Functional and Conflict Theory a Point of View

The establishment of sociology saw the dominance of structural theories, perspectives that assume man is the product of society and its institutions. Within this structural paradigm two competing forces emerged; those who claim consensus forms the basis of society, and those who assert that it is conflict. The most famous structural-consensus theory is functionalism and, perhaps, the most infamous structural-conflict theory is Marxism.

Both functionalism and Marxism view society as a social system. However functionalists believe that the system is run for the benefit of its members where Marxists assert that it is run for the sole benefit of the ruling class. In order to appreciate just how much functional or conflict thought boils down to a point of view it is useful to examine how they generally assess three of society’s most prominent institutions; religion, education and the family.

Emile Durkheim, the founding father of functionalism, believed that the key function of religion is to strengthen social solidarity, that attending communal worship strengthens the bonds between society’s members. He asserted that the rules of religion reflected the values of society, going as far as to claim that worship of god was in fact the disguised worship of society. Aside from this insult to the faithful, religion is therefore an essentially positive force within society.

Karl Marx famously stated that “religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world…It is the opium of the people”. Instead of increasing social solidarity, Marx believed, religion is used to control the working class, to persuade them to accept their lot in life. Far from being a positive force religion provides people the illusory hope that things will get better in the next life and prevents them from seeking a political answer in this.

Durkheim stated that education is “above all, the means by which society perpetually recreates the conditions of its very existence”. Education, for functionalists, performs two key functions. It is a place where children receive ‘secondary socialization’ the process by which people acquire the values of society. Furthermore through meritocratic assessment and examination education assigns and prepares individuals for the roles they will acquire in later life.

Alternatively education is what Louis Althusser described as the ‘ideological state apparatus’, where children are indoctrinated with the values of the ruling class. Far from being meritocratic the education system is biased in favor of the upper classes. It is no coincidence that richer kids fair better at school; examinations legitimize social inequality. Education, therefore, dooms the working class youth into a working class life and thus perpetuates the capitalism system.

Sociological research on the family has centered on the nuclear family. Talcott Parsons believed this form of family to be perfectly suited to the modern world as a compact and mobile unit. For functionalists the family performs numerous positive functions. It is where children receive ‘primary socialization’ (the first instance of adopting the values of society). It also grants physical and mental maintenance, in that it caters for the needs of food, shelter and personal affection.

Inevitably the Marxist assessment of the family is in complete contrast. Instead of meeting the needs of the individual the family caters for the needs of capitalism. Through reproduction it provides the next generation of workers to exploit. The family, in particular exploits women, who Engels termed ‘the domestic slave’. They not only essentially work for free whilst performing their domestic duties, but also act as a reserve labor force for the temporary and part-time job sectors.

Functionalism, or conflict, it really is just a point of view. The problem with these broad structural theories that attempt to explain the sum of human action is that they become a belief system. Marxism is renowned for becoming more than a sociological perspective, a political movement. Less known is that functionalism is also a political ideology, of the conservative branch. To assert that either perspective is completely correct is similar to claiming that either the Republicans or Democrats hold all the answers.

Sociology in Focus: Paul Taylor et al. (Causeway Press) 1997
Sociology: Ivor Morgan (Letts Educational) 1998