In this essay, we shall be discussing the 3 main structural approaches in society; Functionalism, Marxism and Feminism, and how useful they are in todays understanding of society. We shall look at the similarities and differences between each approach and critically assess them, by looking at the strengths and weaknesses for each. The key terms and concepts will be mentioned, as well as the key sociologists associated with each approach.
The term sociology is defined in the dictionary as ‘the study and classification of human societies’. Overall, this is the study of people in different social groups, the way they behave, and how different parts of society influence peoples ideas and social behaviour. Belonging to a social group can affect how we see ourselves and how other people see us. Both of these factors can affect how our life works out.
The main groups we tend to belong to are gender, class, ethnicity and age.
The first approach we will be looking into is functionalism. This approach is a balanced, social equilibrium. A system in which there is a dynamic working balance among its interdependent parts. The ruling class benefits in every way from the operation of society, they believe in meritoctracy which basically means that they ‘believe’ that they deserve to have the most powerful positions. The workers get far less than they deserve, but they do not question this due to the way they have been ‘socialised’. People are the product of social influences on them.
Functionlism is closely associated with Talcott Parsons who was a key sociologist in the 1940’s. This approach still provides us with a useful framework for the study of sociology today. Parsons came up with the idea that society is like a human body. Each part of the body has a function to keep it alive and healthy, just like each part of society work together and depend on each other. People are socialised into key values of society such as respect for authority and importance of family life, the result of this is value consensus. Functionalism provides good links between social institutions, it is a simple and clear approach to understand, however it completely ignors the freedom of choice. People have different values and attitudes, as well as the unequal distribution of wealth and power in a capitalist society. A Marxism view on the otherhand views conflict and division as normal features of society.
Marxism is based on social class dominant ideology, just like functionalism it is a macro structure which means it is based on a larger scale.
Karl Marx was around in the 19th century, he believed that a capitalist society is divided into two groups. All of societys dominant ideologies worked to favour the first group ‘the bourgeoisie’ (Those with power, the owners of production) against the second group ‘the proletariat’ (The workers, those without power). Marx also thought the ideologies worked to keep the power balance constant and he called this society’s status quo. The relationship between the bourgeoisie and proletariat is however unequal and as such based on conflict. The majority of the population accept the inequalities of the system because of the way that dominant institutions such as religion and educstion justify the economic and social situation. Marx describes them as suffering from false class consciousness due to the fact they are not aware of their real identity, they are exploited by the bourgeoisie. Marxism is a approach which suggests that we are brainwashed by ideology; ‘you must respect authority, if you work hard you will do well, you must respect the rule of law’.
Lois Althusser (1971) was another marxism sociologist. He believed in ideological state apparatus which is basically another term for the agencies transmitting ruling class ideology such as schools and family. A good reason for the marxism approach is that it can account for large scale change, however there are many critisms such as it emphasised too much on conflict. People choose what to do and think and are not brainwashed by ideology. It could also be argued that capitalism has now improved peoples standards of living. The fact woman are now seen as being equal to men in the work place is one result of this. Marxist feminists argued that the ratio of woman to men was directly linked to their position within a capitalist society. Thus bringing us onto discuss our final approach, feminism.
Feminism is a conflict between the sexes. It also takes a macro approach to studying society. Feminist sociologists argue that women do not have equal rights to men. There are four main tendencies within feminism; liberal, radical, marxist and black. Liberal feminists look for equilibrium with men and woman, they believe people should be treated fairly and given better paid jobs etc in accordance with theyre skills and effort and not due to what sex they are. Radical feminists believe that we live in a patriarchy society, which means woman are over powered by men. They believe that we no longer need men to procreate due to new technology available. Marxist feminists also believe in patriarchy, in a capatilist society, woman are neglected certain legal rights and therefore excluded from certain areas of work compared to men. Black feminism argue that white feminists ignore the position of a black woman as they have a double disadvantage due to racism and patriarchy.
Famous feminism sociologists include Ann Oakley who in 1969 registered for a PHD on women’s attitudes to housework, this subject pizzled the academic establishment at the time. She is best known for her work on sex and gender, housework, childbirth and feminist social science. Ann first became interested in feminism when she herself became a subject in the 1960’s becoming a mother of two and realising herself how deeply undervalued and isolating womans work in the home can be. Ann believes that we still have ongoing sex equalilty issues today, woman still earn less and have less political power and do most of the worlds menial (but important) domestic work. She also has strong beliefs that gender issues in violence and crime cause huge social problems in todays society. Suggesting that most crimes of violence are committed by men.