Conflict Theories: Functionalism and Neo-Marxism

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Conflict Theories: Functionalism and Neo-Marxism essay

Conflict theories focus attention on the supremacy of some social groups by others. Social order is seen as built on exploitation and control by dominant groups and social change is viewed as happening quickly and in a muddled manner as subordinate groups displace dominant groups (Ritzer, 235). Conflict theory can be seen as an evolution that occurred as backlash to structural functionalism and its many criticisms, some which were previously referenced (Ritzer, 262). Conflict theory gave an option to structural functionalism and it often drew a wider audience.

Ralf Dahrendorf believes that society has consensus as well as conflict; therefore, sociological theory should also have two parts – consensus theory and conflict theory. Dahrendorf acknowledges that both consensus and conflict are required for society to exist and to have conflict, there had to have been a prior consensus (Ritzer, 262). Even though he recognized the connection between consensus and conflict, he was not hopeful one could develop a single sociological theory where both processes could be included. He was challenged by the voluntary cooperation or consensus of the social system in structural functionalism, as well as the enforced constraint in the conflict theory, thus, leading Dahrendorf to his thesis stating that “differential distribution of authority invariably becomes the determining factor of systematic social conflicts” (Ritzer, 263). He then focused on the notion of authority – that different spots in society have different amounts of authority. Authority is in the position or job and not the person. Dahrendorf analyzed authority that was connected to specific positions, realizing that a person’s position of authority changes in varied social groups. He developed the concept that society is made up of associations of people controlled by a hierarchy of authority positions – imperatively coordinated associations, where a person can hold an authority position in one and be a subordinate in another. He distinguished the idea that dominant positions seek to maintain status quo while subordinate positions seek to change, creating a conflict of interest in every association, leading to further study on groups (types such as quasi groups, interest groups, and group conflict), conflict and change (Ritzer, Chapter 7, pages 262-266).

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Randall Collins’s (Micro level theory) focused on Conflict sociology, stating that he “tried to show that stratification and organization are grounded in the interactions of everyday life” (Ritzer, page 266). He did not consider conflict as good or bad, but as a chief process in social life that must be analyzed. Unlike other theorists, Collins believed that social structures were a part of people and their interactions, not external or threatening forces. Although Collins initially based his social stratification theory on Marxism, it actually does not show much of its influence – he based his stratification theory on what can be seen in every life, like politics, careers and families. Social stratification has three basic principles: “people live in self-constructed subjective worlds; other people may have the power to affect, or even control, an individual’s subjective experience; and other people frequently try to control the individual who opposes them – resulting in interpersonal conflict” (Ritzer, 268).

There were also several other Neo-Marxist theorists and theories, including economic determinism, George Luckac’s reification, Antonio Gramsci’s hegemony, Habermas and his communicative action and critical theory. First, economic determinism was based on Marx’s focus on the economy. Economic determinists took the economy and made it the central driving factor for understanding all aspects of the rest of society. George Luckac’s used Marx’s fetishism of commodities for his base. His principle of reification expanded this to apply to all aspects of society. Overall, he was saying that we don’t think of the system of relationships that go into making any given thing in society, including non-economic factors. A third Neo-Marxist theorist is Antonio Gramsci who created the term hegemony. Hegemony is that culture leadership comes out of the ruling class. He said that Marx’s Grand Communist Revolution never came about because the culture passed down from the ruling class did not support that and showed it as a bad thing. Habermas was also an important Neo-Marxist. He focused on the relationship of communication and criticized Marx for not talking about it. Habermas included communication in Marx’s species by saying that it is human nature that we communicate. He included Weber’s rationalization and said that we must rationalize communication to truly emancipate ourselves. Finally, the critical theorists came in and focused primarily on criticizing other theories or subjects, such as culture, sociology, modern society, positivism and other Neo-Marxists. Their overall relation to Marx came in the fact that they updated his theory to focus on what is the content being produced, rather than on the ownership (Conflict Theory).

Overall, conflict theory and Neo-Marxists had a broad view of the world ranging from economic factors to communicative factors. Their overall goal was to update Marx’s theories that failed or never came to be for some reason, explain why they failed and update them to fit with modern society. In addition, they each had similarities. The main similarity they had was their focus on the fact that exploitation still exists today and some type of class struggle is going on.

There are also weaknesses in conflict theory. One weakness is the theory’s connection with socialism and statism, a political system where the state has substantial, centralized control over social and economic affairs. The vision of conflict theory is a society where all can freely cooperate in the production of social goods. It presumes that human nature is good, but corrupted by civilization. So, as soon as domination is eliminated, people will cooperate. This is a weakness of conflict theory. Critical conflict theory denies the existence of human nature, another weakness. Human nature does not exist — it is created by social life and is changeable. Reason also changes as social forms change. All states of life are creations of domination. Nothing answers to human needs, but all is the creation of the structure of control. Revolution is necessary to alter society to make it fair, yet there is no sense that the critical activists who take control of this revolution will use it for the good of all. (Johnson)

Similarities and Differences Between Functionalism and Conflict Theories/Neo-Marxist Theories

Structural functionalism seeks to explain the interrelationship of people and society – how they are interdependent in working together. Conflict theory also seeks to study and explain society at a micro and macro level. Both lay clear foundations to study sociology. The two lay a clear foundation of how a society is made, what constitutes a society and how it survives. The study of society in each is key to unlocking sociological analysis.

