Theoretical Perspectives to Social Problems

Structural-Functionalist Theory; Conflict Theory and Symbolic Interactionism Theory

The social problem is crucial to sociological study. Hence, it cannot be underestimated in substantiating students' knowledge of the world around them. This is because problems exist in all societies; from the dawn of time till date, with different gravity, causes and implications on the sustenance of the society. A social problem can either be seen at the individual or societal levels. A problem is social if and only if the issue(s) affects a larger percentage of persons. However, an issue that affects an individual or a group of people without any worthy implication on the social system is rather described as an individual issue as conceptualised by Wright Mills in the promise of sociological imagination (Mills, 1959)

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What is Sociological Theory?

As the study of social relationships and systems, sociology has many theories to help us understand and interact with the world around us. This includes competing theories attempting to explain the same phenomena and theories covering a vast array of different social systems and issues.

Understanding many other theories as a point of reference is often required to fully appreciate some of the most popular theories in sociology. However, looking at a few examples of sociological theory can help you get a better sense of the range of ideas explored by sociology and prepare you for delving deeper into some of its more complicated ideas.


A theory is a collection of principles that enables us to make sense of the world. Similarly to how other scientific theories describe the world, sociological theories provide a framework for understanding the social environment in which we live. They may inquire about the nature of social order or the processes that shape social change. Additionally, there are other varieties of sociological theory, each of which examines a particular set of social problems and topics. That is why beginning with some of the fundamental viewpoints in sociological theory is a wonderful place to begin.

Read: Social Problems: Factors, Types, Causes and Consequences

Read: Major Social Problems and their Remedies in Bangladesh

Sociological Theories to Social Problems 

A theoretical perspective is a set of assumptions about reality that shape the questions we ask and the answers we get as a result. A theoretical perspective can be thought of as a lens through which we look, focusing or distorting what we see.

The theoretical consideration of this discourse is anchored on the three basic perspectives in sociology – Functionalism, Conflict and Symbolic Interactionism. The rationale behind the focus on these theories is based on the encompassing role they collectively played in understanding the social problems from their distinctive point of view. The focus of these theorists though different but individually and collectively, offer a brief discussion of any social issue of interest.


According to Schmitz (2012), the Sociological perspective tends to focus on one of two different levels. Those are

a) Theories of society (Macro theories> Structural Functionalism and Conflict Theory)

b) Social psychological theories (Micro theories> Symbolic Interactions) 

Three theoretical perspectives guide sociological thinking on social problems: functionalist theory, conflict theory, and symbolic interactionist theory. These perspectives look at the same social problems, but they do so in different ways. Their views taken together, offer a fuller understanding of social problems than any of the views can offer alone.


Functionalism/Structural-Functionalist Theory

Functionalism is an indigenous sociological theory propounded by Auguste Comte (1898-1957), Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), Robert Merton (1910-2003) and hosts of other contemporary scholars. The basic argument put forward by the functionalist school of thought is the view of the society as a conglomeration of different parts/ elements that works individually and collectively to ensure the society achieves value consensus and continuity, respectively. It is also the position of the functionalist theorist that any phenomenon without any basic contribution it offers the society will not stand the test of time. On the contrary, that social phenomenon that keeps recurring every now and then in any living society either as a social problem plays a crucial role in the life of the society. Theoretically, the structural-functional perspective is a conceptual framework that views society as a system of interdependent parts carrying out functions crucial to the well-being of the other parts and the system as a whole.


The structural-functional perspective also referred to as structural functionalism, is a conceptual framework that views society as a system of interdependent parts carrying out functions crucial to the well-being of the other parts and the system. For example, the structural-functional point of view considers the institution of the family to have the primary responsibility for maintaining the physical and emotional well-being of children, socialising them, and teaching them basic morality and how to treat other people with respect. The educational system provides the knowledge and skills for people to become productive participants in the economy. The economy combines people's knowledge and talents with technology and resources to produce goods and services, and the political system maintains order and defends society against threats. In another instance, prostitution, which is often one of the most frowned at anti-social behaviour, has a role for buyers and sellers. The seller "prostitute" gets immediate financial gain or any other materialistic/non-materialistic element for her action.

