Sociological Theory

7 July 2016

Compare and contrast the views of three appropriate sociological perspectives to an area of social life of your choosing. Why do we act the way we do? Does the mass media really affect the way a people in a society behave? Sociologists focus on the environment and the social aspects of human behaviour in order to answer questions like these when studying a particular society. A society is defined as a large social group that shares the same geographical territory and is governed by the same political authority and cultural expectations.

Culture is defined as the shared values of a society such as language, beliefs and ways of doing things (Burton, 2013, online). When looking at a society there are many different sociological perspectives that can be used, and as people can interpret identical things in different ways more than one perspective could be used at any time. These perspectives include: Functionalism, Marxism, Feminism, Interactionism and Postmodernism. In this paper I will be comparing and contrasting the Marxist, Functionalist and Postmodernist perspectives and applying them to analysing the effect of the mass media upon society.

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Is the mass media used as a way of controlling society? To begin with I will discuss what is meant by the term mass media, I will then briefly outline the principles of the three perspectives before comparing and contrasting their strengths and weaknesses. Finally I will analyse the effect the mass media has upon societies by applying the principles of these three perspectives. Mass media refers to the various media technologies that are used to communicate with the larger, socially mixed audiences.

The technologies through which this communication takes place comes in many forms, including broadcast, print, outdoor and digital forms of media and each of these has their own ways of mass communication. Broadcast media would include radio, music, film and television. Print media would include newspapers, magazines, books, leaflets and comics. Outdoor media would include billboards, placards, signs, blimps and skywriting. Digital media would include all forms of communication on the internet as well as all mobile communication.

These are just a few of the hundreds of forms of mass communication that are used daily and worldwide (Wikipedia, 2013, online). All sociological perspectives come in many forms and can all be interpreted differently, however the basic principles remain the same even with adaption for modern society. Marxism was introduced by Karl Marx (1818-1883). The principle is that society is divided into two classes, the bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the proletariat (working class). Marx fought for the self-emancipation of the proletariat. He believed that the ruling class stayed in power by exploiting the working class.

He also claimed that the ruling class use institutions such as the media, the education system and religion to socialise individuals into believing this inequality is normal and natural. Marx wanted the working class to take back power and destroy the ruling class (Blunden, 2013, online). Marx’s theories led to the creation of neo Marxism. Weber (1864-1920), considered the ghost of Marx (Burton, 2013, online), although agreeing with Marx’s theories adapted them with the belief that social classes were shaped by power and status (Ask Jeeves, 2013, Online).

The Marxist theory has many strengths including that it looks at society as a whole, recognising all the forces involved. It also considers the different power interests each societal group has. Strength to this theory is that recognises that society is organised under capitalism and stresses the role of class struggle. One final strength is that this theory can be good when explaining conflict and change within society. However with these strengths also come weaknesses, for example the Marxist theory cannot be used to explain some phenomena such as those people from working class backgrounds that have a lot of money.

The biggest weakness this theory offers is that it ignores other factors that may help to shape society (Wiki Answers, 2013, Online). Functionalism was introduced by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), who is considered by many intellectual thinkers to be the founder of modern sociology. The main principle of functionalism is that each part of a society is interdependent and contributes towards making society work as a whole. Each of these parts has to be working correctly but if something does go wrong then society has mechanisms to deal with them, such as the police and the legal system.

Functionalists also believe that every social institution has many important functions to perform (Burton, 2013, online). Durkheim introduced the theory ‘anomie’, or ‘lack of social norms’, that could cause instability or chaos. This concept bought to light many instances that could affect a society in a negative way and especially the behaviour of individuals towards one another (Emile Durkheim org, 2013, online). Another concept put forward by Durkheim “the sum of all of its parts is larger than the whole”, defined at the introduction of the

structural/functionalist theory, is as relevant today as it was when first introduced (Gamble, 2008, Online). Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) is one example of how Durkheim’s theories have lasted through the ages because his theory of ‘anomie’ was taken directly from Durkheim’s perspective and still remains a major theory in the structure of society, both in criminal justice and sociology (cited in Grossman, 2013, Online). The functionalist theory has a few strengths including that it explains all parts of a society have a role, thus if one is affected the other parts will be affected too.

Strength is that it claims there is a general consensus of values and norms within a society. However this could also be classed as a weakness in that this theory claims that every individual agrees on the values and norms in that society. The biggest weakness this approach has is that it sees no problem with inequality in a society and may in fact promote this inequality (hrsbstaff, 2012, Online). Interactionism, also known as symbolic interactionism, was introduced to American sociology in the 1920s by George H. Mead (1863-1931), but its origins can be traced back even further than that (cited in Cliffs Notes, 2013, Online).

The main principle of interactionism is the symbols and details of everyday life, what these symbols mean and how individuals interact with each other (Cliffs Notes, 2013, Online). This perspective suggests that people attach meanings to these daily symbols and act according to their interpretation of those symbols. This leads interactionists to look at how individuals act in relation to these symbols and to determine what meanings an individual gives to their own individual actions and symbols as well as how they interpret other individual’s actions and symbols.

