1. Social phenomenon or ways that people interact, react or respond is studied at different levels. Sociologists use different theories that see these phenomenon in different perspectives. The two most common theories that can explain social phenomenon are the social functionalism and conflict theory. There are both concrete interpretations as well as very wide generalizations with these two theories. Sociologists cover all of these using very specific events.
According to the functionalist perspective, everything in society is interdependent, and humans do not just co-exist. Each person plays a specific role in society to help things move and fall into place. This means that society’s functioning depends on all the people within a certain community, everyone has their own specific role to play. Along with this theory is the type of thinking that everything moves in a flowing way, and everyone contributes in one way or another. Each person has their own special role, like the family is dependent on the school to help educate the children, the children are the key to the future and well-being of society, society is supposed to function through taxpaying citizens. Everyone needs something or someone in their life in order to keep moving and keep going. If all goes well, then society will keep moving. However, is something falls out of place, the entire community must learn how to readapt in order for everyone to fit in their specialized roles again. Stability means productivity in this type of thinking. For example, in the time of recession, people are seen to budget, schools offer fewer programs and everything is seen within a new social order.
Functionalists believe that this type of society is held by cohesion, or an unsaid rule that everyone must work together in order for stability to be reached. Durkheim (1997) suggests that this type of social consensus is seen in two forms:
1. Mechanical Solidarity – this is the type of social cohesion that rises when people within a community share the same values or beliefs. They might also engage in the same type of work which works together and they benefit each other.
2. Organic Solidarity – this type of social cohesion can happen in communities where people are interdependent, whilst still holding different values and beliefs. This mostly happens in complex or industrialized societies where people can engage in different types of jobs, yet still work together in harmony.
The problem with the functionalist theory is that it fails to explain the negative things within society. Of course, the positive things within the community can work together. But, the negative areas are left unaccounted for. For example, divorce and its role within society are not clearly explained by this theory. When a married couple, who have children, share a house and assets, file for a divorce, how is this working towards embittering society? There is no way that a private matter such as divorce and a custody battle would gear towards a better community (Winant and Omi). Additionally, the functionalist theory also fails to explain why negative things such as wars, criminal acts or other things that are considered a bane in society happen. This particular type of theory has its limits and cannot explain the status quo, or why some people are rich while others are not. It is almost as if the functionalist theory expects everyone to be equal, since people generally need each other to survive. However, why would a wealthy CEO need an orphan inside the foster system? There are questions about the social environment that cannot be answered by this theory.
The conflict theory is very different from the social functionalist theory. This is a belief that focuses on coercion and power to bring social order. There is no harmony or coexistence, society is seen as fragmented and groups within the community compete for social and economic resources. With this type of theory, social order is maintained through domination. People do not work together, and there are those that are oppressed by a higher power that have access to resources. These are the people with greater political and economic resources. The conflict theory got its roots from the works of Karl Marx (Durkheim).
According to this theory, there is inequality seen within society, and there is disproportionate power that is only exercised by the ruling classes. They have an unfair share of society’s resources to use for their own advantage. These masses are bound to them, not because of shared values, but because of domination (Lorde 184). There is no social control or consensus, there is just conformity by force.
This started from the work of Karl Marx, emphasizing that capitalism would inevitably produce tension in society and it will fall on its own, leading to a destruction in classes. This radical view might seem to be a bit too extreme, however when you look at society as a whole, and keep in mind the materialist views of people today, it would make a bit more sense.
American sociologists, during the 1940s and 50s ignored this kind of perspective and geared towards the functionalist theory (Winant and Omi). However, when things started going bad with the economy, people started to see that the conflict theory does have good explanations, especially in the capitalist economy that we have today. There are different types of inequalities that exist, not just because of the status quo.
In the world we live in today, it is evident that people are divided by class and the resources that they have. Although it would make sense that people work together to form a better society, and that everyone coexists, depending on each others’ roles to fulfill their own, there are still members of society that are oppressed. It can be generalized that the people who hold the money or have seat in the government have the power. You can see people struggling with two jobs, just trying to make ends meet, yet still not have enough. You would think that in a functionalist society that people who do their share their of work, of labor, would get the resources that they need to be able to feed their families (Lorde 284). However, the state of the world and the nation today, proves that this is not possible. Therefore, the best theory that would explain social phenomenon today would be the social conflict theory. This theory understands that there are certain inequalities within society. Although it does not offer a solution for correcting the status quo, it explains why there are people who have less than others, unlike the functionalist theory that suggests everyone is equal.
The capitalist world that we live in today leans towards the side of conflict theory where people are fighting for their status in the community, rather than working together. Everyone has become so materialistic that advertisements thrive on anyone, rich and poor. The inequalities that exist are not corrected, but they are exploited by the larger companies, corporations and even the government. In order for people to live the way that they do, they have to step on the ones who are underneath. The power is with those who have money and resources. The rich just keep getting richer and the poor work until they die. There is no coexistence or functionalism seen in society. Therefore, social phenomenon is best explained with the conflict theory.
