Three Traditions

This assessment it built on some basic ideas, primarily that a certain set a fundamental questions have persisted in the field, with more than one sociological tradition answering those fundamental questions differently.

First is the question, what is the basic unit of society that sociologists study? Just as biologists study cells and economists study markets, what do sociologists study at the most basic level? You might be tempted to say “people”, which is true, but so do psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and political scientists. What aspect of people do sociologists study? You might say “society” –after all isn’t that what ‘sociologist’ is named after? True again, but this takes us to the primary question, which is:

What is the fundamental unit that society is made of?

On this question, three main traditions in sociology answer differently. The three main sociological traditions see society as made up primarily of:





Shanghai skyline
Society is like an organism built with integrated systems. Consider how complex traffic patterns almost resemble arteries in a body.

One stream sees society as a type of organism, with integrated systems building it up. Just as a human body has a respiratory system, skeletal system, muscular system, and so forth; societies similarly have familial systems, economic systems, political systems, and so on.


Society is like a theater full of symbols. Consider what all these signs, flags, and ads mean within a given culture.

Another stream sees society as a type of theater, with sets of symbols that give meaning to actors. Just as when watching a play, there are character types, roles, scripts, costumes, and props –the society we live in has it’s own version of these things that shape human behavior.


Favela do Paraisópolis
Society is a battlefield with groups in struggle. Consider these luxury condos next to a slum and the tensions that likely exist.

The third stream sees society as a type of battlefield, with groups in ongoing struggle for social and economic advantages. These struggles fall along several lines, such as tensions between groups based on class, gender, race, religion, sexuality, nation, political parties, and more.

How do you see society, is it more like an organism, a theater, or a battlefield?