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Conflict Theory, Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism


According to Harris (1), sociologists follow different theoretical backgrounds when exploring certain subjects in the field. Most concepts in sociology are founded on the three key sociological paradigms, which include conflict theory, symbolic interaction, and functionalism. Each of these key paradigms has its own inclination when it comes to the conceptualization of the social aspects of society. It means that they are used differently by researchers and scholars in the field of sociology. This paper explores the three key sociological paradigms that are critical in conceptualizing different phenomena from the sociological stance. The paper argues that the difference in these paradigms or theoretical foundations lies in their application in understanding the functioning of the society.

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Functionalism is one of the dominant theoretical foundations in the field of sociology. Functionalism is a paradigm that stresses on the interactions of people with structures in the society to create meaning from the social sense. Functionalism stresses the interdependence of the social structures in the society and how the interdependence determines the way social systems, people, and institutions work (“Functionalism, In Anthropology And Sociology” 1). The greatest essence of this theory is to explain the importance of social institutions in society, especially the role of these institutions in meeting the social needs of society. The theory maintains that social stability is either fostered or undermined by the social structures that are built (Brym and Lie 9).

Functionalism seeks to establish the way in which society attains stability and continuity. This is perhaps one of the reasons why functionalists focus on the structures and institutions of the society, how they are built, and the role that they play in ensuring the sustainability of the society. The main concept in functionalism is solidarity, indicating how well the different elements of the society can work together to attain the main goal of continuity of the society. Functionalism looks at how different tasks are performed for the sake of adding to the achievement of solidarity in society, which depicts a stable society (Brym and Lie 9).

According to Brym and Lie (9-10), functionalism pays greater attention to the systematic nature of interaction and the organization of different elements with the social structures of the organization. This is the main difference between functionalism and the other two paradigms of conflict theory and symbolic interaction theory. Functionalism can be used to make assumptions about an individual or human actors and society (Vassallo 32).

Conflict theory

According to Brym and Lie (9), conflict theory is another critical concept in the field of sociology. The conflict theory focuses on large structures and patterns of interaction in society and how conflict arises in these structures and interactions. Therefore, the main argument that is postulated by the proponents of this paradigm is that relations in society generate some attributes of conflict. Among the issues of conflict that are inherent in the theory are dominion and submission. They denote the struggle between people who belong to different classes in society.

The concept that is inherent in the conflict theory is competition, where the theory seeks to bring out the aspects of pressure that are generated from the competition. Aspects of competition feature in almost all aspects of human interaction. This is why conflict is inherent in human interactions in society. The concept of competition is looked at from the perspective of the societal structures and the elements of human interaction. This is why the issues of power, reward, and interest come into the picture in the theory. Conflict is often generated from the interaction of these forces. Therefore, it is evident that the conflict theory was developed to critique the issue of societal structures and institutions as postulated in the theory of functionalism (Harris 2-3). The theory is a complete critique of society and structures. Emphasis is paid to the continual conflict within the structures of the society that necessitate revolutionary change (Powers 165).

The main aspect of variation between the conflict theory and functionalism is that functionalism focuses on the development of structures that are important in bringing about stability in the society, while functionalism focuses on aspects of differences in the institutions that are set up in the society and how conflict is generated. It can be argued that the conflict theory has close relations to the symbolic interaction theory that directly focuses on the interaction between human beings and society. The main difference between the two is that the conflict theory largely dwells on the negative forms of interaction (Powers 165-166).

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Symbolic interactionism

This is a concept that is critical in understanding how human beings interact with society. Meaningful symbols are pertinent in understanding how humans act and interact. Therefore, the theory portrays human beings and the source of most actions. This means that the center of actions and interactions within the society lies with human beings. This is why theories that are built on symbolic interaction are critical in building critical concepts that can be used to shape the larger society because they focus on individual human beings and their actions that generate problems in the society (Andersen and Taylor 22).

Symbolic interaction is based on three main conceptions. The first one is that the actions of human beings are founded on the way they understand things. The second concept is that the meanings that are attached to things by human beings come from social interactions. The third assumption is that social actions come from an integration of individual actions (Andersen and Taylor 22).

According to Vassallo (37-38), symbolic interaction is considered to be micro-sociological in nature. The rationale behind this observation is that the theory dwells on the individual attributes of human interaction in society. Symbolic interaction emphasizes the direct contact between human beings and society. On the other hand, conflict theory and functionalism are considered to be macro-sociological in nature because they deal with collective aspects of the society (Andersen and Taylor 22). Also, this theory eliminates the issue of structural determinism by theorizing more on individuals and their behaviors rather than placing the individuals within the context of the larger society, like the case of functionalism and the conflict theory (Vassallo 37-38).


It is apparent that all three paradigms attempt to explain the organization of society. However, variations prevail in the manner in which the paradigms points to the concept of society. Functionalist theories dwell on the structures and institutions in society. Symbolic interaction theories, on the other hand, are based on the human interactions with the society, while the conflict theory is based on human interactions and attributes of competition and how they bring about conflict in the society. Therefore, any sociological concept can be grouped into any of these theories provided that a person understands the variable in the concept or the problem that is under research.

Works Cited

“Functionalism, In Anthropology And Sociology.” Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2013): 1-1. Print.

Andersen, Margaret L, and Howard F. Taylor. Sociology: Understanding a Diverse Society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2008. Print.

Brym, Robert J., and John Lie. Sociology: Your Compass for a New World, the Brief Edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2010. Print.

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Harris, Scott R. “Critiquing And Expanding The Sociology Of Inequality: Comparing Functionalist, Conflict, And Interactionist Perspectives.” Quarterly Journal of Ideology 25 (2003): 1-21. Print.

Powers, Charles H. Making Sense of Social Theory: A Practical Introduction. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004. Print.

Vassallo, Stephen. “Implications Of Institutionalizing Self-Regulated Learning: An Analysis From Four Sociological Perspectives.” Educational Studies 47.1 (2011): 26-49. Print.

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