Sociology is the study of human social life, groups and societies. Through sociology, we are able to understand the structures and dynamics of our society. In our society, we have institutions, which are basically organisations that exist over time. Although people may change, the structure continues to exist. Examples include the family, education, religion, and economic and political institutions.
This is how they function; the educational institutions (public schools, colleges or universities) depend on the government for funding. The government decides how much money they get. Governments are themselves dependent on the economy. The economy itself depends, however, on education, for it is education that supplies the economy with skilled labour. These interrelationships mean that institutions should not be studied in isolation from each other. (Fulcher. J, Scott. J, 2003, Sociology second edition).
Then there is the socialisation process. This is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of the groups they belong so that they are ready for social interaction. (www.socialsciencedictionary.com). In other words, it means the process whereby culture is passed from one generation to another. Socialisation starts at birth and ends at death and is very powerful in shaping individuals. It has two processes, primary socialisation which is carried out by the family or first carers and secondary socialisation which is mainly schools, the mass media and religious organisations. (Fulcher. J, Scott. J, 2003, Sociology second edition).
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Inequality is when there are clear boundaries in society that prevent people from attaining equal status despite their work and effort towards attaining such goals. It is about who gets what, how they get it and why they get it. (www.sociology.org.uk). Inequality is typically tied to race, gender and class, with white, males, those with higher education levels, and those with higher incomes sit at the top of the hierarchy. (Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology).
However, all these are viewed from different perspectives such as Marxism and Functionalism etc. Whilst both theories have some similarities, they are very different in their interpretation.
Functionalism is based on ‘consensus’ meaning that in all societies there has to be some form of generally agreed principles, norms and values upon which a system of trust and justice can be based (Durkheim), while Marxism is based on ‘conflict’. The word conflict describes those perspectives which assume that, in society, groups exist with differing interests.
Even though these two theories oppose, they do have some similarities. They both offer a macro-explanation of society meaning they both look at the overall structure of society, rather than looking at individual views. Functionalism and Marxism both see that human behaviour is directed by an external force. ‘Functional prerequisite’ (basic needs e.g. food, water, shelter) for functionalism and economic for Marxism. These two theories also view society as a system of social structures and both agree that these social structures exist within a society.
Both perspectives “fall within the positivist approach, in that they focus on ‘objective data´ and concerning upon structure and system rather than focusing upon the meaning of individual” (www.courseworkbank.co.uk). They both focus on the needs of the economy and how institutions relate to this. Both theories also believe in social change, believing that the more society changes, the better the potential for the ‘idealistic’ society. “Durkheim and Marx shared a common intellectual interest in the social changes associated with industrialisation” (www.courseworkbank.co.uk).
Marxism and Functionalism both stress the importance of the socialisation process in order to promote cohesion/solidarity (union or fellowship arising from common interests or responsibilities) and they both claim the status of science.
Whilst there are some similarities, both are diametrically opposed in their interpretation of the social system. Functionalism is based on Consensus, which takes its starting point from the assumption that society is firmly structured and is the main element in shaping social behaviour. To fully understand functionalism, one has to understand ‘the enlightenment’.
This is the name given to a very general and diverse movement that began in the 18th Century. Its basic idea was that reason could be applied to the world we live in and lead to what has been described as the age of reason. (Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology). Functionalism was influenced by a selection of key thinkers e.g. Comte, Weber and Durkheim. Durkheim believed that in all societies there had to be some form of generally agreed principles, norms and values upon which a system of trust and justice can be based (consensus). This consensus formed the basis of what he referred to as ‘the collective conscience’. (Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology).
Parsons, Comte and Durkheim all made contributions to the development of this theory. Comte is generally regarded as one of the founding fathers of the ‘positivist philosophy’ (scientific explanation of the social world) and of sociology. Durkheim was concerned to use the new science of ‘sociology’ to analyse the very essence of social order. Social order is about how people behave in society. What is classified as what is right and wrong in society? It is basically needed for society to function properly. (Bessant, Judith and Watts, 2002, Sociology Australia).
Like Durkheim, Parsons began with the question of how social order is possible. He believed that if people were allowed to pursue their own interests then there would be destruction. Parsons believed that only a commitment to common values provides a basis for order in society (value consensus).
However, Marxism is completely different to Functionalism. From a Marxist perspective, in every society the ‘mode of production meaning the way of producing dictates major relationships between owners and workers. Marx argues that in each epoch the economy is the defining feature. The economy, therefore, provides the infrastructure (the base) from which everything else is formed. This economic infrastructure determines the role and function of the basic institutions in society, what Marx refers to as the ‘Superstructure’, e.g. the family, religion, media etc. (Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology).
