Comparison of Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives

Sociology is a branch of social science that scientifically studies the human society, human behavior and social interactions. In sociology the three main theoretical perspectives are functionalism, conflict perspective or Marxian perspective and symbolic interactionism perspective. In this article, we will explore the two key theoretical perspectives used in sociology and how they help us to understand various aspects of society.

Comparison of Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives
  • Functionalist perspective– One of the primary theoretical approaches in sociology is the functionalist perspective. The main pioneer of the functionalist theory is Emile Durkheim. Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton are among the notable functionalist thinkers. According to this perspective, all parts of society serve a certain purpose and work together to maintain social order.
  • Conflict theory– It is another theoretical perspective in sociology. The main pioneer of the conflict theory is Karl Marx. According to Marx, society is filled with socioeconomic disparities and conflicts. Conflict theorists argue that inequities arise from competition for resources like wealth, power, and status. Wealthy individuals use their wealth to dominate others, maintaining power and influence.

The importance of understanding sociological perspective

To understand the society more widely it is very important to look at it from different sociological perspectives. We can acquire a more thorough and accurate understanding of an issue by viewing it through the lens of multiple sociological views. Each perspective has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, and it can provide multiple insights on social issues. It is necessary to be aware of the many sociological viewpoints in order to appreciate the various arguments and assertions made by sociologists. One person who views society from a common-sense perspective and sociological lens is entirely different. Sociological lens gives a more scientific approach.

Now for a better understanding let us explore deeply into the functionalist and conflict perspective.

Functionalist Perspective- Émile Durkheim (1858-1917), a French professor was mainly accountable for the functionalist perspective in sociology. Durkheim and other nineteenth-century scholars Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons influenced functionalist viewpoint, which examines society through the lens of the human body. Durkheim in his work “Rules of Sociological Method which was published in 1895, he proposed a new term called Social Facts and he defined “Sociology as a study of social fact”. According to him, social facts are just like the natural facts. In further essay let us explore the main assumptions and concept of the functionalist perspective.

Main Assumptions and Concepts

  • Social Consensus: Functionalist believe that the social consensus[1]holds the society together and that members should work together to achieve stability, order, and equilibrium in society. They also argued that societal change arises from multiple reasons like population expansion, technology, and external contact.
  • Social Order and Stability: According to Durkheim, social order means the structure and the behavioral patterns which allows a smooth interaction within minimal effort in the society. The norms and values are something that makes an individual to behave in such a way which is essential for preserving the social order.  To preserve the social order of the society, there are multiple roles which are allocated to the members and if the roles are not performed accordingly the maintenance of social order is difficult. According to Durkheim” A powerful society needs social stability, and proper socialization and social integration are required for social stability. The social institutions of society play critical roles in ensuring social stability.”  (Durkheim and Social Integration, 2018)

If we take up the Indian societies, all societies have their own norms and value attached to them and they are socialized accordingly, anything outside that would cause dispute in the social order of the particular society. In contemporary society people belonged to the Parsi community are expected to marry a Parsi and if they marry any non-Parsi they should face the consequences.

  • According to Herbert Spencer, it is the capacity of societies to adapt which led to social stability. According to him, societies change over time and the strongest one survives. Societies can achieve stability when they adjust to differing societal conditions. If any one part of the society does not function properly then the other part should try to accommodate more and preserve the social order. Nowadays there is a lot of advancement in the technology and many societies have tried to accommodate themselves into it, but there are still many groups or communities who are unaware of this and excluded from the mainstream society.
  • Talcott Parsons like Durkheim argued the importance of norms, roles and other patterns of social interactions. He believed that it is necessary for the individual to perform the roles in order to preserve the stability. Every individual has a certain role to perform, mostly multiple roles, but sometimes it’s difficult for the individuals to fulfil the roles and this can cause a dispute.

Social equilibrium[2]Functionalist gives a lot of importance to social equilibrium. Durkheim argued that social equilibrium is mainly dependent upon the socialisation of the individuals. Durkheim saw society as an equilibrium of forces that are opposing keeps on changing. He frequently depicted society as moving towards an equilibrium, but that picture is very complex and continuously shaping balances between two opposing forces.  (Pope, 1975)

Talcott Parsons argument aims that social systems strive for a complete equilibrium, even though achieving complete equilibrium is never possible. According to him a society attains a state of equilibrium, when there is no dispute and individuals perform their roles where society’s needs and expectations are taken care. The ways in which society’s equilibrium are met mainly through socialization and social control. A society can be considered in an equilibrium when there is an essential link between an individual’s character and that society’s social order. (Talcott Parsons: Equilibrium and Social Integration, n.d.)

Society as a system of interconnected parts

  • Functionalists, especially Durkheim viewed society as ‘a system of interconnected parts that work together to maintain stability in society’. (1.3 Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology – Introduction to Sociology 3e | OpenStax, n.d.)
  • Here functionalists compare society with an organism, especially Talcott Parsons in his theory saw social institutions as parts of human body and each performing different functions to maintain a stable society as a whole.
  • Human Body and Society are very interconnected and this is termed as ‘organic analogy’ by Talcott Parsons. The way in which each part of human body has a unique function similarly each social institution has a unique function.
  • In order for the smooth functioning of a society there is a need of certain elements, the same is for a proper functioning of human body. Parsons argued that if any single part of the human body or society stops functioning then it disrupts the functioning of the other parts too.


