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Functionalist and Conflictual Theories in Sociology Essay


When it comes to designing sociopolitical and economic policies, it is important to have a sociological understanding of the basic principles of the society’s functioning. The reason for this is apparent – such an understanding will enable one to predict the long-term effects of these policies’ implementation. As Pitt (2010) pointed out, “Sociology focuses on the patterns and the intended and unintended consequences of purposive human action… Sociology is the key to understanding the development and the practices of social institutions” (p. 187). As of today, the sociological analysis is commonly conducted within the methodological framework of either the Functionalist or Conflictual paradigm, as such that appear to be the most discursively consistent with the realities of a contemporary living in the West. The main theoretical premise of Functionalism is that there are strongly defined systemic subtleties to the functioning of just about every human society – the suggestion reflective of the “whole is larger than the sum of the parts” principle.

In its turn, this implies the dialectically predetermined essence of the social, political, and cultural tensions within the society and presupposes the appropriateness of the specifically evolutionary (as opposed to revolutionary) approach to resolving them. The proponents of the Conflict Theory, on the other hand, suggest that the above-mentioned tensions come about as a result of the institutionalized oppression of the socially/economically underprivileged society members by the rich and powerful – something that presupposes the dialectical soundness of the society’s revolutionary (abrupt) transformations, as such that are being predetermined by the objective laws of history. Nevertheless, even though the Functionalist and Conflictual outlooks on the society, in general, and the qualitative aspects of how it functions, in particular, do differ rather substantially, there is a good reason to believe that they are mutually complementary to an extent. In my paper, I will aim to substantiate the validity of this suggestion at length while comparing/contrasting what can be deemed the three most distinctive societal conventions of both theories.


As it can be inferred from the Conflict Theory’s very name, it is primarily concerned with identifying the major driving forces that induce the conflictual essence of the interrelationship between the society’s members. The theory’s main axiomatic assumption, in this respect, is that the concerned state of affairs is determined by the factor of class/cultural stratification – something that implies the thoroughly objective quintessence of conflict, as the actual instrument of keeping the society on the path of progress. Karl Marx is commonly referred to as someone who contributed to the theory’s development more than anyone else did. This simply could not be otherwise, as the Marxist conceptualization of human society presupposes that the latter never ceases to undergo a qualitative transformation – all because of the continually transforming essence of how the “surplus product” (Marxist term) is generated and distributed within it.

In its turn, the concerned process is defined by the ever increased effectiveness of “collective production” (due to the ongoing technological progress and the resulting “division of labor”), on one hand, and the fact that this is achieved at the expense of the representatives of the social elites being in the position to subject hired workers to the various forms of economic exploitation/societal oppression, on the other. As Nedelmann (1993) noted, “For Marx the contradiction between reason and reality in modem society is rooted in the contradiction between collective production and private appropriation, and between labor and capital in the modern capitalist economy” (p. 49). In its turn, this creates the objective prerequisites for the social antagonisms within the capitalist society to intensify as time goes on – something that eventually results in triggering a revolution. The inevitability of such an eventual scenario is prearranged by the fact that the most distinctive features of just about every modern society are: domination (by the elites), conflict (between the elites and those disadvantaged society members who aspire to attain a socially dominant status) and oppression (exercised by the representatives of the dominant social group).

As of today, the Conflict Theory has been effectively stripped of its Marxist overtones. Nevertheless, it continues to stress out that conflict is, in fact, the enabling tool of progress – even despite the fact that most people are naturally driven to think of it in the necessarily negative terms. The “modernized” version of the Conflict Theory is associated with Ralf Dahrendorf (1929-2009) – a British sociologist who suggested that the continuation of antagonistic tensions within the society is not always facilitated by the factor of class-stratification. According to Harris (2002), “For Dahrendorf conflict became central to social life, but not necessarily the large-scale schematic class conflict predicted by Marxists. Instead, all of us were engaged, in various ways and in various groupings, in the struggle for advantage” (p. 115). It is rather ironic that, despite its clearly Marxist roots, the “modernized” Conflict Theory serves the purpose of justifying Neoliberalism – the ideology that promotes the idea that one’s personal rights and freedoms (in the sense of how he or she goes about trying to attain a dominant status within the society) cannot be restricted, even if at the expense of undermining the society’s operational integrity from within.

The Functionalist explanation of conflict is much different. According to the theory’s advocates (such as Emil Durkheim and Georg Simmel), conflict is best discussed in terms of “dysfunction” and as such, it should be avoided, “Functionalists… specifically emphasize the importance of social order. In every society, it is important to maintain the status quo so that the society can function effectively. When this social order is not maintained, it results in a condition of conflict and disarray in the society” (“Difference between Functionalism and Conflict Theory, 2015, para. 3). Such a point of view naturally derives out of the Functionalist outlook on the society as a continually evolving organism, the qualitative characteristics of which are reflective of the essence of the relationship between its integral parts. In this respect, we need to mention the theory’s main conceptual provisions.

