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In this lesson, we cover three theoretical approaches used by sociologists to analyze culture: structural-functional theory, social-conflict theory, and sociobiology. We define and discuss each theory, along with examples.

Analyzing Culture

The study of culture is a vast, complex task. There are so many aspects of culture, and although many are widely accepted, not all sociologists agree on the way that culture should be studied. Let’s examine three of the most common theoretical approaches used to analyze culture: structural-functional theory, social conflict theory, and sociobiology.

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Structural-Functional Theory

The first approach we’ll discuss is structural-functional theory. This approach views society as a complex, interconnected system. Think of the human body as an example, where all of our limbs, organs and other parts all have their own individual functions but also work together to create a fully functioning system. Structural-functional theory proposes that culture functions as the structure in society that exists to meet human needs.For example, our culture gives our lives meaning and direction, giving us cues for what to do and how to live. It encourages us to work together to find resources to help us survive and to make connections with other people who provide care and comfort.

Additionally, even though all cultures are unique, structural-functional theory proposes that certain cultural universals exist, even beyond the category elements that we discuss in another lesson. For example, all cultures have behavioral norms, customs and even rituals that are unique. Yet, funeral rituals – although practiced differently – also exist universally to help the people in every culture to cope with death.

Funeral rituals vary by culture but serve a similar purpose.
The gap between the rich and poor illustrates social conflict theory.

Social Conflict Class Gap

Sociobiology

The third and final theory used to analyze culture that we’ll discuss in this lesson is sociobiology, which proposes that culture is not only socially constructed but is also affected by human biology. Sociobiologists theorize that certain cultural behaviors have persisted and even evolved over time due to biological impulses that prioritize survival and maximize reproduction. They suggest that some elements of culture, particularly values and behavioral norms, are created because of human instinct, which is based on our biology.

Like structural-functional theory, this supports the idea of cultural universals. For example, avoiding incest is not just a part of American culture – this behavioral norm is found in virtually every human society. Sociobiologists reason that this is because inbreeding limits genetic diversity, which results in inferior offspring. Biologically, we want to create the best offspring possible, and so instinctively we avoid inbreeding (and therefore, incest). The instinct is so strong that we even created a cultural rule that makes incest a taboo, reinforcing the idea that we should not do it and allowing us to punish those that do.

Lesson Summary

In this lesson, we discussed three theoretical approaches used to analyze culture. First was structural-functional theory, which views society as a complex, interconnected system and proposes that culture functions as the structure in society that exists to meet human needs. Next was social conflict theory, which proposes that cultural traits always benefit some members of a society more than others.

This theory is all about inequality and proposes that laws and norms that are created as part of a culture reflect the interests of the most powerful members of society.The third theory we discussed was sociobiology, which proposes that culture is not only socially constructed but also affected by human biology. Sociobiologists suggest that some elements of culture, particularly values and behavioral norms, are created because of human instinct, which is based on our biology.

Learning Outcomes

You’ll be able to do the following after completing this lesson:

  • Compare structural-functional theory, social conflict theory, and sociobiology
  • Provide an example of structural-functional theory that is practiced by cultures universally
  • Evaluate the way in which social conflict theory fits into American culture
  • Recognize why sociobiology theory proposes that some cultural behaviors are instinctual
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