Inequality Through the Prism of Functionalism and Conflict Theory
This work is to examine and compare two sociological theories – functionalism, a theory started by Émile Durkheim, and the conflict theory of Karl Marx that can explain the topic of inequality in society. Modern inequality is the focus of the work since it can show the different types of inequality such as material, gender, racial, and so on, that can be found in almost every country in the world. The focus of this investigation is on material inequality as functionalism and conflict theories are centered on it. The question of which theory is more applicable in the case of inequality examination is answered in this work as well while considering the advantages and disadvantages of each theory.
Keywords: functionalism, conflict theory, sociology, stratification, inequality
1. The theory of functionalism claims that
A. Society as the social construct or organism functions in the way when every single person plays a certain role in its functioning.
B. There is an optimistic picture of society because of a belief in every person is unique and important.
2. Conflict theory claims
A. There is an ongoing struggle between two classes: wealthy capitalists and poor workers.
B. A person cannot pursue fair life conditions unless belonging to the higher classes.
The question of social inequality is highly discussed in the scientific community. Thus, gender, material, and racial inequality is the main focus of attention for scholars these days, which enables sociology to attempt at solving crucial social issues, affecting the overall historical process. Indeed, the sociological approach focuses mainly on two theories that explain why people live with a certain stratification of their social groups. Specifically, functionalism and conflict theories are supported by scientists. The proper definition of inequality is a state within a certain society where some people are dominant over others because of their privileges, such as power, wealth, and so on. Inequality occurs when a person is ranked and put into a certain hierarchical structure while aware of their frames, capabilities, and taboos (Tischler, 2011). The examples of inequality can be found in daily life easily since stratified society gives a person a certain role and one should act according to their social status every single minute. Considering this fact, numerous sociologists have tried to solve the issue by applying the two main theories mentioned below. While estimating the effect of each theory on explaining social inequality, this discussion should prove that conflict theory works better with inequality issues.
The Functionalist Approach to the Analysis of Inequality
The functionalist theory was started by Émile Durkheim, the father of sociology as a discipline. He and all other functionalists claimed that society could be viewed metaphorically - as a body, in which all organs and all parts should work accordingly, in harmony. Consequently, people should work for the common good regardless of the jobs they take. Society is a complex of shared beliefs and rituals, including jobs. Thus, stratification gives a certain order to society while helping it to function properly. Therefore, functionalism theory represents inequality as a simple function for any type of society. The proofs of functionalists are quite obvious - society needs some people from lower classes to do the ‘dirty’ jobs with low wages for social development with not much loss. Social inequality is inevitable and practical as a necessity. The most favorable social situation for functionalists is if the most talented people take the hardest jobs. There would be no motivation for these people if all the people were paid equally. Only those who work hard and efficiently at responsible positions are supposed to be paid more.
The functionalist approach has certain issues. First, determining the importance or function of any job would be useless as every job is equally necessary to the overall social functioning. However, there should be no situation where “if a person earns more, his or her job is to be considered more important” (Laluddin, 2016). For instance, a football player does not commit to society more than a babysitter does. Therefore, their income and function in society are not directly connected. Secondly, functionalism claims the rules of society are fair since some people should be superior to others. Many theories disapprove that there are any natural differences when a child is born. Therefore, only the social system imposes inferior or superior roles onto the members of society.
Conflict Theory and the Analysis of Inequality
The opposite sociological perspective to functionalism is conflict theory. This perspective originated from the theories of Karl Marx who described class conflict as a basic rule for social existence. He viewed this struggle as an economic one and based on the scarcity of resources. The upper classes are supposed to fight with workers to avoid rebellions and to maintain their hegemony, wealth, and power. The former also control social institutions and impose their views on minor classes through education, religion, politics, and so on. Opposing functionalist theory, the supporters of conflict theory say that one is predestinated to succeed if they are included in the higher classes and they do not depend on their talent and ability to perform a certain type of job (Laluddin, 2016). Many people in unskilled jobs are instead forced to do ‘dirty’ jobs since this is the rule of social inequality, so they cannot pursue a good job without a good education. The latter is impossible without being able to afford for someone from the ‘lower’ classes.
Conflict theory is fully based on economic rules. The endless class struggle has been proven by Karl Marx and many sociologists after him, especially regarding the issues of race, gender, and nationality since they are the dominant features, based on which a person is characterized, classified, and discriminated against. Conflict theorists argue that wages are dependent on the elites dominating over simple workers rather than on people’s talents. When one is born a white upper-class man, he can earn more money (Laluddin, 2016). While comparing the two theories, scientists emphasize that they still have much in common. They tend to assume that virtually entire society operates within a certain arrangement.
The problem in society, as conflict theory claims, is that poor people are not aware of how the structure functions, so they cannot rebel against injustice. Their struggle is unconscious and it makes no use, except for letting history go as it goes. As Tischler (2011) claims, in rare cases, when groups believe themselves to be the victims of unjust and unequal laws, they are likely to demand social, economic, political, and cultural reforms. If they are not aware of someone’s superiority, they would not protest anything unfair. Another reason might be that the image of a crowd is stronger in the minds of poor people than the understanding of stratified society. In the book of Elias Canetti “Crowds and Power” (1978), crowds are characterized by equality (Tischler, 2011). Tischler (2011) claims that “...social distinctions lose their importance within crowds. Indeed, Canetti believes that people join crowds specifically to achieve the condition of equality with one another, a condition that carries with it a charged and exciting atmosphere...” (p. 421). The disadvantages of conflict theory include the fact that it negates the existence of cooperation in society. Assuming that there is no understanding between classes, this theory becomes applicable only to analysis and not to problem-solving.
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There is strong evidence that from the two theories, conflict one seems to be much more credible in defining inequality. This theory claims that those who are inferior to others are not given a fair chance to exist and survive in the world. They are disadvantaged from the very start as they are included in a certain social structure. Therefore, they cannot be in control of their own lives and they must take responsibility for every single action. Indeed, the recent decades show that conflict theory is far more applicable by sociologists in theorizing about social inequality due to the overall focus on the inequalities of class, race, and gender and their radical critique as well as the one directed at unfair exploitive relations. This fact only confirms that by accepting conflict theory, people try to fight various forms of discrimination these days.
The advantages of conflict theory can be observed in a concrete example. In a capitalist society, there is no way that a son of a millionaire will work as a server and a daughter of a factory worker will graduate from Stanford University. People are predestinated to a certain role in society. It is not possible to measure their competencies, but it is obvious why they have such positions in society. Schools, religion, and politics educate people and train them for different positions in life. Another powerful example is the analysis of the presence of a capitalist system in developing countries. In such countries, people work hard to earn some money and their capabilities and talents do not matter as social circumstances make them obey the wealthy people. These examples show that conflict theory is more applicable to the issue of inequality
When comparing two theoretical approaches, the theory of conflict appears to be much more efficient and relevant nowadays. Despite being quite pessimistic, this approach describes modern capitalist society and the rules of its functioning that show the predestination of a person’s role in society depending on one’s background. Moreover, conflict theory declares one’s inability to change their position in society. This fact can be proven by various examples of capitalist society critique. While examining scientific literature to reveal the benefits of conflict theory, one can conclude that the circumstances of modern times are different from those of the past. While examining the technological change in educational requirements that are substantiated within the basic context of the conflict theory of stratification, it is easier to see how this theory uses knowledge about stratification. This fact only reaffirms the actualities of conflict theory regarding the present technological era and capitalist society.
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