Interactionists reduce people’s behaviour to simple acts depending on the symbols and details they interact with, however they fail to take into account the influence of social forces and institutions on individual’s behaviour (Cliffs Notes, 2013, Online). The interactionism theory has strengths as well as weaknesses. Its strengths include how it takes free will and the choices individuals make as well as how they behave. This approach can also give great insight into the small scale interactions between individuals.

Some of the theory’s weaknesses include the fact that the interpretation of some symbols could be incorrect, as well as not being able to explain where people get the meanings or these symbols from. It ignores the idea of socialisation. It also does not explain how social order is created or how disorder is dealt with (Wiki Answers, 2013, Online). Although each of these approaches is unique in the way they study a society they do have similarities or shared theories as well as differences. Marxists like functionalists believe it is possible to understand society scientifically and that the findings from this could benefit society.

These two theories both offer a macro sociological explanation of society, meaning they look at society as a whole rather than looking at the individuals within a society (Quintessence, 2010, Online). Another similarity between these two approaches is that they both believe human behaviour is directed by external forces, functional forces for functionalism and economic forces for Marxist (Manthew, 2010, Online). The main difference between these two approaches is that for Marxists the fundamental processes of society are competition and conflict rather than cooperation for the good of the whole like the functionalists view.

Whereas the interactionism theory is in contrast to these other approaches, firstly, in that it is a micro sociological explanation of society, meaning that the interactionist approach looks at individuals and does not concern itself with the broader questions concerning society as a whole. The functionalist theory also believes human behaviour is directed by internal forces, dependent on an individual’s perception of the symbols around them (nelli625. 2003, Online). These three sociological approaches have different views on the effect the mass media has upon society.

At some point in a person’s daily life they will come across some form of mass media, be it at school, work or just walking down the street. I have already covered the many types of mass media used in everyday life, but does this media have an effect on the way people in society behave? Is the mass media a tool used to control the masses? Marxists would say yes to these questions. In the eyes of a Marxist all forms of mass media are controlled by the rich and powerful and are tools used to control how the masses behave.

Marxist would say that the mass media are a sign of a capitalist society and stand in the way of social change. Individuals are socialised to accept the way of the ruling class and the mass media contributes to this socialisation. From a Marxist perspective the majority of the mass media outlets are owned by a small number of people, so the media presented is more likely to represent the ideas of the owners and any form of media that opposes their views will be hard to locate. The mass media provide the public with a bias view of events taking place (Beckett, 2013, Online).

The Marxist would say the mass media only broadcast what they want you to know, so for example if there is a particular bill going through in parliament regarding violence in society and reforms to sentencing then the media would start printing or showing more stories regarding violence to push the public into supporting the bill. Marxists believe the mass media serves as a way to reinforce the distance and discord between the rich and the working class, rather than promoting social harmony (Knight, 2012, Online).

In the ideas of a Marxist the mass media does not reflect public opinion but in fact actively help to form it. They encourage the public to accept a ruling class ideology (Beckett, 2013, Online). From the Functionalists perspective the mass media has four basic functions for society, monitoring the environment in order to provide information, correlating responses to this information, entertainment and sharing culture with multiple people at one time (socialisation).

Charles Wright (1959) also outlined manifest (apparent) or latent (non-apparent) and dysfunctional functions of the mass media. Wright suggested with this outline that when the media notify the public to a risk they are serving their news function but if a panic ensues this is also then a dysfunction (cited in McAwesome, 2007, Online). Functionalists may also be concerned with how this mass media serves in the maintenance of social stability (Knight, 2012, Online).

Functionalists believe the mass media has taken on the role of maintaining the status quo of society. In this respect the mass media could also be an initiator of socially organised action with the use of amplification. However there is still the fact that as the mass media outlets are supported or owned by great businesses the broadcasted media is geared into the current economic system and the maintenance of this system. This is done through advertisement, censored stories and failure to raise awareness about the structure of society (uky, 2013, online).

The Interactionism theory attempts to analyse the contribution the mass media has on not only the shaping of behaviour between members of a society but also to creating understandings of these shared meanings. Interactionists also seek to understand the growing use of mass media on a daily basis and how this shapes members of a society further (Knight, 2012, Online). A symbolic interactionist would say the mass media has a huge effect on society, or rather the individual members of a society.

For example there has been a significant increase in the amount of violence shown on the television, in the papers or talked about on radio shows and this mass exposure to violence has now changed the way people perceive violence. The interactionism view is that the many forms of mass media have desensitised the public to things such as violence because of constant exposure and that through this desensitisation we as a society now see certain forms of violence, that where once frowned upon, as normal and common place.

However a problem with seeing the mass media and its effects from just this perspective is that the individualist accepts that not every individual perceives all symbols the same so therefore would not react in the same way to the mass media’s amplification of violence. The interactionist would say the mass media ultimately effects individual’s behaviour by altering a society’s values and norms person by person (Lowell, 2011, Online).

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