Sociologists have long argued about whether or not we are controlled by the structure of the society in which we live, in other words, are we or are we not ‘puppets of society’. Social structure theorists such as Functionalists and conflict theorists like Marxists, believe that we are ‘puppets’ and that our behavior is controlled by the structure of the society in which we live. Both theories suggest that people are controlled by society but this argument is opposed by social action theorists such as Symbolic Interactionists who believe that society is created by the individuals themselves. To show far it can be argued that human beings are ‘puppets of society’ this paper will look at functionalism and social control through the family, Marxism and social control within the education system and then look at the opposing theory of Symbolic Interactionism. It is also intended to discuss the recent structuration theory of Giddens who argues that these theories are no longer valid in determining if we are ‘puppets’ because both structure and action are necessary for society to exist and thus in some instances in our lives we are ‘puppets’ and others we are not.
According to Jones, Functionalists like Durkheim consider ‘human behavior as learned behavior'(Jones, 2004, p.6), in other words everything we know and do has to be taught to us given that when we are born we have no knowledge of anything. Functionalist perspectives, which emphasizes the way in which the parts of a society are structured to maintain its stability (Schaefer, 2009, p 14). They argue that all our behavior is learned through the socialization process. Functionalists consider that primary socialization is the basis to learning the norms, values and roles of society and we undertake this process within the family unit. It is, according to Functionalist theory, where we are taught the traditions and cultures of the society we are born into. It is through learning these norms and values of our own culture that we learn our own role within society and are able to contribute to that society and help maintain social stability. It could be argued that through these ‘unwritten rules of society’, which we learn within the family, we are forced to behave in a way that is beneficial for the whole of society, thus we are ‘puppets of society’. Functionalists see society as a consensus state where almost everyone, because of the norms and values passed onto them through their primary socialization, agrees to abide by them. Most people generally appear to respect and follow by these rules and it could be, according to Functionalists that it is due to the fact that from birth we are: confronted by a social world already in existence. Joining this world involves learning “how things are done” in it (Jones, 2004, p. 6). Jones appears to suggest that we can only belong to society if we learn what is already known. It does not allow for the fact that people may confront and challenge the learning process of socialization, it assumes that we will just accept what we are told, without question. So it could be said that we are ‘puppets of society’ because we comply with the rules of the society that have been created before we were born and therefore we are abiding by societies rules as well as those of our own family learned through socialization.
Functionalists also view the family as crucial to maintaining social stability and assisting with social control via the adult as: The family provided …… the adult with the physical and emotional support needed for their roles in society (Wilson, 1985, p. 21). If a member of the family goes against the ‘rules’ then, generally, punishment is kept within family and it could be argued that the family is ‘acting as an agent of social control’ (Moore, 2001, p164) so, by ensuring that the family members all know what is acceptable behavior in public society and the private sphere and that bad behavior is disciplined as necessary we can see how the idea of ‘puppets of society’ within the family fits in with a Functionalist point of view. However, a criticism of a Functionalist view on how we behave within society is that it looks at the family from a macro approach, which focuses on the large scale structures of society. It fails to take into consideration the individual family unit. Functionalists base their argument on the nuclear family; yet in today’s society there are a number of different types of family, who may all have different values due to their individual circumstances. We therefore cannot assume that every family in today’s modern society agrees with and teaches their children the same norms and values as that of their neighbors and thus because there is less consensus regarding the rules of society the idea that we are ‘puppets of society’ no longer appears quite so clear.
In his article, What is the role of education? Czereniawski states that according to Marxist theorist Althusser, education: socially controls people in two waysâ€¦..convince pupils that the capitalist system is a fair and just one…it prepares people for their later ‘exploitation’ in the workplace (Czereniawski, 2004). It could be argued then that schools manipulate their pupils to have the right attitudes and obedience that is needed to maintain a capitalist society. Via the streaming system children soon learn that they are not equal to their peers; they realize that some are better than others and it is exactly this kind of influence at school that, Marxists believe, will ensure that people accept, without question, superior authority in the workplace. Although this view does not necessarily suggest that the education system is a way for the ruling class to threaten and intimidate the pupils to be subservient to its rules, it is, perhaps, evident that Marxists consider that human beings are controlled through the class system and especially through socialization within the education system.
However, from a completely different perspective Symbolic Interactionists believe that the each individual is responsible for helping to create society. They consider how society works from a micro, or individual, approach and they look at the many daily actions by its members and believe that it is the individual input into these actions that creates society and therefore they do not believe that we are ‘puppets of society’. The Symbolic Interactionists argue that: the most important influence on an individual’s behavior is the behavior of other individuals toward him (Jones, 2004, p. 17). They believe that human beings are more than capable of realizing what
the actions around them mean and they are quite capable of responding to them in a way that is beneficial to themselves as individuals. Symbolic Interactionists look at society from the individual perspective and analyses the effect each individual action has on another. Jones states that ‘nearly all human action is voluntary’ (Jones, 2004, p. 18). This gives the view that everything we do is not learnt through socialization but that all actions are the choice each individual makes in response to another action towards them. When a child is born into a family it is, usually, loved and cherished and the more the child gets used to the smiles and cuddles from it’s parents it will, even at such a young age, understand the meaning of those loving symbols and the understanding of the world around it will increase as the child encounters more and more symbols of society, equally if a child is abused the interpretation of the abusive symbols
may be duplicated by them because they do not understand anything else. Within schools teachers interpret children in the way they behave in class but the children’s behavior in turn is an interpretation of the way the teacher is towards them and the subject they are being taught and their interest and ability in it. Symbolic Interactionists, therefore, do not believe that we are acting the way we do because of social control or ‘puppets of society’ but that all human action is individual and therefore it is that which creates society.
The sociologist Anthony Giddens rejects the whole idea that society is formed merely through either individual agency or the structure of society. He developed a new theory concerning human action and social control which he calls structuration theory. Giddens argues that: that social life is more than random individual acts, but is not merely determined by social forces. â€¦.. it’s not merely a mass of ‘micro’-level activity – but on the other hand, you can’t study it by only looking for ‘macro’-level explanations (Giddens, 2004). Giddens is suggesting that both human agency and social structure work together to form society. This implies that even though there may be a controlled or consensual way of behaving within the structures of
society, these things can change because human beings will challenge and replace or interpret things differently over time.
It is clear that the main argument between structural and action perspectives is that structural perspective believes that society controls people’s behavior because of either a general consensus to the rules of society or of the masses being controlled by the ruling classes through the class system but a social action perspective sees that people’s interpretations of the world and human action around them influences behavior and in turn creates society. Thus structural theory argues that human beings are ‘puppets’, however social action theorists believe they are not ‘puppets’. It is easy to see why Functionalists and Marxists suggest that we are ‘puppets of society’ but equally so it is easy to understand the Symbolic Interactionist viewpoint. Giddens structuration theory may give us the balance needed to understand why we behave as we do. It is clear that at different times in a person’s live their actions may not necessarily be down to their individual free will but they do have a choice to continue with the action and therefore both action and structure are needed, so it could be argued, therefore, that even though at times we are free agents and have an individual choice in our actions we are also ‘puppets of society’ because of the many of the structures of society.
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