Society is the subject of the social sciences. Generally Speaking society is that complex social organization of human beings that share an identity inhabiting dynamic relationships and a distinctive culture. Members of a society identify themselves through that society and work together with other members to ensure that the rules generally agreed upon by all members to govern how they relate to each other are in place. Sociological perspectives are viewpoints from which we study and understand society and its varied mechanics and elements. There are varied sociological perspectives available to social scientists for the purpose of study. What sociological perspective is used depends on the theories and purposes of the one undertaking the study.
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Functionalism, Conflict theory, and Social Interactionism are sociological perspectives that I believe can be used to study the social unit of the family. Functionalism looks at the family as if it was one mechanical entity with every member of the family taking on a role and a function affecting the whole. For example, the mother is the nurturer, support to the husband in terms of keeping the family together taking on household duties as well as economic duties; the father, traditionally is ‘head’ of the family whose primary function is to provide for the economic and financial needs of his wife and children; the children are dependent on their parents but take on an important role towards each other and to their parents. What these roles are vary according to the age of the children and their stage in life. In the elder years of their parents, the children are expected to become the nurturer and provider for their parents, a role reversal of sorts. Since a functionalist perspectives focuses on roles/functions, when a family is in a state of conflict, the dynamics of family function can be looked at to pinpoint the areas of issue/tension for the purpose of finding solutions. Now, from a functionalist perspective, how can a member of a family view self and society? First off, the self-view will be rooted in function and expectations. The father for example will view himself as one who must provide for and protect his family based on standard expectations of what fathers do and what fatherhood means in the society he belongs to. He will view society as one of function and structure as well where his family makes up a unit integral to the functioning social groups he/his family belongs. Roles then will become part of the expected mental images a functionalist perspective gives in terms of viewing family and society. Thus, the roles of mother, father, daughter, son, aunt, uncle, grandparents, cousins – all these are based on social and cultural standards. This extends out to expected roles & functions of key individuals in society as well as social groups (i.e. Priest, teachers, politicians, employers, church, government, businesses, etc.). In terms of social change, if change is systemic, it will be based on or will have to be rooted in the need to overhaul or effect a particular function for the purpose of adapting to or surviving challenges, conflicts or trends. Take for example the trend of and the established need to adapt to new communication technologies (3G phones, mobile internet). Once families used to ‘not need’ such technologies to keep track of and keep in touch with family members to nurture relationships and fulfil obligations. Now though, parents and children have adapted digital technology in their lives to harness the function of connectivity and communication providing new avenues for family connectedness.
On Symbolic Interactionism
Symbolic interactionism as a perspective on the other hand looks at the micro relationships between family members – looking at their everyday life and the relationship all members have with each other. It seeks to find out the finer details of social relationships in order to understand why they work/don’t work. It seeks to see whether families attach certain meanings to social stereotypes in relation to their expectations from each other. At the same time it also seeks to understand how each other ‘come to mean’ in the lives, choices and interpretations of each member. It seeks to establish the strength and frailty of familial relationships by providing details. It is different from functionalism in that it focuses on ‘quality & meaning’ of relationships instead of function alone. While functionalism sees the family as an organic entity that follows a unique structure according to role & designation within the family-group, symbolic interactionism gives more weight to the ‘function’ of relationships in the family structure. For example, the importance of family bonds can be measured in the way family members act towards each other. For Herbert Blumer (1986), the originator of the theory, familial relationships are best understood via the discourses and interactions of family members in their relationships towards each other for meaning is created via this, relationships built, conflicts resolved, positions taken. In other words, this sociological perspective is a discursive microscope that can create a genealogy of family relations and provide a picture of shared beliefs and unique family behaviour that contribute (or due to lack of prohibits from creating) towards a shared family culture and identity. What does this mean for members of a family? It is in discourse that meaning is created. Cultures and traditions of families are built over interaction and shared histories. Without interaction, meaning and relationships cannot be built. For individual members of the family then, family is viewed as a dynamic and continual interaction with each other that allow for meanings and symbolisms to be invested and shared by those who interact. For example, a father can only be a father if he interacts with his children to fulfil his own expectations of himself as a father to his children and if the children respond to him in such a way that the interaction establishes a communication exchange, a discourse where father and children find ‘meaning’ in each other. Therefore while the father works to provide for his children, without interaction, this relationship is not socially established in meaning making familial relations between father and children non-existent. Society from this perspective is seen as a massive social structure where truth and structures are established based on discourse; without interaction, without discourse, there is no progress especially in terms of shared cultural practices. A family vested in social interaction sees active relationships as essential in establishing ‘bonds’ and social change, at least within the family will only happen via discourse. For example, a status qou must be arrived at via discourse in which members of the family have come to agree or view a particular position or necessary action similarly to warrant collective shift in approaches or performance of a particular action.
The Conflict Theory
Conflict theory, a perspective rooted in the ideas of Emile Durkheim (social conflict & crime) & Karl Marx (dialectical materialism/Marxism) looks into differentials of power – how power, influence and authority influences the distribution of access to resources, for example, in a particular social group. Hence, it is a good perspective in the study of criminology for it can be used to pinpoint the source/forces behind criminality due to access/lack of access to power & economic resources. As a perspective in understanding the social unit of the family however, conflict theory can be used to understand the power relations in the family – the hierarchy of family authority and control. Thus the use of conflict theory in the study of the family unit can be said to focus on the negative aspects of family structure and relations; at the same time however such a focus can it also bring out the relations of gender, of power and of control. Eventually, it is easy enough to identify who controls what and which in the family in order to assign responsibility and correct social and relationship conflict. Conflict theory is a tool used in identifying family issues in order to find ways to fix them. For instance, if a teen is having issues with his/her parents, conflict theory can be used to analyze and pinpoint the source of friction in order to ascertain remedies in fixing parent and child relations. In the case of extended families that are so typical in parts of Asia (i.e. Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam) wherein extended families allow economic and social support for members of the ‘clan’ that cannot otherwise support themselves, their children and their needs, conflict theory is perfect in unravelling the relations of power and control including identifying factions, matriarchy & patriarchy patterns and areas of resolution (especially if the conflict theory is taken on to resolve a familial issue). Members of a family using the conflict theory can be viewed as social agents differentiated by their access to power and resources. Hence, they are essentially competing with each other. A family member can look into one’s position in the family to assess his or her access to influence, power and resources to determine his/her position in the family. If parents, for example are fair, and if the mother and the father see each other as equals then in the decisions that they make, this is reflected. But if this is not the case, if the father has more ‘say’ in family matters including economic issues, then there is a differential between husband and wife in terms of familial authority. If all children in the family are treated the same and given similar opportunities, then one can say that access to resources and authority is fair; but if one is treated better than the other then there is definitely a differential in terms of access to power and resources between children. Members of families who view their primary grouping as one of competition for resources (i.e. one of conflict) sees society as a bigger representation of their own issues to resources and authority within their families. They will view society as an intensely competitive social arena where to survive; one must be adept in working towards more power and access to resources via structures like schools, government and civilian organizations (businesses, NGOs, private firms). Social change is inevitable for status qou will change dependent on the sway of power at any given time. From this perspective, society is continually changing and power changes hands regularly due to competition.
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