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Sociological Explanations for Social Inequality

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1616 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Outline and assess the main sociological explanations for social inequality.

`Inequalities are connected. Gender inequality is impacted by racism, class, homophobia, transphobia, discrimination against disabilities and other issues` (Zevallos, 2014). Sociological theories try to explain these social inequalities. This essay will outline three sociological theories and explain how they account for social inequalities in society today.

Functionalism origins from the works of Emile Durkheim, who was curious in how social order is achievable and how society remains stable. The theory focuses on the macro level of social structure. Functionalism interprets each part of society, and how it contributes to the stability of the whole of society. With the functionalist theory, the different parts of society are composed of social institutions, each with different needs, and each of has a role for the shape of society. The core institutions defined by sociology include family, government, economy, media, education, and religion. An institution only exists because it serves a critical role in the functioning of society. If it no longer serves a role, an institution will die away. When new needs arise, new institutions will be created to meet the particular need.

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Functionalists believe that people in society have an organic analogy in common and society is characterised by consensus. Social structures reinforce norms, values and beliefs creating value consensus and stability. Values, norms and beliefs transmits social norms and values resulting in social cohesion, enabling society to function and a form of social order. Functionalists believe all societies are unequal, and stratification is favourable for society. They argue that meritocracy exists, and inequality is justifiable in society. The talented and hard-working individuals succeed, while the poor individuals remain poor, because they do not work hard enough, for the greater roles. Functionalist`s justify social inequality by arguing stratification and inequalities are important for society to continue to function.

Marxists and Feminists point out that Functionalists have a `rose tinted view of society`, focusing only on the positive functions that institutions perform, ignoring the negatives in which institutions and socialisation can have on certain people. Feminists argue that the traditional nuclear family, which is seen as preferable by Parsons, oppresses women, as they are expected to fulfil the housewife role, which makes women dependent on men for an income, and ends up benefitting men who benefit from women’s domestic labour. Functionalists also ignore the really ‘dark side of family life for example domestic violence and sexual abuse. The Functionalist`s theory is ideological, society needs nuclear families to provide effective socialisation, this in itself reinforces social order.  Functionalism ignores inequalities based on class, gender and ethnicity. Radical Feminists would argue against the idea that the nuclear family is required, as most single parent families, do just a good job as socialising children as nuclear families. Functionalists would still argue that most people are better with clear boundaries, provided by socialisation through institutions as this prevents anomy, which could be regarded as a curse of modern societies. Arguments against this view, is possibly LGTBIQ community, despite most people being socialised into traditional gender norms, many people today develop LGTBIQ identities. `It as if people are just pretending to obey social norms, but when you dig deeper and look at things more qualitatively, this isn’t necessarily the case, and everyone is ‘doing their own thing’ and it is easy to overstate how free people are – people may think their free, but human action is still patterned and things like suicide and educational success still seem to be shaped by an individual’s social background` (Thompson, 2016).

Feminism is `the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men` (The Feminist Tango, No date). Feminists have taken ideas from Marxism and places gender inequalities at a higher significance than class inequalities, because women are oppressed by men. Feminists argue feminist contributions are ignored by male theorists, other sociological theories are sexist towards women and women are ignored from social research. Feminists argue inequalities exist for women because of gender stratification in a patriarchal society. Feminists argue to tackle these inequalities faced by women, that a change in society is required, advocacy for women in all areas of social life and equal opportunities in both private and public areas of life. `Feminists don`t see themselves as victims, but recognise that society will never change without intervention` (Browning, 2017). Feminists would identify patriarchy as the cause of inequalities between genders, men tend to be in position of authority within the home and the workplace, they control the decision making. `Feminists explain social inequality as men are dominating and oppressing women which is unfair, women will not accept it` (Thompson, 2018). Campaigning for women`s rights, equal pay and more equal opportunities. Often referencing to the triple burden women face and glass ceiling women may hit, `the glass-ceiling reduces the capacity of women to reach higher positions in their career` (Thompson, 2018). Jan Phal (1993) found women are economically disadvantaged within the home as men tend to control and manage a couple’s income, in the workplace women’s careers are often cut short to raise children, constraining their lifetime earning potential. When women do reach senior positions, their pay is significantly less than their male counterparts such as at the BBC (Thompson, 2018). `Feminists ignore the ability of successful women who rise to the top as well as raise a family` (Thompson, 2018). Feminists also perhaps displays discrimination and limits diversity towards women, as feminists believe all women are exactly the same and ignores discrimination faced by some men, believing the male role is socially constructed.

Marxism, a sociological theory is `the political and economic philosophy of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in which the concept of class struggle plays a central role in understanding society’s allegedly inevitable development from bourgeois oppression under capitalism to a socialist and ultimately classless society` (Your Dictionary, No date). Marxists argue society is characterised by conflict as a result of the class and capitalist system. The bourgeoisie who have wealth and status, while the proletariat have not, the proletariat are required to sell their labour, while exploited by bourgeoisie and the capitalist system. The capitalist system, creates and reinforces social inequality, as the rich control ideas regarding society through education, work and the media, so the poor believe and are taught that capitalism is beneficial to them.

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Marxists do not accept that, `not all societies are “class societies”` (Livesey, No date). `Marxists have had problem explaining something like the Caste system operating in India in class terms` (Livesey, No date).  Marxists have tended to use a definition of class that surrounds economic relationships and is communism inevitable, ever? `Sir Karl Popper argued that the theories employed by Marxists are non-scientific because they do not admit to the possibility of ever being falsified` (Livesey, No date). Critics of Marxism also argue the theory `of failing to produce theories that can be tested` (Livesey, No date).

So, do sociological theories explain social inequalities effectively, in society today? Perhaps. Or is it, `the way people behave socially, through racist or sexist practices and other forms of discrimination, tends to trickle down and affect the opportunities and wealth, individuals can generate for themselves` – Thomas M (Science Daily, No date)?


  • Browning, H. (2017) Feminism and social inequalities. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/feminism-and-social-inequalities-1.3258067 (Accessed: 30 January 2019).
  • Livesey, C. (No date) Social Inequality: Theories: Marxism. Available at: http://www.sociology.org.uk/notes/simarx.pdf (Accessed: 31 January 2019).
  • Science Daily (No date) Social inequality. Available at: https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/social_inequality.htm (Accessed: 31 January 2019).
  • The Feminist Tango (No date) Available at: https://yesnofeminismtango.weebly.com/feminism-in-a-nutshell.html (Accessed: 31 January 2019).
  • Thompson, K. (2016) Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Society. Available at: https://revisesociology.com/2016/12/15/criticisms-of-the-functionalist-view-of-society/ (Accessed: 31 January 2019).
  • Your Dictionary (No date) Marxism. Available at: https://www.yourdictionary.com/marxism (Accessed: 31 January 2019)
  • Zevallos, Z. (2014) Transgender women`s experiences of gender inequality at work. Available at: https://othersociologist.com/2014/12/01/transgender-women-inequality-work/ (Accessed: 31 January 2019).


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