Marx continues to explain how society works from his point of view. He explained how the ‘Bourgeoise’ (the ruling class) owns everything and how their power stems from their wealth as they own the means of production (property, machinery, factories, treasure etc). ‘’The potential for class conflict is always present, a ruling class had to continually act to reproduce its domination of the social class.’’(www.sociology.org.uk).Marx then went on to develop an idea which he called ‘alienation’. By this, he meant the transformation of peoples’ own labour into a power that rules them as if by a kind of natural law. (www.socialsciencedictionary.com). Marx developed this idea out of his study of Hegel.
Change occurs in functionalism through the entire system understanding the need for the change, feeling it internally and seeing it happen in other people (Giddens, A.2001, Sociology 4th edition). Individuals may also see change happening and decide to alter their internal state. For example, you see your city begin to use recycling bins. Even though you have not thought about why you should recycle, you begin to do it.
Because others have felt it was necessary and acted on that thought with an ordinance for recycling bin placement, you are now influenced by their actions. Marxism offers a different means of creating change, conflict and revolution. The lower class must band together and fight the upper class if they want equal rights and suitable working conditions. It is with these theories that the Soviet Union sought to establish a communist state, where everyone received an equal amount of rations and pay. (www.sociology.org.uk).
Both the functionalist and Marxist perspectives contribute different attributes to society. Functionalism offers the theory that society works as a whole, accommodating change and recognising the value of all of the institutions within humanity. However, it can be argued that it is simply not possible for society to interconnect as some elements are not compatible with others, and if, like the functionalist theory, society changes to accommodate change, what is the explanation for the conflict and disruption that occurs throughout the nation?
Although the Marxist theory offers a useful insight into the conflict of class, it regards “everything in society is being determined by your economic or class position” (Fulcher. J, Scott. J, 2003, Sociology 2nd edition). Individuals are disregarded and the ability to make a decision of one’s own is taken away. Marxist theorists see classes as being determined by the social status and the capital of a person. (Giddens, A.2001, Sociology 4th edition).
An additional view which Functionalism and Marxism have a comparable view is about the economy but they both have a contrasting view regarding the end result. Functionalism sees that both the family and the economy can benefit each other as the family helps the economy by being consumers and the economy benefits the family by having jobs on offer. However, Marxism has a contrasting view that Marxism sees that the family helps the economy by housewives producing and raising the next generation of workers at no cost to the economy (capitalist class) (www.sociology.org.uk).
Even though both theories give us a good view of society, they are both criticised for different things. Marxism is accused of being ‘economically determinist’. That is, the idea that Marxists over-exaggerate the importance of economic relationships, relationships that are seen to determine the shape taken by all other relationships (family, education, friendship, religions etc). He undervalued non-economic forces and that he wrapped a lot of his beliefs in an economic shell at the expense of non-economic issues. Critics like Sir Karl Popper have claimed that Marxism is unscientific in its methodology.
In particular, he argues that Marxism is not a theory that can be tested and possibly falsified (www.sociology.org.uk). Another criticism of Marx was that, what he wrote was very vague and open to interpretation, especially what would happen after a proletariat revolution.
However, functionalism is criticised for failing to recognise conflict within society. With its stress upon harmonious integration, functionalism never sees conflict as structural or internal to the social system. This theory is also accused of seeing individuals as being empty vessels into which society (via socialisation) pours values and norms.
There is very little recognition of peoples’ perceptions and the meanings they give to social life. Functionalism is accused of having logical flaws and inconsistencies, it often uses a circular argument that can look convincing initially but is in reality illogical. (Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology).
Even though these two theories had weaknesses, they also had strengths. The Marxist theory looks at society as a whole, therefore acknowledging all the social forces involved. It recognises the power interests of different groups. It is good at explaining conflict and change in society. Marxism stresses the role of class struggle (conflict) within society between the proletariat (workers) and the bourgeoisie (owners).
It also recognises that society is organised under capitalism, in that the bourgeoisie aim to maximise profit by exploiting the proletariat (www.sociology.org.uk).
One of the strengths of Functionalism is that it asserts that there are purposes for social conditions or facts. For example, from a functionalist point of view, the newspaper deliverer and the sewer worker all contribute to the function of the entire unit, without serving these purposes, the social structure would not function properly. (www.courseworkbank.co.uk).
This essay has outlined the many comparisons and contrasts which can be made between the functionalism and Marxism perspectives. It appears that Marxism is very much focused on capitalism and conflict, whereas functionalism views society as working together towards complete consensus. To conclude, I believe that both perspectives explain, and help us to understand, the way in which society functions.
However, these are not the only theories. There is also the theory of interaction. This is completely different from the above two because it looks at society as micro and the other two look at society as macro.
http://www.sociology.org.uk/devtrc3.pdf 07 February 2004
http://www.courseworkbank.co.uk/coursework/sociological_perspective_social_change_1531 07 February 2004
Fulcher, J and Scott, J, 2003, Sociology, Oxford University Press
Giddens, A.2001, Sociology 4th edition
Haralambos. M, Holborn. M, 2000, Themes and Perspectives of Sociology
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