Theoretical Perspectives


In sociologicalstudies, there are a set of assumptions which offer a framework forthe interpretation of their results. The assumptions are referred toas paradigms. Although at first the paradigms may seem correct, notall are equally valid and therefore will eventually be discarded asthey will be found unusable. The three major theoretical perspectivesthat sociologists are likely to use include: symbolic interactionism,conflict theory and structural functionalism (Powers, 2010). Insociology, functionalism theory is the perspective where the societyis seen as a complex system where various aspects are interrelatedfor the promotion of solidarity and stability. On the other hand,conflict theory assumes that corruption in power and the society’sinstitutions develop in manners that are intended to put the rich andthe poor in their respective positions. According to conflict theory,a rift is created in the society among groups or individuals. Whileconflict theory differs with structural functionalism in an opposingmanner or what can simply be referred as the opposite sides of thecoin. There are certain similarities that are shared by the twotheoretical perspectives. For instance both of them focus on themajor structural features of the entire societies. They also try toprovide people an understanding of how the societies survive andeventually change. The interactionist perspective focuses on how thesocial world is interpreted by individuals where they participate.This approach is thus primarily concerned with the human behavior onan individual level. The functionalists and conflict theorists arecriticized by the interactionists for implicitly assuming that socialinstitutions such as religion and social processes somehow have alife of their own apart from the participants. Symbolicinteractionism is the perspective that was developed by GeorgeHerbert and is concerned with the meanings that people place bythemselves and on each other’s behavior. The assumptions of thethree theories are the basis of their criticism. This paper describesthe assumptions and how these theories have explained thesignificance of sociology of religion.

Structural functionalism

The achievement of the maintenance of a social organization isaddressed by structural functionalism theory. Structuralfunctionalism is based on the relationship between the society and anindividual. Sociologists who use functionalism perspective try toidentify structures of the society and their respective roles. Theyrefer to positive consequences of social structures as functionsbecause they are beneficial while dysfunctions are the harmful or thenegative consequences of social structures. The society is viewed byfunctionalists as a set-up of parts that harmoniously functiontogether. Structural functionalism analyzes the society byidentifying the contributions of individual portions to the overallrole of the whole system e.g. it may be assumed that religion servesto instill morality, faith, and comfort among other functions inpeople so as to ensure the society is well. Functionalists believethat group cohesion and companionship are some of the important needsthat religion help people achieve. Therefore, in society, religionserves several purposes they include provision of answers tospiritual mysteries, creation of place for social interaction andsocial control as well as offering emotional comfort. This way,spiritual world and divine beings are defined by religion. Thefunctionalist perspective assumes that society appears quite stableand self-regulating in harmony and that change occurs primarilythrough evolution.

Conflict theory

Conflict theoryproposes that in response to social inequality and social conflict,the society is forced to change constantly as a result of eachindividual or group struggling to attain maximum benefit (Tischler,H. L. 2013). According to conflict theorists, the normal state ofaffairs is achieved as a result social change being pushed forward bysocial conflict. Those in power are believed to create social orderby making sure that the subordinate group are loyal to their systemsi.e. the dominant group’s sources of wealth, prestige and power.Religion is viewed by conflict theorists as an institution whichhelps in maintaining the patterns of social inequality e.g. theVatican has a huge amount of wealth but the Catholic parishionersreceive earn average income. This perspective thus indicates thatreligion has been used to justify unequal social structures as wellas oppress the poor and therefore, maintaining the disparity betweenthe poor and the rich. The conflict theorists have criticized the waymajority of the religions have promoted the idea that a person shouldbe satisfied with the already existing circumstances no matter howhard they are because they are divinely ordained. Conflict theoristsalso argue that practices, beliefs and rituals have been dictated bythose in power in religion through the interpretation of thereligious texts. The Conflict theory assume that among competinginterest sets, the society is a system of accommodations, and socialsystems are likely to change rapidly as they are unstable (Tischler,H. L. 2013).

Symbolic interactionism

Symbolicinteractionism originates from the concept that the world is sociallyconstructed, and studies the symbols and the everyday lifeinteractions. The theory is concerned with the meanings that peopleplaces on themselves and on each other’s behavior. What humans doon each other has meaning beyond the concrete act. The actions ofeach individual are affected greatly by the reaction and expectationsof other people. We normally go about our lives assuming that themajority of the people share our definitions of basic socialsituations. Tischler, H. L. (2013) argues that such agreement onvarious definitions as well as meanings is crucial to humaninteractions. Interactionists argue that unless individuals in areligious society consider beliefs and experiences as sacred, theyare not viewed as such. Examples include: symbols like the cross inChristianity Star of David is a religious symbol in Judaism and inIslam, the Crescent and star are some of the sacred symbols.Therefore, the meaning and what these symbols communicate are whathave attracted the attention of interactionists. Interactionistperspective assumes that in most of what people do, a lot of meaningis attached to it than the act itself and that this meaning varyamong people.

Religion is asocial institution. According to Turner B. S. (2010), religion isrecognized by the scientists as an organized institution withintegrated set of beliefs and norms that are centered on basic socialneeds as well as values. In their study of religion, sociologistsdistinguish between what is termed as rituals, experience andbeliefs. The conviction that a person is connected to the divine istermed as religious experience and is normally experienced whenpeople are meditating. The three above theoretical perspectivesdiscuss into detail how religion is viewed by sociologists. With thedifferent assumptions provided, religion has been shown as asignificant society in which people dwell.


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Powers, C. H. (2010).&nbspMaking sense of social theory: Apractical introduction. Lanham: Rowman &amp LittlefieldPublishers.

Tischler, H. L. (2013). Cengage Advantage Books: Introduction toSociology. Cengage Learning.

Turner, B. S. (2010).&nbspThe new Blackwell companion to thesociology of religion. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K:Wiley-Blackwell.