admin 16 October, 2018 0

Sociological theories

Now a days social workers are expected to write their reports in a coherent way, justifying it using theory and research. Sociology offers some important social theories, which provide explanations and critiques of human behavior, social actions and interactions as well as the institutions and the structures of society. The fact that social work is concerned with social change and problem solving is precisely why sociology is important to social work.

In this essay I have selected two sociological theories – to examine and understand Ms. B’s situation. I will be applying these theories to my understanding of my position as a social worker. The essay will also consider how these theories or perspectives helped my thinking about Ms. B’s situation and how these theories or perspectives were unhelpful in my understanding of Ms. B’s situation. In this essay I will also considers what other theory might have been applied, and as an integral part of the essay, considering anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice.

Functionalism views society made up from numerous interconnected parts which together form a system. The basic part of this breakdown is the society, and its variety of parts can be understood in terms of their collective relationship. In the initial stages of this theory Functionalism drew comparisons between society and the human body. Mainly this comparison existed since they viewed the society operating in theory in a similar way of the human body.

Therefore, for one to understand the function of an organ in the human atonomy, for example the heart, it is essential to understand its relationship with the other organs in the human body and especially, its contribution towards the maintaining of the organism. Thus, functionalism argues that, an analysis and examination of the functioning of society is therefore important as it illustrates its relationship with the other parts of society, and most importantly, its contribution to the maintenance of society.

According to Emile Durkheim (1895), the founder of Functionalism, crime and deviance are normal and necessary. Given that they are found in all societies, functionalists argue that it is a form of social change, as through deviance the society would learn about the accepted behaviour. However, too much crime can bring on a state of ‘anomie‘, which is a state of normlessness in society. This arises when cultural goals and structural means of achieving those goals is unbalanced. The anomie state would result in conflicting the agreement of the functioning of society. Durkheim described the state of anomie as ‘a feeling of aimlessness or despair…traditional moral controls and standards are largely broken down…this leaves many individuals in society feeling lack of meaning in their daily lives’.Giddens(2006, p 14)

Durkheim (1895) suggested that the theory of Merton gives an idea of the individuals who have high expectations and are unable to fulfill them through structural means then ‘strain occurs’. Robert Merton’s (1938) ‘Strain theory’ modified the Durkheim’s ‘Anomie’ to refer to the strain put on individuals when accepted norms conflict with reality.

While the symbolic interactionalist theory are more concerned with agencies of social control; how they label certain behavior as deviant and the effects of these labels. Interactionists dispute the functionalist assumption that there is an agreement throughout society as to what behavior is criminal or deviant. They aimed to find out why certain behavior was labeled as criminal or deviant in some contexts but not in others.

Howard Becker was one of the initiators of the labelling theory, he stated that “Social groups create deviance by making the rules whose infractions constitute deviance, and by applying these rules to particular people and labelling them as outsiders”. REF

The labelling theory looks at how the social response to crime is made and how certain behaviour comes to be considered deviant or criminal. Labelling theory also suggests that the very imposition of social judgments on certain individuals, helps turn those individuals even more into paths of criminality that have been already identified. The labelling becomes a self-fulfillment prophecy as the stigma, or label, only pushes the offender further in the direction of criminality. In simple terms, give a dog a bad name he will become a bad dog, Llewellyn et al (2001, p 90).

The theoretical formulations of Colley (1992) and Mead (1934) have served as a source when trying to understand the self-fulfilling prophecy. They both argue that social interaction is the basis upon which an individual formulates his or her self-concept. Cooley and Mead models give examples of the individual’s conception which arises through interaction with other members of the society that constitute his/her significant social circle. Specifically, the social looking glass theory posits that one’s self-conception is determined by the way in which it is reflected or mirrored through the eyes of the other people involved, Allen (2001, p 58).

