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Functionalist, Conflict, and Interpretive Theories Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2019


The formation of societies started centuries ago and has continued significantly. There are changes that have taken place in the society including structural changes and those pertaining to relationships. This paper discusses three theories of social transformation including functionalist, conflict, and interpretive models. The functionalist theory of societal change was coined in 1975 by Parsons.

The conflict theory was also coined by Marx. Finally, the interpretive approach was developed by Blumer in 1967 (Blumer, 1969). This paper seeks to apply the theories in the explanation of some of the questions regarding societal change. It is notable that people normally observe changes taking place in their households and in the society at large sometimes without the ability to elucidate what triggers such transformations.

However, it is also important to appreciate how societies change, the issues that facilitate the changes, whether the changes can be traced along certain patterns, and whether the change is taking place at the society level or at the individual level.

Social Change Theories

There are four social change theories including “functionalism, conflict, interpretive, and multiple” (Banks & Banks, 2004).

However, the present discussion will focus on functionalism, conflict, and interpretive. It is important to recognize that these perspectives help describe the foundations and forms of social change (Banks & Banks, 2004). Furthermore, much as the theories are helpful in enabling people comprehend social change; they exhibit some weaknesses that this paper will elucidate briefly.


Functionalism is sometimes used to connote the theory of order and stability. It also connotes the theory of equilibrium. It is notable that the stability notion refers to a distinguishing factor that defines structure (Banks & Banks, 2004). It is also a concept that defines the notable activities required and reflected upon as a necessity for the existence of order. Functionalism has three subsets that completely give it appropriate meaning.

First, the Parson’s Evolution Theory, which remains the most relevant type of transformation. In this theory, system preservation is the main area of concern because the change is needed to return the system to its original state of equilibrium (Banks & Banks, 2004).

The sub system unit is also highly differentiated. The differentiation of the units occurs in a form of a functional specialty and interdependence is observed by Parsons as containing a high level of commonness.

It is notable that the separation requires fresh ways to incorporate, coordinate, and regulate the system. Parsons referred to this arrangement as adaptive improvement (Parsons, 1975). The resulting structural change has crucial features such as values and goals. Parsons thought that this kind of structural transformation represents the least well known type of change.

According to Parsons (1975), there are notable evolutionary universals forming part of the change from pre-modern to contemporary society. Parsons classified these universals as social class, rigid administrative organization, and national legitimization of available structures and markets.

The other universals included the financial markets, common social standards, and democratic groups and organizations. It is notable that Parsons finalized the theory by describing the different aspects of modernism (Parsons, 1975). However, Parsons did not elucidate what modernism means.

Secondly, there is also Neo – Functionalism approach that has certain differences. In this case, Parsons saw the structure as a new or less steady arrangement or as a slightly weaker structure that required support to preserve the stability.

The neo –functionalist approach examined the society as a tension management tactic (Banks & Banks, 2004). It is notable that according to the theory the emergence of strains and tensions necessitate organizations to develop compensatory, adaptive, and offsetting arrangements to counter the pressures.

Furthermore, the changes that occur at this level are normally reduced in their characteristic and essentially restricted to the interior aspects of an organization (Banks & Banks, 2004).

It is notable that the organizational features can only get transformed whenever strains are severe and protracted in such a way that other smaller processes of offsetting and adjusting are also stretched so that they cannot compensate. This is a situation that causes transformation in the whole organization.

Thirdly, there is the mass society philosophy, which emerged as a functionalist evaluation of modernism. The overview of the mass society theory connotes the influence of industrialization on independence, the deterioration of religious principles, and the significance of propaganda (Parsons, 1975).

This theory provides understanding of the societal changes in terms of erosion of tradition, the expansion of depersonalization, and privacy, and dwindling of the useful interdependency (Banks & Banks, 2004). The role of technology in escalating the erosion of tradition is also explained by the theory.

Furthermore, the theory points out that advertising and product promotion influences societal changes particularly the undesirable transformations including the erosion of crucial traditional and cultural aspects of the community (Banks & Banks, 2004). The emergence of technology and expansion of product promotion activities has escalated the depersonalization of the society.

