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Structural Consensus and Structural Conflict Theories

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 2954 words Published: 29th Sep 2017

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Compare and contrast structural consensus and structural conflict theories of social action with interpretivist perspectives that emphasize human agency

In Sociology, one of the main concepts that have influenced social theory is structure and social action. Functionalism and Marxism fit into the structure view that emphasises the macro perspective; examining society as a whole and how it shapes human behaviour and ideas, therefore, in order to understand human behaviour, the social structures are in need of investigation (Brym & Lie, 2009) . On the other hand, social action theories are voluntaristic. They focus on human interactions upon a micro level. It argues that individuals have free will and are not ‘puppets’; therefore, the actions and meanings of individuals create and shape the society. This suggests actions are not determined by structure. In this essay, these theories will be addressed in order to gain a better understanding of how they are relevant in today’s society. It is important to compare and contrast these theories through use of evidence and critical thinking as they often contradict each other but nonetheless create a wider understanding of human agency.

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In the first half of this essay, structural conflict is illustrated as an assumption that society is becoming more individualistic, though as a counter argument functionalism uses the idea of social solidarity, which leads to their further analysis showing their agreements and disagreements. A contrary debate is provided in the second section of the essay that focuses further on the humanist individualistic approach. However, Weber believes both structural and social action should be taken in to consideration in order to understand human’s actions efficiently.

Functionalism falls into structural consensus theory that came into sociology in the middle of twentieth century, although, some of its ideas were present in the founders of sociology in the ninetieth century. It has been argued that the model that functionalism has created of society has led to other perspectives re-emerging in response to those ideas (O’Byrne, 2010). Thus the theory has made such impact on sociological thinking to this day. Functionalists such as Emile Durkheim (1858- 1917) whom is arguably one of the founding fathers of sociology firstly stressed consensus notion in social structure; stating that any human thinking is inherited rather than invented. This takes place in socialisation process that teaches humans to conform to norms and values or in other words- cultural behaviour considerably accepted in certain settings (Jones, 2003). He deemed this term ‘collective consciousness’; Durkheim described this as beliefs and ideas of a common human being in the same society (Punch et al, 2013).

Furthermore, Durkheim explored society as a system and its function within the society. In order to explain this, use of organic analogy takes place as a way of describing how each social factor or institutions are interdependent for the society’s needs. For instance, if one body organ stops functioning, then the rest of the body cannot survive, this can be explained within social institutions too, without the nuclear family the society wouldn’t be able to form social cohesion and solidarity (Jones, 2001). On the other hand, other functionalists such as Talcott Parsons had similar ideas, though ‘for Talcott Parsons one of the central tasks of sociology is to analyse society as a system of functionally interrelated variables’ (Cohen, 1968, p.45). Although Parsons does links his ideas to Durkheim, that is, in the society the personal beings and their views need to be treated as variables as stated by Cohen (1968).

In contrast to structural consensus theories mentioned above, Marxism is known as a structural conflict theory that has been influenced and introduced by Karl Marx (1818- 1883). Economics was highly influential for him as well how the working class sell labour power, which determines how we relate to one another (Duffy, 2009). The theory examines the conflict between bourgeoisies and proletarians, unlike functionalism, he focused on class conflict and how it can be settled. Though since his death, there have been many interpretations of his thesis, some that stick to structural explanations of capitalism, and others that emphasize human agency as a humanist approach (Fawbert, 2014). Louis Althusser (1918-1990) interpreted Marx’s work on a structural capitalist sense; however instead of solely focusing on economic determinism, he alternatively concentrated on politics and ideologies. He claims that these levels are objective. This is because he believes humans are not active agents in social change, as we do not shape our society. For Althusser, to understand why the capitalism hasn’t collapsed, the states and its exercise of power need to be examined. He has discovered the repressive state apparatus, which consists of institutions such as the legal system or the police. In addition to the political apparatus that is- ideological state apparatus that includes media, family, education etc. that shape human’s process of thinking. As a result, our structure can be interconnected, just like how certain structures of dominance changed in history (Jones et al., 2011). To summarise, in his view, human agency plays no part in social change but the structures, and the only way of capitalism being taken over is through its internal contradictions.

Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), on the other hand was more of a humanist Marxist whom was famous for originating the notion of hegemony – idea that there are constant ideologies to alter a person’s perspectives on the world. (Salamini, 1974) ‘For Gramsci, like Althusser, culture is relatively autonomous. However, unlike Althusser, social change is caused by cultural struggles as much as changes in economic forces.’ (Fawbert, 2011, pp.3). As this theory focuses on human agency and social action, it can be argued that it shifts towards the micro perspective due to the ideas moving away from the structural capitalism. This may suggest that the theory is more applicable to contemporary society as human beings have become more complex to understand as a result of constant social change.

According to Punch (2013) Marxism and Functionalism have a few things in common, they both investigated the society from a macro perspective view instead of how individuals affect structure, and they were also both concerned about the society moving towards modernity and the ninetieth century industrialization as well as its effects on quality of life. This also included the introduction of theories of how modernity came about and its components. However, Marxists did focus more on the capitalism rather than the industrial society. Marx highly believed in political revolution of the working class that would involve rebellion, although his predictions have been criticised due to Eastern Europe Soviet Union destruction and rise of nationalism. However, it has been argued that in Marx’s eyes, these communists’ movements weren’t what he was hoping for. Durkheim, however, rejected the politics of revolution but did construct ideas about socialism. He focused greatly on norms and values and social solidarity; therefore, a revolution would disturb these socially. Moreover, although Marxism is stated as highly deterministic, it can be argued that he does look at solidarity within social class. For instance, he believes that the proletarian does have to collectively rise up to the Bourgeoisie’s, sensing the idea of togetherness within the lower class.

