Theories about how Society Influences Behavior

Sociological theories are descriptions of how society functions or models of how a society could function. Two sociological theories used to explain how the structure of society influences behaviour are Conflict Theory and Functionalism.


The original conflict theorist was Karl Marx. He wrote extensively on the subject and collaborated with others, notably Frederick Engels, to produce major works on the current and preferred structures of society.

Marx believed that any system of government is a result of society’s class structure. The ruling class in any society is made up of those who own property, and thus the means of production, which is the way a society looks after its material needs.

The underclass is a permanent feature in society – Marx called it the proletariat. The underclass consists of those who don’t own property or a means of production – the labourers and those people who are unable to produce large quantities of goods. The proletariat is constantly exploited by the ruling class (bourgeoisie/bureaucrats) to produce more and heighten the social standing of the boss. Thus, society is in a constant state of conflict as the underclass try to better their lot.

As the economy booms, the underclass grows accordingly. Marx believed you couldn’t have one without the other. However, he also said that as the haves and the have nots are in constant conflict, the underclass must rise up and overthrow the bureaucrats. It could be difficult for both systems to operate.

Marx believed that people’s values are formed by the structure of the society they live in. If you live in a society with an economic base you will value work and money and what that brings.


Functionalism has been described by Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955), Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) and Talcott Parsons (1902-79) amongst others. The theory has at its base several key parts:

The interdependence of all parts of society is required for society to operate as a whole.

There is always balance and equilibrium – a bit like the cause and effect proposal in physics and psychology.

There is a consensus of belief and behaviour. There are social norms and upholding the social norms is a function of society. Within this type of societal model, anyone who upsets the norms has to be removed to recreate balance – that is, criminals are taken away to prison – removed from mainstream society.

A change in one part affects all other parts thus there is a ripple in a pond effect and an evolution of society into a new form.

All parts of society are valid, useful and meet a need. This theory is not about individuals, it is about group function – therefore an individual’s needs are not validated – only the overall function of society is important. Society is thus a singular being – something that can be manipulated and changed as a whole.

Any event is inevitable. All events fulfill a function and meet a need, so poverty and inequality are just valid parts of society.

The functionalist approach would be extremely convenient for politicians and others, who like to make sweeping statements and generalisations and treat society as a single entity. For example, when there is a major catastrophe, a politician could be heard to say, “All Australians are appalled by this”. For lots of people, society is unifaceted, whole, complete and it changes as a whole – there is little room for the individual. Either everyone does it or it is not acceptable. Behaviour has to be acceptable or punished.


Both functionalism and conflict theories talk about interdependence of parts. Functionalism says all parts are interrelated and need each other to function – conflict theory says both parts of society are like two faces of one coin. Balanced.

In original functionalism, change in society is seen as an irritation/distraction – whilst conflict theorists see change as inevitable and necessary. In Parson’s view of functionalism, change and the disturbance it causes brings about a new adjusted society – balance is restored.

Functionalism seems very bland and middle-class – the ‘everything’s fine, don’t rock the boat’ type model. However, Australian society exists, for the most part, in a form of general consensus. Individuals are reasonably consistent in behaviour and preferences and children are continuing to be brought up with firm ideas of social norms. Perhaps functionalism is more a description of what exists rather than an idea of what is possible.

Conflict theory, however, seems to be slightly more utopian based. “Wouldn’t it be great if the underclass rose and defeated the ruling class. The people who do the producing could then own the factories and farm land and everyone would get an equal share” – that type of thing. Marx and Engels liked to hypothesise about ownership of banks and the freedom of the individual. Their writings seem more hypothetical than practical. However, my opinion could be due to my lack of real-time experience of this model of society. Perhaps this model is one that only works on paper. Perhaps human beings are too greedy and dominant of nature to fully participate in this type of society, no matter how much they dream about it.

Both models are valuable and have a lot to say about the nature of humans’ behaviour. Theories like these are constantly being expounded and they also move in and out of fashion. Is the tide turning back to Marxist or Socialist views as the disenchantment with economic materialism grows? Will functionalism fall out of favour as the importance of individuality grows?

The fact that people choose to continue working on sociological theories is fascinating too. Why do we need an explanation? Does there have to be a theme to society?


Barnard, A. & Burgess, T., (1996), Sociology Explained, Cambridge University Press, UK

Burgmann, Verity, (1993), Power And Protest – Movements For Change In Australian Society, Allen and Unwin, Australia

Evans, Richard, (1981), People In Politics, Thomas Nelson, Australia

Lawson, T. & Heaton, T., (1999), Crime And Deviance, MacMillan Press, London, UK

McGregor, Craig, (1997), Class In Australia, Penguin Books, Australia

Marx, K & Engels, F., (1848), Manifesto Of The Communist Party, Internet,, Australian National University, Australia

Unknown, (2004), Structural Functionalists & Conflict Theorists, Internet,

Unknown, (1999), Functionalism And Parsons – Sociology 250, Internet,, University of Regina, Canada