Functionalism vs. Conflict Theory

Functionalism is the original and still dominant discipline of thought in the social sciences. As a construct of two forms of scientific investigation: the scientific approach and viewing the individual as a part of a social organism or social whole, the scientific method considers society as an objectively observable and “real” entity that is suitable for methods and philosophies that guide examination and study of the physical world. The 17th century philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, believed that humans are driven by passion, which if left unrestrained would result in social chaos.

The problem, therefore, is to explain why this does not routinely occur. For functionalists, it is society, as its own entity that regulates human behavior. Emile Durkheim, the originator of this school of thought described society as a “conscious being… with it’s own special nature, distinct from that of it’s members”. The consequence of this assumption that society is a ‘social fact’ that regulates human activity is that functionalists stress how human behavior is positively determined by social structure.

Functionalism holds that everyone and everything in society, no matter how strange it may seem, serves a purpose. Crime, for example, is viewed almost universally as a nuisance. Functionalists, however, point out that crime serves several purposes. Crime creates the need for the employment of police officers, criminal investigators, prosecutors, defense attorneys, lawmakers and other related fields of work. If crime were to suddenly disappear from the planet, hundreds of thousands of jobs related to the existence of crime would no longer be necessary, and everyone in those positions would face unemployment.

It is also suggested that the existence of crime is functional in its ability to rally families and communities together around a common purpose. Durkheim concluded that crime and deviance serve three major functions for society: deviance clarifies or reaffirms societal norms, it promotes social unity, and it challenges the status quo. Deviance can bring into question the status quo, forcing society to rethink previously held norms. For example, acts perceived as criminal or deviant were critical in shaping the rights movements for African Americans, women, and homosexuals in the United States.

Without questioning the traditional way of treating disadvantaged groups, the norms of discrimination and prejudice could not be broken. Criticisms of functionalism focus on its acceptance and rationalization of social inequality and societal evils. Since functionalism holds that all aspects of society are necessary, human rights issues like poverty, hunger, slavery, and genocide must be accounted for. Critics suggest that functionalism can be used as a rationalization of such issues. The perspective is also criticized for its lack of testability, which is critical for the upholding of any social science theory.

Several questions stand against its reliability. Functionalism could be described as the most generalized and ineffective of the sociological schools. It is not logically in synch with variability between cultures and it cannot effectively explain change. Still, it has its strong points, such as its ability to explain crime and deviance. Functionalism essentially serves as the most conservative of the sociological schools of thought Functionalism’s view on the social stratification of our society is centered on their basic viewpoints.

These viewpoints lend themselves to promote the functionalist’s standpoints. These state that the function is a consequence, which adds to the stability of the system. A dysfunction is a consequence, which takes away stability from the system of social stratification. There are certain institutions, among them include the family, the political system, religion, economy, sports, the military, etc. , which aid the structure of society. These institutions, working in order, with harmony, will not only increase the stability of the social stratification, but will add to it.

The functionalist will then point out that these institutions, while independent of each other, have a shared system of values which guides them and helps hold the society together. To find out what function each institution performs in the whole social stratification system, one must ask themselves the question of what are the consequences of each institutions contributions to the social stratification of the society as a whole. This will help to understand their viewpoints. Conflict theory is centered on the tension, or struggle that goes on in everyday life.

There are many different parts, which make up the conflict theorist’s view on the sociological perspective. The first main part is that society promotes general differences in wealth, power, and prestige. Wealth, power, and prestige are qualities that all people desire. Some segments of society benefit from a social arrangement at the expense of less privileged groups. Whichever groups have the power is a central concern of this theory. These Marxist statements are the central arguments of all conflict theorist’s statements of truth.

The second part of the conflict theorists assumptions is that the different parts of the social system as a whole are intertwined, not because of a shared value system, however, but because of the fact that one group is inherently dominant over the other. This dominance happens because one group, the dominant group, controls the resources. The third part of the assumptions of the conflict theorist is that society does not necessarily have needs, but individuals and groups do. Because the dominant group has the access to wealth, power and prestige, they have the ability to have their needs defined as “system needs. The fourth part of the conflict theorist’s assumptions is the basic question of “Who benefits? ” from the social arrangements of the day. On any issue in society, there are people who benefit and people who don’t benefit. This conflict always gives the advantage to the stronger party. The fifth part of the conflict theorists system of assumptions is the conflict itself, which lends tension, hostility, competitions, disagreement over goals, and values, as well as violence. Not always are these issues negative, however.

They can act as an adhesive to help join groups together in the pursuit of a positive goal. The sixth and final part of the conflict theorist’s assumptions is that to understand society we have to realize who holds the power and also the ability to use it. The conflict theorist will state that the main characters will cause some very defined conflicts. These would be the following; those who have authority vs. those who don’t, young vs. old, producers of goods vs. consumers of goods, and racial and ethnic groups. These conflicts are based on the organization of similar interests and concerns.

The conflict theorists viewpoints on social stratification can be found out by asking the simple question of “Who benefits? ” from the social arrangements of the day. One must look at those who hold the power of the day to find out who benefits. Today’s power elite includes primarily people of a WASP background (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants). This power elite controls the wealth, and imposes their will on those who don’t control the wealth. This class system of social stratification hearkens back to the days of Andrew Carnegie, and John D.

Rockefeller where the owners of big business controlled the lives of their workers. Whoever the power elite want to be in power will be in power. The wages of the workers will be set at what the leaders of big business want them to be set at, no exceptions. This structure of social stratification will lead to conflicts that have been pre-determined to happen. These conflicts include all social institutions. The conflicts include those of labor unions vs. owners, and racial conflicts that occur between minorities and whites. There is no way to control these. They are destined to happen.

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