Sociology of Poverty: Functionalist and Conflict Perspectives

Defining Poverty: Poverty is the state of being financially incapable of affording the essentials for the prevailing standard of living (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). Within this understanding of poverty, the prevailing standard of living and basic human needs, while overlapping are not synonymous. Basic human needs include goods that are necessary for survival, ie. food, water and shelter. While the prevailing standard of living, as defined by economist Elizabeth Ellis Hoyt- is not material things consumed but instead are the sum-total, not of things, but of satisfaction attained (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2020). From this definition, one can go about understanding poverty, not in absolutes but in relative terms, being in poverty is relative to how everyone else in a society/country lives. This is part of the reason why the poverty line differs from country to country. The first reason being that cost of living (ie. cost of goods and services) differ. But also because the prevailing standard of living differs (CrashCourse, 2017).

poverty examples

Taking this definition of poverty as the foundation, this paper will analyse poverty from two major sociological perspectives. These perspectives aim to look at the structure of society and how the prevailing structure causes or allows for the existence of poverty. The essay will compare and contrast the analysis of the two theories, however, the aim of the comparison is not to state which theory is superior. Instead, how the two theories differ and at times build on each other.

Functionalism & Poverty

Defining functionalism: Functionalists view society as if it were a machine, that singular aspect of society (ie. social structure) performs a function that is indispensable to the smooth running of said society. Hence, any ‘dysfunction’ of any aspect of society is a deviation from the norm and hence will need to be fixed. Proposed by 19th-century french sociologist Emile Durkheim every aspect or structure in society performs a function in society- either a latent or a manifest function. Manifest functions are the intended consequences of a social structure, while latent functions are unintentional. For example, one of the societies’ most prominent and primal social structures is the family (CrashCourse, 2017). The latent function of a family includes providing financial and emotional support, socialization, etc. these are the functions that are expected of a family, on the other hand, latent functions of a family could include stimulating the economy and paying taxes (Vibal, 2014). These are functions that support other social structures. Hence, the social structure of society fulfils the manifest function of supporting everyone within the structure (ie. the members of the family) and the latent function of supporting (as per the aforementioned example) the social structure that is the economy and the government. Lastly, if a function performed by a social structure is harmful to society, that function is referred to as dysfunctions- effects that disrupt the smooth operating of society (Nicki Lisa Cole, 2020).

Functionalism and Poverty: On the surface, poverty appears to be a dysfunction, however, according to Durkheim this is untrue stating instead that poverty or social inequality is necessary for the smooth functioning of society. This view on poverty can be better recognized by understanding the functionalist perspective on social stratification, specifically class stratification. According to the David-Moore thesis, stratification and inequality are necessary and beneficial to society to motivate individuals to train for and perform complex roles (Bell). And that the basis of class inequality is dependant on the degree of benefit that each occupation to society as well as the degree of complexity a job possesses. The if an occupation offers a great benefit to society then that occupation is considered valuable (LumenLearning). For example, the job of a doctor is complex, the basis on which this complexity is derived is that medical training and education average 10 years. Additionally, doctors offer a service that is core to survival and can not be replaced, hence the job of a doctor is both valuable as well as complex. To conclude the David-Moore thesis, a job that is valuable and complex needs to be economically and socially rewarded. It is the varying degrees of social and economic reward that causes class stratification.

In summary, the crux of the David-Moore thesis is that social stratification and as extension poverty is necessary because it performs a (latent) function and not a disfunction. The existence of stratification is based on occupation means that individuals will strive towards occupations that best suit them, as well as occupations that offer the most benefit to society, as it is these jobs that bring about the most rewards.

