Symbolic interaction is a central element of this theory, and highlights the importance of spoken and written language, expression by tone and body posture, and visual images, among other things.
Another of the central elements of interactionist theory is the process by which one constructs reality, a concept developed by Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann in 1967. This element of the theory includes the way in which human beings mentally create backgrounds or environments within which it becomes easier to understand others. For example, for many of us it is difficult to understand the abuse of children. However, when we consider the past abuse the abuser may have suffered, we become more able to understand (not condone) the abusive behavior. The social construction in this instance is the understanding that individuals may learn abusive behaviors from their own caregivers, never learning proper care-giving techniques.
For the professional social worker, interactionist theory provides a basis for examining the communications between and among individuals, families, and groups. By attempting to understand the patterns of communication in play, the social worker may be able to assist individuals, families, and groups to improve their communications, thereby possibly improving the quality of the relationships under examination.
Human interactions are fraught with possibilities for prejudice and discrimination. When we ask an African-American classmate to comment on the stability of the African- American family, we are putting that person in the position of attempting to speak for an entire racial and ethnic group. Buried in such a question is the covert assumption that all African-Americans know everything about every other African –American – hardly a fair or accurate assumption. “But,” you might ask, “who could better speak to the issue?”
The subtle difference is that the African-American classmate might better be asked to comment on his/her experiences as a member of an African-American family. This communicates the desire to be informed about the experience, but does not make the same incorrect assumptions.
This theory is also sometimes known as the structural-functional model and suggests that society is structured with manifest functions, those that are obvious and overt, and latent functions, or those with hidden elements and unexpected and unintended results. For example, welfare reform resulted in many families becoming ineligible for welfare benefits, the manifest function. A latent function was the influx of women entering the workforce, competing for minimum wage jobs.
Functional theory also maintains that society should function as a well-organized whole, promoting stability and order. According to this theory, problems arise in the society when the balance is disrupted, as when important parts of the society become dysfunctional.
This theory also supposes that each of us has a place in society and that the harmonious function of society depends on each person or group of persons fulfilling the necessary tasks. It was developed by such scholars as Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim in the 19th century, and Thomas Morton, Talcott Parsons and Herbert Spencer in the 20th century.
The social worker may use an understanding of functional theory to assist individuals, group members, and family members to better understand how they fit – or don’t fit – into their social environment. With understanding may come resolve to better adapt or adjust to the society in which one finds him/herself.
Based in large part on the socioeconomic theories of Karl Marx, conflict theory suggests that in society, there are the “haves” and the “have-nots” and that those with power, the “haves,” are intent on keeping what they have, while the “have-nots” are intent on attempting to attain it, creating conflict.
When examining any element of society, especially those that reflect conflict in any form, conflict theorists are prone to asking, “Who benefits?” The answer to this question, according to these theorists, will spotlight those for whom the conflict is not only beneficial, but also essential. For example, Piven and Cloward (1971), in their groundbreaking work, Regulating the Poor, suggested that public welfare is a means of maintaining the status of the poor. These authors also suggested that historical examination of public welfare benefits reveals that such benefits are maintained at a level guaranteed to make recipients fearful of losing them, but never enough to fully provide for all needs.
The social worker may assist the individual or member of a family or a group in understanding the conflicts inherent in some human interactions. Understanding such conflicts may enable the person to better function in his/her social environment. The social worker may also find him/herself in the role of advocate, assisting individuals or groups in their attempts to achieve fair treatment at work, in school, or in the pursuit of public welfare benefits.