What are the differences between Emile Durkheim and Karl Marx's views on the structure of society, the maintenance of society order and the nature of society change?

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pohnpei397 | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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In sociology today, there are three main perspectives or theories.  Emile Durkheim was one of the major influences behind one of these perspectives while Karl Marx founded another.  Thus, these two men have very different views about society.

Durkheim is one of the main thinkers behind the idea of structural functionalism.  Functionalism holds that society is essentially like an organism.  Every part of society, every institution, has a function in the “body” of the society as a whole just as every organ in the human body has a function in that physical body.  Order is maintained almost automatically as there are institutions that are built into society to make sure that it remains orderly.  Change tends to happen gradually in an evolutionary way just as organisms change and evolve gradually.  This is a theory that holds that society is rather stable and even fairly consensual.

Marx’s thinking is the main basis of the conflict perspective on sociology.  In contrast to functionalism, the conflict perspective holds that society is made up of competing groups.  These groups jockey for power and dominance.  Order is maintained by a group that wins the competition.  That group can maintain order through the naked use of power or through subtler forms of social control.  Change, too, happens through conflict.  There will be times when groups that have not been dominant experience a change in their fortunes and are able to gain victories over the dominant groups.  This only happens through conflict between the groups.  This is a theory that sees society not as a consensual and stable thing but rather as something that is ridden with conflict.

In these ways, the views of Durkheim and Marx on society are very much opposed to one another.

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