Though they had different motives, they both however, used analogy to explain the social structure. In this case Durkheim used organic analogy as explained above, whereas Marx used a building analogy – the base and the superstructure. The superstructure involves social institutions such as family and education, which supports class interests along with maintaining and legitimating the base through ideologies and culture. Economic base alternatively shapes the superstructure as it consists of means and relations of production that is owned by the bourgeoisie’s. This suggests that Marxists believed there are only two classes in which it is very difficult to move from one to another. Whereas functionalists disagreed with this and instead believed in meritocracy, the idea that if you work hard enough you can achieve through merit, essentially, gain success of what you deserve. This implies that if you put in enough effort, you can move from lower to upper class (Collins, 2000). Moreover, both theories have been criticised for ignoring individual differences and their motives. This is because they strongly believe that the society shapes the individual instead of individual’s meanings and actions influencing the society, therefore the theories aren’t as applicable in contemporary society as it needs to examine human’s meanings to the world.

Now we turn away from looking at macro perspectives to micro and their differences and similarities within. The ideas of interpritvist view of action and structure are displayed as contrary. Unlike structural theories, social action discusses the interactions between individuals in small groups and their motives; in result of this it is called social pragmatist theory. Human beings aren’t seen a puppets whereas the structure debate talks about individuals as predictable human beings. This then raises question on how the structure influence person’s actions and, in opposition, how does one’s actions alter the social structure (Morselli, 2014).

There is a disagreement amongst the theories within social action when the discussion of the connection between society and action comes in. This is because theories such as ethnomethodology disagree with the concepts of wider structures but sees us as rational human beings and how we make sense of our everyday world (Bilton et al., 2002). While others such as G.H. Mead (1863-1931) who is symbolic interactionist stresses the socialisation as much as structural theories, in spite of this, he underlines the idea of reacting self and the behaviour expected. Mead has a base of three premises that tries to explain human agency. The first is that depending on what the thing is, humans will act certainly towards it, such as institutions, for instance, an individual would act differently in a school environment compared to a governmental institution. The second premise enhances the meaning of these things that it derived from- in most cases social interaction. Interpretive process then takes places in order to administer and modify such things (Blumer, 1986). Hence, Bilton (2002) suggests that although they are all micro theorist they interpret the terms of action and meaning inversely. Following on Meads work, these 3 premises challenged other sociological thinking, especially functionalism, to the view that solely the society determined human action and thinking. Evidence to back his theory was shown in Erving Goffman’s (1992-1982) work of whom was vastly influenced by Mead’s ideas of symbolic interactionism. His study tried to examine how social identity was defined by adaptation of certain roles, in this case, the mental asylum tried to reduce each inmate’s individuality through uniforms, haircuts, use of number instead of names, leading to each one of them changing his or her identity and self-image for the institutions interests (Calvert, 1992).

Finally, Max Weber (1864-1920) took on an approach that combines social structure as well as agency theory emphasising motivational action. This differed to previous theories as functionalism greatly focused on institutions maintaining cohesion of wider structures, whereas Marx’s ideas were concerned on social class conflict as well as the origins of industrial capitalism. Though Weber rejected Marx’s view of economic determinism, he didn’t come across as falsifying them; he argued that Marx provided an unpolished portrayal of human motivation, therefore, lack of causal analysis of historical circumstances (Hughes et al., 1995). He also rejected the idea of universalism- that all societies go through same stages, due to meaningless infinity of complexity affecting each society differently (Chernilo, 2013). He therefore, tries to look at motivated social action as well as discuss large structures, such as cultural ideas. Weber’s vision was that we have moved away from traditional action to rational or in other words, goal-orientated. Individuals in our contemporary society start to think in a way to gain the benefits of the final goal and outweigh its consequences. Social structure becomes the outcome of this as our lifestyle is the product of our motives.

As a consequence, Weber argued that modern capitalist societies are in a triumph of rationality. To explain this he used religion, specifically puritan protestant movement, which criticised the ‘catholic’ way of thinking. An example of this is his book The Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism (1997). He found that Calvinism created the work ethic and asceticism that contributed to the rise of industrial capitalism; this maintained capitalism due to this religion accumulating constant wealth as a result of belief of predestination. The book moreover, states that the human actions can create consequences of rational thinking on a structural basis. Due to such disenchanted world, all superstition and values become pushed out cultural thinking. This is a crisis for Weber as then this leads to no meaning to the world in the way that religion has created previously (Jones et al., 2011)

To summarise, the human agency has been evaluated variably depending on the theories. Durkheim mainly focuses on social solidarity influencing the decision making, although Marx agrees that society is responsible for shaping one’s opinion he’s more economical determinant. To balance this out, Weber brings in human’s motives and how these drives decision making upon an individual, as well as taking structural causes into consideration. Therefore, it can be argued that these sociology fathers have defined human agency but due their differences it is difficult to fully comprehend the affect the society has on human agency.


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