Consensus, conflict, structural and social action theories


Perspectives discussed in this section

Consensus theories

Consensus theories in sociology arise from a general agreement about what is considered ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in society and a generally shared belief in the essential norms and values of that society.

Consensus theories argue that this general agreement in society is a good thing. Agreement between groups and individuals in society allow it to work effectively – for the benefit of all.

Consensus theories do not claim that everyone in society will share ALL the same beliefs and values ALL the time – but a majority WILL uphold its central beliefs and values thus providing a CONSENSUS view.

FUNCTIONALISM is a consensus theory

NEW RIGHT is a consensus theory (although some sociologists disagree with this categorisation)


Conflict theories

Conflict theories in sociology seeks to acknowledge the significant amount of conflict in society that consensus theories tend to ignore.

Conflict theories focus on different groups in society and the different (and unequal) amounts of power that they possess.

Conflict theories may find these inequalities of power by observing differences in gender, ethnicity and social class.

MARXISM is a conflict theory – probably the most important.

NEO-MARXISM is a more modern version and application of Marx’s original ideas.

FEMINISM is a conflict theory.


Structural theories

Structural theories  see society as a complex system consisting of various institutions.

These institutions govern the behaviour of individuals. Structural theory looks at society from a macro (large scale) level and takes a ‘top-down’ view of the wider impact of structures and institutions on how humans behave.

Structural theories emphasize the power of society over the individual, and see the individual as being largely controlled by society.

The society exists within an individual as a set of norms and values, which influence individual thoughts and guides actions.

These norms and values are gained through socialisation, which acts as a form of social control.

As a macro-theorystructural approach research tends to be large-scale and QUANTITATIVE in that it seeks to generate statistics, numbers and data to explain the society being observed.

FUNCTIONALISM (consensus theory) is a top-down, macro, structural theory of society

NEW RIGHT (consensus theory) is also a top-down, macro, structural theory of society

FEMINISM (conflict theory) is also a top-down, macro, structural theory of society

MARXISM (conflict theory) is also a top-down, macro, structural theory of society

NEO-MARXISM (conflict theory) is also a top-down, macro, structural theory of society


Social Action theories – THE ALTERNATIVE TO MACRO / STRUCTURALIST APPROACHES

Social action theories are micro (small scale) approaches to the study of society.

Society is the product of the countless interactions that take place between individuals.

When these social interactions are INTERPRETED in a way that gives them MEANING, they contribute to a sense of social order which in turn may provide the foundations of a stable and peaceful society.

Society is therefore built on the decisions and choices of individuals based on the way they interpret events that happen.

The focus of the theory is on the INDIVIDUAL rather than the institutions of society – this makes it a ‘bottom-up’ theory (as opposed to ‘top-down’ structural theory).

SOCIAL INTERACTIONS = POSITIVE MEANING/INTERPRETATIONS = STABLE SOCIETY based on the SUM OF SOCIAL ACTIONS

As a micro-theorysocial action research tends to be small-scale and QUALITATIVE in that it seeks to understand the meanings of social behaviour.

Max Weber was the first sociologist to map-out the social action approach to studying society.

INTERACTIONISM is a micro, bottom-up, qualitative social action theory.

INTERPRETIVISM is a micro, bottom-up, qualitative social action theory.

POSTMODERNISM tends to be a micro, bottom-up, qualitative social action theory.

Some FEMINISTS tend towards a micro, bottom-up, qualitative social action theory.