If you could represent the five sociological perspectives in sociology as five shapes, I think they’d look something like this:
Functionalism – a rectangle as it emphasizes structure and order.
Marxism – a triangle to represent the class structure, Bourgeoisie on the top, Proletariat on the bottom.
Feminism – had to be an egg shape, because only women can produce them, albeit with a little thrust from men in the first instance
Interactionism – a cone – you start off looking at micro processes and see how these contribute to the bigger picture
Postmodernism – a spikey star because it emphasizes fragmentation, individual freedom and difference.
If anyone’s blood is boiling over because they think this is way too simplistic, below is a slightly more in-depth summary of the five sociological perspectives:
In case your blood’s still boiling about the oversimplification (‘blood’ ;0) click on the links for even more detailed notes; if it’s still boiling after that, you can always post an irate comment, I’m sure that’s make you feel better!
Functionalists see society is a self-regulating system which functions like a human body (‘the organic analogy’) – all institutions have unique functions and contribute to the maintenance of the whole.
Functionalists tend to analyse institutions by looking at the contribution that institution makes to maintenance of social order.
Functionalism is sometimes known as a consensus perspective– they think that social institutions are ‘neutral’ – they generally work well for most people, and they perform positive functions, maintaining consensus or harmony in society which ultimately benefits everyone equally.
Education acts as a bridge between home and school, promoting value consensus through secondary socialisation and preparing students for work, allocating students to appropriate jobs through a meritocratic system of exams and qualifications.
Marxists argue that social class divisions are key to understanding everything else in society. In contemporary Capitalist society there are two basic classes – the Capitalist class (the Bourgeoisie) who own the means of production and effectively live off their investments, and the Working Class (the Proletariat) – all those who have to work for a living.
Exploitation lies at the heart of the capitalist system – the Bourgeoisie, who are the extreme minority, are wealthy because they exploit the proletariat.
Marxists analyse society and social institutions through a ‘class lens’ – they focus on how institutions maintain the power of ruling class elites and keep the system working for them.
Marxism is sometimes referred to as a conflict perspective because there is a fundamental conflict of interests between the two classes. Those with economic power control all other institutions, and those institutions function to maintain the power and privilege of the capitalist class and to keep the proletariat in their place.
According to Marxists the education system reproduces class inequality while at the same time legitimating class inequality by teaching pupils there is equality of opportunity (when in reality there is not)
Feminism sees divisions between men and women as the most significant feature of society: radical feminism argues that society is patriarchal – men tend to dominant social institutions and occupy social roles which give them more freedom and power than women.
Feminists analyse society in terms of sex and gender inequalities – they are interested in how social institutions and social norms maintain gender inequalities, and the possible opportunities which exist to bring about greater gender equality.
The traditional nuclear family is of particular interests to feminists – the private realm of the family is typically associated with women, while the public realms of work and politics are associated with men. This public private divide is one of the fundamental norms which maintain male power.
Feminists argue that gender is socially constructed – the norms and values associated with masculinity and femininity are shaped by society, not by biology.
Unlike the previous three perspectives (which are sometimes collectively referred to as ‘structuralist’ perspectives) which take a top down approach to studying society, looking at trends and patterns, Interactionists focus on micro-level processes to explain social action.
Interactionists believe you need to understand the meanings individuals give to their own actions in order to understand why they do what they do. They use qualitative research methods to find out how individuals interpret their own actions.
Interactionists are especially interested the micro process of labelling – they argue that labels given to people by authority figures such as teachers and police can affect the way they see themselves.
Focussing on education, interactionists developed labelling theory to explain how middle class teachers label working class boys negatively, which creates a self-fulfilling prophecy and helps to explain working class underachievement.
Postmodernism emerged in the 1970s – when the pace of technological change and globalisation really started to change society – around this decade, consumption became more central to society and individuals had much greater freedom to shape their identities.
Postmodernism argues that societies have become more fluid as a result of postmodernisation – the old structures of work, government, the nuclear family all lose their power to constrain the individual and thus human action becomes harder to predict. Life becomes more uncertain.
Pure postmodernism rejects the idea that grand theories of human action and society are possible – they thus reject the validity of all of the above theories (although to my mind, I see interactionism as an antecedent of aspects of postmodernism).
Sociological responses to postmodernisation, such as the work of Beck, Bauman and Giddens all argue that there are still structures and processes in place which steer human action, but these are now global and thus theorising about how these interface with human action is more complex.
NB – Be warned that many A level sociology text books tend to misrepresent ‘late modern’ sociologists as ‘postmodernists’.