Karl Marx and Max Weber were the first conflict theorists in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Following Marx and Weber were three mid-20th century conflict theorists: Lewis Coser, Ralf Dahrendorf, and Randall Collins. Coser draws his theoretical ideas from Simmel. Like Simmel, Coser maintains that conflict is healthy for society. In contrast, Dahrendorf combines theoretical ideas from Marx and Weber. Dahrendorf sees power as the main feature in all social relationships. However, Collins incorporates Weber, Durkheim, and Goffman’s theories to provide a micro-level orientation to conflict theory. Collins also used geopolitics at a global level to examine political conflicts historically and geographically.
According to Marx and Weber, the root of most social conflict comes from an unequal distribution of class, status, and power, as well as a group’s sense of deprivation caused by class (Allan, 2007). Coser, Dahrendorf, and Collins added to Marx and Weber’s theories. These conflict theorists assert that the degree of deprivation is essential in creating class consciousness and critical awareness. In particular, Coser discusses the consequences of inter and intra group conflict. Internal conflict can build up over time between groups and become explosive. Internal groups have a psychological need to be in conflict with each other.
Modes of releasing hostility and developing authority with a corresponding justice system are necessary for healthy internal conflict. Further, external conflicts between groups create well defined and guarded boundaries to distinguish membership. Group membership becomes exclusive, which is necessary for group survival. “Conflict sets boundaries between groups within a social system by strengthening group consciousness and awareness of separateness, thus establishing the identity of groups within the system” (Coser, as quoted in Allan, p. 219, 2007). Coser maintains that conflict can have functional consequences. Some functional consequences of conflict are: social change, innovation, and increased centralized power.
Structural Functionalism was the dominant theoretical approach in the United States from the 1930s through the 1970s. Structural Functionalism asserts that the various parts of society are interrelated and form a complete system. “Just as the body is a system with specific parts (e.g., arms, legs, liver) that ensure its overall functioning, so, too, society is a system with specific parts (family, government, economy, religion, etc.) necessary for its very survival” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 349). Two key structural functionalism theorists are Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. Parsons theories were highly abstract. Parsons developed a social action theory to explain why people behave the way they do. He explained human actions as a result of three systems: social systems, personality systems, and cultural, and behavioral systems (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008).
These systems are not separate entities; rather together they form a simplified model of society. “Social systems, personality systems, and cultural systems undergird all action and all social life” (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 352). Parsons applied his theory to the American family in Sex Roles in the American Kinship System (1943). Parsons proclaimed that “many women succumb to their dependency cravings through such channels as neurotic illness or compulsive domesticity and thereby abdicate both their responsibilities and their opportunities for genuine independence” (Parsons, 1943 as quoted by Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 382). Sex Roles in the American Kinship System (1943) incited criticisms as Parson endorsed traditional gender roles, and asserted that dire consequences would occur if these roles were breached.
Robert Merton’s theoretical influences were broad. He read extensively, and there are elements of Durkheim, Weber, Simmel, and Marx in his theories. In contrast to Parson’s abstract theories, Merton was a middle-range theorist. Middle range theories “lie between the minor but necessary working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during day-to-day research and the all-inclusive systematic efforts to develop a unified theory that will explain all the observed uniformities of social behavior, social organization, and social change” (Merton, as quoted by Appelrouth and Edles, p. 383). Merton was best known for his distinction between manifest and latent functions.
Whereas manifest functions are the conscious intentions of the actor, latent functions are the unintended consequences of the action. Merton used the example of the Hopi rain dance to illustrate manifest and latent functions. The manifest function of the rain dance often does not produce rain, and is called superstitious by some. However, the rain dance continues to be performed for a function that the actor is unaware of, which is the latent function (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). “…This behavior may perform a function for the group, although this function may be quite remote from the avowed purpose of the behavior” (Merton, 1949 as quoted by Appelrouth and Edles, 2008, p. 391). Even though the Hopi rain ceremony does not produce the manifest function of producing rain, the ceremony does bear latent functions that sociologists and anthropologists can study.