  • Functionalists argue that education is crucial in society as it transfer information and skills from generation to generation. Educational institutions play a significant role in socialization, help in instilling shared values and norms.
  • The functionalist approach argues that families do play a significant role in teaching children the cultural values, conventions, and other behavioural patterns essential for social integration and stability, from the birth of the child family is the primary social institution which helps in the socialisation of individuals.
  • Nowadays we could see students’ career planning is very much influenced by their families’ values and expectations, also with parental support, counselling, etc. playing a significant role in shaping their decisions.
  • Functionalism also suggests that social problems must be functional for society to exist. If we take an example of crime, it is a significant society issue but also same time beneficial to the economy because it generates thousands of jobs in different sectors like police station, judicial system etc. If crime did not exist in society, many individuals would be unemployed.
  • Social institutions, such as family units, play a crucial role in resolving disputes within society. Overall, functionalist theory contributes to understanding the complex social dynamic within society.

Conflict Perspective:

Conflict theory is entirely opposite of functionalism, although it, too, arose from the Industrial Revolution, owing largely to Karl Marx (1818-1883) and his partner, Friedrich Engels(1820-1895). Marx was very much influenced by the ideology of Hegel. And that ideology later reinterpreted in the works of Marx. Every society, according to Marx and Engels, is divided into two classes based on ownership of the means of production-bourgeoisie and the proletariat. He mainly focused on the inequality within the social classes. Marx stressed on the modes of production and the relations of production.

Main assumption and Key concept

Social Inequality and Power Dynamics

  • The bourgeoisie, or ruling class, owns the means of production in a capitalist society, whereas the proletariat, or working class, does not possess the means of production and is instead oppressed and exploited by the bourgeoisie. This disparity causes a conflict of interest between the two parties because of the unequal distribution of resources and this leads to social inequality. According to Conflict theorist, Capitalism is the reason for class struggle. Different social institutions also contribute to maintain the inequality. According to conflict theorists, social order is preserved by exercising power over the others. Conflict theory also made an effort to explain power and class conflict between different racial group, political parties, gender, religion, etc. (8.6B: The Conflict Perspective- Class Conflict and Scarce Resources, 2018)

Class Consciousness: It is one of the main key concepts in the Marx theory class struggle. In order to overthrow capitalism this concept was proposed by Marx, through these workers are self-aware about their class and this could help in the ending of the existing inequality among the workers. The arise of class consciousness has made an impact on the working class. For example, In the contemporary time we know there are many workers organization or groups which form or join political parties in such a way that there is a need to protect their rights and interest.

Social Change: According to the ideas of Karl Marx, Conflict theory looks at social change as the result of conflict between two group among which one will be dominant and the other will be the subordinate. Class struggle eventually leads to beneficial societal transformation. For example, Earlier women had to face a lot of discrimination in every field but now within social change there is shift in that.

Communism: is the last mode of production according to Marx and here the relations of production will be completely equal. In this stage, Collective production will be maintained and everyone owns collectively and this will lead to a classless society. When we look at the history or the present time, many countries have adopted communist ideology in their governance. Because of that social change has taken place in that particular society which has benefitted the people as whole.

Society as a background for conflicting interests

  • Because society is made up of groups with competing/different interests, it is not an equilibrium system. The resources available to the groups/classes varied. Every culture contains seeds of conflict, implying that conflict is a universal phenomenon. Although conflict exists in all societies, it is not always violent or apparent. Conflict in society can be temporarily suppressed and managed, but it cannot be eliminated. A macro-level theoretical viewpoint underpins the idea. In our society there are different groups and often their needs or interest are not similar and its not only a case of a society, but also if we look at a nuclear family, each person has different interest, but every interest might not be fulfilled and same happens within a society.


  • According to conflict theory, economic inequality causes a system of one side winning and the other losing, with dominant groups dominating weaker groups, which is bad for society. The dominance is frequently attained through cultural hegemony, which includes ideas, norms, values, and expectations. In order to keep control, the society’s elite group frequently receives tax breaks and benefits, which causes hatred and conflict across groups.
  • Economic inequality, according to conflict theorists, is a system which is designed which oppressed the common people and ruled by the elite. In the contemporary society, we can see there is an unequal pay or unequal wages in the workplaces among men and women even though they both do same amount of the work, men are given more. There have been multiple movements formed by the people against this discrimination. There are other cases were people face inequality especially within the judicial system.
  • Let us take up one more example which is a movement caused because of the racial discrimination faced by the black people in western countries which is known as “Black Lives Matter”.
  • When we look at different metropolitan areas, especially in India we could see inequality existing. where some members of the society are still in the slums and the other part taking all the privilege.

