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A River Runs Through It: Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism in the Movie

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In the movie A River Runs Through It, interactions between Norman, Paul, and the rest of the Maclean family can be seen through different sociological perspectives such as functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism.

From a sociological standpoint, functionalism within the Maclean family is shown especially through the religious teachings from Norman and Paul’s father. As a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Maclean takes on most of the responsibility of showing the boys the difference between right and wrong. Norman and Paul were raised with strict rules to guide their behavior within the house and outside of it. It was also made clear to them from an early age that they had responsibilities and obligations stricter than those of their peers, for example, when the boys are homeschooled by their father to learn the art of reading and writing instead of attending Missoula Elementary with the rest of their friends. Reverend Maclean and his wife also demonstrate to their sons that problems are not to be talked about directly, which shapes Norman and Paul’s behavior and causes them many issues later in life when it comes to communication and problem solving in other relationships.

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Conflict theory is shown in the movie by the way the Maclean family handles any issue that appears, and in the relationship between Norman and Paul. From an early age, Norman and Paul experience a lack of communication between their parents and themselves. For example, when Paul refuses to eat his oatmeal as a child, he is made to sit at the table until he eats it. Eventually Reverend Maclean realizes he isn’t going to eat it, and the family proceeds to have dinner as normal without any reference to the oatmeal incident. Additionally, Norman and Paul have starkly contrasting personalities–Norman being the responsible, quiet, serious older child and Paul being the energetic, carefree, up-for-anything younger brother. This eventually causes extreme conflict between the brothers, as Paul takes up extreme drinking and gambling, getting himself into severe debt, which Norman does not agree with. Norman can often be seen seemingly disapproving of Paul, but rarely does he ever voice his opinion. He also picks up Paul from the police station quite regularly when he gets in trouble without ever talking about the incident that led to his arrest. This same lack of communication is visible within the Maclean family, particularly on the several incidents that Paul abruptly leaves the dinner table to go “see his friends”, which the entire family knows translates to gambling and drinking. However, no one protests further than a disapproving or dismayed look. Reverend Maclean, after Paul leaves again on one of his expeditions, makes the disapproving remark that Paul has changed the spelling of their last name to “MacLean”, but he makes no reference to any other issues he has with Paul, although it is clear there are many. Eventually, this tension builds up enough to the point of physical fight between Norman and Paul. Their mother walks in and gets caught in the middle of the fight, causing her to fall, but when Norman and Paul yell at each other for who is to blame, she proceeds to claim she just “slipped” and walks away without a further word. There is much visible conflict between Norman, Paul, and the rest of the family, supportive of conflict theory.

Lastly, symbolic interactionism is seen most obviously in the film in the form of fly fishing and the Blackfoot River. The film begins and ends with the river, which is more than just a river for Norman, Paul, and their father. To them, the river represents family, connection, hope, and even despair. No matter how far Paul or Norman may travel, everything comes back to the river, and when the three men are fly fishing together, everything seems right. There is a level of understanding between them when they are fly fishing; an unspoken rule. There is a rhythm and purpose to each interaction between the men, from attaching the bait to collecting the fish. Words aren’t necessary because each fishing session is a ritual, something each man understands and attaches meaning to. No matter how rocky the relations between Norman, Paul, and Reverend Maclean become, it no longer matters once they are in the river together. This connection is understood and treasured by each member of the family, even their mother, who sends them off each day with their gear packed and waits faithfully for them to come home with their catchings. Fly fishing is an essential part of life for the Maclean family, and it may well be the one thing that holds them together through all the conflict they face. For them, fishing gives life meaning and purpose, an escape from the chaos of everyday life. As said by Norman himself, the two most important things in life are fly fishing and church. Fishing is sacred to the Maclean family.

The film highlights many important sociological concepts and perspectives, particularly functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. The interactions between Norman, Paul, and Reverend Maclean show the meaning of family and the different ways in which it can be interpreted.


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