Racism - A Social Problem

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Racism - A Social Problem

Racism - A Social Problem

Sociologists analyze social phenomena at different levels and from different perspectives. From concrete interpretations to sweeping generalizations of society and social behavior, sociologists study everything from specific events.


The sociological perspective is defined by three philosophical traditions (or "paradigms"): structure-functionalism (i.e., "consensus"), Marxism ("conflict"), and symbolic interactionism. Structure-functionalism focuses on how society is organized and how social institutions meet the needs of people living within a collectivity. The Marxian paradigm guides inquiries into the use and misuse of power within and across social systems. Symbolic interactionism focuses on how individuals influence and are influenced by society. It guides investigations into how the rules of society are re-created everyday through our interactions with one another.

The following introduction to these paradigms relies in part upon materials found in The Structure of Sociological Theory, written by Jonathan H. Turner. To help us learn about these paradigms, we will apply them to an example of gender inequality after they are described in this introduction.


Structure-functionalism relies upon an "organic" analogy of human society as being "like an organism," a system of interdependent parts that function for the benefit of the whole. Thus, just as a human body consists of parts that function as an interdependent system for the survival of the organism, society consists of a system of interdependent institutions and organizations that function for the survival of the society. (Schaefer, et. al. 1998).

Relying upon the successes of biologists in understanding the human body, functionalists took a similar approach to understanding human social systems. Social systems were dissected into their "parts," or institutions (family, education, economy, polity, and religion), and these parts were examined to find out how they worked and their importance for the larger social system. The rationale was that if scientists could understand how institutions worked, then their performance could be optimized to create an efficient and productive society. This approach as proved to be very successful and is the predominant philosophy guiding macro-level sociology today.

Structure-functionalism arose in part as a reaction to the limitations of utilitarian philosophy, where people were viewed as strictly rational, calculating entrepreneurs in a free, open, unregulated, and competitive marketplace. The tenet of functionalism, and the fundamental building block of all sociology, is that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals. (Gleeson, et. al. 2001)

Groups have "lives of their own," so to speak. Or, as you might hear from a sociologist, "the whole is greater than the sum of its parts." Anyway, the point is, that just as the "invisible hand of order" can guide economic relations, "social forces" can guide social relations, and thus yield for society very positive outcomes (volunteerism, democracy, laws, moral and ethical standards for behavior, family and educational systems, communities) and very negative outcomes (discrimination, organized crime, moral decay, warfare, poverty).

The idea of the functionalists was to create a science of society that could examine the parts of human social systems ...
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