.Again, think about how sports can be an example of the theory. What inequalities between men and women can you see in the athletic world? There are not very many professional sports available for women, unless you go to the Olympics. Many colleges don’t offer equal sports for men and women, even though the U.S. government declared inequalities to be unconstitutional many years ago.

Even when there are teams for both sports, such as basketball, the women’s team usually doesn’t get very much attention or economic support from the college compared to the men’s team.

Symbolic Interactionism

The fourth and final theory in this lesson is symbolic interactionism. Symbolic interactionism views the larger society as a byproduct of the interactions among millions of individuals.

In other words, this theory focuses more on tiny groups of two or three people, talking to each other and interacting, and says that society is really just millions of these tiny groups occurring over time. So, why is it called ‘symbolic’ interactionism? Part of this theory is that through these interactions, people create symbols as ways to understand the world and shape our identities.What’s an example of one of these symbols? Well, think about language. In English, the sound ‘kitchen’ symbolizes an area of a living space where food is stored and prepared for eating. Every language has a sound that symbolizes this space. That symbol had to be created for the first time at some point in history.

Some of the symbols people have created through symbolic interactionism include religious symbols.

Symbolic Interactionism

Another example is religious symbols. Think about a cross symbolizing Christianity or a Star of David symbolizing Judaism.

People often wear such symbols, such as necklaces, as a way of honoring their beliefs and projecting these beliefs to other people. Each time one person shows a symbol to another person in an interaction, we’ve established both steps in the symbolic interactionism theory of sociology.Let’s finish the lesson by going back to our example of sports one more time. What symbols are important in the world of sports? Well, every team in every sport will have some kind of symbol on their uniform, representing either their institution (such as a college or city) or possibly some kind of mascot, like an animal.

These symbols are supposed to represent something about the team. A tiger mascot might represent the symbolic ferocity of a team, or an alligator might represent Florida because there are alligators in that state. Either way, the symbols you see in the world of sports become very meaningful to the people who follow the teams.

Lesson Summary

Theories are needed in social sciences to help us understand and organize ideas and findings. There are four main theories in sociology:

  1. Structural-functional theory – This theory is based on the idea that society is a large system that is dependent on its individual parts working together.
  2. Social conflict theory – This theory implies that society is based on small groups that have conflicts that help society to evolve or change.
  3. Feminism – This theory is based on the idea that there are inequalities based on gender and the practice of trying to fix those inequalities.
  4. Symbolic interactionism – This theory implies that society is really about the smaller groups within it and the symbols that these small groups use to communicate.

As we went through each theory, which one seemed like the most useful or interesting? If you were a sociologist, which theory would you study?

Learning Outcome

After completing this lesson, you’ll be able to describe the four main theories in sociology and provide a real-world application for each.

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