What is the difference between structural functional theory and conflict theory? 

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pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Structural functionalism and conflict theory are two of the three main theoretical perspectives in the field of sociology.  You can read detailed discussions of both perspectives by following the links below.  The two perspectives are different because they have different ideas about how the various institutions and customs of a society come to exist.

Structural functionalism tends to see society as an organism.  In a living organism, every part of the body has some role to play.  All of the body’s parts help to keep it living.  Functionalists say that society is just the same.  All of the institutions of our society have, in essence, evolved to keep our society stable.  For example, our system of marriage has evolved, you could argue, to provide an outlet for people’s sexual needs while, at the same time, ensuring that children will be provided and cared for.  Thus, marriage helps to keep society stable.

The conflict perspective, by contrast, believes that society is created by conflict and struggle.  From this point of view, various groups in society are constantly competing for power and resources.  Conflict theorists would say that the institution of marriage arises out of conflict between men and women.  It creates a system in which men are given the upper hand.  Women, for example, tend to do most of the work of keeping the home and raising the children even when women work outside the home.  Men are traditionally seen as the head of the household and generally have more sexual freedom than women.  In short, marriage has evolved out of gender conflict as a way for men to maintain their power in society.

Thus, structural functionalism and the conflict perspective are very different in terms of how they account for the characteristics of human society.

kmj23 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In sociology, structural functionalism is a school of thought which tries to understand the organization of society. To do this, it focuses on the various parts of a society, like the family and education system (which it calls "social institutions"), and tries to understand how these different institutions influence each other and function, more generally. (Hence the name, functionalism). It is also interested in how these institutions impact the individual.

In contrast, conflict theory takes a completely different view of society. As the name suggests, conflict theorists, like Karl Marx, argue that there is a conflict between different social groups because of an unequal distribution of power, wealth, and resources. In Marx's  classic understanding, for instance, he suggests that society is divided into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The latter are the victims of exploitation because it is the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production (the factories, workshops, and so on). 

In contrast to functionalists, conflict theorists believe that social institutions, like the family, are designed to maintain the power of one social class over another and to propagate this unequal distribution of wealth and resources.

Functionalism, therefore, seeks to understand the organization of society through its social institutions, while conflict theory argues that society is in the midst of a power struggle between different social groups.

For more information, take a look at the reference links provided.

thetall eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Structural functionalism views society as a system made of subsystems serving different crucial functions aimed at ensuring the society’s stability and continuity. Thus, all the different subsystems are required to play their roles in concert to ensure the greater system works.

The different subsystems can be viewed as body organs responsible for the proper functioning of the body representing the society. Some of these subsystems include government, religion, and education.

Conflict theory views the society as a collective of different groups with varying interests that are likely to spark conflicts. Inequality among members of a society belonging to different social classes is a manifestation of the perpetual economic conflict in a society.

Conflict theory supports competition to address the issues of inequality, while functionalism emphasizes cooperation in order to maintain the status quo and ensure social stability.

meegcartier | Student

In the field of sociology, there are three main theories that attempt to explain why society operates the way it does. These theories focus on the relationships between various institutions. 

Structural Functional Theory views society as a collection of many different but equally important parts that collaborate to promote a strong and stable condition. More specifically, subsections of society, such as government organizations, businesses, and families, work together in a systematic way that is generally good for the whole. This produces a healthy and balanced environment and ensures everything runs smoothly. 

Social Conflict Theory views society as a place of inequality that generates both conflict and change. The main motivation for viewing society in this way is to eliminate social inequality and understand it on a deeper level. Struggle is highlighted through limited resources, power, and prestige, all of which are permanent aspects of society and equally important when producing social change. 

Analyzing a society with these theoretical approaches produces different but equally valuable results and ultimately accomplishes more for its people.