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Sociology Essay Theoretical Perspectives

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“Sociology is the study of human social life, groups and societies. It is a dazzling and compelling enterprise, having as its subject matter our own behaviour as social beings. The scope of sociology is extremely wide, ranging from the analysis of passing encounters between individuals in the street up to the investigation of world-wide social processes. (Livesey 2005).

During the nineteenth century changes in science and technology opened the minds of people to wonder if there could be a scientific reason for everything we do and that the wider scientific knowledge could give an explanation as to the problems encountered throughout human life. Auguste Comte was born in 1798; he was a philosopher during the French revolution. It is believed that though he did not discover the concept of sociology, he made an influence in the area with his work and is said to have inspired work of Karl Marx. Karl Marx is known for his studies in politics, economics and society; these are known as the one group – Marxism. Modern sociologists have three views: the symbolic perspective, the functionalist perspective, and the conflict perspective. These perspectives give theorists the opportunity to explain how society influences people or doesn’t influence.

Each perspective has a different view of society, social forces, and human behaviour. The symbolic interactionism perspective enables sociologists to study activities of everyday life, what these mean to individuals, and how we interact with each other in society, the theory is based on the view that individuals live their lives according to their own beliefs which are developed through social interaction. The functionalist perspective, also named functionalism focuses on society being interdependent and how this keeps society functioning as one. Functionalism does not encourage change in individuals’ lives or social environment as the various levels of society will have adapted to any problems which may arise. The conflict theory however believes those in power control the poor and the weak in society, basing the theory on power within social classes and competitiveness for power and domination.

This essay will focus on two of these theories, symbolic interactionism and the conflict theory. These two theories have been chosen as they contrast with one another. The social action theory emphasizes how we make our own decisions based on our beliefs, while the conflict theories belief is that only those in power make the decisions and the lower classes in society obey these.

“The basic principles of symbolic interactionism include the following: (1) human beings possess the capacity for thought, which is shaped by social interaction; (2) people learn meanings and symbols through social interaction; and (3) people are able to modify or alter the meanings and symbols they use in interactions by interpreting the situations they are engaged in.” (Ritzer 2004). One major influence of the theory was George Herbert Mead he was born in 1863; he spent most of his career teaching sociology. Mead strongly believed in individuals defining their own behaviour depending on the attitudes of the social group in which they have. Mead believed that as individuals communicated and interacted within a community they would learn different social roles and the expectations which people have and become self-conscious within themselves. Karl Marx, a German philosopher, is one of the most influential figures within this theory, his work however was not fully recognised until after his death in 1883. Marx strongly believed that power is used within the higher classes to oppress those in the working classes, as those in power control businesses, politics, religion etc. Thus the lower classes are controlled in every aspect of life.

“Health inequalities that are preventable by reasonable measures are unfair. Putting them right is a matter of social justice.”(Marmot 2010). Obesity among adults has increased during the 1990s and 2000s. Obesity brings with it many health risks including diabetes, cancer and heart disease. “The resulting NHS costs attributable to overweight and obesity are projected to reach £9.7 billion by 2050” (National Obesity Observatory, 2010). These statistics make obesity a priority within the NHS and government schemes of prevention. There are many causes which contribute towards obesity. Genetics and ill health which the individual cannot control, the amount of physical activities which the person takes part in, the impact of society, such as media, peer pressure etc. The foods which the individual consumes and the amount, the food people buy may be influenced by financial stance, the quality of food within their environment, and emotionally food can be an issue.

From a symbolic interactionism perspective society looks on obese people as an unattractive, and unhealthy way of life. However it’s our society that makes us belief this, through media we are brainwashed to believe that the slimmer you are the more attractive. “The Fat Movement” which began in the 1960’s believes that obese people are discriminated against because of their size. Everything is socially sculpted, as is our reaction to obesity. Symbolic interactionism is based on the theory that everything we learn through society is conveyed through symbols. When we see an obese person we send off signals both verbal and nonverbal that show a discriminatory view of them, which is symbolic interaction with the obese person, showing your judgement, which may in turn lead to the person returning to emotion eating as this is their symbol of comfort.

Conflict theory is based entirely in power and oppression, the main agenda for those in power is to stay in power. Conflict theorists may say that obesity within the lower classes is due to living conditions, poor quality of food and lack of education which was given to them from those in power. That the cheaper those in power make food the unhealthier it will be more unhealthy it is, knowing that the food may be all that is available to them, thus resulting in obesity. Conflict theorists believe that those at the top tier of society only look after their own and that the working class’s health is not a priority. Conflict theory might also argue that by having people in society obese and struggling with socialising, maintaining health to work, and possible early death, that they are simply ensuring that they are still holding power by suppressing others.

In summary both theories have contrasting views with regards to obesity and society. Obesity is a major health problem within modern society in many countries. Do we judge obese people due to the way in which obesity has been symbolised in society as unattractive etc, or do we judge as we have been in a way brainwashed to believe that obesity leads to lack of value or power?


* Livesey, C Lawson, T (2005). As sociology for AQA. London: Hodder Education. p1 * Michael Marmot, Fair Society, Healthy Lives – Marmot Review, 2010. * National obesity observatory. (2010). About obesity. Available: http://www.noo.org.uk/NOO_about_obesity/. Last accessed 11th Jan 2013 * Ritzer, G (2004). Sociological theory. 6th ed. New york: McGraw-Hill. p334

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