Various sociology theories give us a possibility to understand problems of our society as well as social behavior much better. Functionalism, Symbolic interaction, and Conflict theories can be applied to the issue of using free labor during internships.
Introduced to American sociology in the 1920s, the symbolic perspective of interactionism directs scholars to consider what meaning the details and symbols of everyday life have and the way in which people interact with each other. It is widely known that people attach meanings to particular symbols and act according to the subjective interpretation of them. American society, as a rule, attaches general meanings to symbols, while individuals can also maintain their own views of what these symbols mean. For example, internships are considered to be valuable experiences for young specialists, but different individuals have different ideas about the issue and often outline the negative side of unpaid internships. Conversation can be regarded as an interaction of particular symbols between students, who are constantly interpreting internships. A lot of faulty communications have resulted from differences in the perception of this process. The symbolic interactionism emphases on negotiated meaning, symbols, social construction of society and draws our attention to the roles people play. Role-taking is a key mechanism that permits people to see perspectives to understand what an action might mean. The improvisational role that a person plays, being an intern helps him work out behavioral patterns to follow at work. In this sense, they become proactive participants in the environment (Garfinkel, 1967). It can be claimed that the symbolic interactionism applied to the problem of internships may neglect the macro level of its social interpretation and miss the overall larger positive impact of this issues on the society by focusing too much on the absence of compensation for it.
The functionalist perspective, which achieved its highest popularity among American sociologists in the 1940s – 1950s, can also be applied to the problem under consideration. American functionalists focused on discovering the functions of human behavior while European functionalists originally studied societies explaining the inner workings of social order. Attitude to using free labor is an example of organic solidarity, which is a form of special social cohesion that occurs when members of a society are dependent on each other, but have varying beliefs and values and engage in different kinds of work. It is common knowledge that organic solidarity occurs mostly in industrialized and complex societies; for instance, in big American cities such as New York in the 2000s. With common sense, manifest functions of unpaid internships are apparent, but latent functions are not obvious; they are unintentional. A functionalist sociological approach requires the consideration of the relations between the functions of the whole and the functions of all the smaller parts. The functionalist approach to the issue of unpaid internships does not motivate people to make active steps to change the situation, even when such kind of change may be of benefit to them. Believing that social regulations are the adherence to the norms and values of the society, those individuals who are very integrated can be considered “altruists” and those who are not very integrated – “egoists.” According to the functionist approach, collective actions to change the situation in the society, concerning the issue of using free labor are motivated by strain, stress, or frustration in a body of individuals that arises from a disconnection between the society’s goals and the popularly used means to achieve those goals. It determines the adaptation to society according to the cultural goals, which are the society’s perceptions about the ideal life, and to the institutionalized means, which are the legitimate means through which an individual may aspire to the cultural goals.
Though American sociologists in the 1940s – 1950s mostly ignored the conflict perspective in favor of the functionalism, the American sociologists of 1960s saw considerable interest in the conflict theory. Karl Marx’s ideas and writings on class struggles were expanded and stated that key conflicts in societies were strictly economic. The conflict perspective presents the problem in quite a different light than the symbolic interactionist and functionalist perspectives. The symbolic interactionist perspectives are focused on the positive aspects of internships, while the conflict perspective focuses on the negative and conflicted nature of the topic. Conflict sociologists challenge the status quo and encourage social changes, while functionalists defend this and avoid social changes, believing that people can cooperate to improve existing internship procedures. Conflict sociologists believe that unequal groups usually have conflicting values and agendas, regarding the topic. Conflict theorists interpret unpaid internships as gaining profits for companies rather than as beneficial activities for students. C. Wright Mills, who is deemed to be the founder of the modern conflict theory, considers that social structures are being created when there is a conflict between people that have differing interests as well as resources (Howard, 1997). The interests of employers are often opposed to those of the intern students. A human potential capacity for creativity can be suppressed when there conditions of exploitation, which are present in every society that has an unequal labor division. The State usually serves the particular interests of the employers, while claiming to represent the interests of all.
I strongly believe that conflict theory can give the most relevant explanation for using free labor during unpaid internships. The main role of the theory lies in realization of human potential and in transformation of society, rather than in maintenance o9f the power structure. While Marx’s ideas explain “the way individual behavior is conditioned by social structure”, Weber makes us understand the significance of “social action,” that is the ability of people to influence their social relationships.