Functionalism and conflict theory represent the two macrosociological approaches, meaning they examine how social institutions shape society.
The functionalist perspective holds that social institutions provide stability and order to a society (Andersen & Taylor, 2017), while the conflict theory perspective looks at those same social institutions and sees conflict, exercise of power, inequality, and injustice (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
Conflict Theory vs Functionalism
Functionalism originated with Durkheim and Merton, key theorists who examined how social institutions had a role in shaping the social order and causing stability within a society (Parsons, 2010).
Durkheim examined how different societies established stability and order in different ways. He looked at two types of ‘solidarity’ in societies:
- Mechanical solidarity: This occurs when a social group shares similar beliefs and values. It is evident in traditional societies, where there is general homogeneity in views and beliefs. In such societies, solidarity is based on a sense of kinship (Durkheim, 2014).
- Organic solidarity: This occurs when a large, modern, multicultural society achieves stability and order because we acknowledge we are interdependent. We acknowledge we need others – who might be specialists in their specific fields – to help keep everything operating smoothly (Calhoun, Gerteis, Moody, Pfaff, & Virk, 2012). As a result, we feel a sense of obligation to one another and establish a social contract (Alexander & Smith, 2010).
Based on the above, Durkheim examined social institutions like families, schools, police forces, and so on, and saw that they each have a key role in establishing stability of the society as a whole. By being interdependent, each social institution cooperates with the other for the greater good (Andersen & Taylor, 2017).
Merton contributed to functionalism by exploring the functions of social institutions. To Merton, social institutions have two functions:
- Manifest functions: Manifest functions are the intended functions or purposes of an institution (Merton, 2010). The function of schooling, for example, is to educate the masses so they can have jobs and contribute to the economy (Sorokin, 2013).
- Latent functions: Latent functions are the unintended, often negative, consequences of an institution (Merton, 2010). The latent function of schooling in the West, for example, might be that it socializes children into embracing a capitalist worldview and teaches them to become workers rather than innovators (Bowles & Gintis, 2011).
Conflict Theory Overview
Conflict theorists tend to disagree with the functionalist idea that social institutions are fundamentally productive forces (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
A conflict theorist would look at functionalism and critique its endorsement of the status quo (Domhoff, 2014). Functionalism tends to focus on how consensus leads to social stability. But to critical theorists, it misses an important point: the status quo causes immense inequalities and injustices (Collins, 2010)!
Where functionalists see consensus, critical theorists see the exercise of power to entrench social inequalities and hierarchies (Domhoff, 2014).
So, critical theorists instead look at the current state of social institutions and examine how they go about marginalizing and oppressing (Collins, 2010). For example, consensus over the traditional definition of the family marginalizes LGBT people (Giddens & Sutton, 2017). Similarly, they may see that a state police force protects the powerful while over-policing the poor, and especially people of color (Alexander, 2010).
One key conflict theorist, Karl Marx, founder of Marxism, looked at how capitalism creates a social order whereby the owners of capital – the capitalist class – oppress the workers, exploiting their labor because they hold the power (Marx & Engels, 2010). Here, Marx disagrees with Durkheim: the status quo doesn’t create consensus, it generates class conflict (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017)!
Similarities Between Conflict Theory and Functionalism
1. Macrosociology Focus
Conflict theory and functionalism are both theories that focus on macrosociology – that is, the ways in which broader social structures shape and influence individuals’ lives (Bryant & Peck, 2019).
For example, conflict theory is concerned with how the powerful and the holders of capital exert power and influence over the poor and marginalized (Domhoff, 2014).
Similarly, functionalism focuses on the role of social institutions in helping sustain social order (Andersen & Taylor, 2017).
Compare this to symbolic interactionism, which is a microsociological approach. In microsociology, the concern is about everyday social behaviors – personal interactions and communicative events – and how those minutiae affect social norms, beliefs, and behaviors, as well as how they affect our identities and sense of self (Blumer, 2013).
2. Focus on Structure over Agency
The structure-agency debate goes like this: do we have the freedom to control our lives and make free choices, or are we fundamentally controlled and constrained by social structures (Giddens, 2013)?
Both functionalism and conflict theory focus on structure, and how social structures affect people and their life chances (Bryant & Peck, 2019). There tends to be minimal focus on how individuals navigate, subvert, and interact with the social structures in their own ‘agentic’ ways (Giddens, 2013).
By contrast, symbolic interactionism focuses on agency over structure. It looks at individuals and how individuals generate identities based on their interactions with one another, and make meaning of their lives through critical thinking (Blumer, 2013).
