This essay will examine two theoretical sociological perspectives on society and how it functions. It will compare and contrast Marxism and functionalism. By describing and evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of both perspectives.
Marx called the system in which we live in, capitalism, He divided it up into two basic divisions, the ‘bourgeoisie’ (the owners of production), the bourgeoisie own all the means of production for example the farmland and factories and the ‘proletariat’ (The Workers) sell their skills and labour to the bourgeoisie. This is a simple view of a complex social phenomenon; theoretically more social classes should be identified. It fails to take into account any sub divisions.
The bourgeoisie or ‘ruling class’ benefit the most from the way that society operates and the proletariat do not and therefore gain far less than they deserve. Marx believed that the proletariats would, in the end, refuse to conform and revolt, destroying the bourgeoisie in order to become free for oppression and gain social mobility.
“What the Bourgeoisie, therefore produces, above all, is its own grave diggers, (Marx, Engels, 1884).
Marx thought that the bourgeoisie did not improve society but created situations of crisis, what he did not take into account was the money that they were putting back into society and that fact that without them the majority of the proletariat would be without work.
The superstructure for example: The Government, legal system, religion and the mass media are all owned by and used by the bourgeoisie to create ‘false class consciousness ‘ amongst the proletariat in order to avert them from rebelling from their exploitation (Haralambos,2002,p.2).
According to Marx capitalism is the newest type of class system, but it will also be the last. A communist society in which the means of production will be equally owned will replace capitalism, he thought that the proletariat will form unions, political parties and revolutionary movements enabling communism to overthrow capitalism (haralambous, 2002, p.7).
What Marx failed to do is set a time frame for the revolution. Some unions that have previously revolted against the bourgeoisie have failed and temporarily sent society into disarray. The power in economic systems is separable from other sources, male and female inequalities can not be explained in economic terms (Giddens, 2009, p.93).
The theory is inadequate because it only fully explains a proportion of society and does not take into account individuals ideals and ambitions.
A positive aspect of Marxism is that it highlights inequality and institutions that foster and perpetuate inequality it has brought a different perspective to examination of social systems and it has demonstrated a social conscience. The focus of Marxism has lead to the formulation of social policies and programs.
Functionalism is a sociological perspective that society is based on consensus, consensus assumes that norms and values in society are generally agreed and that social life is based on co-operation, rather than conflict (Lawson, 1996, p.48). What it fails to consider is that some people to not agree with the way that society functions and that not everyone holds that same norms and values. It is the oldest yet still is the most dominant theoretical perspective in sociology.
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Functionalists such as Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), argued that the key to understanding human behaviour is understanding socialization. He used the analogy of the human body, with each part of society having a function (a purpose) like each vital organ for example; the government of society was compared to the human brain. If one part of society fails the whole system would fail, like the body would if it was to lose a vital organ. Parsons (1971) even viewed the whole world as a system of societies.
Functionalists believe that people and their social roles are produced by society and individuals themselves do not produce a society. He claimed that individuals are products of their influences e.g. families, friends, educational and religious background and the media that they are exposed to. They are born into their place in society, play their roles in it and then they die, without at all effecting how society functions, society does not and it continues to work long after they are gone(Moore,2001,p.6). For functionalists social institutes are believed to ensure that the socially acceptable patterns of behaviour are passed on or reproduced. For example family, education and the media socialise people into the key values of society this includes, respect for authority and the hierarchy (Moore, 2001, p.9). Stratification which is inevitable in societies unites people because it derives from shared values.
Durkhiem (1938) identified four main characteristics of crime he argued that crime is a social construct, which can actually benefit society because crime strengthens bonds between people. It reinforces norms and values, and a limited amount of crime is necessary to stop society stagnating.
“Crime could be reduced if individuals were controlled, but this would prevent development of positive deviants who go against societies norms and values, yet move society forward”, (Durkhiem, 1938).
Parsons (1965) identified religion as an important function in society as it helps people is crises, enabling them to carry on playing their social roles, allowing society to function normally.
Parsons also identified that in order for society to function everyone had to continuously play their own roles, he identified the ‘sick role’, where the function is to play the role of being ill and to get better as soon as possible in order to get back into your role. In order for the system to perform, all roles must be filled by those best qualified to perform them, he even thought that those who are unemployed had a role to play in order for those in higher authority to keep their roles. He stated that those in who successfully played their roles will be ranked highly and will receive rewards, although it can be argued that the mechanism (social stratification) for insuring effective role allocation; attaches unequal rewards and privileges to positions in society. However a criticism of Functionalism is that it is, descriptive and classificatory and only gives names for society and social changes, and does not explain them.
Although both Marxism and Functionalism see society differently, they also have some similarities: they are both positivists, built using scientific research methods. Positivism is called macro sociology because it looks at society as a whole; however looking at society from this perspective does not take into account the individuals and their norms and values.
They both have a ‘top down’ approach, the belief that viewing society as a real ‘thing’ which exists above and beyond us all as individuals is the best way to view society. Both theories agree on the importance of ‘totality’ (marsh, 2006)
The favoured research methods to look at behavioural patterns is those that generate sets of statistics such as questionnaires- known as quantitative methods this is not always that best approach to research society, because not everyone is studied.
They both believe that man is forced into his choices by the structures and systems in society, although they both have different views on this, functionalists believe that this is right and it has to be for society to work, and people accept society as it is. Marxist on the other hand believe that it is wrong and unfair, and that man will fight in order to create a fairer society
In contrast to Marxism which recognises social change and aspires towards it functionalism fails to recognise it altogether, and assumes every institution is a positive for society.
Looking at the evidence of both Marxism and functionalism, the society, today inclines more towards functionalism. Most people are happy with the system they live in. If too many people were to try and change it society would not work as well; an example of this is the post office strikes; people did not receive bills, money or other important mail, this forces society to have no sympathy for the postal workers. This is also an example of Marxist theory not working as he said it would; although it did not last too long and some people did benefit. This gives us reason to question if we only accept society as it is because as a society we are ‘lazy’, if we were to unite as a society, could we overthrow the bourgeoisie as Marx suggested we would?
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Lower class citizens are keeping the higher classes in work, this keeps money within the system in turn they receive state benefits from the taxes that they pay. If all the lower classes were to try and move up the social ladder they may be no reason for some of the bourgeoisie, for example if all criminals and deviants, reformed and started working there would be no need for, law enforcement services, county courts and probation officers. Some amount of crime is necessary to keep higher classes such as the uniformed services in work.
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