Criticism: The most prominent criticism of this theory is that it does not take into consideration how other social stratifying factors; such as race, gender, access to education, generational wealth, etc, can play a role in the occupation and ultimately the class one falls into (LumenLearning). The theory instead is built on the assumption that society is egalitarian and the only differentiating factor is an individual’s desire. Another prominent criticism is that oftentimes the relationship between social benefit and socio-economic reward is not consistent. This is best highlighted in occupations within media and entertainment, for example, actors do not necessarily require a high level of education nor do they offer a societal reward greater than teachers. Regardless, actors gain higher socio-economic rewards than teachers. Lastly, while the David-Moore thesis offers a way in which one can measure socio-economic reward (income and opportunity), as well as offers a measure of complexity on the basis of education. However, it does not offer an absolute manner by which one can measure societal benefit, nor is the correlation between complexity or income always positive. For example, a teacher who specialises in educating individuals with learning disabilities has more educational requirements, but will ultimately work with fewer people, there is no way to say whether this implies that a teacher who specializes in this field offers greater societal benefit than a general teacher.

Conflict Theory & Poverty

Defining conflict theory: Proposed by Marx and Engels, conflict theory is the sociological theory that looks at society in terms of a power struggle between groups within society over limited resources, under a post-industrialised capitalist society these resources are the modes of production (Hayes, 2021). The struggle for power is what Marx states as ultimately resulting in societal change ie. historical materialism (CrashCourse, 2017). While conflict theory can be applied to any number of sociological studies such as gender, race, etc, the first and most prominent use of conflict theory is the study of class conflict. Here the two competing groups are the proletariat (the working class) and the bourgeois (the capitalist class), who are struggling overpower which manifests as the means of production. Marx states this conflict between classes as the central conflict in society and the source of social inequality in power and wealth (CrashCourse, 2017). The emphasis on resources as the base of power can not be overstated, those who own the modes of production will then ultimately also have control over societies superstructure- culture, norms, politics, religion, etc. Hence, the superstructure grows out of the base and reflects the ruling class’ interests. As such, the superstructure justifies how the base operates through exploitation and keeps the power in the hands of the elite (Cole, 2020).

Conflict theory and poverty: Unlike functionalism’s viewpoint of class stratification and poverty being necessary to society, conflict theory argues the opposite. Stating instead that social stratification does not benefit society as a whole but instead only a small section- the bourgeoise. Acknowledging this inequality and the root of said inequality is only one facet of conflict theory’s analysis of poverty, another focal point is how this power or ownership occurs in the first place. Another key distinguishing factor is that the functionalist perspective makes the assumption that individuals who are highly skilled and trained will be able to gain high socio-economic rewards, and ultimately avoid poverty (Barkan, 2018). However, from the perspective of conflict theory, class stratification is caused by a lack of opportunity that an individual is born into. Implying that individuals are either born into the bourgeoisie or the proletariat class (Barkan, 2018). In this way conflict theory actively acknowledges and addresses the critique that functionalism fails to.

By exploiting the superstructures the bourgeois is able to maintain their hold on the means of production, this exploitation is broadly two-fold. The proletariat being the class that performs manual labour to produce goods, ie. without the proletariat’s class, the means of production owned by the bourgeois would be powerless. In spite of this, the bourgeoise undervalues this labour by underpaying the proletariat, ultimately allowing for the bourgeois to hold power. The second method is through what Marx refers to as alienation, this is the process by the working conditions and constant exploitation faced by the workers leaves them isolated and unable to work in solidarity to fight for power. According to this theory, the only way for the proletariat class to escape the position as the oppressed class is to gain the means of production.

Criticism: Conflict theories primary criticism is its emphasis on a two-group system, which is a system that is continually losing relevance. For example, there are many small business owners, who according to Marx would be considered part of the bourgeoisie, despite their standard living and power (especially when it comes to influencing the superstructure) being more in line with the working class.

Also Read: 6 Complementary Perspectives in Sociology and Examples

Comparing the theories

Similarly to how conflict theory is able to address the faults of the functionalist perspective on poverty, the same occurs inversely. It is conflict theories’ emphasis on change through struggle that results in neglecting to consider the importance of societal stability. According to American sociologist Herbert J. Gans, poverty continues to exist because it is functional for society (Barkan, 2018). In fact, some of these (latent) functions benefit those in poverty, the very existence of poverty is a source of employment for physicians, attorneys, and other professionals who provide services to the poor. Some critics acknowledge that societies are in a constant state of change, but point out that much of the change is often minor, not revolutionary (Boundless). For example, many modern capitalist states have avoided a communist revolution, and have instead instituted elaborate social service programs (Boundless).


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Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.