Among these general approaches (of modern sociology) are a) Functionalism, b) Marxism and Conflict Theory and c) Symbolic Interactionism.
Functionalism has an important place in modern sociology and was initially influenced by Durkheim’s works in sociology in the 19th century. Functionalism deals with society as a system consisting of interrelated pieces. Functionalism in modern sociology deals with society as a system based on self-regulation, which implies that society has a natural intuition to protect itself and have a balance. Functionalists argue that just like a biological system, a social system also has basic needs to be met. These needs are defined and classified by Talcott Parsons (1902-1979). Parsons (1952) developed his structural-functional approach as a version of system theory and places the questions of how social systems are established, kept together and maintained – i.e social order problem- into the center of sociology. He also argues that social order stems from value consensus rather than obligation. Parsons states that what prevents society from collapsing is order, i.e how a system operates and there are certain functional obligations that needs to be fulfilled to ensure the operation of the system and each system has its sub-systems that fulfill these functions. Called as functional pre-requirements, these needs are met by the components of the system. Functionalists claim that each social component / institution and practice is able to keep its presence only when it plays a role in meeting the needs of society. They also analyze institutions that form a society in terms of their contributions to meeting these needs. Functionalism presents an evolutionary theory of social transformation. According to functionalism, social system has to adapt to changing conditions to survive. In order to realize such an adaptation, social system develops new components and functions by multiplying many times within itself. For instance, the ever-increasing division of labour and specialization in society are the result of this need. However, structural-functionalism, which was developed under the leadership of Parsons and was a macro-oriented mainstream approach of sociology for a certain period of time, received harsh criticism especially during the postmodern era and lost strength over time because of the following reasons: unrealistically presenting society as a functional unity by too much focusing on the social order problem; ignoring conflicts and similar factors that divide modern societies of the 20 th century; and not giving enough importance to the role of actions and agents of these actions in social life by prioritizing the systems and their needs. Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) brought a new dimension to structural functionalism with his middle-range theory developed in accordance with empirical testability from a much more flexible perspective. According to Merton, one of the most important dilemmas of functional analysis is that it treats society as an integrated system in the form of functional unity, and thus concentrates only on positive functions as if there were no dysfunctional elements in the system. In fact, Merton suggests that societies do not always function in a unified form and each component can have both positive and negative functions or an element may be dysfunctional.
Conflict Theories and Marxism: Conflict theories emphasize the importance of social structures in societies; however, unlike functionalism, which focuses on the consensus, they focus on power, social divisions, inequality and struggle among different groups pursuing their own interests. Marxism, which was later developed by social scientists who were influenced by Marx’s work, is acknowledged to be one of the most effective conflict approaches. (...) two groups: “traditional Marxist theories” and “neo Marxists theories”. Traditional Marxist theories refer to those taking Marx’s original writings and thoughts as the basis for their principles. Neo Marxist theories, on the other hand, are influenced by Marxist theories but they differ from them in certain important aspects. At this point, the ideas suggested by George Lukacs (1885-1971) and Antonio Gramsci (1891-1937), who are among the most influential neo Marxist theoreticians and also known as Hegelian Marxists, are quite significant. They are also among the first and the most important representatives of Western Marxism. Unlike traditional Marxism that emphasizes the economic structure, Lukacs and Gramsci focused on cultural, ideological and political analyses in their studies and became the pioneers in the development of critical theory. Lukacs (2006) emphasized reification in a commodified society – which he considered as the most important structural problem of modern capitalist era-, and Gramsci (2007) highlighted the hegemony of bourgeoisie that has the ideological power to create a general consent without resorting to force in masses in the Western world. All these studies are known to have influenced the critical theorists of Frankfurt School. In addition, the ideas of Louis Althusser (1918-1990), considered the developer of the theory known as structural Marxism, were quite influential in sociological literature. Althusser suggests three basic social structures that emerge due to certain relationships in societies; namely economic, political and ideological social