Sociology is the study of society and the behaviour patterns of a particular group or culture. In contemporary Australian society, a good understanding of this is needed in order to make better social changes to meet social needs. When it comes to trying to explain and understand society, there are two main points of view that a person can take. These are the functionalist view, which is largely based on works by Talcott Parsons, and the conflict view, sometimes referred to as Marxism, as Karl Marx made a significant contribution towards this theory. Although in most ways these views directly oppose each other, ultimately, they are both trying to do the same thing, that is, explain why society is like it is today.
Functionalists see society in a relatively optimistic way. They see groups as interdependent, working together for the good of the whole society. They claim that organisations and groups are largely benevolent, and that they are there for useful purposes. A person who takes the functionalist perspective sees society as generally operating smoothly, and perceives that very little change is needed, as groups being interrelated means that change in one area will have an effect on the whole society. The functionalist view, while useful in explaining structures and functions of various groups in society, tends to gloss over the negative aspects of society, over-explaining them so that happenings which could have a large negative impact on society seem trivial and unimportant. Where consensus is not happening, it is the conflict view that has the better explanation.
The conflict theory perceives society as stratified, that is, having significant divisions. It puts forward a more challenging, questioning view on society. People who support this view claim that in every institution there are some people with more power, opportunities and status than others. This view is about inequalities, disagreement, and the use of power to advantage some while disadvantaging others. The conflict theory is the direct opposite of functionalism in that it focuses on the negative aspects of society, and even when something is functioning relatively well, conflict theorists tend to analyse it until they do find something wrong, making a mountain out of a metaphoric molehill.
So while the functionalist theory and the conflict theory are two extremes of sociological thinking, it is not necessary to take the view of either one or the other. Very rarely are situations clearly black and white. Most often, if not always, there are many shades of grey in between. Therefore it is important to take on the perspective of both theories, and figure out which aspect of a particular situation applies to which theory. A good example of just how much the two opposing views differ is to apply them both to the universal institution, the family.
Functionalists see the family as a vital institution that is needed to carry out several important functions. These functions are:
¨Regulating sexual behaviour and reproduction
¨Protecting children and the elderly
¨Providing emotional support and affection for its members
¨Serving as an important consumption unit for society’s products
(Earle and Fopp, 1999)
These functions generally still work well in the cases of socialisation and reproduction, care of the children and the elderly, and as an economic unit, earning and consuming. However in today’s society, where there is an increasing amount of domestic abuse as well as working single parents or two working parents, members of a family aren’t always able to provide emotional support and affection for other members. Also in today’s modern society there are a great amount of people having sex before marriage, and an alarmingly large amount of teenage pregnancy. Therefore families are not carrying out the function of regulating sexual behaviour and reproduction as much as they were twenty or thirty years ago.
Functionalists often use biological comparisons, claiming that a family is like an organism, with each member having a particular role. These roles are considered natural, and must be carried out for the good of the whole family. These roles involve men going out into the workforce and taking economic leadership while the women stay at home looking after her children and husband and doing all the housework.
The functionalist theory claims the nuclear family as the ‘norm’. The nuclear family consists of two parents, one of each gender, and their children living together in one household. Although this structure is still fairly typical of today’s society, it was much more prevalent in the 1950’s. Today there are many variations of the family, and only about half of families are nuclear. With divorce and single parent families steadily on the rise, and women wanting the same rights as men, functionalists are having to come up with ways to explain these occurrences. For example, with divorce, a functionalist would argue that divorce is a good thing because it means that when people marry the second time round they will have more experience and it will be more likely to last.
However, this theory is considered outdated. In today’s society with a rising economy more and more women are going out into the workforce. But this extra role does not mean giving up their other role as carer. Women end up taking on two roles – that of the carer and the housewife, as well as that of a worker. This is becoming undesirable for women, making them reluctant to marry. The functionalist theory fails to take into consideration the simple fact that things change. And where the functionalist theory doesn’t quite apply, the conflict theory has the better explanation.
The conflict view sees traditional roles in families as limiting women’s lives to caring for their husband and children. They claim that this arrangement is not biological at all, but socially constructed, that is, created by people. These roles have been around and accepted for so long that they seem natural, but the conflict view argues that in actual fact people have been trained over many years into thinking this way.
The conflict theory emphasises disagreement and struggle as a part of any human group. Conflict theorists say that in any group there will be status issues, something will be unfair, and the power will be divided – some will give orders, others will obey. This applies to the family in that it is often, if not always, the parents giving orders to their children/teenagers, who are supposed to obey. Also, even in today’s changing society, men still often have more power than their wives.
In modern Australian society, there are demographic changes in family form, and family households are considerably smaller. The changes in family arrangement and in family values have important consequences for the family as an institution. Fewer women are having large families and the marriage rate has declined, largely because of changes in attitudes to marriage and living arrangements. There is an increasing amount of not only de facto relationships, but also in the social acceptance of these relationships. The divorce rate has also increased, which then in turn influences the number of blended as well as single parent families.
The conflict theory addresses these issues, and asks the important question ‘what needs to be changed in order for the family unit to survive?’ On the other hand, the functionalist theory tries to explain why these things are happening and how they benefit society. Both the functionalist and conflict theories raise some very valid and important points. Functionalism sometimes has a tendency to focus on the past, while the conflict theory places a bigger emphasis on the present. However, both theories are needed if the family is to survive in the future.