4. The sociological imagination allow people to take a look at both history and biography in order to make sense of the situation. To recognize what is going on gives one a role of a social analyst. There are a number of social phenomenon that happen each day, some are more subtle than others. One of the things that people always try to figure out is crime. This is a social phenomenon that has been going on from the beginning of time. Crime can be defined as any wrongful act towards a group or another individual. We can see crime as something that the accused will do in order to gain something. For example, a simple crime would be robbery, and a violent one murder. All social theories have explanations for crime, the conflict theory sees this as a result of oppression, whereas the functionalist theory does not have an exact definition for why such a thing happens.
With the sociological imagination, it can be analyzed by looking not just at the perpetrator, but by the community in which the accused lives in (Mills). In order to explain why such a crime was committed and what forced the individual to do so, other things have to be observed. In areas where crime and violence is rampant, a deeper study into the cause should be done. The history of such crime and the frequency of something like that happening should explain, to an extent, why this crime happens. The characteristics of the crime as well as the profile of those who committed a crime can also be done. However, certain generalizations can be made, by mistake and/or prejudice, if one were to try and define crime according to age, sex, race and other things. In a social needs theory type of thinking, crime can be justified because of socio-economic conditions. This can go in relation with social conflict where the oppressed would need to take extreme measures in order to get the resources that they need just to survive, or to feed their family. This would coincide with the hierarchy of needs, and therefore can be explained with the sociological imagination.
Another social phenomenon which has yet to be explained involves divorce and the effects on the family. Contrary to popular belief, the divorce rate in the United States is only at 30% of all marriages since 1998. There are different reasons why divorce happens, and this phenomenon cannot be generalized. Many different people have varying reasons why they choose to end their marriage. The parties that are affected by the divorce include children, friends and immediate family members. The effects of divorce can include a custody battle as well as the moving of rights for materialistic belongings. This cannot be explained by the functionalist theory, therefore the sociological imagination has to be put in play (Mills).
An area which has more cases of divorce should be studied in order for some light to be shed on this type of social phenomenon. In societies that have accepted divorce as a common social happening have more cases of divorce than others. In order to know more about why such a thing occurs, it might also be important to look at it historically. The events which lead up to the divorce and maybe the background of the people who underwent the divorce might help generalize assumptions of the said social phenomenon.
This type of social phenomenon, although it cannot be explained in whole, can be generalized as something that is a more emotional subject. The reason why two people get divorced may or may not involve a third party. Therefore, it is difficult to really generalize the reason why families go their separate ways and why two people, who once were happily married, agree to split up.
The conflict theory could say that there are materialistic reasons behind such a phenomenon. Since most people only look for materialistic things in life, they might choose to leave their spouse because of these reasons. For example, they are no longer happy because their significant other has lost their job due to the economic downfall.
A social phenomenon that is on a lighter note is learning. This socio-cultural theory is seen in all societies, no matter what size or depth. Education, learning and communication is valued in all societies. The banking concept by Freire (1970) explains this well, however the functionalist theory does help enlighten the subject.
People need education in order to pursue the career of their choice. Many people stress that education is very important and how well you do in school will determine your status in life. Therefore, if you want to be successful, you have to get an education. However, in most societies, if you want to get an education, your parents need to be successful. It is almost like a loop where education is seen as a big investment that children are forced into.
The social functionalist would see that education, and learning how to work your trade would be an investment for society (Freire 99). It means that it is investing on younger workers who would be able to improve the community because of the knowledge that they have learned. According to the conflict theory, education would be something that the masses are forced to undergo in order to keep them in line. They would need an education to reach a certain status, yet they are tied down by the cost of education, thereby rendering their job after graduating somewhat useless. Learning is such a strange social phenomenon since people need to communicate with each other in order to learn. An individual cannot simply learn on his or her own because they would need to see other students, instructors or educators in order for them to fully grasp the lesson being taught. Even a child who is homeschooled is taught by a tutor or their parent who has had social interaction with people from outside the home. Therefore, education or learning is a social activity, and is not just done by the individual.
Lorde, Audre. "Age, race, class, and sex: Women redefining difference." Words of fire: An
anthology of African-American feminist thought (1995): 284-291.
Durkheim, Emile. The division of labor in society. Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Freire, Paulo. "The banking concept of education." 2004) Educational foundations: An anthology
of critical readings (1970): 99-111.
Mills, C. Wright. The sociological imagination. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Winant, M., and H. A. Omi. "Racial Formation in the United States: 1960-1990 (Critical Social
Thought Series)." (1994).