There are numerous social theories one can investigate to gain a better understanding of the inner workings of society. Social theories work to explain how and why relationships and interaction occur, as well as defining what their impact may be. Explaining societal issues and all that corresponds with them is a major function of social theories. By better understanding these theories, we can work to more accurately describe social issues, as well as their causation and consequences.
Conflict Theory was a product of Karl Marx’s beliefs. Essentially this theory states that society is in a perpetual state of conflict. Advocates of Conflict Theory suggest that all social problems are caused by the struggles between the ruling (dominant, wealthy) class and the lower (working) class (Crossman, 2018a). This is because, according to Marx, society is not actually built upon a foundation of mutual interest and compromise; rather, out of the fact that due to the limitedness of resources, there is a dominating class which basically controls the lower class. This results in numerous conflicts as the lower class is unable to be socially mobile, they are unable to enjoy the fruits of their labor, and there becomes a break from their self as they must conform to the rules of the society built by the dominating class.
Durkheim’s theory regarding functionalism in society is fairly simplistic. The basic concept of functionalism is that every object, person, relationship, interact- everything within society has a purpose, and is an integral cog that society could not function without (Crossman, 2018 b). For example, functionalism asserts that the lower class is necessary to complete certain functions that members of the upper class would not, that are critical to continuing society as it is. Views regarding social conflicts and issues from this perspective are far more accepting than others, as it notes that even problems have a purpose.
How we view society and how we interact with society may depend on a variety of variables. Symbolic Interaction Theory seeks to explain societal interaction based upon how we perceive and relate to each specific interaction (Lumen Sociology, 2018). This theory seeks to bring a deeper understanding to what motivates behavior and relationships, as well as how these perceptions affects the construction of society. Essentially, this theory asserts that we associate events, interactions, and relationships with certain feelings (basically desirable or undesirable); and from there we construct a concept of what societal interactions should be to produce those same desirable feelings.
The term social conflict is defined as the various kinds of negative social interaction that may occur within social relationships (Seeman, 2008). Social conflict affects all of society, even those of us not actively engaged in the conflict. This is because the perception of these events and their outcomes dramatically shape our society through social structure, and societal norms and values. In modern American society, some examples of social conflict include homelessness, teen pregnancy, and the addiction crisis.
When applying conflict theory to modern social conflicts, the essential goal is to identify causation and how the conflict is perpetuated by the continual conflict between the classes. Many of the social issues we currently face are frequently presented in a manner that aligns with conflict theory. For example, teen pregnancy is no longer blamed on poor decision making and a lack of family values as it was in previous decades. Instead we look at the disparities between communities in terms of resources for education and prevention. According to the National Conference of State Legislature, teen pregnancy rates are currently at an exceptionally low rate; but still are remarkably high in comparison to other industrialized countries, with 1 in 4 teens becoming pregnant prior to age twenty (NCLS, 2018). Areas that lack resources, are poor, or hold more traditional values which utilize abstinence-based education instead of safety based sexual education (i.e. Bible belt regions) are at a greater risk than other communities or locations. How this this explained through conflict theory is essentially people who lack resources or are geographically disadvantaged are at the greatest risk to fail victim to this particular social issue; and once in this situation, the individual is at a greater risk for living in poverty thus continuing the cycle instead of making advancements.
As previous explained, fundamentalism asserts that everything in society has a purpose and a role to play to keep society running as it should, despite the appearance that many aspects are unfair. When exploring social conflicts from this perspective, we are looking at how the outcome of these issues fits into the fabric of our society and what would occur potentially if these issues no longer existed. When looking at conflicts such as high school drop-out rates and teen pregnancy, we note that these events contribute significantly to continuous cycles of poverty. People without education or trade skills are not likely to earn wages outside of the poverty bracket. However, in utilizing a fundamentalist approach, we note that there are occupations that have very minor educational or skill requirements that are integral parts of daily life (i.e. service industries, janitorial work, etc.). These positions do not draw the attention of people who have other options because of unsavory work conditions, pay and benefits, and general lack of esteem. Nevertheless, as a society we need someone to do these things.
When we associate experiences with emotion the experiences then become symbolic of what is considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’. When we apply this theory to social conflicts, we are looking a variety of concepts associated with the issue- why it is a conflict, what contributing factors there may have been, the way the outcome affects society (just to name a few). A good example of this can be seen in exploring homelessness. Because the majority of society associates homelessness with many negative characteristics, it quickly gains a significant amount of stigma. However, when looking at why we think it is negative it is easy note symbolic associations. A portion of people who are homeless often appear as dirty or have significant health issues (physical and/or mental), both of which are unpleasant (Jasinski et al., 2010). Although the vast majority of homeless people do not fit this description, we associate homelessness with this appearance. More symbolically though, we associate having a home with having a family, with stability- and a lack of these concepts is considered negative. This association then shapes how we perceive our general needs and values, thus shaping society.
Societal conflicts are social issues that give way to outcomes that significantly affect everyone within society, regardless of active participation in the issue. Theories, such as conflict theory, functionalism, and symbolic interaction theory, provide us with various perspectives on said issues and their effects. What we learn from these observations inevitably aid in shaping our social climate and our interactions with each other. In order to better understand how these issues occur and affect society, we turn to investigation through the utilization of social theories.
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