structures. The approach known as Frankfurt School or Critical Theory, which first appeared in 1923, had also an important influence in the development of Marxism after the death of Marx. In contrast to many social theories, critical theorists are mainly interested in epistemology and examine its varieties. They also argue that the use of natural sciences logic in human sciences serve to the purposes of domination by reducing people to objects or things, as in capitalism. Therefore, these theorists have tried to develop a multidisciplinary and multi-dimensional dialectical social theory that aims to produce liberating knowledge that is critical of all types of hegemony in modern societies such as alienation, commodification etc. Critical theory is critical of all forms of domination in modern societies, whether capitalist or socialist, especially to those of technical-rationality that is seen as a new form of new domination. Representatives of critical theory are particularly critical of capitalism in that it is reduces culture to entertainment forms that can be consumed massively by everyone through the ‘culture industry. Critical Theory emphasizes that individuals are simply manipulated in such societies through mass culture and become entities that tend to think and search less since they are seduced by the irresistible power of consumption. At this point, critical theorists have argued that the problem of modernity is not just the injustices and inequalities of the capitalist system, but that all modern societies are organized by instrumental rationality. The most important figure of critical theory after the 1960s was Jürgen Habermas. He disagreed with critical theorist’s over-pessimist analyses of capitalist modernity and claimed that modernism is still an uncompleted project. Neo Marxists are not as optimistic as traditional Marxists about the fact that capitalism will inevitably disappear. Therefore, neo Marxists tend to examine how class consciousness of governed groups – especially working class- are shaped and controlled through upper structural concepts such as cultural hegemony and culture industry. The theory developed by Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) stands out among these conflict theories. Dahrendorf argues that in the society that he called post-capitalism, the conflict does not emerge between those who own the means of production and those who do not. Rather, it might occur between those practicing the authority and those who are subject to it.
Symbolic Interactionism: Symbolic interactionism is a sociological approach closely related to social psychology in American sociology. According to symbolic interactionism, society is the product of individuals’ symbolic interactions in social life. George Herbert Mead (1863-1931) is considered to be the founder of this approach. Just like Weber, symbolic interactionism also emphasizes the importance of social action, social interaction and interpretation processes in sociology. However, Weber’s sociology is a macro oriented approach that also deals with social formations such as bureaucracy, religion, state, class and status groups that emerge on the basis of social action in the wider historical process. On the other hand, symbolic interactionism is a micro-oriented approach that deals with everyday life. Symbolic interactionists claim that social order is based on the meanings we attribute to everything in our world (objects, events, actions etc.). In other words, society consists of meanings attributed by individuals to the world they live in rather than structures independent from individuals. At this point, symbols and images are critically important since they represent things and the meanings we attribute to things. At this point, for symbolic interactionism, meanings are not inherent in objects. The meanings / symbols that represent things emerge during the interactions in daily life among the members of a society. Meanings are not fixed and constant since they emerge during interaction process and they steadily change throughout social negotiation and interpretation processes. In this process, social order or social world is reconstructed every day. According to Mead, self enables individuals to see themselves from the eyes of others during role-taking process. In other words, through the self, we can look at ourselves as if we are looking at an object from the outside. According to Mead, self is the “generalized others” in the sense of internalizing the habits of the community in which one lives. Symbolic interactionists have often been criticized for focusing on small-scale, face-to-face interactions and not referring to their relationship to historical and social context. There are many significant approaches that are influenced by symbolic interactionism and share many common features with this approach. Among these approaches are Erving Goffman’s dramaturgy theory, which simulates social life as a theatre, Alfred Schutz’s sociological phenomenology approach examining the reality of everyday life, and the ethnomethodology approach dealing with the empirical examination of the reality created during daily interaction. The ethnomethodology, which is generally considered to be the application of phenomenological ideas to research, and developed by Harold Garfinkel, is primarily concerned with the methods used by community members in building their social worlds.