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Inequality in Society: Conflict and Functionalism Theories Essay

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Updated: Nov 27th, 2019

Introduction

There is no question that inequality is prevalent in all sorts of human society. No matter the level of human development, inequality seems to be existent. It is even present in simple cultures where there is minimal variation in wealth.

Some individuals in such cultures may have privilege because of their prowess in certain skills such as hunting, medicine or access to ancestral power. In modern societies, inequality manifests in social and economic classes, power, income, access to health facilities, academic, gender and other forms. Social economical classes are the most common in most societies and have attracted attention from many sociologists. Many societies try to address the class issue but with little success.

Even socialist and communist governments that try to eliminate social economic classes fail to achieve equality. In Canada today, inequality is evident in various forms. Social economic classes, income variation, health, academic, ethnic, gender and other forms of inequality are obvious in the country. In the essay, I will join other sociologists in trying to address the persistent question “why inequality exist?”

Overview

Inequality, also referred to as social stratification, has been a core subject to sociologists for many years (Macionis and Linda 2010). Sociologists try to understand, explain and prescribe solutions to the issue of inequality. Despite of major sociologists such as Max Weber, Karl Marx and others trying to prescribe solution to inequality, the issue continues to persist. Marx was critical of capitalism and accused it of existence of social classes.

On the other hand, Weber agreed with Marx that economic interests led to social classes but viewed social stratification in terms of class, prestige and power. There are mainly two schools of thought to the issue of inequality: conflict and functional theories. To understand why inequality exists, it is helpful to review the divergent positions presented by the two theories and try to come up with a reconciling position.

Conflict and Functionalism Theories

Conflict and functionalism theories are the main theories trying to provide answers to why inequality exists in the society. The two theories take fundamentally different approaches to explain the issue. Functionalism theory views inequality as unavoidable and important to the society while conflict theory considers inequality to result from conflict and coercion in the social system (Andersen and Taylor 2006).

To functionalism sociologists, society is a system of parts with each part having useful contribution to the system. According to the theory, society can be compared to human body where various parts such as lungs, hands, heart, and eyes contribute to functionality of the body as a whole.

The way the social system maintains itself is of more interest to functionalist sociologists than specific interactions between the different parts of the system. To functionalists, inequality is unavoidable and leads to some good to the society. The theory assumes that any pattern in social system has its good purposes. Considering occupations, functionalists justify inequality in rewards by asserting that the rewards reflect the importance of the different occupations to the system.

For instance, functionalists would explain the high rewards and respect given to some occupations such as doctors, scientists and judges as compared to other occupations such farming and garbage collections, by saying that the former occupations are more important to the society as a whole. In addition, they would claim that such occupations require much talent, effort and education. Therefore, the high reward is meant to encourage individuals to take the pain to occupy such important positions.

Conflict theory provides the other extreme explanation to inequality in society. Unlike functionalism theory, conflict theory compares society to war. Conflict theory sociologists consider the society to be held together by conflict and coercion among members of the society.

According to Ridney (2001), conflict theory likens society to battlefield where members compete for control of limited resources and power. Unlike functionalists that stratify the society to functional parts that cooperate for the good of the society, conflict theory views society as consisting of competing parts (Rigney 2001).

The theorists, led by Karl Marx, consider social classes to result from blocked opportunities rather than talent and effort. While functionalists justify unequal rewards for different occupations as a way to utilize important talents and abilities, conflict theorists consider stratification in the society to limit utilization of talents from lower class. To conflict theorists, stratification in the society does not have positive contribution to the society.

Conflict and functionality theories on inequality shed light into causes of social stratification but do not completely explain the situation. The society can be viewed both as functional parts and as competing parts. Doctors, lawyers, scientists, carpenters, farmers, garbage collectors, cooks and other occupations are important to the society.

As functionalists argue, some occupations such as medicine require more effort and many years of preparation. It is therefore reasonable to reward doctors, judges and other such occupations highly to motivate individuals to occupy them. It is also natural to give respect and honor to individuals with unique and important skills. For instance, if a country has a single neurosurgeon, the surgeon would be valued and respected without asking for it.