The theory also recognizes that the role of electronic media in altering the whole social fabric through transformation of the social roles (Banks & Banks, 2004). The presence of technology and media access has transformed the societal landscape.

Conflict Theories

The theory posits that the presence of tension in the society emerge as result of the limited resources that do not satisfy everyone.

Therefore, the presence of these strains in the society cannot be avoided. The limited resource availability and accessibility creates inequalities in the society. It is notable that inequalities frequently lead to conflicts among people in the society (Tucker, 2002). The theory is also categorized into subsets a discussed below.


It is notable that Marxism is a sub theory of the conflict model. Marx coined the conflict theory by seeking to show that the differences in the social classes in a society potentially caused conflict.

The notion that supported Marx’s opinion was associated with the thoughts that economic systems were important in determining societies (Jones, Bradbury & Le, 2011). Marx also indicated that the institutional authority in such a society where economics defined many things had to capitalistic.

In this theory, some of the individuals ruling in such societies do so because they have the means of manufacturing. Marx defined these individuals as the bourgeoisie (Jun, 2006). Conversely, some individuals had to toil in order to provide labor for the production activities and Marx referred to them as proletariat.

In this scenario, the class an individual belonged to was defined by the closeness to the means of production. Marx suggested that the imbalances would create a more organized Proletariat thus making to rebel against the bourgeoisie (Jones, Bradbury & Le, 2011).

Neo – Marxism

This theory deviates from the original Marxism in diverse ways. The Neo – Marxists argued that the original Marxism was not robust in helping people comprehend the structural aspects of conflict.

Their arguments also differed suggesting that some conflicts also happened outside the struggle for the control of the means of production (Jones, Bradbury & Le, 2011). They suggested that the additional sources of conflicts included politics, creed, indigenous, and ideological differences.

Neo – Marxists also differed with Marxism in terms of cultural foundations. This strategy wanted people to understand the nature of social struggles within varying cultures. They supported their argument by indicating that systems are able to reproduce through the fabrication of culture (Jun, 2006). Social change can take place in a society where there is large scale dissatisfaction that forces people to take part in rooting for the changes.

The new group also believed that social changes occasioned by revolution were capable of generating diverse feedback. They believed that such transformation had the potential of causing stability, downfall of the ruling regime, or a partial or full systems and structural change (Lie & Brym, 2006).

The Neo – Marxists suggested that ending such conflicts occurred temporarily since restructuring the systems leads to the creation of a foundation to provide essential services. The Neo – Marxists also argued that conflicts were crucial for attaining change and that destruction of older order signal the arrival of new ones. Conversely, conflicts also had the potential of destroying societies (Lie & Brym, 2006).

According to Dahrendorf (1968), the society normally enjoys stability while sometimes people may engage in conflict thus leading to certain social alterations. Social control is normally required in a society that experience conflict. Authority and power are also needed to manage the process of social control.

On the other hand, Lipset (1975), argued for an amalgamation of functionalism and conflict perspectives. Lipset suggested that there were several similarities between the two perspectives. Lipset also suggested an evolutionary model of change for consideration by the functionalist groups.

Interpretive Theories

The theories are founded on the work conducted by Weber (Tucker, 2002) and focuses on both behavior and events together with their inferred and deduced meaning within particular cultures. The basis for interpretive theory is associated with the way people delineate their social circumstances and the consequent impacts of the connotations on activities and collaboration.

It is notable that human societies are normally a continuous process. Human society is not a unit or organization (Tucker, 2002). The process entails interaction among diverse people who have an interest in a particular issue. Therefore, as people engage in the process of negotiating agreements, arrangements, and societal definition of culture then the community representational concept of authenticity emerges.

It is notable that functionalism and conflict theories begin their analysis of change process through identifying activities to be conducted. On the other hand, interpretivists normally start the change process by first transforming themselves (Tucker, 2002).

Furthermore, interpretivists consider societal structures essentially as products of transformation and are considered provisional. In this case, the idea of social change takes a different look because people think it entails unending conception, intervention, and re-creation of social instruction (Tucker, 2002).