Comparison between Functionalist and conflict perspective

  • According to functionalist perspective, it focuses on how the society is organized and its functioning. Whereas conflict theory focuses on social inequality and conflict existing among society.
  • Functionalist perspective tells us to focus on how social institutions contribute to the stability of society. But according to conflict perspective, it tells us to focus on how the social world is a battlefield, and that social institutions represent the preferences of the dominant class. This viewpoint put a focus on the existence of the social inequities and tell how to oppose them.
  • According to functionalist theory, every component of society has a purpose which is crucial to its survival. On the contrary, the conflict theory also argues that because of unequal resource allocation, class conflict always exists within society. 
  • Functionalist perspective and Conflict perspective both depend on the structure of the society to study it, in first case they saw it as different parts which are interconnected and working together whereas in the second case, they focused mainly on the struggles which are existing due to class, power division.
  • Functionalist believed that social change would not benefit the society, but change happening within time are considered positive, whereas Conflict theorists believed that social change is necessary and this change was caused due to the dispute between two groups.
  • Let us take an example on poverty, and if we look at it from a functionalist perspective, we would focus on how poverty has a purpose in society because it offers a source of inexpensive labour. However, if we look at property from a conflict perspective, we would focus on how poverty creates inequality in which certain people are always facing disadvantage.

Strength of Conflict Theory

  • One of the main strengths is this view shows that how people’s power can affect their lives differently and it also focused on the situation in which people with more power are dominant over the people who don’t have power.
  • Conflict theory makes it possible for the individual and their organisation to protect their rights and interests in society.
  • Another major strength is that it helps in analysing the multiple causes of the social and economic disparities that exist among the people in the society.
  • This perspective also focuses on the drawbacks of society and its functioning.

Strength of Functionalist Theory

  • One of the most important strengths of the functionalist perspective is that it gives importance on the stability and order of the society.
  • Functionalist perspective studies society’s structure in a macro level.
  • Functionalists’ stresses on the importance of social institutions such as family, marriage and religion.
  • Another strength of functionalism is that this theory tries to define both social change and stability.


Criticism of Functionalism

  • Functionalism is heavily criticized for ignoring the negative effect of a circumstance, for example if we take marriage as an example, they often ignored the aspect of divorce that could happen in a marriage.
  • Another major criticism is that functionalist often reduced or simplified every social phenomenon only into the roles or values within society and neglecting other aspects.
  • Functionalist theory doesn’t encourage people from changing their social environment, even if it could benefit them. On the other hand, it views active social change undesirable, believing that diverse societal aspects will automatically address issues.
  • According to functionalist theory, they saw the gender stereotypes and inequality positively, by viewing that gender contributes to society’s stability. Feminist approach criticized the functionalist because they argued that division of labour between men and women is necessary. They considered this as a natural difference.

Criticism of Conflict Theory

  • Conflict theory was heavily criticised for its lack of attention towards some important aspects of social life such as integration and consensus because they gave more importance to conflict and the inequalities existing in society.
  • Conflict theory was then critiqued because this theory tried to study society completely on the basis of economic aspect and ignored the non-economic aspect which could help in the shaping of social institutions.
  • Conflict theory never gave importance to the factors like race, gender, age and disability which can be also seen as intersectionality that creates an individual’s identity.
  • Criticisms for conflict theory also came in such a way that they offered only a very little space for analysis of a social phenomenon because they concentrate on macro level institution and not on the individual basis.

Debate between Conflict and Consensus Theory

  • In the discipline of Sociology, the debate between conflict and consensus theory is the most important debate. One reason is that it enables us to critically analyse the social structure, institutions and other processes in the society. This debate mainly focuses on the different perspectives taken by the society to study the society using different theories.  (Sociology – an Overview of Functionalism, Structural-Functionalism, Conflict Theory, and Critical Theory, n.d.)
  • The primary focus on structural-functional analysis shifted in the 1960 because some people challenged the idea that institutional practices were essential for a society to survive. This approach, which was seen as conservative. In reply, some of the sociologists pointed out the conflict sociology, which claimed that stronger groups are repressed by dominant institutions of the society. This led to conflict and consensus debate in the discipline of sociology.

In conclusion, Sociology integrates various theoretical perspectives to understand different aspects of society. Functionalism and conflict theory are some of the key theoretical perspectives that sociologists use this to make sense of the social world. Studying sociology and its theoretical perspectives help us to understand social phenomena and provides insights into how we can address social problems.


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[1] social consensus- Itstresses the essential cohesion and solidarity of society, where the core principle of social life is an agreement or the mutual cooperation of the members of a society

[2]social equilibrium, a theoretical state of balance in a social system referring both to an internal balance between interrelated social phenomena and to the external relationship the system maintains with environment. (Social Equilibrium | Sociology, n.d.)

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Anagha is a sociology student at Miranda House, She loves to delve deep into multiple aspects of gender, kinship, and religion through a sociological lens. With a passion for research and writing, she offers thoughts and insights on sociological topics. Her love for reading different novels makes her curious to learn new things. She's here to share her perspectives while continually expanding her own understanding of Sociology.