Structural Functionalism and Conflict Theory

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Structural Functionalism & Conflict Theory
Karl Marx and Max Weber were the first conflict theorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following Marx and Weber were three mid-20th century conflict theorists: Lewis Coser, Ralf Dahrendorf, and Randall Collins. Coser draws his theoretical ideas from Simmel. Like Simmel, Coser maintains that conflict is healthy for society. In contrast, Dahrendorf combines theoretical ideas from Marx and Weber. Dahrendorf sees power as the main feature in all social relationships. However, Collins incorporates Weber, Durkheim, and Goffman’s theories to provide a micro-level orientation to conflict theory. Collins also used geopolitics at a global level to examine political conflicts historically and geographically.

According to Marx and Weber, the root of most social conflict comes from an unequal distribution of class, status, and power, as well as a group’s sense of deprivation caused by class (Allan, 2007). Coser, Dahrendorf, and Collins added to Marx and Weber’s theories. These conflict theorists assert that the degree of deprivation is essential in creating class consciousness and critical awareness. In particular, Coser discusses the consequences of inter and intra group conflict. Internal conflict can build up over time between groups and become explosive. Internal groups have a psychological need to be in conflict with each other. Modes of releasing hostility and developing authority with a corresponding justice system are necessary for healthy internal conflict. Further, external conflicts between groups create well defined and guarded boundaries to distinguish membership. Group membership becomes exclusive, which is necessary for group survival. “Conflict sets boundaries between groups within a social system by strengthening group consciousness and awareness of separateness, thus establishing the identity of groups within the system” (Coser, as quoted in Allan, p. 219, 2007). Coser maintains that conflict can have functional consequences. Some functional consequences of conflict are: social change, innovation, and increased centralized power.

Structural Functionalism was the dominant theoretical approach in the United States from the 1930s through the 1970s. Structural Functionalism asserts that the various parts of society are interrelated and form a complete system. “Just as the body is a system with specific parts (e.g., arms, legs, liver) that ensure its overall functioning, so, too, society is a system with specific parts (family, government, economy, religion, etc.) necessary for its very survival” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 349). Two key structural functionalism theorists are Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Parsons theories were highly abstract. Parsons developed a social action theory to explain why people behave the way they do. He explained human actions as a result of three systems: social systems, personality systems, and cultural, and behavioral systems (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). These systems are not separate entities; rather together they form a simplified model of society. “Social systems, personality systems, and cultural systems undergird all action and all social life” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 352). Parsons applied his theory to the American family in Sex Roles in the American Kinship System (1943). Parsons proclaimed that “many women succumb to their dependency cravings through such channels as neurotic illness or compulsive domesticity and thereby abdicate both their responsibilities and their opportunities for genuine independence” (Parsons, 1943 as quoted by Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 382). Sex Roles in the American Kinship System (1943) incited criticisms as Parson endorsed traditional gender roles, and asserted that dire consequences would occur if these roles were breached.

Robert Merton’s theoretical influences were broad. He read extensively, and there are elements of Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and Marx in his theories....
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