The Major Theoretical Perspectives of Sociology

An Overview of Four Key Perspectives

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A theoretical perspective is a set of assumptions about reality that inform the questions we ask and the kinds of answers we arrive at as a result. In this sense, a theoretical perspective can be understood as a lens through which we look, serving to focus or distort what we see. It can also be thought of as a frame, which serves to both include and exclude certain things from our view. The field of sociology itself is a theoretical perspective based on the assumption that social systems such as society and the family actually exist, that culture, social structure, statuses, and roles are real.

A theoretical perspective is important for research because it serves to organize our thoughts and ideas and make them clear to others. Often, sociologists use multiple theoretical perspectives simultaneously as they frame research questions, design and conduct research, and analyze their results.

We'll review some of the major theoretical perspectives within sociology, but readers should bear in mind that there are many others.

Macro versus Micro

There is one major theoretical and practical division within the field of sociology, and that is the division between macro and micro approaches to studying society. Though they are often viewed as competing perspectives—with macro focused on the big picture of social structure, patterns, and trends, and micro-focused on the minutiae of individual experience and everyday life—they are actually complementary and mutually dependent.

The Functionalist Perspective

The functionalist perspective also called functionalism, originates in the work of French sociologist Émile Durkheim, one of the founding thinkers of sociology. Durkheim's interest was in how social order could be possible, and how society maintains stability. His writings on this topic came to be viewed as the essence of the functionalist perspective, but others contributed to and refined it, including Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton. The functionalist perspective operates on the macro-theoretical level.

The Interactionist Perspective

The interactionist perspective was developed by American sociologist George Herbert Mead. It is a micro-theoretical approach that focuses on understanding how meaning is generated through processes of social interaction. This perspective assumes that meaning is derived from everyday social interaction, and thus, is a social construct. Another prominent theoretical perspective, that of symbolic interaction, was developed by another American, Herbert Blumer, from the interactionist paradigm. This theory, which you can read more about here, focuses on how we use as symbols, like clothing, to communicate with each other; how we create, maintain, and present a coherent self to those around us, and how through social interaction we create and maintain a certain understanding of society and what happens within it.

The Conflict Perspective

The conflict perspective is derived from the writing of Karl Marx and assumes that conflicts arise when resources, status, and power are unevenly distributed between groups in society. According to this theory, conflicts that arise because of inequality are what foster social change. From the conflict perspective, power can take the form of control of material resources and wealth, of politics and the institutions that make up society, and can be measured as a function of one's social status relative to others (as with race, class, and gender, among other things). Other sociologists and scholars associated with this perspective include Antonio Gramsci, C. Wright Mills, and the members of the Frankfurt School, who developed critical theory.

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Crossman, Ashley. "The Major Theoretical Perspectives of Sociology." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 28). The Major Theoretical Perspectives of Sociology. Retrieved from Crossman, Ashley. "The Major Theoretical Perspectives of Sociology." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 30, 2023).