Chapter 2 Macro Sociological Theory and Analyzing Social Problems
The numerous theoretical perspectives in Sociology have been categorized in a variety of ways. In this book theoretical perspectives are divided into macro and micro approaches since the relationship between macro and micro social problems is very important. The first approach covered is the macro perspective, which deals with the influences of social structures on people’s lives. It is based on the notion that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and that human experiences and behaviors are largely determined by the nature of social institutions like churches, political organizations, and even smaller institutions like the family. Two of the most commonly discussed macro theoretical perspectives are structural functionalism and conflict theory, but other perspectives will also be included.
Structural functionalism is the perspective that most directly reminds us of the influence of Biology on Sociology. The nineteenth century thinking of Auguste Comte, and even more so of his follower Emile Durkheim, was heavily swayed by the images of biological organisms, which have clear structural boundaries and easily identifiable functioning parts. From the structural functional perspective social entities are viewed as relatively stable structures that have stable and clearly identifiable interconnected components. The concepts of role, structure, function, and dysfunction are relevant terms when thinking about social structures, and their interrelationship makes up the crux of the structural functional perspective.
The image that we are given by this perspective is one of an organic whole. The human body, for example, is made up of identifiable parts that are connected interdependently, thereby creating an organic whole. The heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, and other organs all come together to constitute a single human being. Each of the component parts has a function within the biological structure that contributes to the maintenance of the whole organism. It is easy to see the application of this model to social structures once we introduce the concept of role. In the case of human social structures, roles take the place of the various component body parts that we see in biological structures, and are activated by the implantation of a human being into each role. The activation takes place as the human being carries out the expectations associated with the role. The various roles of the family are what make the family a social structure. Each role (for example, the mother role), through its interaction with
the other family roles (for example, the roles of daughter, brother, and father), fulfills a function toward the successful maintenance of the family containing those roles.
Small and medium sized social structures:
The family is one of the oldest social structures and the most important socializing agent among social institutions. It is also one of the smallest social structures in existence. There are others, such as friendships and dyadic love relationships. There are also medium sized social structures, such as small businesses, local governments, school districts, and universities. All small and medium-sized social structures tend to have clear roles within them that make up their working parts. The working parts give the social structure its form and keep it operating and identifiable as a separate entity, which then becomes a working part of yet a larger social structure.
Large social structures: Nation-states
Nation-states are one of the largest social entities in existence in the social world. When examining social structures of this size one quickly sees how complicated the social world can be. Nation-states are multilayered social entities containing social structures within social structures within social structures. Oftentimes, the social structures are overlapping in complicated ways. The overlap results in certain roles having a great deal of confusion associated with them in terms of which social structure is primarily served by each role. A good example of this kind of confusion is the role of a politician who serves a number of constituents. Technically, there should not be confusion about the role of a politician because technically they are supposed to serve the government within which they are elected, which technically consists of the people that make up that particular geographical location. However, politicians must win the support of their party in order to be nominated to run for election. Once they are nominated, politicians must win the support of external funding agents who provide them with their campaign resources so that they may be elected.
So are the expectations associated with being the President of the United States, for example, actually for serving the people of the United States, as is supposed to be the case? Alternatively the president could be serving the expectations of a political party, or possibly the expectations of major campaign funding sources. Once within the realm of high stakes large-scale social structures the roles within social structures become complicated and
sometimes very confusing. This does not mean that they cannot be complicated and confusing in smaller social structures as well, but the tendency is far greater in large-scale social structures such as large government units, large religious organizations that span multiple nations, international governmental organizations, and multinational corporations. These massive social entities have complicated social structures and the roles that maintain them are oftentimes extremely complicated and difficult to identify clearly as separate roles. Indeed, they often literally overlap from one large-scale social structure to another. There are many examples of this overlap in politics and in the corporate world. Interlocking boards of directors across corporations is an important example from a social problems perspective.
Dysfunction: the lost concept
The influence of biology on structural functional thinking within the discipline of Sociology cannot be overstated. When a biologist examines the parts of the biological organism, the question asked is not typically, “what harm are these parts doing to this organism?” On the contrary, the biologist is most likely asking what positive contribution this part makes to the maintenance of this organism. This is not a completely safe approach to take when studying the social world. It is a reasonably safe bet that a component within a biological entity is making some positive contribution to the maintenance of that entity. There are occasional exceptions to this claim but they are pretty rare. The same cannot be said for the components of social entities.
Under what circumstances, therefore, might a biological component of an organism be considered dysfunctional rather than functional? Typically, dysfunction does not apply to the components of biological organisms unless the biological organism is damaged in some particular way. For example, if a kidney is cancerous it has become dysfunctional to the survival of the body that contains it, and it will most likely have to be removed. This issue is more complicated within larger biological structures that contain many organisms, like an ecosystem. Here we see greater similarity between Biology and Sociology. As humans increasingly interfere with the evolving biological world, biologists have had to more frequently look for dysfunction within biological systems, as well as function.
Sociologists employing structural functional thinking must also learn to do the same. That is, they must look for dysfunction at least as much as function
within social structures. For example, one might ask if certain foreign policy programs are functional or dysfunctional to the maintenance of the social entities contained within the social structure of the United States. A parallel question is whether accommodating multinational corporations with our international policies is functional or dysfunctional to the security of the people contained within the United States? Are tax breaks for the wealthy functional or dysfunctional to the well-being of the people who make up the vast majority of the United States? If the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is engaging in activities on behalf of multinational corporations that result in generating extreme hatred towards the United States, is the CIA functional or dysfunctional to the security of the people of the United States? These questions and many others like them can be and should be examined from within the theoretical perspective of structural functionalism. The tendency in Sociology, however, has been to focus predominantly on function as biologists might focus on the function of a part within a single organism. For structural functionalism to be useful to the study of social reality, especially social problems within social reality, that tendency should be changed.