In contrast, the buyer gets her sexual needs satisfied within a stipulated period. This is one of the reasons prostitution still stands the test of time. Supporting this claim, the saying there is no crime-free society is entirely appropriate for the analogy of functionalism. 


Merton (1957), one of the recent functionalist frontiers, notes that institutions can have both intended and publicly recognised functions called manifest functions and other equally natural but unintended and often not well-understood functions referred to as latent functions. For example, the manifest function of elementary school is to educate children and provide them with an essential foundation for more advanced learning. It also has the latent functions of supervising and protecting young children while their parents and/or guardians are at work. (Manifest functions: Intended and publicly recognised functions. Latent functions: Unintended and often hidden or not well-understood functions.)

Major assumptions: Social stability is necessary for a strong society, and adequate socialisation and social integration are necessary for social stability. Society’s social institutions perform essential functions to help ensure social stability. Slow social change is desirable, but rapid social change threatens social order.

Views of social problems: Social problems weaken a society’s stability but do not reflect fundamental faults in society's structure. Solutions to social issues should take the form of gradual social reform rather than sudden and far-reaching change. Despite their adverse effects, social problems often also serve essential functions for society.

Three dominant theories of social problems grew out of the structural-functionalist perspective: social pathology, social dysfunction and social disorganisation.


Social Pathology: According to the social pathology model, social problems result from some "sickness" in society. Just as the human body becomes ill when our systems, organs, and cells do not function normally, society becomes "ill" when its parts  (i.e., elements of the structure and culture) no longer perform properly. For example, problems such as crime, violence, poverty, and juvenile delinquency are often attributed to the breakdown of the family institution, the decline of the religious institution, and inadequacies in our economic, educational, and political institutions. (Social pathology: A structural-functional perspective that likens society to a living organism that can be healthy, evolve to a higher state or become ill.)

Social Disorganization: According to the social disorganisation view of social problems, rapid social change disrupts the norms in a society. When norms become weak or are in conflict with each other, society is in a state of anomie or normlessness. According to this view, the solution to the social problems lies in slowing the pace of social change and strengthening social norms. For example, although the use of alcohol by teenagers is considered a violation of a social norm in our society, this norm is weak (Elster, 1990). (Social disorganisation: A structural-functional perspective that sees problems being caused by social change that occurs too quickly or anything else that disrupts the functioning of social institutions.)

Many people became disillusioned when their norms did not fit with urban life or help them achieve their goals. This situation, being without meaningful or useful norms, is called anomie. (Anomie: State of lacking meaningful or useful norms (also referred to as normlessness).

Social Dysfunction: Robert Merton described another cause of social problems: social dysfunction. According to this approach, the positive functions of social institutions may simultaneously create harmful (dysfunctional) conditions. For example, improvements in technology make an economic system more productive (a positive function) but may eliminate jobs and increase unemployment and poverty; these dysfunctions can disrupt or degrade the functioning of the overall society. Similarly, the use of certain energy resources, such as coal, to provide electrical power may cause environmental damage. Society must continuously be on the lookout for dysfunctions caused by its social institutions. (Social dysfunction A structural-functional perspective asserting that harmful conditions may be created by the positive functions of social institutions)


However, it is put forward by the functionalist school of thought that dysfunction in any human society is a normal thing that has its functional route for societal progress, change and development. The theorist emphasised that every structure in the society – family, economy, education, polity, religion is erected to cushion the effect of any possible dysfunction in the sector. For instance, any political structure's inadequacies necessitating increasing poverty among dwellers, unemployment rising figures, national security challenges and a host of others would be resolved naturally with an adequate reformation programme. These theorists believed in the interrelated and the interdependent parts of society to cushion the cause and effect of any social problem. 

