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Functionalism versus Conflict Theory: On the Origin of Social Change

Functionalism portrays a view of society that is more likely built on consensus and balance among the different parts to maintain order and interrelation of the whole. Social change emerges out of inherent impetus for change, and is a slow and orderly process enabling people to adapt to the new structure or order. By contrast, conflict theory views the society as having inherent strains or inequalities making the society change dynamically as a result of power struggles. Functionalism is seen as the direct opposite of conflict theory.

It is a theory based on the assumption that society is built upon order, and that the norms and values of the society are legitimate and would benefit all. Functionalists usually employ the more tangible factors like advances in technology or growth in the population as the primary catalysts for change. Social changes happen in a deliberate and gradual occurrence. Factors such as growth in population, stimulate advances in technology leading to the expansion of society’s improvement in the level of awareness about their immediate environment, thus a gradual change takes place.

The functionalist perspective acknowledges the idea that change is also essential to correct emerging social dysfunctions, but it has to go through in a sluggish phase so that people and institutions can acclimatize with the changes without going through rapid disorientations or disorders in the society. The theory of functionalism explains that each institution or parts of the society like schools, religions, government laws, family and others, play their own roles for the society to function.

It is possible for society to attain equilibrium given that it is made of interdependent parts that exist because they serve a distinct function or role. Its view on conflict arises from the assumption that people who struggle, do so out of their intrinsic desire to live a more fulfilling life condition. Conflict theory on the other hand, gives emphasis on the struggle between classes arousing from inequalities in the society. It recognizes the fact that antagonism is always present in the society that causes change by means of conflict.

The theory emphasizes the supremacy and power of a social group who owns the largest share of economic wealth. Social order is then maintained and controlled by these elite groups who are also the ones who manipulate societal rules to suit their own interests. Conflict theory, as oppose to functionalism, views social change as a process of overthrowing those who are dominant, spurred by the experiences of inequalities in the system. Struggle is a means to create order, equality and change. Social change is then a process of moving from different levels of development in which the main goal is geared towards a classless society.

Whereas functionalism views the society as composed of different parts that perform their unique role to make the system work as a whole, conflict theory looks at society composing of groups that compete with each other on the basis of their individual interests. And while functionalism views social change as a result of gradual and innate desire for development, conflict theory sees social change as emerging from rapid upheavals to overthrow forces that cause inequalities in the society. Reference Strasser, H. and Randal, S. C. An Introduction to Theories of Social Change. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 2004.

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