Major Sociological Paradigms: Crash Course Sociology #2

Major Sociological Paradigms: Crash Course Sociology #2


What’s up with society, exactly? I mean, is it a smoothly functioning whole, with
different parts that fit together to keep it ticking? Or is it a jumble of different, competing
groups, constantly at each other’s throats,
struggling for control? Or maybe it’s, you know, a bunch of people
who are just trying to get through their days. The fact is, there isn’t one answer to the question
of what the nature of society really is. But all three of the models that I just described – society as a well-oiled machine, as a group
of competing interests, and as bunch of people
just interacting with each other – they’re all worth considering. Because they each offer their own perspectives
on the social world, and they’re each crucial to
understanding the practice of sociology, with histories that can be traced back to
a founding figure in the discipline. So, let’s talk about paradigms. [Theme Music] A paradigm is not some kind of high-tech parachute. And it doesn’t equal twenty cents. Instead, a paradigm is basically a model for
how you think about things – a set of concepts and theories that frames your
perspective on a certain topic, whether it’s Russian
literature or public art or the laws of physics. And in sociology, theoretical paradigms are
key. These paradigms are the fundamental assumptions
that sociologists have about the social world, the ones that guide their thinking and research. And that might sound kind of prejudicial at first,
like you’re going into the study of society with
certain biases in mind. But you need the assumptions that these paradigms
provide, because raw facts don’t interpret themselves. Raw facts are things like “the unemployment
rate last year was 5%,” or “Sam is six feet tall,” or “today a group of people with signs
blocked the highway.” By raw I mean that these facts are just simple
descriptions of empirical reality. And they don’t come pre-interpreted. Is 5% an acceptable unemployment rate? Or should we be trying to lower it? Is six feet tall actually tall? And are protesters who are blocking a
highway disrupting the order of society, or are
they struggling for their interests? The answer to that last one is, of course,
both. But the important thing to understand is that
either answer requires you to make some assumptions
about the social world. The other important thing is that those two
different answers will be useful in different situations,
for answering different kinds of questions. For instance, if you’re trying to understand
how and why society can hold together at all, then looking at protests as signs of strain
or disruption might be more useful. But if you’re trying to understand why people
protest, then trying to understand how they’re
pursuing their interests might be better. Now, all this might sound kind of unscientific:
Physics doesn’t need “interpretation” exactly. Math doesn’t need multiple “perspectives.” But actually, they do. All scientific disciplines make assumptions about
the world, and all scientific disciplines use different
perspectives, depending on the questions they’re asking. In physics, you can understand a bouncing ball
as a nearly uncountable multitude of fundamental
particles, each with its own wave function, and all held together by different kinds
of forces at the quantum scale. Or you can just understand it as simply X
number of grams of rubber moving through space. The perspective you take will dramatically
change what kinds of questions you want to ask. All sciences ask different kinds of questions and
have different assumptions for answering them. And raw facts always need some kind of
perspective in order to make them useful. Now, if we want to talk about different kinds
of questions and perspectives in sociology, a good place to start is with something we
brought up last episode: the fact that sociology looks at society at
all levels, at all scales, from the huge to the tiny. In other words, sociology is concerned with
both the macro and the micro. An orientation towards the macro means looking
at the big. When sociologists ask questions at this level,
they’re taking a broad focus, looking at the
large-scale structures that shape society. Macro questions are things like “What caused
the transition from feudalism to capitalism?” or “How does race impact educational achievement?” An orientation toward the micro, of course,
means looking at the small. These questions are concerned more narrowly with
interactions between individuals, asking things like: “Do doctors talk to patients of different
races differently?” or “How do the members of a certain group
build a group identity?” Now, it’s worth noting that these orientations
aren’t completely separate. Because, again, the big and the small are
always connected. Asking how doctors talk to patients of different
races is a micro question, but it also helps us begin to understand the macro-level pattern
of racial disparities in healthcare. Likewise, asking about how a group builds
its identity could have macro impacts, because it could help explain how large social
structures are reproduced and maintained. Now that we understand a little more about
the different scales that sociology works on, we can turn to its main theoretical paradigms,
of which there are three: There’s structural functionalism, conflict
theory, and symbolic interactionism. Let’s start with structural functionalism,
which originated with a French sociologist
named Emile Durkheim. Durkheim imagined society as a kind of organism,
with different parts that all worked together to
keep it alive and in good health. Of course, things could go wrong. But this was always imagined by Durkheim
as a malfunction, an illness, or a deviation from
the normal functioning of things. So the structural functionalist perspective
makes this same basic assumption: Society is seen as a complex system whose parts