Parsons Sex Roles in the American Kinship System (1943) received a lot of criticism in the 20th century. This 20th century criticism stems from Parsons endorsement of traditional gender roles, and the dire consequences that would occur should these roles be breached. Interestingly, the 21st century critiqued the 20th century critiques. The 21st century does not claim that Parsons assertions were not sexist, rather that the 20th century critiques were sexist (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). As Appelrouth and Edles (2008) note, Parson’s pivotal premise was not sexist at all. Parsons believed that changes that are functional for one part of the system will produce changes that are not necessarily functional for other parts of the system. Appelrouth and Edles (2008) further noted the sexism in the 20th century in the premise that women could enter the workforce without significant changes being made to other social structures and systems, and without a major increase in quality daycare and childcare facilities.
How would Parsons view 21st century families? I maintain that Parsons might find 21st century families dysfunctional. Twenty-first century families do not have the rigid structure that Parsons describes. Parsons wrote from a 1940s, 1950s white male middle class perspective, and could not picture the perspective of other social classes. However, families today are socially and racially diverse, especially in the US, and even the white middle class family does not fit Parsons proscribed role definitions. In the 21st century, there is substantial role confusion in families. Gay and lesbian couples adopt children and raise them with same sex parents.
More fathers stay at home to take care of their children while the mother is the primary breadwinner. Increased educational opportunities for women have produced a professional class of women who sometimes earn substantially more than their husbands. Families in the 21st century are also deciding to have fewer children, and are marrying at a later age (and sometimes not at all). In short, the 21st century has produced more: women in the workforce, single parent households, stay-at-home dads, same sex parents, and racially blended families. It is arguable whether families in the 21st century are dysfunctional. Certainly there are dysfunctional families; yet, many families perform well in the new social order.
Would Parsons view the 21st century change in sex roles as negatively affecting the family? Indeed, some would argue that changed sex role definitions create confusion, and affect the family and the socialization of children negatively. However, sex role changes in the 21st century are logical when one looks at the situation using Parson’s AGIL scheme. The 21st century has produced rapid changes, and as a result, family roles have had to change in order to adapt to the new environment.
Social changes and changes in the job market have forced people to conform. Therefore, families have had to adapt to the new economic system (A), and therefore have new goals (G), which create changes in the social system with norms and interactions (I), and thus cultural systemic change occurs to adapt to the new order (L) (Appelrouth and Edles, 2008). Hence, the new social order is more functional for the 21st century. Therefore, it can be concluded that Parsons fixed and inflexible role structure is only one depiction of a functional family, as portrayed by 21st century families.
Merton’s manifest and latent functions are applicable as a functional analysis tool for social organizations. In evaluating social programs, assessors may tend to just investigate manifest functions. When querying a social organization as to whether they achieved their program goals or intended purpose, the answer received in the manifest function gives little depth of information. Granted, this type of manifest inquiry is important, as it reveals whether programs have achieved their stated goals.
Nevertheless, this manifest inquiry can be achieved simply by questioning agency personnel. On the other hand, utilizing latent inquiry, the assessor can discover deeper theoretical problems. By simply examining manifest functions, the evaluator becomes merely a recorder and transcriber of behavior and actions. In contrast, latent inquiry provides more depth to an assessment. Latent inquiry discovers unrecognized information that cannot be obtained by a manifest inquiry. Latent inquiry discovers consequences, motivations, and paradoxes, which provide useful assessment information. Therefore, when used together, both manifest and latent functions are a valuable functional analysis tool for sociological inquiry.
Allan, K. (2007). The Social Lens: An Invitation to Social and Sociological Theory. California: Pine Forge Press.
Appelrouth, S., and Edles, L. (2008). Classical and Contemporary Sociological Theory. California: Pine Forge Press.
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