What causes what?
The tendency to focus on function tends to result in a neglect of causation. When looking at a total social structure with many interdependent parts, it is sometimes difficult to know how those parts are affecting one another. When thinking only in terms of functional interdependence this problem does not seem to be very significant. However, once the concept of dysfunction is introduced, the issue of causation becomes one of glaring importance. It is important to know for example why a particular component of the social structure has become dysfunctional. This is an important issue within small social structures as well as within large social structures such as nation- states. If an individual within a family structure is not fulfilling role expectations within that family, a positive change in that individual cannot be expected without knowing the cause of the undesirable behavior. By understanding the cause of a person’s behavior, change can more effectively be initiated that will positively impact that behavior, which will in turn positively impact the social structure containing that person. Social and behavioral scientists who identify as behaviorists do not agree with this analysis, but the nature of that disagreement is tied into principles of behaviorism covered in the next chapter.
Oftentimes, social components of social structures that were initially designed
to have an important social function end up being dysfunctional to the social entity within which they reside. When this happens, it is important to know why it is happening, what are the causal forces behind making it happen, and what is the particular causal order of events that explain the situation in its current form? Whether we agree with the original intent of the CIA or not, the intended function of the CIA was to improve national security for the nation-state of the United States and thereby make the people within the United States more secure. If that has not happened as expected, it is not sufficient to know that the function of the CIA was not fulfilled. We must also know why it was not fulfilled, and the answer to that question involves understanding certain motivations behind the actions of the CIA.
Like most terms used in Sociology, causality is a construct. It does not serve us well to think of causality as something that is easy to determine. Causality is not something that can be seen or touched. It is something that is inferred from circumstantial evidence. Determining causal order requires sociologists to be clever about piecing together information that reveals a pattern of behavior that fits the earlier description of “cause.” The notion of causality is no less abstract in the other sciences. Yet we do not expect other scientists to abandon this important construct. Because sociological subject matter tends to be more abstract than the content of the other sciences, it is far more difficult to demonstrate causal connections in a clear and highly defensible manner.
Committing to a non-causal world: post modernism
Through the 1980s and most of the 1990s a theoretical perspective closely related to Structural Functionalism became prominent in the United States and Europe. This theoretical perspective grew out of what was originally known as French Structuralism and later became known as Post Modernism. While Post Modernism was initially and quite indirectly influenced by Durkheim, Post Modern thinkers attempted to incorporate the later works of Karl Marx, who is discussed briefly below under the topic of conflict theory. This particular perspective is mentioned simply because it epitomizes deliberate avoidance of causal thinking. Even prominent economic post modernists such as Lash and Urry, “... disavow causal sequences preferring to speak of preconditions and ideal-types” (Turner 2003: 238).
The era of post modernism coincided with a peak in conservative politics in the West: the rollback of social programs, international trade agreements that
negatively impact the poor, and a step-up of international espionage by Western nation-state powers to destroy grassroots peoples’ movements wherever they occurred. The rise of this theoretical movement in the United States seemed to represent a sophisticated way of talking about the many terrible things happening in the world without attributing any responsibility to anyone or anything, and doing so in a coded language completely unavailable to the average world citizen.
A sarcastic summary of the post modernist view of the world might go something like: “life happens, it is complicated, some suffer, some don’t, and there is nothing we can do about it.” A non-causal view of the social world does not give concerned citizens, social activists, and other serious students of Sociology much hope for a better future, since social problem remedies require some understanding of the factors that cause the social problems. As stated by Feagin and Vera, “Given the life-threatening problems created by a globalizing capitalist system on planet Earth— such as global warming and its threats to the atmosphere, biosphere, and sociosphere— the larger-scale emancipatory theory and research projects cannot be abandoned to a postmodern malaise” (2001: 222). Some post modernists are seeing the limitations of their perspective and are moving back toward causal sociological thinking.
Taking the position that causation does not exist, or that it can never be adequately demonstrated, is a way of absolving oneself and others from any sense of social responsibility. The intent behind studying Sociology is not to assign blame in a punitive sense, but to identify primary sources of problems so that appropriate social remedies may be developed. This sometimes means that people have to recognize their own role in contributing to the world’s problems. People from a dominant nation-state or even from the more privileged groups within an oppressed nation-state, are benefiting from the suffering of others. There is logic to this phenomenon that is not too difficult to track. Causes and corresponding effects do exist. Actions bring about other actions and so on. In this important respect, this book is patterned in general principle after the excellent work of John Mirowsky and Catherine E. Ross, Social Causes of Psychological Distress (2003). Their work does exactly what the book title suggests: identifies social causes of individual problems. Social structures can and do impact the individual and individual relationships. Their work also represents a good example of the importance of Social Psychology for understanding social problems.
Humans have motivations, body parts do not
Human beings as activators of social roles bring with them individual motivations. Sometimes those individual motivations are consistent with the welfare of the larger social entity, and sometimes they are not. It is probably rarely the case that human beings fulfilling roles within social structures are doing so from a position of personal motive neutrality. One might also question the extent to which humans as activators of roles consistently have the interests of the whole social structure in mind as they are fulfilling their role expectations. This point represents the most significant difference between structural functionalism, as it applies to social life, and structural functionalism as it applies to biological life. The absence of indifference (as typically characterizes the parts of a biological structure) or the absence of complete social altruism in human role fulfillment, is the critical point that brings us to a discussion of a second important macro theoretical perspective.
John C. Alessio (2013-01-28). Social Problems and Inequality (Solving Social Problems) (p. 24). Ashgate. Kindle Edition.