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Can The Functional And Conflict Theories Help Us Understand Change?

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Sociology is the study of people and society. It provides the people who study it with the knowledge to understand different social groups, and the roles of the social activities that take place within them. This knowledge allows people to see past the way in which we commonly understand our world, and see things in a more objective manner, making it easier to explain society in an unbiased way (Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2003:2).

Different theories, viewpoints and social facts help us to achieve this understanding of society (Holmes, Hughes & Julian 2003:4). The Functional Theory tells us that every different aspect of society has a role to fulfil, and that, while those roles are being fulfilled, society is healthy. Should an individual or institution deviate from that role there must be consequences that benefit society in order to keep it "healthy". The Conflict Theory tells us that roles are not fulfilled for the benefit of society as a whole, but only for the benefit of the elite, and that there is much inequality within society. Is it possible that two such differing viewpoints can both give an understanding of our world and how it changes?

Functionalism views all parts of society together, as a complete system, much like biologists view the organs of the human body as a complete system (Haralambos & Holborn 1995:7). Societal behaviour is seen as structured and social relationships follow certain rules, values, roles and norms, resulting in relationships that follow patterns of behaviour. The social structure, or system, functions when there is order and stability brought about by the different institutions of society carrying out their roles, such as how the family instils social roles, norms and expectations in the next generation. Members of society understand these roles because of 'Value Consensus': values of society that are agreed upon and integrated into the social structure. These shared values provide social unity and co-operation between members of society. Values are learned through socialization and, once learned, must be maintained. Individuals who deviate from the values of society must be controlled or rehabilitated (Haralambos & Holborn 1995:8-9). Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917), one of the first social theorists, held the opinion that shared values and customs were the binding for the social system. He explained social change as being caused by a growing division of labour, stating that it was taking the place of religion as the basis for social cohesion. Durkheim says that this social change happened so quickly that it resulted in an unstable society. He described this state of society as being in a state of 'anomie', and it left members of society feeling that their lives were meaningless (Giddens 1997: 8 - 9).

The Conflict Theory gives a different view on how society works together. Conflict theorists feel that individuals don't have a common goal of keeping society healthy, to the point that they see differences of interest between social groups that results in a constant flow of conflict and inequality within society (Haralambos and Holborn 1995:9). With Marxism, the differences of interest relate to the production of goods; Marxists believe that this production is used as a means of benefiting the minority bourgeoisie class while exploiting the majority proletariat class to provide such benefits.

In order for the production of goods to occur, certain social relationships must be entered into and 'forces of production' (knowledge, materials, labour and technology) made available. Together, these provide the infrastructure of a capitalist society, in which a labourer's wages must be less than the value of that which they produce (Bilton, Bonnett, Jones, Skinner, Stanworth & Webster 1996:84 - 85). Other aspects of society, such as the various institutions and the belief and value systems, are known as the superstructure, and these are influenced and shaped by the infrastructure. This means that any significant changes in the infrastructure will result in similar changes with the superstructure (Haralambos & Holborn 1995:10). Conflict theorists see social change within a capitalist society as being intentional and brought about by well-informed members of society (Bilton, Bonnett, Jones, Skinner, Stanworth & Webster 1996:86). This occurs when the proletariats are



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