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Social theories overview (part 1)

An overview of functionalism, conflict theory, social constructionism, and symbolic interactionism to help you keep them all straight.  By Sydney Brown. Created by Sydney Brown.

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Video transcript

I know all these social theories can seem pretty daunting. But they're actually fairly simple to keep track of if you remember the main points. The first theory of society that I'll review is functionalism. This theory looks at how a society can exist and survive over time. Basically, functionalism states that a society is always trying to come to an equilibrium, trying to stabilize. The structures that make up a society, like institutions, will remain pretty constant and only change if absolutely necessary when the society loses stability. Remember that institutions are structures that fulfill the needs of society. There's an example of that in our society right now. The business institution has had to adapt to the huge online shopping boom as online retail providers like Amazon draw more and more people away from retail stores down the street. Those stores had to find ways to attract people again so they will take the time to stop in and shop. But it takes a lot of energy to change, so the stores will only do what is absolutely necessary to get customers again. Right, so when you think of functionalism, think of the minor changes an institution makes to find a stable balance in the society. Only change to be functional again. The next theory is conflict theory, which is just like it sounds. It focuses on how societies change and adapt over time through conflict. In any society, there's going to be conflicting viewpoints and beliefs, and people are going to take sides. Eventually, this is going to polarize the society, where one group is happy with the status quo, and another group wants change. This is a very fragile state for the society, and eventually, both sides will have to come to some sort of agreement or else tear the society apart. The class struggle in 19th century Europe is an example of this process. The workers wanted change, while the factory owners were happy with the way things were. The two opposing positions were merged to create a new society where the workers had slightly more power than before and the factory owners had slightly less. And everyone was content, if maybe not ecstatic about the outcome. OK, so in conflict theory, you have two opposing sides at odds with each other that eventually lead to the creation of a new synthesized society-- conflict creating a new society. Next, we have the theory of social constructionism which looks at what a society is rather than how it exists or changes. In social constructionism, everything is created from the mind of the society. There's an agreement that something has meaning and value that the thing doesn't actually have intrinsically. One of the most prevalent examples today is money. It has no value on its own. It's just paper or metal or numbers in a computer. But as a society, we have agreed to give it a specific value. And that agreement actually helps to shape the society itself. So when you think of social constructionism, remember that everything only has value because we agree it has value. We construct the world around us. The final social theory here is symbolic interactionism. This one is kind of different than the other theories because it puts a lot of focus on the individual and how they behave. It is based around the idea of the meanings we give to things. Like, to me, a tree could be a source of shade, whereas for someone else, it could be home to spiders and ants. People are created by their society. They act based on their past experiences in their lives and the meanings they have given things. But not everyone gives the same meaning to everything. That tree could mean 10 different things to 10 different people. And even if you just look at one person, a tree could have multiple meanings. And those meanings can even change over time. The meanings we give things is based on our past experiences in society, and those meanings and our interpretations create our future society. To put it in a phrase, symbolic interactionism says that we interact with the world to give it meaning. So to sum up this summary, we have functionalism looking at the stability of the society, conflict theory looking at how the society changes, social constructionism discovering how things are given value, and finally symbolic interactionism learning how individuals act.