As a SW, I believe it is my responsibility to try to really understand the SU’s situation, from their perspective. Thinking about Ms. B’s situation, in terms of the two theories is very useful to me as a SW as sociological theories are helpful in providing insights into the perspectives of the SU. Therefore these two theories are helpful in helping to identify how Ms B’s situation may have come to being constructed and, so can be understood.

For example, functionalism could help me understand Ms. B’s situation from the perspective of Ms. B’s culture, race, gender and mental health status: Ms. B could potentially, be multiply discriminated against along any of these.

Analyzing and examining the SU’s problems in a functionalist view can, therefore, give structure to my understanding of the problem as a social worker. Especially in terms of how SU’s might be discriminated or oppressed against, Dominelli (2002).

For instance, in Ms B. case, a functionalist analysis to her situation would consider the behavior of Ms B. as deviant, because it is preventing her from participating in society. She is seen as unable to fulfill her role as a mother and her social interactions are affected. Supposing that she has permit to work, it would be not possible for her to find or maintain a job due to her deviant behavior.

Functionalists would consider this as a “faulty socialization”. Furthermore functionalism would view this situation as costing to society, as a result not contributing to the maintenance of the society functioning. This fault in socialization has to be fixed in order for Ms B. to fully participate in society and contribute in its maintenance; as a result the label put on her would be a form of social control. However as a consequence to the label, Ms B. would feel that her culture, race and gender are not taken into account and that she is being discriminated against, she may feel oppressed and at the same time socially stigmatized.

The Robert Merton’s (1938) ‘Strain theory’ would be very helpful in better understanding Ms B. behavior. Durkheim (1895) suggested that the theory of Merton gives an idea of the individuals who have high expectations and are unable to fulfill them through structural means then ‘strain occurs’. Robert Merton’s (1938) ‘Strain theory’ modified the Durkheim’s ‘Anomie’ to refer to the strain put on individuals when accepted norms conflict with reality.REF Linking this to the case of Ms B, her asspiration to enter paid employment does not coincide with her immigration status. Therefore this disparity between desires and fulfillment will be felt in deviant motivation. Evenmore this could be the point where Mrs B feels the strain and as a result deviates from the societies norms.

Due to the variety of problems that Ms B. is currently facing, Agnew (1992) in Levinson (2002) would give another functionalist view to better understand her reaction to the label. He argues how the strain theory can lead to other deviant adoptions. Agnew criticizes the earlier strain theory, he argued that strain theory should ‘generalize the concept to include all negative relations with others, rather than just the negative relations that are the result of striving from uneatable, but culturally mandated goals’. Levinson (2002, p 79).

” It is not so much the unique quality no any single event but the accumulation of several stressful events within a relatively short time span that is consequential”) Agnew (1992,) as cited in Levinson (2002, p 62-63).

Ms B. immigration status may feel very oppressing to her. By not taking the medication prescribed as well as reacting in a deviant way, is the only way in which Ms B. can show her anger, which is accumulated by many issues during a short time. Agnew placed great importance to the feeling of ‘anger’ as he argued that ‘anger is the key emotion because it increases the individual’s level of felt injury, creates a desire for retaliation/revenge, energizes the individual for action, and lowers inhibitions, in part because individuals believe that others will feel their aggression is justified’ as cited in Levinson (2002, p 60).

While functionalism helped me to reflect on the possible ways a person can be discriminated against; even more it placed a great emphasis on my understanding of the importance of being culturally competent, especially in the profession of social work. In the other hand the labelling theory not only lead me to a deeper understanding of Ms B situations but also, helped me to understand the potential start of Ms B’s deviance behavior. For instance, once the label of ‘mental ill’ was given to Ms B, she may well have chosen to simply organize her life around that label and adopt the new identity that was endorsed on her. In this way the self fulfilling prophecy comes into play. The act of labelling Ms B as someone with scrixophenia would had an adverse effect on her future behaviour.

