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Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives on Family

2347 words (9 pages) Essay in Sociology

04/10/17 Sociology Reference this

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The functionalist and the conflict perspectives are two major approaches of sociological analysis. These perspectives can apply on different aspects to help us understand the society, for instance, deviance and social control, culture and socialization and so forth. In this paper, I will first focus on the particular features of these perspectives, then mainly focus on family and social stratification and comment on the insight or criticism of functionalist and conflict perspectives in understanding these areas in the society.

Functionalist-the conception of society

Firstly, let focus on the particular features of Functionalism, this approach is inspired by Emile Durkheim idea of society and his sociology is often referred as structural functionalism. (Dillon 2011, p. 79) The Functionalism suggested that the society is compared to a biological organism that can assumed as a system or structure made up of many integrated parts, the society seen as a structure will key institutions fulfil different functions for the survive and continuation of the society, it is named as functional pre- requisites. (Liu 2014, p. 6)

Functionalist-the nature of society

Also, the functionalists assumes the nature of society is characterized by order and stability, without collective conscience or shared values and beliefs, achieving social order is impossible, they believes in value consensus, which are members of society agreeing upon shared belief about right and wrong can help the society to run smoothly and is the best for the society as a whole.(Liu 2014, p. 5) And if members of society have shared values, therefore they also have similar identities, this helps cooperation and avoids conflict. According to Liu (2014), conflict is possible, but considered as dysfunctional from temporary disturbances in the system, and order would be restored as society develops. (Liu 2014, p. 5) The chief form of social conflict that Durkheim addressed was a crime. Durkheim saw crime as “a factor in public health, an integral part of all healthy societies. (Durkheim 1938, p. 67)

Functionalist-the relationship between individuals and the society

Besides the nature of society, functionalist also had theorized about the relationship between individuals and the society. Functionalists believe that individuals are shaped by the society to perform different roles and have different norms that need to follow in accordance with their social statues that ensure the smooth running of society. Members of society have values consensus that I mentioned in the above paragraph, social order is based on this consensus and cooperation among members.

Conflict perspectives-the conception of society

The next perspective that we need to discuss is conflict perspectives, conflict perspectives are inspired by Karl Marx and mostly related to his theory. Marxism, similar with functionalists also has emphasis on the importance of the social structure. The society is made up of distinct groups that have different interest, values and belief. However C. Wright Mills, the founder of modern conflict theory, have a different view on this aspect with functionalists. In Mills’s view, social structures are created through conflict between people with differing interests and resources. Individuals and resources, in turn, are influenced by these structures and by the “unequal distribution ofpowerand resources in the society. (Knapp 1994, p. 228-246)

Conflict perspectives-the nature of society

Unlike functionalists who believe people cooperate to maintain the social order and the stability, conflict perspectives suggested that the nature of society is characterized by conflicts, because of the struggles among group of scarce resources. The existence of separate interests mean there is always having possible for conflicts. (Liu 2014, p. 8) The conflict perspective believes rich and powerful people force social order on the poor and the weak. Conflict theorists, for example, Karl Marx uses two class models to analyse the capitalist society. As the economic system is the base structure of society in Marx’s view, the capital class who owned the means of production exploited the working class who had to sell their labor by paying them less in wages than the wealth they could produce. The capitalists became richer through control the mean of the production. (Liu 2014, p. 9-10)

Conflict perspectives-the relationship between individuals and the society

We can observe that conflict perspective also have assumption of the relationship between individuals and the society. Similar with Functionalism, Conflict perspective believes individuals are shaped by the society and the positions of their social groups. However, conflict perspectives put effort to focus on the conflict side. Different social groups come into conflict and thus cannot have consensus with others. In capitalist society, the social order is known as “ruling class ideology” to support the status quo. It distorts the true nature of society and creating a mistaken belief about society which is “false class consciousness”. (Liu 2014, p. 11)

After the discussion on the particular features of Functionalism and Conflict Perspectives, then we should focus on the usefulness of the two perspectives in understanding two essential areas in society, family and social stratification. However, let have a short introduction of these perspectives’ assumption first.

The assumption of functionalism in family

Broadly speaking, the functionalism has focused on the functions of the family in society and for its members. It looks at how the family as an institution to maintain the social order and stability, and the significance of the family for its individual members.

George Peter Murdock, one of the major contributors to the field of anthropology and a functionalist in the field of Sociology has proposed that all families have four significant functions: sexual, economic, reproductive, and educational. These functions are important and fulfil needs in all societies. He proposes that the best institution to perform these functions is the family. The family is the primary point of socialization to provide children with values and norms. Family also stabilizes adult personalities. A family unit provides emotional security for each person in the relationship. (Haralambos & Holborn, 2000, p. 509)

We can observed that the insight of the functionalism is it can point out the essential features of family can provide positive role for people can become stable and maintain social order. However, Murdock’s approach was criticized as too mechanical with a classification system. Objections were also raised that his methodology was biased, because he has studied about 250 societies, from small hunting communities to industrial societies, but he used Western standards in comparative analysis of all different cultures.

