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Marxist and Functionalist theories of class and inequality

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3215 words Published: 18th May 2017

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‘Marx believed that our society was in a state of continual conflict between the working class and upper class; evaluate the Marxist theory of social class using Functionalism and Postmodernism theories of class’.

Compare and contrast Marxist and functionalist explanations of class and inequality.

There are several sociological perspectives and they all have different ideas and theories about class and inequality, including Marxist (Karl Marx a conflict theory) and Functionalist (Emile Durkheim, Robert Merton a structural consensus theory). In this essay I will show the different theories of social class from these two perspectives. I will then conclude by evaluating the Postmodernist view of social class.

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Marxism was introduced by Karl Marx (1818-1883). Karl Marx believed that society was divided into two classes, the Bourgeoisie (ruling class) and the Proletariats (lower/working class) (Burton, 2013). He believed that that the bourgeoisie exploited and oppressed the proletariat. Marx followed the structural conflict perspective and believed that institutions such as education, the media and the law are used by the bourgeoisie as a way to define and influence social class (Marx, 1818 cited in Blunden, 2013). Marx also believed that Capitalism would lead to polarisation of the two classes with the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer. This polarisation makes it harder for the poorer classes to achieve in life as well as achieving social mobility. He believed that as the capitalist society advanced the small business owners would be absorbed by the bourgeoisie and multinational companies. Marx wanted the proletariat to overthrow the capitalist society of the bourgeoisie and hoped for a classless society where wealth and profit was divided equally (Anon, n.da).

There has been much criticism on Marx’s theory of social class the first being that this theory is much too simplistic in that society cannot be based on only two different classes. In a modern society class is not as simple as Marx claimed it was and the communist society that Marx wished for has been tried and failed, Russia is a prime example of this. In addition there are many other divisions within societies that Marx did not consider, such as age, race, gender etc. Another major criticism is that Marx’s idea if monopolization has not come to fruition as although there are many large national companies there are also many small businesses as well despite the process of polarisation still occurring in some areas (Anon, n.da). The Marxist theory of class, although it does hold some valid theories, is flawed in that in a modern society there are many processes in place to ensure that workers are not exploited, such as unions and fair wages laws. Also in a modern society conflict within the workplace is rare as those who are unhappy do have the option to improve and move up or down positions, so this would suggest social mobility is possible (Anon, n.da).

Functionalism was introduced by Emile Durkheim (1858-1917). The main principle of functionalism is that each part of a society is interdependent and contributes towards making society work as a whole. Each of these parts has to be working correctly but if something does go wrong then society has mechanisms to deal with them, such as the police and the legal system. Functionalists also believe that every social institution has many important functions to perform (Durkheim, 1858 cited in Burton, 2013). Therefore stratification is necessary for every society as it helps to maintain social order and stability if every part knows its role (Davis & Moore, 1945 cited in Anon, n.d). Durkheim introduced the theory ‘anomie’, or ‘lack of social norms’, that could cause instability or chaos. This concept bought to light many instances that could affect a society in a negative way and especially the behaviour of individuals towards one another (Emile Durkheim org, 2013). Another concept put forward by Durkheim “the sum of all of its parts is larger than the whole”, defined at the introduction of the structural/functionalist theory, is as relevant today as it was when first introduced (Gamble, 2008).

There has been much criticism on the functionalist explanation of class, the first being that many of the vital jobs in modern society are not necessarily rewarded with high status or income, this is in total contrast to the functionalist belief that those vital jobs should be rewarded as so. Another big criticism of this approach is that it does not take into account individual differences, in that individuals can make an impact within an institution rather than the institution impacting the individual (Anon, n.da). This theory, much like the Marxist theory, is simplistic in the idea that all of society accept class inequality and that this inequality is inevitable for society. Postmodernists claim that society has moved on since the modern period and this has been caused by globalisation, the reduction of the power of the nation state, economic changes, fragmented social classes, and relativism, a way of looking at the world that includes every theory as valid. As societies change on a daily basis there are more and more claims that social class is becoming less significant and no longer a useful tool to measure societies by and some suggest that it is only deficient culture that keeps people in what would be called the lower classes (Burton, 2013). Postmodernist theories suggest that an individual’s choice of goods, such as supermarket choices, and lifestyle activities is now a much more important indicator of an individual’s identity. This identity is then what creates a person’s politics, sexuality and family structure etc. (Education Forum, n.d). This would then suggest that a postmodern society is defined by diversity and choice rather than social class.

Within the postmodernist theory there is the emphasis on the extent to which family diversity is changing, the decline in the ‘normal’ two parent two children families, the growth of single parent families, cohabitation, gay marriage and increasing ethnic diversity. They say there is no longer a fixed family norm that people can refer to (Education Forum, n.d). As society is much more diverse than it was many years ago class is no longer relevant. This perspective believes that there cannot be a single theoretical explanation of society, whether by individual parts or as a whole, as society only exists as a reassuring entity. They argue that in a modern society the mass media plays a huge influential role in creating the image of what a society should be. Postmodernists Lyotard and Baudrillard believe that theories such as Marxism and Functionalism are ‘meta-narratives’ or ‘grand-narratives,’ meaning they both elaborate that society is under control, and it can be seen in some places that this is not the case (lyotard & Baudrillard, n.d cited in Anon, n.db).


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