Deviance can be defined as a failure to conform to culturally expected norms of behaviour, which reflect the dominant values and rules of groups or society in a given period, Llewellyn et al (2002, p 90).

As the labelling theory argues that the person is categorized and classified as deviant ; the stereotyped person has their identity reinforced, which in turn promotes the deviant behaviour that it is intended to prevent, Llewellyn et al (2002, p 90).

When reading and applying the functionalist theory, it is obvious that this theory assumes that the middle class values are accepted throughout society. Therefore whoever deviates from this values it is regarded as having a faulty socialization. Even more as we see on the Anomie theory and the adapted strain theory, one can understand that there is an assumption that everyone aspires the same level of success.

The labelling theory has been very helpful in developing policies, such as ‘diversion’ from the courts and the criminal justice systems. However the labelling theory has its own limitations, it can be argued that it is too deterministic as it assumes that the deviant will accept the label, some people fight against the label and prove it wrong. As well as it does not consider the process that lead to the deviant behavior.

There are other sociological theories that could also have helped to explain other aspects of Ms. B’s life, such as her living in poverty, which can lead Ms. B to be discriminated against and oppressed by mainstream society. Marxism conflict theory and anti-racist theory/black perspectives, would have been helpful in achieving a bigger picture of Ms B situation. For example Marxist would argue that Ms B is being oppressed against due to her social class, poverty and her ethnicity. There are past and current studies to show that “a high number of people from black ethnicities, are being diagnosed with schizophrenia, with some studies reporting between two to eight times higher rates of diagnosis, compared to the White population” (accessed 16/12/09).

Even more the past detention of Ms B under the mental health act would coincide with the fact that “people from black ethnicities are more likely to be held under the Mental Health Act, and to receive medication rather than be offered therapies such as psychotherapy” (accessed 16/12/09).

Applying the black feminist theories could have explored more about Ms B current situation, Black feminist would argue that Ms B may be facing oppression from her partner as well as they would argue about the mental label being ascribed to her as a result of her gender but most importantly her ethnicity. Also “it is important to note that only the difference between Black Caribbean women and White women can be considered as statistically significant” (accessed: 28/12/09)

In summary, it is obvious that actively considering and using sociological theories can allow meaningful analyses of the SUs’ problems. As a result the SW practice becomes applied more, and of more use to the SUs’. Theories would provide informed solutions to SU’s problems in a more anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory manner (Dominelli, 2002).

In conclusion one of the barriers to social work participation would be when service users are viewed in a stereotypical way, by the social worker. Every individual has a unique perspective of the world, and as such should be treated as an individual regardless of illness, colour or belief system. It is important that those in need of help and guidance be given access to it, and that the best possible outcome for the service user, is secured. This should be done with the help and support of all those involved, including health care professionals, social workers and the service users themselves, in order to enable individuals to become more independent and re-integrated back into society.


Jones, P., (2003). ‘Introducing Social Theory’. Polity, London.

Gidens, A., (2006). ‘Sociology’ , 5th Edition, Polity Levinson, D., (2002). ‘Encyclopedia of crime and punishment’, Volume 1, SAGE Cunningham, J., Cunningham, S., (2008) Sociology and Social Work. Learning Matters.

Dominelli, L. (2002). Anti-oppressive social work theory and practice. Palgrave MacMillan.

Fernando, S. (2002). Mental Health Race and Culture. Palgrave.

Rogers, A. and Pilgrim, D. (2003). Mental Health and Inequality. Palgrave.

Macionis, J. J., Plummer, K., (2008). Sociology: A Global Introduction. Pearson.

Haralambos, M., Holborn, M., (2008). Sociology: themes and perspectives. Collins.

Llewellyn, A., Agu, L., Mercer, D., (2008). Sociology for Social Workers. Polity.

Allen, L. R., (2001). The concept of self: a study of black identity and self-esteem.
Wayne State University Press, (Accesed:28/12/09) (Accessed: 16/12/09)


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