Also, Structural- functionalist perspectives emphasized the positive and functional aspects of the modern family, neglecting its dysfunctional aspects, which including conflict and violence that take place in the family, for instance, over 30% to 40% homicides in Hong Kong took place within family. (Liu 2014, p.13)

The assumption of conflict perspectives in family

Meanwhile, conflict perspectives, especially the Marxist have a different understanding in the family aspects. As we know that, in Marxist perspectives, the economy is the base structure that support several of the superstructure; Family is one of the superstructure was providing support to the economic base. Thus, the family institution helps fuel the capitalist economy with an abundance of labour.

For instance, family can be an institution of nurturing children to be the next generation of workers, hence capitalist class can recruit them cheaply. Women also as a reserve army of labour can be cheap additional source of labour that helps to keep wages down. At the cultural level, the institution of family helps socializing individuals into accepting existing economic and political arrangements. It functions to implant the ideology of the capitalist class into the consciousness of the populace. (Liu 2014, p.150)

Although the Marxist perspective points to the intriguing connection between the family and economy, and provide an alternative view, it has also received much criticism. One of the biggest criticisms is Marxist too simplified to explain the negative sides of the family, focus on the exploitation and inequality within family ignores the supports one can get from the family.

Also, the various features of the family are regarded as no more the features and requirements of the economic base; family is only the institution solely develops to support the capitalist society. It is kind of reductionist explanatory framework that is too simplistic. (Liu 2014, p. 17)

The assumption of functionalism in social stratification

Functionalists consider that social stratification has important consequences for the operation of society. Davis and Moore argue that this system is both functional and inevitable. Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore (1945) gave an argument for social stratification as a solution to a problem by any societies. They argue that the most difficult jobs in any society have the highest incomes in order to motivate individuals to fill the roles needed by the division of labour. Thus inequality serves social stability (Davis and Wilbert, 1970, p. 242-249) In other words, social stratification can have a ‘placing and motivating’ function for individuals in the social structure.(Liu 2014, p. 9)

The social stratification system allocates each individual to jobs and rewards them according to the functional importance of the job. This thesis implies that societies become more productive as they approach meritocracy. However, too much focus on meritocracy can erode the social structure of kinship and community. In addition, it might encourage some categories of individuals to look down upon others.

Also, Tumin (1953) has critiqued that the differential rewards are more possibly a result of differences in power rather than of functional importance. The rationalization of existing system of stratification and inequality by an appeal to the inevitability of stratification and inequality is fallacious. (Liu 2014, p. 11)

The assumption of conflict perspectives in social stratification

Rather than functionalists believe the social stratification had the positive role in the society, the Marxists believe the stratification in term of class is more divisive than integrative. Marxists use Two-class model, owners and non-owners of the means of production to determine the class stratification.

The class conflict between the capitalist class and the working class would soon fall into either the bipolar class positions of capitalist or worker. The extreme polarization of the two classes would lead working class to realize the conflict and their class interest; they would eventually organize themselves into a potent social-political force to protect its class interest and fight back, at the end leading to a revolution that bring a new economic conditions, the end of the capitalist system and later to communism in which all classes and states are abolished.(Liu 2014, p. 14)

Although the Marxism has it insight of the social stratification, there is still some criticism of it. For instance, it is a dispute over the bi-polar class structure, the class structure of society is difficult to depict; two-class model is too simplistic. In fact, in modern society, there is a new class rising, which is middle class that have professionals who manage but not own the means of production cannot easily categorize into the two-class model.

Moreover, Marx’s prophecy of class struggle and revolution took place in the pre-industrial societies, but we can observe that Russia, China and Vietnam both are not industrial societies or a great capitalist society, but happen the revelation of the communist revolution. The revolution of worker is fewer in the rapidly industrializing western rather Asia. It is not like Marx’s theory suggested.

Also, Marx predicted the inevitability of the worker revolution in capitalist societies. However there are several of factors can account for the absence of the revolution predicted by Marx, for instance, more extensive worker organisation, the demands of workers have been institutionalised through the creation of trade union and more extensive legal protection, capitalists provide better conditions of work through law enforcement and security systems contain workers’ frustrations. Through the welfare provision and improve the conditions for workers can made compromises between two classes. (Liu 2014, p.16)


To conclude, we can observe that both two perspectives had their insight and criticisms. Because of the societies are rapidly changing in nowadays, hence it is hardly suitable to apply in the every different societies.

Work Cited

  1. Davis, Kingsley and Wilbert E. Moore. “Some Principles of Stratification.”American Sociological Review,10 (2), 242-9. 1970.
  1. Dillon, Michele.Introduction to Sociological Theory: Theorists, Concepts, and Their Applicability to the Twenty-first Century (2nd Edition). Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.
  1. Durkheim, E.The Rules of Sociological Method.Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1938.
  1. Liu, Garland. Lecture notes: Topic 4 (Sociological perspectives). The Open University of Hong Kong, 2014. Print.
  1. Liu, Garland. Lecture notes: Topic 5 (Family, social change and womens role). The Open University of Hong Kong, 2014. Print.
  1. Liu, Garland. Lecture notes: Topic 6 (Social stratification). The Open University of Hong Kong, 2014. Print.
  1. Knapp, P.One World – Many Worlds: Contemporary Sociological Theory(2nd Ed.). Harpercollins College Div, 1994.
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