Three sociological perspectives used in the study of minorities are: Structural functionalism, symbolic interactionalism and conflict theory. These perspectives offer "theoretical paradigms" for explaining how society influences people, taking into account the social factors that impact on human behavior. However, different theories, ideas, and prejudices can influence a sociologist's conclusions. Each of these theories has a contribution to make with a distinct focus.
Functional theory was influenced by Emile Durkheim. Adherents of this theory emphasize, "Various parts of society have functions or positive effects that promote solidarity and maintain the stability of the whole." (Parrillo 11) Thus a society is held together by "social consensus," or cohesion whereby members of the society agree upon and work together to achieve what is best for society as a whole. The social structure consists of status positions, roles and institutions (family, education and religion), and members that share common values. It is a system of interrelated and independent parts, and each of these parts plays an important role in fulfilling certain functions for a smooth operation of society. Functionalists think that all elements of society should function together to maintain order and stability, and under ideal conditions, a society would be in a state of balance with all parts interacting harmoniously.
Problems come about when the social system is no longer functional offsetting society's balance. . The most frequent cause for this disorganization is rapid social change, which causes conflicts. Because the focus is on societal stability an important issue in this analysis of societal disorganization is `whether to restore the equilibrium to its predisturbance state or to seek new and different equilibrium." (Parrillo 11) Functionalists point out that problems related to minorities can be resolved through small corrections or adjustments to return to balance/equilibrium.
Critics of this theory state that it focuses too much on order and stability and presents somewhat of a conservative and idealistic view of society. It does not encourage individuals to take an active role in changing their social environment even when such a change might be beneficial to them. "Instead, functionalism sees active social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate naturally for any problems that may arise." (Zgourides 12). It also fails to take into consideration differences in power among and between groups.
Conflict Theory was "influenced by Karl Marx's socioeconomic view of the elite exploiting the masses." (Parillo 12). The conflict perspective focuses on the inequalities that create racial and ethnic tensions between groups. In contrast to the fundamentalist's emphasis on stability, conflict theorists maintain, "Racism has much to do with maintaining power and controlling resources." Society is seen as being...