The sociological functionalist perspective (one of three main perspectives) describes society as a system of interconnected parts working together to create a harmonious stable society. Each system institution--family, church, education, economics, etc--adds to the equilibrium of the whole system. Within this functionalist social system there may also be dysfunction. A key feature of this duality is that a dysfunctional system, such as crime, may also be functional in that it heightens awareness of shared values and shared bonds within society. Functions in this system may be of two types: manifest and latent. Manifest functions are those that were planned and intended. Latent functions are those that are unintended and perhaps hidden. For example, one system is an economy with a manifest function of organizing work, goods and capital and a latent function of defining the distribution of wealth.
The sociological conflict perspective opposes the functionalist perspective in that it describes society as a system wherein different sectors compete for power and resources, with one set of groups and interests dominating other sets of groups and interests. A popular explanation of society's competing conflict defines the group holding the patriarchal (male) hierarchy of power as having domination over women, over the economy and over political authority. Conflict perspective is traced to the works of Karl Marx who saw the historic, economic stages society goes through as leading to deepening divisions between those who hold the means of production and those who are put to work by them to earn wages for their labor.
These two perspectives are very different from each other. One looks for harmony and equilibrium, while the other sees conflict, inequality and domination.
There are actually four theoretical perspectives of society. The functionalist and conflict perspectives are just two of these. These different theoretical perspectives or theories help people to understand how society works and to understand patterns of behavior.
Someone with a functionalist perspective of society believes it is a complicated system that seeks equilibrium or balance of all its elements. Rather than seeking conflict, this perspective believes that society seeks to work together much as the human body parts work together to make a person take action.
Someone with a conflict perspective of society believes it exists as one single entity in itself, always changing and driven by conflict over class. To someone with this perspective, life is about constant competition over limited resources. From this perspective, those with more resources yield more power. This constant conflict allows society to grow and change over time.
In the conflict perspective, on the other hand, society is made up of people with clashing interests, especially economic interests. Inequalities do not exist because they serve some purpose, they exist because of the oppressive behavior of dominant groups. The functionalist model, or some variations of it, emphasize consensus, which is, according to the conflict model, always misleading.
In the functionalist perspective, every societal institution exists because it is helpful to society. All institutions play some role in making the society more stable. For example, then, there can be poverty in society because the threat of poverty is needed to make most people work hard so they won't be poor. The conflict perspective sees things in terms of dominant groups being in conflict with subordinate ones. In that perspective, poverty exists because the poor lose in their conflict with the non-poor.