Analyzing Instagram through Sociological Theories

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Updated: Apr 20, 2023
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The use of social media has taken the world by storm, and there is no doubt that it is a modern social phenomenon. Social media is more than just a platform to post photos and updates regarding life. It is a way to connect with people around the globe, share ideas, and it is an easy way to make your voice heard in this world of billions. There are many different social media platforms, including Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, TikTok, etc.

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Each of these platforms has its own audience and its own purpose in connecting people. Within each of these social media platforms, there are subgroups of users who share similar interests. In this paper, I will look at the use of social media, specifically Instagram, through the view of the four sociological theories. I will explain the use of Instagram as a social media platform from each perspective.

Sociological Analysis: Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism focuses on each individual component of society and how those components interact with each other to achieve a common goal. Herbert Spencer, an English philosopher and biologist pointed out the similarities of society to the human body. He argued “that just as the various organs of the body work together to keep the body functioning, the various parts of society work together to keep society functioning” ( ). Emile Durkheim, another early sociologist, believed that “society is a complex system of interrelated and interdependent parts that work together to maintain stability” ( When looking at structural functionalism, we must identify the individual parts of society and how they relate to each other for the overall function of society.

With those definitions in mind, I will explore the different sociological components within Instagram and how they work together to maintain society’s function. What is the “job” of the user? Their responsibility is to provide content for the platform. Users can post photos and videos to their profile or their story. These posts are then available for other users to view and interact with. Interaction comes in the form of liking, commenting on, and sharing other posts. Without the content provided by users and their interaction with other posts, the function of Instagram would not move forward. What is the responsibility of the developers of the platform? They are responsible for providing users with an easy-to-use application and a seamless experience. If the developers of the platform were to fail at their job, users would not be inclined to use their social media app because of the high difficulty of interacting with other users, thus halting the function of the platform. The role of the users and the platform developers go hand in hand to keep the platform alive and functioning.

Conflict Theory

Karl Marx claims that conflict theory views society “in a state of perpetual conflict because of an ongoing competition for limited resources” (Chappelow, 2019). According to Marx and this theory, there are two classes of people in a society. The two classes are those who hold power and will do anything to keep it and those being oppressed. How does this apply to Instagram? We must first identify the two classes and who fits into those classes within society.

Looking at Instagram as a social media platform through the view of this theory, we can see that the ruling class is those individuals with high interaction on their profiles. These users are constantly evaluating what they need to post, whom they need to interact with, and what other users want to see from them on the platform. They will do what it takes to maintain their high status and popularity within the social platform. In this light, the oppressed group would then be users who are seeking that same level of popularity and publicity for their profile.

Symbolic Interactionism

Symbolic interactionism is the use of verbal and non-verbal language and symbols to communicate between people in a society. Through this means, people are able to make sense of their societies. Theorists Herman and Reynolds stated that “this perspective sees people as being active in shaping the social world rather than simply being acted upon” (Learning). When looking at symbolic interactionism, we need to look at the way people in a society communicate with one another and what specific strategies they use to execute that communication.

Within Instagram, there are many examples of using symbols to communicate. The most obvious symbol is a “like.” Liking a post is an expression of interest in the content or approval of visual appeal regarding a user’s post. By liking a post, you are showing that you enjoy, relate with, are interested in, approve of, find interesting, or so many more relatable feelings toward a specific post. Another symbol that is used on this social media platform is a comment.

Commenting on someone’s post is a written, verbal way of expressing your opinion or thoughts regarding the content of their post. Comments can be positive or negative depending on your point of view or opinion. Instagram allows you to “follow” someone so that you always see the things they post on their profile. This is another example of communication through symbols. By following a person’s profile, you are saying to them that you enjoy the content they post. The more followers someone has, the more people connect with that user and the content on their profile. Other symbols that are used within Instagram include posts and stories. Posts remain on a user’s profile unless they delete them, but stories are only available for a user’s followers to view for 24 hours.

The difference between these two options communicates to a user’s followers the importance of their post because of the length of time it can be viewed. These different symbols and their meanings shape Instagram’s society. As Herman and Reynolds stated, interaction within the platform shapes the way the platform works. This means that Instagram users are acting upon the platform instead of the platform acting upon them.

Social Exchange Theory

Social exchange theory focuses on how members of society interact with each other, with a cost-benefit analysis at the center of interaction. “[Social exchange theory is] a metric designed to determine the effort poured in by an individual in a person-to-person relationship” (‘What Is Social Exchange Theory?’, 2018). Essentially, this theory is an evaluation of the pluses and minuses that come up in a relationship to determine if someone is putting in too much effort for their reward. When evaluating Instagram through the lens of this theory, we must first determine what the relationships are as well as what the “give” and “take” is in each relationship.

Relationships on Instagram take place between users and interact with other profiles. There is no face-to-face interaction. Instead, all interaction is done virtually through the use of the application. Users on Instagram are free to post any content they would like to their profile. This allows for the freedom to “give” opinions, ideas, stories, experiences, photos, videos, etc. It is almost like a glimpse into the user’s life, interests, and passions.

Once a user “gives” these things, they have the opportunity to “take” from other users’ posts. After observing interactions on Instagram’s social media platform, it is easy to see that there can be both positive and negative takeaways. Positive takeaways can include a sense of community with others who enjoy similar profiles or subjects, a sense of acceptance, a sense of popularity, and many others. It is also possible to experience negative takeaways from interactions on Instagram. Users could possibly experience a negative sense of self-judgment or judgment from others, a sense of unwanted comparison, or even scrutiny from other users about their profile. It is up to the user to determine if what they are taking away, either positive or negative, is equal to what they are giving on the social platform.


Looking at Instagram’s social media platform through the lens of these four sociological theories provides so much insight into this virtual society. From the outside, it might look like a one-sided relationship between a user and the application. However, after looking through the perspective of these sociological theories, it is easy to see how intricate the interaction is between users through the platform.

The most significant theory for examining Instagram would be the symbolic interactionism theory. This theory provides details about how communication is executed within the platform. The purpose of Instagram as a social media platform is to communicate with other users. Therefore, it is extremely important to understand how that communication takes place and what every symbol represents. Without this understanding, a user would not be able to communicate effectively through this platform. Regardless of how you choose to look at Instagram as a social media platform, you cannot deny the intricate society that exists within. It is no doubt a modern social phenomenon.


  1. Chappelow, J. (2019, May 19). Conflict Theory Definition. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from
  2. Introduction to Sociology/Sociological Theory. (2019, November 2). Retrieved February 19, 2020, from
  3. Learning, L. (n.d.). Sociology. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from
  4. Learning, L. (n.d.). Sociology. Retrieved February 19, 2020, from
  5. What Is Social Exchange Theory? (2018, April 20). Retrieved February 19, 2020, from
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Analyzing Instagram through Sociological Theories. (2023, Apr 19). Retrieved from