Summarily, the argument put forward by the functionalist school of thought is that society will keep forging ahead with the presence of social problems, having established different structures – criminal justice system, military sector.., to cater for this challenge. Since no society is free of a social problem(s), the relativity of this social problem will, therefore, be attended to naturally through reforms and not in an inconsistent manner – war or revolution. Against all odds, the functionalists have presented a view quite worthy but not encompassing enough to buttress the understanding of the social problem from all nook and cranny. This, therefore, brings forth the need for a conflict perspective argument.

Read: Poverty: Types, Causes and Trends

Read: Corruption as a Social Problem

Read: Women Vulnerabilities: Levels and Forms


Conflict Theory

Conflict theory is arguably another prominent theory in sociology from the dawn of time (though it emerged after functionalism) till this present age. This theory was basically pioneered by Karl Marx (1818-1883), the German philosopher and sociologist. They presented the argument of the society's state and its affairs from a double-edged sword angle directly opposite to functionalism. Other prominent theorists in this school of thought are Friedrich Engel (1820-1895), Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), and W.E.B. Du Bois (1828-1963), Ralf Dahrendolf (1929-2009), and John Bellamy Foster (1953-till date).  (Conflict perspective: A conceptual approach that views society as characterised by inequalities that advantage some groups and disadvantage others, leading to conflict and the potential for social change.)


A conflict perspective is a conceptual approach that views society as characterised by inequalities that advantage some groups and disadvantage others, leading to conflict and the potential for social change. In contrast to the structural-functional perspective, which implies that change is generally gradual except for the occasional impact of a breakthrough scientific discovery or technological innovation, advocates of the conflict approach argue that, throughout history, social change has often been rapid and sweeping. They view social change as the product of social conflict such as that experienced in the American, French, Russian, Chinese, and Arab Spring revolutions. Large mobilised masses of the population broke the chains of power and coercion that held hold society together. The basis of conflict ranges from inequalities based on economic class, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors to differences of opinion on abortion or gun ownership issues.

Major assumptions: Society is characterised by pervasive inequality based on social class, race, gender, and other factors. Far-reaching social change is needed to reduce or eliminate social inequality and create an egalitarian society.

Views of social problems: Social problems arise from fundamental faults in the structure of a society, and both reflect and reinforce inequalities based on social class, race, gender, and other dimensions. Successful solutions to social problems must involve a far-reaching change in the structure of society.

The analysis of the conflict theorist is on the structure of the society that permits exploitation, inequality and discrimination between individual members of the society. In other words, conflict theorists argued that societies running capitalist economic systems are prone to exploit and discriminate thereby establishing wide lacunae between the rich few and the poor (Marx, 1906). Marx's position that capitalist society is structured to serve the interest of one group at the expense of another; the interest group were the few Bourgeoisie (owners of means of production) while the oppressed (the general masses) were the Proletariat. Karl Marx saw exploitation between the two groups of individuals in society as inevitable due to their needs and wants. The Bourgeoisie controls the means of production and wields its power on all fronts – economically, politically and legally over the Proletariat to continually oppress them and keep them in their helpless state. Until the poor class fully understands the rich's exploitation stratagem – class consciousness as against the negative impression – false consciousness, society will seize to develop. Conflict theory further suggests an ongoing struggle for wealth and power, creating inequality. The famous saying of Karl Mark further substantiated this claim.


In contemporary times, Dahrendolf (1959) presented a more suitable analogy of the present reality (society having different classes – upper class, middle class, lower class) against the bourgeoisie and proletariat argument of the social system but with the same ideology that conflict is necessary to ensure the development, transformation and progress of the economy respectively. This conflict brings societal change realistic for a just cause – community goal. In essence, the only conflict between/among the group of people in the society would wage war against kidnapping and other related social problems. Therefore, this would lead to a society in which individuals are served according to their needs and not their wants – as proposed by Karl Marx in the Communist Manifesto (Marx & Engles, 1848). 

There are two general types of conflict theories of social problems: Marxist and non-Marxist. Marxist theories focus on social conflict that results from economic inequalities; non-Marxist approaches focus on social conflict that results from competing values and interests among social groups. [Note: Non-Marxist theories are also referred to as neo-Marxist theories--"non" and "neo" are interchangeable.] 