Functionalists and conflict theorists agree on the fact that an existing society is made up of different groups and both study the relationship of individuals and society. The conflict perspective argues that individuals are subordinates to a society shaped by power, authority and coercion, where functionalists argue that individuals occupy individual social roles to perform social functions. Both also reveal that inequality exists in a society. Functionalists consider inequality inevitable and functional compared to conflict theory that believes inequality exists in a society as a result of conflict over scarceness, as seen in Marx’s theories.

When looking at social change, functionalists relate social change to social disorganization and adjustment to achieve equilibrium, viewing change as gradual and predictable. Conflict theorists assume that only struggle and competition leads to constant change.

When looking at similarities and differences between functionalism and conflict theories, areas of agreement among them are more extensive than the areas of disagreement and both share a similar world view of underlying sociological methodologies and theories (Ritzer, 236). Analyzing the interrelations of people in society, theoretical frameworks such as functionalism and conflict or Neo-Marxism, are vital to understanding the social system. The theories, although in parts conflicting, serve a complementary or supportive purpose as the critics of one theory may bring about positive aspects of another theory, resulting in a deeper understanding of society through multiple views.

Functionalism and Conflict Theory: Focusing on Homelessness — a Modern-Day

Social Issue in American Society

Homelessness is a major social issue in American society that is noticeable across the nation. Do the homeless have purpose? Are the homeless idle slackers? Are the homeless alone in the world? Are they at all driven to establish a more secure life? What impact does American society, which is capitalistic, play in the state of homelessness? In an attempt to figure out more about the issue of homelessness, two theories will be applied: functionalism theory and conflict theory (Homelessness).

According to the functionalist theory, it is believed that homelessness serves a purpose in American society. In order for American society to run well, all parts of society must work in line with the other parts. The homeless are one of those parts that work together with other parts to form a working society (Rodrigo).

From the functionalist stance, they believe the homeless are vital and play a key role in society for it to properly operate. Compared to most in society, the inequality of the homeless actually makes society work. Homeless serve a role in society. In some cases, people who work in careers that assist and support people in need, such as the homeless, have employment thanks to the needs of the homeless. The functionalists also believe that the homeless also serve a purpose because they do the jobs that nobody else want to do. The functionalist theory supports the idea that inequality is inevitable in society. The inequality of the homeless, and how they are at a different level and will do what most others will not, is imperative for society to work and function (Frances).

From the conflict theory point of view, American society contains conflict that results from competition for scarce resources like jobs and habitation (housing). Capitalism is the cause of homelessness. The upper-class capitalists (bourgeoisie) battle those with less power (proletariat) to retain their power and success. The “haves” in society exert control to keep their successes and the “have nots,” like the homeless, are kept in their subservient position and cannot advance. The conflict theory would believe the homeless are in their state because society prevails in ongoing conflict due to competing for resources. The American social structure is maintained by power and domination instead of the functionalist view of conformity or consensus (Applying).

Jonathan Kunkel’s Thoughts on the Theories of Functionalism, Conflict Theory and Other Neo-Marxist Theories

Overall, based on information gained through Professor Park’s class lectures, Chapters 7 and 8 of Ritzer’s Sociological Theory, the course text, as well as additional resources cited, I believe both functionalism and conflict theory have very important points and have greatly impacted and influenced sociological phenomena world-wide. I see functionalism theory and conflict theory as two dominant theories in sociology. To state which theory is the best likely cannot be determined because the theories are so different and different does not mean one is better than the other. Functionalism and conflict theories could actually be thought of more as complementary to each other — each individually or jointly offers credible and plausible explanations for social phenomena. However, the theory I agree with more is structural functionalism. I believe that structural functionalism has a strong point about the world when it says if something exists then it must serve some useful purpose. I believe that there are a lot of useful functions in the world that many people see as negative, but actually have useful features such as homelessness and poverty. I especially agree with Merton’s theory of structural functionalism that points out that there can be negative or neutral functions in the world. However, although I agree with functionalism, I also realize that conflict theory has some strong points as well. For example, the criticism conflict theory gives of functionalism in that it can’t adequately deal with change is very important. Although I believe a lot of features in this world are important and shouldn’t change, I can’t disagree that some definitely do need to change in order to make the world better. Both theories help people better understand our social world and our social relations with it in the hope that someday we can further expand on them in order to promote improvement of society.

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Conflict Theories: Functionalism and Neo-Marxism. (2020, Jan 11). Retrieved from