Conflict Theory vs. Functionalism

What's the Difference?

Conflict theory and functionalism are two major sociological perspectives that offer different explanations for social phenomena. Conflict theory focuses on the idea that society is characterized by inequality and competition for resources, leading to conflict between different social groups. It argues that social order is maintained through the dominance of the powerful and the exploitation of the less privileged. On the other hand, functionalism emphasizes the interdependence and harmony of different parts of society. It suggests that social institutions and norms serve specific functions to maintain social stability and cohesion. While conflict theory highlights social inequality and power struggles, functionalism emphasizes the importance of social integration and cooperation.


AttributeConflict TheoryFunctionalism
FocusEmphasizes social conflict and inequalityEmphasizes social order and stability
View of SocietySociety is characterized by power struggles and competitionSociety is a complex system with interdependent parts
Role of ChangeChange is driven by conflict and social revolutionChange is gradual and serves to maintain social equilibrium
Role of InequalityInequality is a fundamental aspect of societyInequality is necessary for social order and specialization
Role of InstitutionsInstitutions perpetuate and reinforce social inequalityInstitutions contribute to social stability and cohesion
View of Social ChangeBelieves social change is necessary for progress and equalityBelieves social change should be gradual and functional
View of ConflictConflict is inherent and necessary for social changeConflict is dysfunctional and disrupts social order

Further Detail


Conflict Theory and Functionalism are two major sociological perspectives that provide different lenses through which to understand society. While both theories aim to explain social structures and processes, they have distinct approaches and assumptions. This article will compare and contrast the attributes of Conflict Theory and Functionalism, highlighting their key concepts, perspectives on social change, and views on social inequality.

Key Concepts

Conflict Theory, developed by Karl Marx, emphasizes the role of power, domination, and conflict in society. It posits that society is composed of different social groups with competing interests, such as the bourgeoisie (owners of the means of production) and the proletariat (working class). Conflict theorists argue that social order is maintained through the dominance of the ruling class, who control resources and exploit the working class for their own benefit.

On the other hand, Functionalism, also known as Structural Functionalism, views society as a complex system composed of interrelated parts that work together to maintain social stability. This perspective, influenced by Emile Durkheim, focuses on the functions and contributions of various social institutions, such as family, education, and religion, in maintaining social order and cohesion. Functionalists believe that these institutions serve specific purposes and contribute to the overall functioning of society.

Perspectives on Social Change

Conflict Theory sees social change as a result of ongoing conflicts and struggles between different social groups. According to this perspective, social change occurs when the oppressed groups challenge the existing power structures and strive for equality and justice. Conflict theorists argue that social change is necessary to address social inequalities and create a more equitable society. They emphasize the importance of social movements and collective action in challenging the status quo.

Functionalism, on the other hand, views social change as a gradual and evolutionary process. It suggests that social change occurs in response to the needs and demands of society. Functionalists believe that social institutions adapt and change over time to meet the changing needs of individuals and society as a whole. They see social change as a natural and necessary part of maintaining social equilibrium and ensuring the smooth functioning of society.

Views on Social Inequality

Conflict Theory places a strong emphasis on social inequality and its perpetuation by those in power. It argues that social inequality is not only a result of individual differences but also a product of systemic and structural factors. Conflict theorists highlight how social institutions, such as the economy and education system, contribute to the reproduction of social inequalities. They advocate for addressing these inequalities through social and political change, aiming to create a more just and equal society.

Functionalism, on the other hand, acknowledges the existence of social inequality but views it as a necessary and functional aspect of society. Functionalists argue that social inequality serves a purpose in maintaining social order and stability. They believe that individuals are rewarded based on their contributions to society, and social stratification motivates individuals to perform different roles and responsibilities. Functionalists argue that some level of social inequality is essential for the smooth functioning of society.


In conclusion, Conflict Theory and Functionalism offer distinct perspectives on society, social change, and social inequality. Conflict Theory emphasizes power struggles, domination, and social conflict as driving forces in society, advocating for social change to address social inequalities. On the other hand, Functionalism focuses on the interdependence of social institutions and their contributions to maintaining social order, viewing social change as a gradual and adaptive process. While Conflict Theory highlights the negative consequences of social inequality, Functionalism sees it as a necessary aspect of society. Both theories provide valuable insights into understanding the complexities of social structures and processes, offering different lenses through which to analyze and interpret society.

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