They are as follows: a) Society is a part of the surrounding reality. As such, it functions in accordance with basic societal laws, consistent with the laws of nature. b) Society is in the position to regulate the functioning of its systemic components. c) “Social facts” (as defined by Durkheim) studied by sociology, are thoroughly impartial, which in turn presupposes the possibility for them to be subjected to scientific inquiry. As Turner (1993) argued, regarding the Functionalist take on the “dysfunctional” nature of a conflict, “Society means durable associations between people living together… (enabled by) the existence of rules which are upheld as duties, and the fundamental relationship between the individual and the group is the reciprocal relationship between duty and interest” (p. 10). Hence, the sociology’s primary objective (as seen by Functionalists) – to be gaining analytical insights into what causes people to adhere to the communal forms of existence while willing to conform to the socially constructed code of public ethics. In its turn, this is supposed to serve the purpose of increasing the measure of the society’s resilience to conflict.

Public discourse

According to Functionalists, the more primitive a particular society happened to be; the higher is the measure of its members’ psychological similarity – something that explains the phenomenon of the primitive societies’ spatial longevity. At the same time, however, this is also the reason why such societies usually fall behind in terms of a sociocultural advancement – those who tend to perceive the surrounding reality similarly are incapable of evolving. Alternatively, the higher is the measure of the society’s complexity (technological advancement), the more likely it would be for it to remain utterly sensitive to the externally applied stimuli, which in turn results in undermining the extent of its resilience. The reason for this is apparent – along with enabling people to remain on the path of progress, industrial (complex) societies encourage them to work on refining their sense of self-identity.

As a result, this often results in prompting people to prioritize their personal interests above those of the society, as a whole. After all, the very paradigm of an industrialized/urban living implies that while remaining affiliated with it, people grow increasingly “atomized”, in the psychological sense of this word. Hence, Durkheim’s conceptualization of the Homo Duplex, “Homo Duplex… (is) the idea that embodied individuals are internally divided between their egoistic impulses and their capacity for “reaching beyond” these asocial passions” (Shilling & Mellor, 1998, p. 196). In its turn, this presupposes the necessity for the institutionalization of the “civilized living” public discourse, to which all of the society members would be able to relate, regardless of their socioeconomic status – the main precondition for the structurally complex society to continue evolving. This, of course, calls for the adoption of a particular ideology by the society. Functionalists believe that such a development would prove beneficial for all.

The proponents of the Conflict Theory do not quite agree. According to them, the governmentally endorsed public discourse serves one purpose only – it is there to strengthen the hegemonic dominance of the rich and powerful over the socially/economically disadvantaged citizens, “Conflict Theory portrays society as a class hierarchy and societal development as being shaped by class conflict and power. The power of a class is rooted in its solidarity and it is called forth in the struggle for its fair share in the pros­perity of society” (Nedelmann, 1993, p. 48). To prove the validity of such their point of view, they often refer to the role that organized religion plays within the society, as an integral part of justifying the relational status quo in it. Specifically, this role is concerned with providing the “spiritual” legitimation to the continual domination of the rich and powerful over the poor and weak.

The religion’s main goal, in this regard, is to make the exploited individuals believe that the lack of social justice in the capitalist society is thoroughly “natural”, so that these people would be less likely to consider shaking off the yoke of socioeconomic oppression. In fact, the advocates of the Conflict Theory point out to the fact that by exposing the exploited populations to the officially endorsed discourse of “behavioral propriety”, those at the society’s top seek to turn the former into their willing collaborators – the actual objective of the bourgeoisie’s hegemonic aspirations, “in the event of a revolutionary movement, the proletariat should support the bourgeoisie” (Cristea, 2013, p. 79). It is understood, of course, that this implies the counterproductive essence of the governmentally endorsed public discourses, as such that constitute a certain obstacle on the way of the society’s revolutionary transformation. The reason for this is that, contrary to the Functionalist point of view on the matter, the society’s prolonged socioeconomic stability results in more and more of the “surplus product” being accumulated in the hands of the elite members, which in turn slows down the process of the society’s infrastructural improvement and sub-sequentially makes it less competitive.

Evolution vs Revolution

As it was implied earlier, the Functionalist paradigm in sociology presupposes the appropriateness of the specifically evolutionary approach to increasing the extent of the society’s functional efficacy. The reason for this has to do with the paradigm’s close affiliation with the Systems Theory. According to it, the process of a particular system (such as human society) becoming progressively more complex results in the emergence of the qualitatively new patterns of this system’s functioning. These patterns, however, do not directly derive from what used to be the same system’s operative principles, before it has reached a new level of complexity. One of the main reasons for this is that, as a system grows ever more complex, its overall quality becomes increasingly affected by what happened to be the quality of the interactive relationship between this system’s integral elements, and less influenced by the actual quality of each of these elements.

