Structural-Functionalist, Marxist and Symbolic Interactionist Theories

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Updated: Oct 28, 2022
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Throughout time, society has been studied on both the micro and macro levels by sociologists which has resulted in three main theories to emerge from their findings. These three theories include the Structural-Functionalist, Marxist (social conflict) and Symbolic Interactionist theories. Each theory is unique in its own way and can accurately illustrate how social factors and human behavior are altered by society. When comparing these theories it is important to look and discuss three perspectives of each theory which include economic inequality, gender and deviance.

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Economic inequality is defined as being “ unequal distribution of income and opportunity between different groups in society” (“What is Economic Inequality?”). While discussing the different economic inequalities between the three theories it is important to keep in mind that many low and middle income countries appear to have a greater economic inequality than the United States but the United States has more economic inequality than most of the high income nations.

The structural functional theory proclaims that the economic inequality of this society is seen as a system of unequal rewards that benefits society as a whole. While society benefits as a whole, social position seems to reflect the personal abilities and accomplishments of that individual for a competitive economy. This creates the idea that the economy will flourish due to the fact that individuals will work harder and come up with new ideas to obtain greater rewards for their work.

While this theory makes sense in general, the Marxist theory has another take on economic inequality in society. The social conflict theory illustrates that resources in the society are divided to harm various groups of people while benefiting others. Basically what this means is that society’s resources are divided based on an individual’s social position. The unequal rewards will divide society further and further due to the fact that the bottom tier of people will have little to no opportunity to improve their life.

Lastly, the last theory, symbolic interactionist theory, looks at how social roles influence inequality within society. This stratification will drive peoples interactions on a day to day basis. Basically, individuals may define their social position based on their self worth thus allowing it up to the individual to determine whether inequality is fair or not.

Deviance is defined as being “actions or behaviors that violate formal and informal cultural norms” (“Deviance.”). It is known that the norms of society will guide almost all human activities while deviant actions involve some component of being different. It is important to realize that not all deviance will involve actions or choices but emerges in everyday life as deviance is always a matter of being divergent.

The structural functional theory sees deviance as being a essential part of social interaction. It is noted that deviance is important because it is universal and exists in all societies. There are multiple deviant subcultures described in the structural functional theory which includes different theories such as delinquent subcultures for which deviant individuals are trouble, tough and have a desire for freedom.

The social conflict theory describes deviance as being a result from social equality in society. To elaborate, this theory suggests that norms and laws will reflect the interests of the powerful. Individuals that have little power in this society are labeled deviant due to deviance being political in this type of setting.

Finally, the symbolic interactionist theory states that deviance emerges from a reality that is built from the social aspects of society. It is up to the individuals to label something as being deviant and this results in a variable of things being labeled as deviant. Furthermore, any act, person or activity can be labeled as deviant.

Gender is defined as being “ personal traits and social positions that members of society attach to being female or male”. (Macionis, John J). Gender is a way to allow individuals to determine what to think of themselves and how to behave by defining masculine and feminine traits.

The structural functionalist theory focuses on how gender forms a complementary set of roles within society. Society is seen as a complex entity through which gender can integrate both structurally and morally. While gender inequalities exist, they prove to be an effective way to create a division among the social system. This theory argues that that gender roles are needed to establish stable social relations although many of “set of roles” can be seen as discriminatory.

The social conflict theory proclaims that there is a struggle for dominance and power amongst society’s social groups for which they compete. This theory argues that capitalism will strengthen males domination within society as males are seen as the dominant group of society. There is a minimal effort to which men and women can live together cooperatively to diminish female’s power which is why something as the conflict theory exists. It can be seen that social problems can be created when males capitalize on women for their benefit.

The symbolic interaction theory suggests that gender is based upon differences in one’s behavior. This theory states that everyday experiences are shaped by gender as well as situational social experiences. Individuals can take these social experiences and use them to make sense of what gender is. In this theory, it is known that gender is an identity that we do or perform.

Given these points, there are clear differences between the structural functionalist, social conflict and symbolic interaction theories. While they may have their differences, they show a lot of similarities when comparing certain traits within a certain theory including the economic inequality, deviance and gender as discussed above.

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Structural-Functionalist, Marxist and Symbolic Interactionist Theories. (2021, May 17). Retrieved from