I.What is a Theoretical Perspective?
Perspectives might best be viewed as models.
Each perspective makes assumptions about society.
Each one attempts to integrate various kinds of information about society.
Models give meaning to what we see and experience.
Each perspective focuses on different aspects of society.
Certain consequences result from using a particular model.
No one perspective is best in all circumstances. The perspective one uses may depend upon the
question being asked. If one is exploring bureaucratic organization, then one might like to use a
perspective that is concerned with social order. On the other hand, if one is concerned with social
inequality, then perhaps the conflict perspective is more useful.
Perhaps the best perspective is one which combines many perspectives.
II. The Functionalist Perspective
The origins of the functionalist perspective can be traced to the work of Herbert Spencer and
The problem of maintaining social order is a central problem for understanding society.
Understanding society from a functionalist perspective is to visualize society as a system of
interrelated parts. All the parts act together even though each part may be doing different
Institutions, such as family, education, and religion are the parts of the social system and they
act to bring about order in society.
Integration of the various parts is important. When all the "parts" of the system work together,
balance is maintained and the over all order of the system is achieved.
Social structures in society promote integration, stability, consensus, and balance.
A. A System With Parts
The parts of society, while performing different functions, work together to maintain the stability of the
whole social system. In order to understand the idea of "social system," it may be helpful to visualize a different kind of
system. For example, biological organisms are systems. In fact, many sociologists use biological models
to explain human society. The biological metaphor is successful in that it calls attention to how a social
"organism" consists of various unique parts. Those parts, in turn, function together to support and
maintain the whole system.
B. What's the Purpose?
Functionalists, like Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton, are interested
in how the parts of the social system contribute to the continuation of the social system. When
functionalists encounter the various aspects of society, they may ask "What is its purpose?" A primary
purpose of all parts (institutions like police, newspapers, religion) is to encourage consensus.
Merton (see Robertson, 1989:12) distinguishes between manifest functions, latent functions, and
1. Manifest Functions
Manifest functions refer to functions that are obvious.
The manifest function of schools is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The manifest function of the military is to defend the nation.
The manifest function of criminal justice is to keep the streets safe for a society's citizens.
2. Latent Functions
Latent functions are functions that are unrecognized. They may even be important functions, but their
consequence is not obvious.
College students, in the course of pursuing their education, may make good friends.
Merton described college as a "mate selection market" where students meet prospective
A perspective that is highly concerned about order is by definition concerned about what happens when
social order breaks down. Merton uses the term dysfunction, which refers to a negative consequence
that may disrupt the system. Dysfunction also conjures up the notion that a social phenomenon can be
functional in one setting and dysfunctional in another.
Examples: Over Population
C. Critique of Functionalism
1. Functionalism Resists Change
Invoking a biological model has certain built-in assumptions connected to it. Biological organisms do not
perform very well when they encounter great change in their environment. Society, however, is not
biological. It is social. Social systems can tolerate much greater change than can biological systems.
2. Functionalism is Inherently Conservative
Change tends to be viewed as a negative consequence. All the parts of society act as a part of a unified
system. Altering one part of the system has impact on all the other parts. There fore, there is
a tendency is to protect existing institutions out of a fear that change in one area of society will
adversely influence other parts of society. Fear of creating disorder in society is often used as a
justification for avoiding change.
III. The Conflict Perspective
Conflict theorists see society less as a cohesive system and more as an arena of conflict and power
struggles. Instead of people working together to further the goals of the "social system,"
People are seen achieving their will at the expense of others.
People compete against each other for scarce resources.
Basic inequalities between various groups is a constant theme of conflict theory.
Power, or the lack of it, is also a basic theme of conflict theory.
Since some people benefit at the expense of others, those who benefit use ideology to justify
their unequal advantage in social relationships.
Marx is a conflict