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was the first Functionalist to discuss social issues in conjunction with the mentioned Systems Theory – all thanks to his realization that, “All social systems are defined in terms of the relations between their “internal” parts and between the system and its environment… the notion of functional contribution is essential in understanding the continuity of various parts of a system” (Turner, 1999, p. 168). Therefore, while implementing a particular policy, policy-makers must prioritize warranting the beneficence of the planned implementation’s long-term effects above everything else. What it means is that the highly systemic policy of a societal importance cannot be beneficial to the society’s overall well-being and abrupt (revolutionary) at the same time. The reason for this is that a particular revolutionary change taking place within the society is necessarily concerned with affecting only a few out of the whole spectrum of this society’s functional aspects – something that according to Functionalists presupposes the fallaciousness of the idea of “revolutionary change”, as the tool of the society’s betterment.

Conflictualists, on the other hand, insist on something entirely opposite. According to them, for the society to grow increasingly advanced, in the technological, societal, and cultural senses of this word, it must be willing to undergo revolutionary changes on a continual basis. And, it must be admitted that their line of reasoning, in this respect, is just as scientifically sound as the earlier outlined Functionalist one. While promoting the idea of revolutionary change, the proponents of the Conflict Theory refer to the foremost principle of Hegelian dialectics, concerned with the transformation of quantity into quality, “The intensification of quantification in each aspect of life… leads not to mechanistic stasis, but on the contrary to a discontinuous release of potential that is essentially qualitative and, as such, unquantifiable” (Robinson, 2003, p. 715). What this means is that, contrary to the Functionalist take on the subject matter in question, the prospect of a revolutionary change taking place within the society is highly desirable – not the least because it correlates perfectly well with the fundamental laws of nature. According to the Conflict Theory, revolution is bound to occur in the society which has “ripened” for such a turn of events – even if the overwhelming majority of its members does not recognize the signs of the “revolutionary situation” in the making. To illustrate the validity of such their suggestion, Conflictualists refer to the French Revolution of 1792 and the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917.


As it was suggested in the Introduction, there is a certain rationale to think that despite their formal incompatibility, the Functionalist and Conflictual theories are, in fact, mutually complimentary. I believe that what has been said earlier, regarding the axiomatic premises of both theories, is fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. The reason for this is that in the aftermath of having read through the analytical part of this paper, one should gain a better awareness of what account for the circumstantial determinants of taking practical advantage of the discussed theories. After all, the provided analysis helps to highlight the main weaknesses of Functionalism and Conflictualism. For example, Functionalism clearly downplays the fact that the Darwinian laws of biological evolution (which apply to people as much as they do to plants and animals) predetermine the impossibility of reaching a consensus among the society members, as to what should be deemed the universally applicable values of one’s socially integrated living. The Conflict Theory, on the other hand, fails to explain how it is possible for human societies to preserve their structural integrity – despite the uniqueness of the existential agenda, on the part of every particular individual. At the same time, however, both Functionalism and the Conflict Theory appear thoroughly observant of the empirically tested principles of the society’s functioning.

It is most likely that the proponents of both theories will continue to accuse each other of “short-sightedness” in the future. However, there is a good reason to expect that, as time goes on, Functionalism and the Conflict Theory will be deemed progressively less antagonistic, at least for as long as their practical deployment is being concerned. In this respect, a certain parallel can be drawn between these theories, on one hand, and the Theory of Relativity/Quantum Mechanics, on the other. After all, as the example of the latter indicates, it is indeed possible for two clearly dichotomic scientific theories to be considered equally useful, in the practical sense of this word. Apparently, the manifestations of the surrounding physical/social reality are much more phenomenological than most people tend to think of them. This again goes to substantiate the validity of the paper’s original thesis. Therefore, it will only be logical to conclude this paper by reinstating that it is indeed appropriate to expect the eventual unification of Functionalism and Conflictualism within the methodological framework of a single sociological theory.


Cristea, I. (2013). The evolution of the concept of hegemony in Antonio Gramsci’s works. Cogito, 5(3), 76-86.

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Harris, D. (2002). Teaching yourself social theory. London, GB: SAGE Publications.

Nedelmann, B. (1993). Sociology in Europe: In search of identity. Berlin/Boston, DE: De Gruyter.

Pitt, B. (2010). What is sociology’s contribution beyond the humanities and other social sciences? Society, 47(3), 186-192.

Robinson, B. (2003). Socialism’s other modernity: Quality, quantity and the measure of the human. Modernism/Modernity, 10(4), 705-728.

Shilling, C., & Mellor, P. (1998). Durkheim, morality and modernity: Collective effervescence homo duplex and the sources of moral action. British Journal of Sociology, 49(2), 193-209.

Turner, B. (1999). Classical sociology. London, GB: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Turner, S. (1993). Emile Durkheim: Sociologist and moralist. Florence, US: Routledge.

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