Ask a Scholar: What Is Structural-Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism?

Jonathan Imber

Dear Ask a Scholar:

[This inquiry arose from an assignment in the questioner’s sociology course. She was asked to “explain how structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism explain the appeal of American Idol. How does American Idol promote social cohesion?] “The problem,” she writes,   “is that I don’t really understand structural functionalism, conflict theory and symbolic interactionism. Would you please help?”

- Carol Alt, Sinclair Community College   

Answered by Dr. Jonathan B. Imber, Jean Glasscock Professor and Chair of the Department of Sociology, Wellesley College:

[Dr. Imber informs us that he’s unfortunately not a follower of American Idol, and so can’t be specific about how these theories apply to the program. But he offers the following general response:]

You can find a good summary of the theoretical traditions to which you refer in your question in Lewis Coser's Masters of Sociological Thought. After working through the titans of sociological theory, he has a concluding chapter in which he summarizes the emergence of theoretical perspectives (with many proponents).  In this sense, the classical tradition in sociological theory is organized by specific figures (Comte, Spencer, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Simmel, et al.) and modern sociological theory includes these perspectives cited in your inquiry.  Structural functionalism focuses on how institutions work together to maintain order in society. Conflict theory addresses how to think about social change.  Symbolic interactionism presents an analysis of how language, gesture, and the broader use of symbols organizes and directs how we live and work together.  In all three theoretical traditions, there are also criticisms about what they do not explain.

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