Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism

Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism

Sociologists have developed theories to analyze and explain society from different perspectives at different levels. They have developed three theories to explain the nature of society. These theories are structural functionalism, conflict perspective theory, and symbolic interaction. Structural functionalism describes how all the parts of the society that are functional serve different purposes (Parsons, 2017).  Structural functionalism perceives society as a structure with elements that interrelate and designed to cater for the social and biological needs of people in that society. Therefore, society is like a body that relies on different organs to function successfully. For example, for there to be law and order, the government has to exist to make laws and regulate behavior and to ensure the rights of the citizens are upheld.

Symbolic interactionism explains how people in a particular group interact with each other. This theory can be used to explore and explain the inequalities that exist in different groups in society (Denzin 9). This theory argues that communication or exchange of meaning through symbols helps individuals make sense of their social world. This belief, therefore, means that people are active participants in shaping their worlds and they are not just mere entities acted upon by society.

The conflict theory looks at the society from a negative perspective focusing on society’s ever-changing nature. The conflict theory asserts that social structures arise as a result of conflicts for limited resources between different classes in society. These classes will be affected by different conflicts that may lead to structural changes (Craib 35). In return, these changes will give birth to new conflicts that will also lead to new structures. An example is workers working on a daily wage for company owners. When the workers feel underpaid, they will go on strikes which will lead to the formation of labor unions to protect their interest. Formation of these unions will again result in another change in structure by the government or managerial groups, and the cycle continues.

Real world examples

An example of the structural functionalism theory is the education system. The government provides effective educational systems for children in a country. By doing this, the children become educated and enlightened, and therefore they become responsible members of the public and can secure decent and productive employment. In return, these children pay taxes that contribute to the revenue and economic well-being of the country (Bowe, Stephen and Anne 212). Similarly, when these children are responsible members of the society, they engage in less crime, and therefore there is law and order in society. It is a successful cycle that is meant to benefit everyone in society.

An example of the symbolic interactionism theory can be traced to teenagers in school. While in school, teenagers tend to focus on the latest trends and what they term as being ‘cool.’ Therefore, for example, there is the latest trend in sneakers or the latest phone model. The kids who can afford these luxuries are perceived as being ‘cool’ and are likely to have many friends and become popular in school (Woods and Martyn 36). On the other hand, kids from low-income families may not be able to afford these items that are symbolic of ‘coolness’ and wealth, and therefore they may be shunned and isolated in school.

An example of the conflict theory is the quest for gender equality. Women for a long time have felt that their interests are being over-stepped by men in positions of authority. Throughout history, men have always felt superior to women, and therefore they have denied them many rights and privileges in society. Women were always assigned minority duties, and many benefits in the society were given to men (Knights and Hugh 82). However, women realized their rights and started feminist movements to fight against these inequalities. Because of these movements, governments have had to amend laws to serve the interest of women better. As it is right now, women are accorded almost equal rights to men, but still, there is a struggle by women to get equal shares and not be perceived as minorities in society.


Works cited

Bowe, Richard, Stephen J. Ball, and Anne Gold. Reforming education and changing schools: Case studies in policy sociology. Routledge, 2017.


Craib, Ian. Modern social theory. Routledge, 2015.


Denzin, Norman K. “Symbolic interactionism.” The international encyclopedia of communication theory and philosophy (2016): 1-12.


Knights, David, and Hugh Willmott, eds. Labor process theory. Springer, 2016.


Parsons, Talcott. “The present status of “structural-functional” theory in sociology.” The idea of social structure. Routledge, 2017. 67-84.


Woods, Peter, and Martyn Hammersley, eds. School experience: Explorations in the sociology of education. Vol. 60. Routledge, 2017.