Glossary of Terms:
Feminism, though not a unified theory, is among the most influential of current theoretical perspectives. Focusing their analyses on gender inequalities and on the institution of patriarchy, feminists have sought to understand society from the standpoint of women. Feminists have criticized all three of the traditionally dominant theoretical perspectives--functionalism, symbolic interactionism, and conflict theory--as biased toward male points of view. However, the feminist movement has also had its limitations. Most feminists have been white middle-class women, and feminist literature from the early days of the movement (1965-85) often neglected the concerns of working-class women and women of color. In recent years, however, some feminists have begun to analyze the ways that race, class, and gender inequalities intersect. For instance, Patricia Hill Collins in her book, Black Feminist Thought (1990), argues that the common experiences of African American women have given them a unique perspective on social theory. Feminists come in a variety of theoretical stripes. Early feminists divided themselves up into liberal, radical, or socialist camps, depending on their political points of view. Today, many feminist sociologists continue to draw heavily on the conflict theory tradition, while many others have been influenced by symbolic interactionism. A few even call themselves functionalists or rational choice theorists (see below and see England 1993).
Another perspective gaining popularity in recent years is known as Rational Choice Theory. Sociologists in this tradition have drawn heavily on the work of economists and political scientists in their analyses of the ways that economic incentives and other material considerations affect the choices people make. Some of the earliest sociological work of this type was known as Exchange Theory, exemplified in the works of George Homans and Peter Blau. More recently, James S. Coleman, with his monumental book, Foundations of Social Theory (1990), emerged as the leading sociologist in the field. Despite the name "rational choice," much of the sociological work in this tradition has focused on probing the limits of rationality and on devising mathematical models of the conditions needed for maintaining trust and solidarity within a social group.
Yet another approach to sociological theory which has been gaining in popularity is Phenomenology. The approach is based on the ideas of German philosopher Edmund Husserl, who insisted that the phenomena we encounter in sensory perceptions are the ultimate source of all knowledge His perspective was brought to the United States by sociologist Alfred Schutz and then was developed further by Harold Garfinkel, whose work on Ethnomethodology was described in the section on Symbolic Interactionism above. Another important development in phenomenological thinking can be found in the works of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, whose landmark book, The Social Construction of Reality (1966), has been widely influential, especially among contemporary feminists. Prominent theorist Dorothy Smith draws heavily on Social Construction Theory, and also the ideas of Garfinkel and others, in her presentation of Feminist Standpoint Theory, arguing that sociological theory as constructed by men gives a distorted picture of women's experiences, and that any theory which ignores the perspectives of women (and of other excluded groups) is necessarily incomplete.
POST-STRUCTURALISM AND POSTMODERNSIM
Finally, Post-Structuralism and Postmodernism, perspectives developed on the French intellectual scene, have had considerable influence on American sociologists in recent years (as well as on scholars in many other fields, especially literary studies). Derived from (but largely rejecting) both the Marxist tradition and the works of anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss--who developed a "structuralist" theory of culture--these theoretical schools seek to account for the apparent disintegration of modern culture over the past several decades. Among the tradition's major figures, such as Jacques Derrida and Jean Baudrillard, perhaps the best known is Michel Foucault, a historian and philosopher. Tracing the historical changes in societal attitudes toward punishment, mental illness, and sexuality, among other topics, he argued that knowledge and power have become inextricably entwined. Foucault stressed the disciplinary nature of power, and argued that (social) scientific discourse as one such discipline may itself need to be questioned. Sociologists in this tradition seek not only to study the world differently, but to make the production of sociological knowledge, and thus our own situatedness within structures of knowledge and power, part of the study. American sociologists influenced by this tradition sometimes call their work Discourse Analysis or Cultural Studies.
Not mentioned in this quick review of the current sociological theories are some major theorists with their own influential perspectives. Jürgen Habermas, a leading German sociologist, Anthony Giddens, a leading British sociologist, and American sociologist Randall Collins are all noted for having constructed theories which synthesize ideas drawn from several theoretical traditions. For introductory students, the point is not to memorize all these names, but to be aware of the multiple points of view and the often contentious theoretical differences among contemporary sociologists. Sociology is in a theoretical ferment, as sociologists seek new ways to understand the formidable complexity of the social world.
Page created by Kent McClelland, Last Modified 2/24/2000