Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionism
In addition to conflict theory, two other influential schools of thought in sociology are functionalism and symbolic interactionism. Functionalists think of society as composed of many parts that work together as a whole to maintain stability. A functionalist approach to social class might analyze the roles that class structure and social stratification play in society as a whole. From a functionalist viewpoint, stratification works to ensure productivity and efficiency, and to ensure that all types of necessary work get done. Thus a functionalist argument is that social stratification is both necessary and inevitable. Functionalists point out that some jobs require more skill or training or are more important. Few people have the ability to become highly skilled and do these important jobs. Furthermore, people have to make sacrifices, in terms of time, effort, and money, to obtain the education, training, and experience to do these jobs. The functionalist view is that society attaches significant rewards in the form of prestige and income to ensure that these important jobs are filled. Doctors, for example, fulfill an important role in society. To become a doctor, a person must invest a great deal of time, effort, and money in education and training. Society rewards this by bestowing high levels of prestige to doctors, as well as high incomes. However, class inequality is only functional as long as it is sustainable. When the working classes decide that society is not functioning well for them, they might seek social change through actions such as protests and strikes. Functionalists look at how these acts contribute to balance in a society.
Symbolic interactionism strives to understand macro-level patterns (patterns found in a whole society) by examining microinteractions (interactions between individuals). An approach using symbolic interactionism tries to make connections between micro-level interactions and how they can help explain macro-level patterns. Using this lens, social class and social inequality are seen as factors in how people understand themselves and present themselves to others. For example, sociologists using symbolic interactionism note how individual social interactions, such as those between supervisors and employees, are shaped by people's understanding of social class in their society. A symbolic interactionist approach might consider how body language, greetings, personal space, use of slang, and eye contact are connected to class. Consider the social behavior of workers in a high-end restaurant. They may use more formal patterns of speech with customers and restaurant managers than with other workers. This behavior can be understood as a reflection of how the restaurant workers understand their social position as well as an indication of class divisions of the overall society.