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How Would a Structural Functionalist, a Critical Theorist, and a Symbolic Interactionist Each Approach the Idea of Social Inequality?

There are three main theoretical sociological perspectives: symbolic interaction, structural functionalism, and conflict theory. Each theory explains social interaction from a dissimilar perspective. Although they have contradictory explanations, each perspective offers a logical assumption for the fundamental motivations that often cause society to function at the micro, macro, or both levels (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). Each perspective is distinctive and can accurately explain how human behavior and social factors are changed by society. Economic inequality can be defined as the discrepancy in wealth opportunities and distribution among individuals belonging to diverse communities, countries, or groups. This paper seeks to explain how a structural functionalist, a symbolic interactionist, and a critical theorist approach social inequality.

Structural functionalists would argue that social inequalities are important for the survival and stability of any society. This perspective is based on the notion that society often tries to create order and stability (Calhoun et al., 2022). According to this theory, a society usually operates in a stable and orderly way at a macro level. Functionalists hold the view that society is a system that requires cooperation in order to function. There are many different kinds of inequalities in society, including differences in social class, gender, age, and ethnicity. According to functionalists, these disparities actually occur, are beneficial to society, and are necessary for society to function. According to Appelrouth and Edles (2015), humans require harmony, stability, and cooperation based on shared values. This indicates that the various groups are advantageous since they cooperate and benefit one another. Stratification systems, or the existence of various social strata, are said to be unavoidable and necessary for human survival.

Calhoun et al. (2022) also discuss the stratification system, contending that it exists in every civilization that has ever existed and that effective role distribution is necessary for the stratification system to function. Role allocation often ensures that people who are most qualified and capable of performing the jobs are assigned to the roles in society. This is advantageous to society because it ensures that we will have competent attorneys to represent us in court and competent medical professionals to care for us when we are unwell. This requires a mechanism in every society, and social stratification is that mechanism in our society (Calhoun et al., 2022).

Structural functionalists view social stratification as a necessary condition for society. Functionalists hold that people should be stratified according to their social rank and function. The stratification system may be viewed as a way of controlling access to scarce resources. One unit cannot conduct all necessary functions of society, and hence each unit has an explicit purpose and duty. This is why stratification is viewed as a functional requirement. Additionally, the stratification of positions and duties fosters a constant drive for personal development. For instance, a doctor and a worker are both given different responsibilities. Although both significantly contribute to society’s functioning, a doctor is positioned above a worker on the occupational ladder (Asimakopoulos, 2022). Certain occupations are viewed as prestigious and superior in the system of stratification, which is sometimes referred to as a system of positions. In order to encourage hard work among the masses, these higher-ranking posts are linked to specific benefits.

In contrast, conflict theory usually explains society in the context of various economic factors, including the scarcity of different resources. For instance, the lack of certain resources, such as gas and oil, often creates class differences because the class or group that controls these scarce resources will be able to control more wealth (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). Furthermore, this class conflict inspires individuals to behave and act in various ways towards each other such as stratifying certain individuals so as to retain control of important resources. Conflict theorists normally explain social behavior in society in terms of varying macro-level concepts, although they can also view social behavior at a micro level.

The conflict theory holds that society is continually struggling for limited resources. The perspective holds that dominance and power preserve social order. The theory asserts that those in positions of power and wealth will utilize any means needed to retain their dominance by suppressing the weak (Asimakopoulos, 2022). The main assumption of this perspective includes that social actors will compete with one another to accumulate the greatest amount of power and wealth. Conflict perspective has been utilized to explain a broad variety of societal issues, including domestic violence and poverty. The core concepts of this perspective include resource allocation, social inequality, and conflicts between different socioeconomic classes (Calhoun et al., 2022).

Critical theorists emphasize the conflict between the two primary classes of individuals. A number of people who share similar interests and different levels of property owners make up each class. The class of individuals who control the majority of the money and resources within society was the focus of Marx’s thoughts on the bourgeoisie. The other category is the proletariat, often known as those considered to be working-class or poor. Marx foresaw that as capitalism expanded, the bourgeoisie, a minority class within society, would oppress the proletariat, the majority class. This philosophy’s adherents generally hold the misconception that goods are distributed in our society in the shape of a pyramid, which is often linked with conflict-based social models. The summit of the pyramid is occupied by a small number of elites who, as a result of their disproportionate power and money, dictate policies to the majority of society (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015).