3. Focus on the Status Quo
Both functionalism and conflict theory look at the status quo in society and examine its influence on the social order (Bryant & Peck, 2019).
Functionalism endorses the status quo, seeing it as a means for establishing consensus (Andersen & Taylor, 2017), while critical theory looks at how the status quo is oppressive (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017). But nonetheless, they do both look at the same phenomenon (and come to competing conclusions!).
See More: Status Quo Examples
Differences Between Conflict Theory and Functionalism
1. Views of Structure and Order
Functionalism emphasizes the role of social institutions in providing stability and maintaining the social order (Andersen & Taylor, 2017), while conflict theory sees that social institutions cause injustice and domination of the powerful over the marginalized (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
According to functionalists like Durkheim and Merton, social institutions have the capacity to work interdependently, each acting like a cog in the clock – it has its purpose and helps the overall structure do its job (Parsons, 2010).
Each institution contributes to the wellbeing of society by doing its assigned role (Andersen & Taylor, 2017).
On the other hand, conflict theory takes a more critical approach to social structure. Conflict theorists see that the role of all of the social institutions is to entrench power inequalities (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
2. Consensus vs Injustice
Another key difference between conflict theory and functionalism lies in their interpretations of consensus and the existence of social injustices.
Functionalism focuses on how society establishes consensus, as everyone benefits from everyone else doing their part. There is positive interdependence (Andersen & Taylor, 2017).
For example, functionalism believes that social institutions promote cooperation, unity, and shared values, ultimately leading to the well-being of society as a whole (Merton, 2010).
In contrast, conflict theory critiques the idea of consensus as an illusion that masks power imbalances and systemic injustices that are being perpetrated by social institutions (Collins, 2010).
Where functionalists see consensus, conflict theorists see injustice (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
As a result, conflict theorists examine how power is exercised within social institutions, highlighting issues such as inequality, discrimination, and oppression (Domhoff, 2014).
3. Stability vs Change
Functionalism tends to mistrust social change, with concern that it might cause disruption to the order and stability of a social system (Andersen & Taylor, 2017).
It sees social change as a gradual process that occurs in response to functional needs and adaptations within the existing social order.
By contrast, conflict theorists advocate for rapid change. Social change is necessary for challenging the existing power structures and upending the social hierarchy (Ritzer & Stepnisky, 2017).
Conflict theorists believe that, with sufficient inequality and power struggle, social change will come about (Marx & Engels, 2010).
Karl Marx is the most famous here: he believed that capitalism would inevitably collapse because of the inequality and power imbalance inherent in this economic model, which causes friction and class struggle. Once the working-class develop class consciousness, they will upend the social order (Marx & Engels, 2010).
Functionalism and conflict theory are two of the most important theories in sociology, but they fundamentally differ in their readings of the roles of institutions in society. Each remains important in academia today, presenting competing visions of society and how to build the best society possible (Bryant & Peck, 2019).
Read Next: Durkheim’s Contribution to Sociology
Alexander, M., & Smith, P. (2010). The Strong Program: Origins, achievements, and prospects. In Handbook of Cultural Sociology (pp. 13-24). Routledge.
Alexander, M. (2010). The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. The New Press.
Andersen, M. L., & Taylor, H. F. (2017). Sociology: The Essentials. Cengage Learning.
Blumer, H. (2013). Symbolic interactionism: Perspective and method. University of California Press.
Bowles, S., & Gintis, H. (2011). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Haymarket Books.
Bryant, A., & Peck, D. (2019). Digital sociology: Critical perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan.
Calhoun, C., Gerteis, J., Moody, J., Pfaff, S., & Virk, I. (2012). Classical sociological theory. Wiley-Blackwell.
Collins, R. (2010). Conflict sociology: A sociological classic updated. Routledge.
Domhoff, G. W. (2014). Who rules America? The triumph of the corporate rich. McGraw-Hill.
Durkheim, E. (2014). The division of labor in society. Free press.
Giddens, A. (2013). Central Problems in Social Theory: Action, Structure and Contradiction in Social Analysis. University of California Press.
Giddens, A., & Sutton, P. W. (2017). Sociology. Polity Press.
Marx, K., & Engels, F. (2010). The communist manifesto. Penguin.
Merton, R. K. (2010). Social theory and social structure. Free Press.
Parsons, T. (2010). The structure of social action. Free Press.
Ritzer, G., & Stepnisky, J. (2017). Classical Sociological Theory. SAGE.
Sorokin, P. A. (2013). Sociology of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Transaction Publishers.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]