Marxist Conflict Theory

According to contemporary Marxist theorists, social problems result from class inequality inherent in a capitalistic system. A system of "haves" and "have-nots" may be beneficial to the "haves" but often translate into poverty for the "have-nots." Many social problems, including physical and mental illness, low educational achievement, and crime, are linked to poverty. In addition to creating an impoverished class of people, capitalism also encourages "corporate violence." Corporate violence may be defined as actual harm and/or risk of harm inflicted on consumers, workers, and the general public as a result of decisions by corporate executives or managers. Corporate violence may also result from corporate negligence, the quest for profits at any cost, and willful violation of health, safety, and environmental laws (Hills, 1987). Our profit-motivated economy encourages otherwise good, kind, and law-abiding individuals to knowingly participate in the manufacturing and marketing of defective brakes on American jets, fuel tanks on automobiles, and contraceptive devices (intrauterine devices [I.U.D.s]). The profit motive has also caused individuals to sell defective medical devices, toxic pesticides, and contaminated foods to developing countries. Blumberg (1989) suggests that "in an economic system based exclusively on motives of self-interest and profit, such behaviour is inevitable." 


Marxist conflict theories also focus on the problem of alienation, or powerlessness and meaninglessness in people's lives. In industrialised societies, workers often have little power or control over their jobs, which fosters a sense of powerlessness in their lives. The specialised nature of work requires workers to perform limited and repetitive tasks; as a result, the workers may come to feel that their lives are meaningless. Alienation is bred not only in the workplace but also in the classroom. Students have little power over their education and often find the curriculum is not meaningful to their lives. Like poverty, alienation is linked to other social problems, such as low educational achievement, violence, and suicide. Marxist explanations of social issues imply that the solution lies in eliminating inequality among classes of people by creating a classless society. The nature of work must also change to avoid alienation. Finally, corporations must apply more robust controls to ensure that corporate decisions and practices are based on safety rather than profit considerations. 


Obviously, no sweeping transformation from capitalism to socialism has occurred in technologically advanced societies, but Marx's ideas have inspired several modern forms of the conflict approach.

Economic-conflict perspective: A conflict perspective that focuses on factors such as poverty, the concentration of power in the hands of the wealthy, and the profit motive of capitalist culture as major causes of social problems. 

Racial/ethnic-conflict perspective: A conflict perspective that focuses on discrimination based on skin colour or ethnic heritage as the cause of social problems.

False and True Consciousness: False consciousness is a lack of understanding about the existence or cause of a harmful condition or behaviour. Whereas, true consciousness is awareness of the existence and real cause of a harmful condition or behaviour and that this harmful condition or behaviour can be eliminated if people work together.


Non-Marxist Conflict Theory

Non-Marxist conflict theorists such as Ralf Dahrendorf are concerned with conflict that arises when groups have opposing values and interests. For example, antiabortion activists value the life of unborn embryos and fetuses; pro-choice activists value the right of women to control their own bodies and reproductive decisions. These different value positions reflect different subjective interpretations of what constitutes a social problem. For antiabortionists, the availability of abortion is the social problem; for pro-choice advocates, restrictions on abortion are the social problem. Sometimes the social problem is not the conflict itself but how it is expressed. Even most pro-life advocates agree that shooting doctors who perform abortions and blowing up abortion clinics constitute unnecessary violence and a lack of respect for life. Value conflicts may occur between diverse categories of people, including nonwhites versus whites, heterosexuals versus homosexuals, young versus old, Democrats versus Republicans, and environmentalists versus industrialists. Solutions to the problems generated by competing values may involve ensuring that conflicting groups understand each other's views, resolving differences through negotiation or mediation, or agreeing to disagree. Ideally, solutions should be win-win; both conflicting groups are satisfied with the solution. However, outcomes of value conflicts are often influenced by power; the group with the most power may use its position to influence the outcome of value conflicts. For example, when Congress could not get all states to voluntarily increase the legal drinking age to 21, it threatened to withdraw federal highway funds from those that would not comply. (Carnevale & Probst, 1998)


Having established the two macro-sociological perspectives in sociology – functionalism and conflict theory, it is, therefore, crucial at this very juncture to examine the micro aspect of sociological theory – symbolic interactionism to cushion the lacuna left unfilled by the two perspectives and buttress the understanding of a social problem.

