The main difference between functionalism and symbolic interactionism is that functionalism looks at society as a complex system whose components work together to promote unity and stability whereas symbolic interactionism looks at society as a social construct that relies on human interpretations.
Functionalism and symbolic interactionism are two major theoretical paradigms that analyse society and its structure. These two paradigms view society from different perspectives. Functionalism is a macro-level framework as it looks as society as a whole, whereas symbolic interactionism is a more micro-level framework as it looks at individual interpretations.
Key Areas Covered
1. What is Functionalism
– Definition, Characteristics, Examples
2. What is Symbolic Interactionism
– Definition, Characteristics
3. Difference Between Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism
– Comparison of Key Differences
Functionalism, Sociological Theory, Structural Functionalism, Symbolic Interactionism
What is Functionalism?
Functionalism or structural functionalism is a framework for the sociological theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. In other words, functionalism looks at each part of the society in terms of function and how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. According to this theory, all parts of society are dependent on each other. These different parts usually refer to various institutions in society, which fulfil different needs of people; each of these has a particular role and contribute to society as a whole.
Early sociologists like Herbert Spencer used the analogy of a human body to describe society. According to these theorists, understanding any organ in the body involved an understanding of its relationship to other organs and its contribution towards the maintenance of the organism. Similarly, if we want to understand a particular part of society, we need to analyze its relationship to other parts as well as its contribution to the stability and solidarity of society.
For instance, the government provides chemicals and manure to farmers so that the farmers can contribute to the overall economic development of the society, by providing people with food and by paying tax to the government. Here, farmers are dependent on the government for manure and other agricultural support while the government is also dependent on the farmers for the food they provide. Thus, functionalism looks at society in a macro-level approach. Moreover, social structure and social function are important concepts in functionalism.
However, disruption in one part of a system has an overall impact on the whole system; similarly, the disruption of one part of society can affect the equilibrium of the whole society. To overcome this disruption, people have to adapt to new ways.
What is Symbolic Interactionism?
Symbolic interactionism is a framework in sociological theory that relies on the symbolic meaning people develop and build upon in the process of social interaction. According to this framework, society is socially constructed through human interpretation. It is because symbolic interactionism examines society by analyzing subjective meanings humans impose on objects, behaviours and events. Subjective meanings are important in this framework because humans behave not based on what is objectively true, but based on what they believe. Moreover, it is these subjective meanings or interpretations that form the social bonds in symbolic interactionism. Thus, most research studies on symbolic interactionism are based on individuals’ observations.
Difference Between Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism
Functionalism is a framework for the sociological theory that looks at society as a complex system whose components work together to promote unity and stability whereas symbolic interactionism is a framework in sociological theory regarding social behaviour that emphasizes linguistic or gestural communication as well as its subjective understanding.
Type of View
While functionalism is a macro-level framework as it looks as society as a whole, symbolic interactionism is a more micro-level framework as it looks at individual interpretations.
View on Society
Functionalism views society as a complex system with interacting and interlocking parts, and it analyzes the function, structure of these parts as well as their relationships to understand how society fits together. Symbolic interactionism, on the other hand, focuses more on the actions and reactions of people in society and how and why people define their situations.
In brief, functionalism and symbolic interactionism are two major theoretical paradigms that analyse society and its structure. The main difference between functionalism and symbolic interactionism is that functionalism looks at society as a complex system whose components work together to promote unity and stability whereas symbolic interactionism looks at society as a social construct that relies on human interpretations.
1. Crossman, Ashley. “What Is Symbolic Interactionism?” ThoughtCo, ThoughtCo, 27 Dec. 2018, Available here.
2. “What Is the Functionalist Perspective in Sociology?” Sandra Cisneros Biography, Available here.