Tool Module: Three Major Social Theories

Functionalism, structuralism, and Marxism are three major social theories that apply different sets of criteria for analyzing society.

Functionalists see society as a relatively stable system. They focus on the factors that ensure this stability rather than on those that cause change. Thus their primary goal might be described as anthropological: to empirically observe life in society.

Structuralists give priority to the unconscious mental structures through which people apprehend their world. Thus the concept of social structure no longer has anything to do with empirical reality, but instead relates to the mental models that people construct on the basis of this reality. First applied to kinship structures, the structuralist method has now proven its usefulness in fields as diverse as the analysis of myths, art, and symbolic life in general.

Unlike functionalists, Marxists look at the issues of conflict, choices, and strategies among the actors in a society. Marxists believe that change is a constant in all societies and results from struggles among the various opposing groups within each society. Marx, like the philosophers of the Enlightenment, believed that societies evolve gradually in a direction that should ultimately lead to the liberation of humanity.


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