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Functionalist explanations of social inequality Essay

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Outline and Asses Functionalist explanations of social inequality (40marks)

Functionalism is a concencus theory that focused on the unity and harmony of society. Functionalists believe that society is a system that works together in order for it to funtction. Inequality is the existence of unequal opportunities and rewards for different social positions in a society and recurrent patterns of unequal distributions of goods, wealth, opportunities etc. There are many types of inequality such as social class inequality, gender inequality, age inequality and ethnicity inequality. Functionalists believe that these inequalities do exist and that they are beneficial to the society and are vital for society to function.

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Parsons states that we need order, stability and cooperation based on a value consensus. He believes that the relationship between the different groups is one of reciprocity. This means that the different groups are good because they share a give and take relationship and are useful to each other. Parsons also talks about stratification systems (which is the existence of different layers in society)as inevitable and functional, we need this hierarchy in order to survive.

Davis and Moore also look at the stratifications system and argue that it occurs in every known society and that in order for the stratification system to work we must have effective role allocation. Role allocation ensures that the roles in society are filled by those who are best suited to them and will do the best job possible. This benefits society because it means we will have good lawyers to fight our cases in courts, good doctors to treat us when we are sick, good politicians to run the country and so on. All societies need a mechanism for this to happen and ours is social stratification.

However the social stratification system has been heavily criticized by many sociologists and has been argued to be a device rather than an integrating force by which some groups of individuals in society will gain a the expense of others. This is a very manipulative system and would be hard to see as beneficial to society in the eyes of those who are being exploited.

Going back to role allocation, functionalists believe that women although may feel they are treated unequally are actually filling the roles best suited to them. They would argue gender efficiently creates a division of labour and that women are better suited to roles such as looking after children and being housewives and that this is why they are typically the gender to fill these roles. However feminists would argue that functionalists don’t take into account resistance, in contemporary society women aren’t the only people looking after the children and they are capable of having a career.

The functionalist approach to social inequality has also been criticized by Marxists, the Marxist theory unlike the functionalist theory is a conflict theory, they believe that in all stratified societies there is a ruling class and a subjective class. The ruling class exploits and oppresses the subject class causing conflict between them. Bourdieu says that the rich and powerful are favoured and the working class are duped into accepting their failure. Surprisingly the ruling and subjective class actually have a mutual dependence on eachother. Wage labourers need to sell their labour power in order to survive however without them there is no production, therefore the ruling upper class who own the means of production also need the labourers in order to survive. Yet despite this mutual dependence the relationship between these two social groups is in no way equal. This is the main focus for Marxists, however they have been criticized for being too focused on class and not looking at other factors of inequality such as ethnicity.

An alternative viewpoint would be the postmodern view, they often turn to the consumption of society and focus on the ‘pic and mix’ society (Polhemus) This is where the existence of multiple identities mean that the old social class, age, gender and ethnicity issues of inequality are no longer relevant in our contemporary fragmented society.