However, it should be appreciated that other occupations that are considered less important, such as farming, are vital to sustainability of a society. Functionalism therefore makes sense when the society is considered as a system without deep consideration of individual members of the system. For instance, the theory cannot provide a convincing explanation to why some individual strive for wealth and power, since amassing wealth and power is not always good for the society.

Conflict theory provides a more practical explanation to inequality. Competition is a central thing in the society. Individuals compete for scarce resource, recognition, power and prestige (Macionis 2001). Considering scenario of a school, students compete for attention from their teacher, to be included in their school’s base-ball team, to top their class academically, to win scholarship for high education and many other things.

At individual lever, a student chooses an occupation mostly not by its contribution to the society but by reward and prestige that would come with it. In business, an individual is mostly motivated by the power and prestige that go along with wealth rather than importance of their service to the society. Conflict theory can explain competition in school, business, politics, and other occupation and social stratification that result. Bottom-line to stratified society, in fact, is the human propensity to gain dominion over others.

Challenge to social equality

Attaining social equality is a major objective for human right bodies across the globe. However, that objective is not easy to achieve considering various manifestation of inequality in the world. In Canada, despite of various steps taken to ensure equality in various forms, inequality persists.

Social equality implies all people in a society having equal status. At minimum social equality implies equal rights to all individual in a society. The state however is not easy to achieve mostly because of historic inequality that already exist. For instance, although Canadian constitution guarantees equal rights to quality health and education, there is evident inequality in health and education.

Individuals in upper social economic classes have resources to access high standard of health services and afford quality education for themselves and for their children. Limited interaction between individuals from different social class makes it hard to achieve equality.

Individuals in upper social class tend to relate more with individuals in the same social class while individuals in other social classes do the same. Therefore, there is little chance for an individual to cross over from on social class to another (Horowitz 1997). In addition, individuals in privileged social class have resources, power and influence to maintain the status quo of inequality.

Division of labor has high contribution to inequality. Different occupations attract varying rewards and therefore contribute to inequality. Occupations such as medicine, engineering and law tend to attract high rewards as compared to other occupations as gardening. Even in occupations requiring relatively equal years of training, rewards seem to vary (Loseke 1999).

For example, despite of going through almost equal years of training, a teacher is likely to earn less as compared to an engineer. In addition, division of labor leads to some occupations being considered superior to others therefore promoting social stratification.

Individuals from different social economic classes may understand inequality differently. A wealthy individual can consider social inequality proportional to creativity and effort that an individual exerts in his endeavors. The rich may consider their fortune to result from their hard work and consider poverty to result from laziness and lack of initiative. On the other hand, a poor person can view social stratification to result from social injustice.

Conclusion

In conclusion, there is no obvious answer to why inequality exists in society. Inequality continues to exist even in countries with high level of human development as Canada. Functionalism and conflict theories can however help understand social stratification. To functionalists, social stratification is not necessarily evil but serves an important function in the society. On the other hand, conflict theory explains inequality to result from competition in society.

Without regard to how inequality comes about, it is obvious that high level of inequality is dehumanizing and can lead to social evils such as crime. It is therefore important to minimize inequality as much as possible. To promote social equality, an enabling environment that exposes all individuals to equal opportunities is necessary.

References

Andersen, Margaret and Howard Taylor. 2006. Sociology: the essentials. New York: Cengage Learning.

Horowitz, Ruth.1997. “Barriers and Bridges to Class Mobility and Formation: Ethnographies of Stratification”. Sociological Methods and Research 25 (1):495-538.

Loseke, Donileen. 1999. Thinking about Social Problems: An Introduction to Constructionist Perspectives. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Macionis, John and Linda Gerber. 2010. Sociology, 7th Canadian edition. Toronto: Pearson Education Canada.

Macionis, John. 2001. Sociology, 8th edition. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Rigney, Daniel. 2001. The Metaphorical Society: An Invitation to Social Theory. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

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