Read: NGOs Initiatives in Poverty Alleviation in Bangladesh

Read: Government Initiatives in Poverty Reduction of Bangladesh

Symbolic Interactionism Theory

Symbolic interactions, as the latest arrival of the perspective in sociology, also offer a solid base worthy of presenting to buttress the understanding of the social problem. From this perspective, society is seen from the micro angle – the angle of individuals relating and interacting with their cultural elements (signs, symbols, beliefs, customs, norms, values, languages). The proponents of this theory are George Herbert Mead (1863-1931), Charles Horton Cooley (1864-1929), Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), and Erving Goffman (1922-1982), Howard Becker (1928-Present), to mention but a few. The focal point of symbolic interactionism sees society from a micro perspective – where the individuals form the basis of argument and not the society itself. 

Major assumptions: People construct their roles as they interact; they do not merely learn the parts society has set out for them. As this interaction occurs, individuals negotiate their definitions of the situations in which they find themselves and socially construct the reality of these situations. They rely heavily on symbols such as words and gestures to reach a shared understanding of their interaction.

Views of social problems: Social problems arise from the interaction of individuals. People who engage in socially problematic behaviours often learn these behaviours from other people. Individuals also learn their perceptions of social problems from other people. 


Both the structural-functional and conflict approaches are macro-sociological. They analyse society on a large scale, focusing on social institutions and the relationships of population groups to those institutions. The symbolic-interactionist perspective (also called symbolic interactionism), in comparison, is a micro-sociological approach that focuses on the analysis of person-to-person interaction and the actual meanings people give to their experiences and environments. This perspective attempts to explain the origin of certain harmful conditions or behaviours at a more personal level. Adopting the learning theory of crime developed by the famous criminologist Edwin Sutherland, symbolic interactionists believe that many lawbreakers, from professional burglars to corporate white-collar criminals, become criminals by learning certain attitudes and skills from others. (Symbolic-interactionist perspective A sociological perspective that focuses on the analysis of person-to-person interaction and the actual meanings people give to their experiences and environments)


Labelling theory: A major symbolic interactionist theory of social problems suggests that a social condition or group is viewed as problematic if it is labelled as such. According to labelling theory, resolving social issues sometimes involves changing the meanings and definitions attributed to people and situations. For example, as long as teenagers define drinking alcohol as "cool" and "fun," they will continue to abuse alcohol. 

Feminism: The feminist perspective has much in common with the conflict perspective. However, instead of focusing on the unequal distribution of power and resources, feminist sociology studies power with gender. This topic is studied both within social structures at large and at the micro-level of face-to-face interaction, which incorporates the methodology of symbolic interactionism (popularized by Erving Goffman). Feminist scholars study various topics, including sexual orientation, race, economic status, and nationality. However, at the core of feminist sociology is the idea that, in most societies, women have been systematically oppressed and that men have been historically dominant. This is referred to as patriarchy. ( Blumer, 1986)


Symbolic interactionism practitioners presented the view that individuals' definition of things in society makes them what they are. In essence, the individual defines what goes on in society via communication and interaction with cultural elements (Blumer, 1969). This interaction matters from two different angles. Firstly, problematic/anti-social behaviours (crime/juvenile delinquency) are often learned by day-to-day interaction with people engaging in the act more than the law-abiding individuals; and adopting their attitudes to justify committing such act. On a second note, the perceptions and beliefs system of a social problem from the perpetrator's purview influence the perceptions and beliefs of new entrants. Both positions above emphasised the subjective description of social issues highlighted earlier. These two perspectives emphasise the importance of subjective reality as well as the objective reality of understanding the social problem's cause, consequence and control in any given society.

Obileye, A. A., & Aborisade, R. A. (2020). Social Problem. Introduction to Sociology: African Culture, Context and Complexity, 275-285

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