The comprehension of social change requires individuals to develop awareness with certain definitions and implications. The people involved in the societal issues must be able to conceive it in their minds that a society is existent (Tucker, 2002). This is because the existence of a society depends on the actual frame of mind that the people involved have created. This leads to a negotiated agreement on the existence of a society.

It is notable that many definitions are applicable in giving meaning to the social reality in very intricate societies (Tucker, 2002). Furthermore, changes that take place external to the social setting do not have to lead to change within. The transformation normally occurs when people are involved in redefining their comprehension of circumstances and take it upon themselves to work on the reviewed meaning.

Symbolic Interactionism

The theory of symbolic interactionism has three essential foundations. Firstly, that the connotation that things present to individuals are fundamental in their own accuracy. Secondly, that connotations frequently emerge from the way people continue to interact (Lie & Brym, 2006).

Thirdly, that an interpretive procedure is applied by people handing their daily interaction outcomes to give the connotations the things they encounter (Jones, Bradbury & Le, 2011). This theory posits that the self is socially made and the fabrication process is enhanced through the language interactions with the self as well as their acquaintances.

Criticisms of the Functionalist, Conflict, and Interpretive Theories

It is notable that people have criticized these theories in different ways. In the functionalist theory, ideas concern the slow evolutionary transformation, which is observable in the adaptive improvement notion and the compensatory shifts in the Neo – Functionalist model. Therefore, critics argue that the theory lack the strength to deal with the rigors of rapid transformation including the rise of fresh principles (Lie & Brym, 2006).

Furthermore, the theory is concerned with transformation, which is being pushed by external forces (Lie & Brym, 2006). It is notable that the theory considers transformation as a good thing for the society and contends that modernization represent compassionate trends.

It is from this perspective that societal advancement is sees to generate differentiation together with predicaments associated with societies becoming more intricate (Jones, Bradbury & Le, 2011).

The conflict theories attract criticisms because of failing to alter the issues that caused conflicts. It also failed to address the shifts in the cultural set up brought about by technological advancements as well as product promotion. The level of integration pitted two classes of people, those with means of production and the workers (Jun, 2006). The progression of links because of variety received no attention.

The theory insisting that conflicts were emerging from the economic nature of societies pertaining to resource sharing was not accurate. Furthermore, the conflict was only considered to involve issues regarding violence, gender, race, age while failing to address the likely additional forms of conflict (Jun, 2006).

The conflict did not discuss in a robust manner the issue of authority in the control of societies. This is because authority signifies one type of power. Yet societies have different power forms including wealth.

The Interpretive theory also viewed people as unrestricted by factors outside them thus reducing its deterministic value with regards to the surroundings. It is notable that a substantial consistency exists between the functionalist and conflict, which is not the case in the interpretive model.

The theory does not weigh on the issues whether people may engage in social reality reconstruction through their interactions (Jun, 2006). Since the theory is concerned with the function of the person, it gives little attention about the structural foundations of redefinition


In summary, the functionalist, conflict, and interpretive theories view the society in diverse ways including structures versus processes. The interpretive theory has addressed the issue where people perceive social change as a reality. However, the theory fails to indicate the task people undertake in controlling societal growth.

The theories have also addressed the issue of people playing a role in improving the societal structures and social control of the society by the top leaders. However, the theories are silent about what the future holds particularly because the transformation process continue to alter structures.

The level to which social class become a significant way of determining and interacting with power as well as the role in organizing resources has been clear.


Banks, C. A. M. G., & Banks, J. A. (2004). Handbook of research on multicultural education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Dahrendorf, R. (1968). Essays in the theory of society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Jones, P., Bradbury, L., & Le, B. S. (2011). Introducing social theory. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Jun, J. S. (2006). The social construction of public administration: Interpretive and critical perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Lie, J., & Brym, R. J. (2006). Sociology: Your compass for a new world. New York, N.Y: Wadsworth.

Lipset, S. M. (1975). Social structure and social change. In P. M. Blau (Ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Parsons, T. (1975). Social structure and the symbolic media of interchange. In P. M. Blau (Ed.), Approaches to the Study of Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Tucker, K. H., Jr. (2002). Classical social theory. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, Inc.

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