work together to promote stability and social order. And these different “parts” of society are social
structures, relatively stable patterns of social behavior. For example, Durkheim was extremely interested
in religion, and also in the division of labor, or how tasks in a society are divided up. And these structures are seen as fulfilling
certain social functions. For instance, the family, in most societies,
fulfills the function of socializing children –
teaching them how to live in that society. And social functions come in two types: manifest
and latent functions. Manifest functions are intended or obvious
consequences of a particular structure, while latent
functions are unintended or unrecognized. For example, we often think of the purpose
of schools as providing children with knowledge
– that’s their manifest function. But, schools can also help socialize children. They can have – and historically have had
– the additional purpose of creating workers
who listen to authority and hit deadlines. That’s a latent function. Now, along with functions, we also have social
dysfunction, which is any social pattern that
disrupts the smooth operation of society. Technological development is a powerful driver
of economic improvement, for example, which
is a useful function. But it’s also a destabilizing force. New machines can put people out of work. Someday soon, we may see the social dysfunction
of thousands of long distance truckers being
displaced by self-driving vehicles. And this brings us to one of the problems
with structural functionalism. Since it sees society as fundamentally functional
and stable, it can be really bad at dealing with change. It can be bad at providing good
explanations for why change happens, and it can also interpret bad things in
society as having positive functions, which should
therefore not be changed. To take an extreme example, a structural
functionalist view might imagine that poverty, although harmful to people, is functional
for society, because it ensures there are always
people who want work. So this view might see any attempts at alleviating
poverty as being potentially damaging to society. It’s in areas like this, however, where
conflict theories shine. In contrast to structural functionalism, conflict theories imagine society as being composed of different groups that struggle over scarce resources – like power, money, land, food, or status. This view takes change as being fundamental
to society, constantly driven by these conflicts. The first conflict theory in sociology was
the theory of class conflict, advanced by Karl Marx. This theory imagines society as having different
classes based on their relationships to the means of
production – things like factories and raw materials. Under capitalism, the two classes were the capitalists, or bourgeoisie, who own the means of production, and the workers, or proletariat, who must sell their labor to survive. Marx saw this conflict between classes as
the central conflict in society and the source
of social inequality in power and wealth. But there are other conflict theories that
focus on different kinds of groups. Race-Conflict theory, for example, was first
stated sociologically by W.E.B. DuBois, another
founder of sociology. It understands social inequality as the result of
conflict between different racial and ethnic groups. Gender-Conflict theory, meanwhile, focuses on
the social inequalities between women and men. The perspective of all three kinds of conflict
theory have been crucially important in American
history and are still important today. But the paradigms we’ve looked at so far are
essentially macro approaches: Structural functionalism focuses on how large
structures fit together, and conflict theory looks at how
society defines sources of inequality and conflict. But then there’s symbolic interactionism,
and it’s built to deal with micro questions. Symbolic interactionism first appeared most
clearly in the work of German sociologist Max Weber
and his focus on Verstehen, or “understanding.” Weber believed that sociology needed to
focus on people’s individual social situations and
the meaning that they attached to them. So, because it’s more micro-focused, symbolic
interactionism understands society as the
product of everyday social interactions. Specifically, this school of thought is interested
in understanding the shared reality that people
create through their interactions. It might seem weird to say that reality can
be created, but think back to the idea of
raw facts versus interpretation. Waving my my hand back and forth is a raw fact,
but it only means that I’m waving hello to you because
we’ve agreed to give it that meaning. For symbolic interactionism, then, there is
no big-T truth. Instead, it looks at the world that we create when
we assign meaning to interactions and objects. A handshake is only a greeting because we
agree that it is. A dog can be a friend or food, depending on
what meaning we’ve given it. Obviously, these three different paradigms provide
radically different ways of looking at the social world. But, this is because they all grasp at different
parts of it. They each give us a different lens through we can see
our social lives, just like science sometimes needs a
microscope and sometimes needs a telescope. All of these lenses are important and, yes,
necessary for the investigation of sociological
questions. Today we discussed what theoretical paradigms
are, and talked more in depth about the macro/micro
distinction. Then we took a look at the three major
paradigms in sociology, and learned a bit about
their advantages and disadvantages. Next week we’re going to start learning how
these paradigms can be used to do actual
sociological research. Crash Course Sociology is filmed in the Dr.
Cheryl C. Kinney Studio in Missoula, MT, and it’s
made with the help of all these nice people. Our Animation Team is Thought Cafe and Crash
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