Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism in the Movie a River Runs through it – Immigrations Social Theories

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Updated: Aug 18, 2023
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In the movie A River Runs Through It, interactions between Norman, Paul, and the rest of the Maclean family can be seen through different sociological perspectives such as functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. From a sociological standpoint, functionalism within the Maclean family is shown especially through the religious teachings from Norman and Paul’s father. As a Presbyterian minister, Reverend Maclean assumes most of the responsibility for teaching the boys the difference between right and wrong.

Norman and Paul were raised with strict rules to guide their behavior within and outside the house. From an early age, it was made clear to them that they had responsibilities and obligations stricter than those of their peers. For example, when the boys were homeschooled by their father to learn reading and writing, they did not attend Missoula Elementary with their friends. Reverend Maclean and his wife impressed upon their sons that problems should not be discussed openly, which shaped Norman and Paul’s behavior and caused them many issues later in life pertaining to communication and problem-solving in other relationships.

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Conflict theory is depicted in the movie by how the Maclean family handle issues that arise, and in the relationship between Norman and Paul. From an early age, Norman and Paul experienced a lack of communication with their parents. For instance, when Paul refused to eat his oatmeal as a kid, he was made to sit at the table until he ate it. Eventually, Reverend Maclean realized that he wasn’t going to eat it, and the family proceeded to have dinner as normal without any reference to the oatmeal incident. Moreover, Norman and Paul had starkly contrasting personalities–Norman being the responsible, quiet, serious older child and Paul being the energetic, carefree, and spontaneous younger brother.

This eventually causes severe conflict between the brothers, as Paul engages in heavy drinking and gambling, accumulating severe debt, with which Norman does not agree. Norman can often been seen disapproving of Paul, but rarely ever voices his opinion. He also often picks up Paul from the police station after he gets into trouble without ever discussing the incident that led to his arrest. This lack of communication is prevalent within the Maclean family, particularly during several incidents when Paul abruptly leaves the dinner table to go “see his friends,” which the entire family interprets as gambling and drinking. However, no one protests further than casting a disapproving or dismayed look.

Reverend Maclean, after Paul leaves for yet another one of his expeditions, makes the disapproving remark that Paul has changed the spelling of their last name to “MacLean”, but he makes no mention of any other issues he has with Paul, although it is clear there are many. Eventually, this tension builds up to the point of a physical fight between Norman and Paul. Their mother walks in and gets caught in the middle of the fight, causing her to fall. However, when Norman and Paul blame each other, she claims she just “slipped” and walks away without another word. There is much visible conflict between Norman, Paul, and the rest of the family, illustrating the concept of conflict theory.

Lastly, symbolic interactionism is most obviously seen in the film in the form of fly fishing and the Blackfoot River. The film begins and ends with the river, which is more than just a river for Norman, Paul, and their father. To them, the river represents family, connection, hope, and even despair. No matter how far Paul or Norman may travel, everything comes back to the river. When the three men are fly fishing together, everything seems right. There is a level of understanding between them when they are fly fishing—an unspoken rule. There is a rhythm and purpose to each interaction between the men, from attaching the bait to collecting the fish. Words aren’t necessary because each fishing session is a ritual; each man understands and attaches meaning to it.

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No matter how rocky relations become between Norman, Paul, and Reverend Maclean, it no longer matters once they are in the river together. This connection is understood and treasured by each member of the family, even their mother, who sends them off each day with their gear packed and waits faithfully for them to come home with their catch. Fly fishing is an essential part of life for the Maclean family, and it may well be the one thing that holds them together through all the conflict they face. For them, fishing gives life meaning and purpose—an escape from the chaos of everyday life. As said by Norman himself, the two most important things in life are fly fishing and church. Fishing is sacred to the Maclean family.

The film highlights many important sociological concepts and perspectives, particularly functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionism. The interactions between Norman, Paul, and Reverend Maclean show the meanings of family and the different ways in which it can be interpreted.

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Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Symbolic Interactionism in the Movie A River Runs Through It - Immigrations Social Theories. (2023, Feb 04). Retrieved from