These critical theorists predict that ideological coercion would maintain social inequality. The proletariats are forced to accept the status quo by the bourgeoisie (Calhoun et al., 2022). Conflict theory holds that in order to retain their dominance and deter others from joining their ranks, the elite would erect systems of laws, traditions, and other societal institutions. Marx stated that if the working class worsened, there would be a revolution as individuals became more knowledgeable about inequalities in our society. In the long run, the conflict cycle will turn around and change in the opposite direction if the concerns of the poor will be given more weight in the wake of the rebellion. The bourgeoisie would later take the initiative and take the lead in the rebellion, calling for the restoration of the institutions that had once protected their rule (Asimakopoulos, 2022).

Critical theorists assert that competition is a constant and overwhelming force in all human interactions and relationships. Competition develops due to a lack of resources, such as material ones, including money and properties (Calhoun et al., 2022). Organizations and individuals in society compete for not only real resources but also other intangible riches. Critical theorists believe that competition rather than collaboration is the norm. They make the key supposition that there are power disparities in all social structures and interpersonal interactions (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). Consequently, by default, certain persons and groups gain more power and wealth than others. Then, in order to maintain and expand their power, those individuals and groups who benefit from a certain social structure typically work to keep it in place. Workers have minimal economic power because they do not control factories or raw resources, and their value may erode over time (Asimakopoulos, 2022). Social unrest can eventually happen as a result of the probable imbalance between employers and employees.

According to the symbolic interaction theory, daily experiences and interactions with other groups and individuals shape people’s behavior and the way society is often built (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015). By concentrating on the arbitrary meanings that people give to things, events, and actions, symbolic interaction theorists attempt to explain society. According to this perspective, subjective meanings are often prioritized because it is deemed that individuals make decisions based on their views instead of merely what is true. As a consequence, it is thought that human interpretation socially produces society. People form social relationships due to how they perceive individuals’ behavior (Calhoun et al., 2022).

Several essential aspects of people’s social identities and experiences, such as gender and ethnicity, can be viewed from the symbolic interactionist point of view. Gender and race are social constructions that depend on what people think about other individuals based on their outward appearance. Using their socially created meanings of race and gender, people decide what kind of individuals to interact with and how to correctly interpret their behaviors and words. In terms of gender, the problematic manner is the meaning connected to the symbols of “woman” and “man” or in the gender-based pay inequality in our society. This issue of inequality is illustrated by the subjective practice of college students routinely giving male tutors better ratings than their female counterparts (Asimakopoulos, 2022).

The symbolic interactionism perspective explains how individuals continuously carry out specific activities to preserve societies. Communication is the interchange of meaning via symbols and language that enable people to understand their existing social situations (Calhoun et al., 2022). Symbolic interactionism highlights the subjective viewpoints of these individuals, especially on how they perceive the world from their own perspective as opposed to how they shape and define them objectively. The symbolic interactionist perspective holds that the meaningful and subjective contacts that shape our society are more crucial than their physical appearance. As a consequence, it is claimed that society is socially formed by human interpretation (Appelrouth & Edles, 2015).

In conclusion, although each of the three sociological perspectives has advantages, they too have wide application problems. For instance, the symbolic-interaction perspective focuses mainly on individuals and hence overlooks certain crucial group dynamics. Likewise, not all phenomena in society can be explained via resources over class conflict. In this respect, these perspectives often guide sociologists to examine sociological phenomena instead of offering absolute solutions and answers. However, the conflict theory and structural functionalism perspectives are effective in explaining the issue of social inequalities in our society.


Appelrouth, S. & Edles, L. D. (2015). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory: Text and Readings. SAGE Publications.

Asimakopoulos, J. (2022). Postmodernism: The Evolution of Symbolic Interactionism and Critical Theory. Theory in Action, 15(3).

Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (Eds.). (2022). Contemporary sociological theory. John Wiley & Sons.


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