Assess the functionalist explanations of social inequality

Asses the Functionalist explanations of Social Inequality. (40) Social Inequality refers to any difference between groups or individuals in society which results in one having inferior life chances than the other. Functionalists believe these inequalities are the result of the meritocracy we live in. This is a system based on the idea that social stratification is necessary and desirable for the society. Functionalists argue that inequalities have a purpose; they are functional for society. Functionalism is a structural theory based on the notion that society is based on shared values. This consensus means that society will be in a state of equilibrium and there is harmony, as a result of which there will be social solidarity. Inequalities, functionalists argue, exist in all societies and are inevitable and necessary. Durkheim argued that industrial societies are complex.

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Within these complex societies social inequality and social difference were an inevitable and important part of maintaining social order and preventing a state of ‘anomie’ or chaos. He believed that society needs specialists to undertake the various jobs and roles required to make it run smoothly. This harmony could be achieved by a division of labour whereby people have different jobs based on their talents. Some of the jobs would have higher status than others and greater rewards and power, for example jobs such as lawyers, doctors and barristers. People would accept this as long as they could see that the system was fair. Conflict might occur but it could be controlled by socialisation. Socialisation was the process whereby shared values could be passed from one generation to the next. Disharmony might arise when people felt the system was not fair, for example, when large bonuses are paid to bankers during a recession. Parsons developed on Durkheim’s ideas and stated that in industrialised society’s stratification, and therefore inequality, exists on the basis of which roles are agreed to be the most important, and therefore the most functional for society.

The agreement occurs because people are socialised into the shared norms and values of society, initially by the family, and subsequently by education and other agents of socialisation. The value consensus that results is what holds society together and it gives it social order. Sharing a common identity gives people a sense of purpose and a commitment to the maintenance of society. These values also give people common goals such as to work hard. People have a number of roles that women are most naturally suited for and the instrumental roles of men. These roles are ascribed rather than achieved. Two other functionalists, Davis and Moore, have built on the ideas of Parsons and Durkhiem. They argue that society needs the most talented people to perform the most skilled jobs and therefore has to pay them accordingly and give them high status. There is a meritocracy and the most able will, through the examination system, be allocated to the most important jobs. Their class position will reflect this role allocation. There is an expectation that the most talented will be prepared to make sacrifices early on to be educated and trained, and for this they will be rewarded later.

The examination system will ‘sift and sort’ people into appropriate jobs. This means that the system is legitimated. The stratification that results will ensure those at the top work to maintain their position and those lower down try to better themselves. However people do not all start from the same point, therefore a true meritocracy is not possible. Society is not harmonious. Functionalists present an over rosy picture of social inequality being a positive force for the society. There is evidence of conflict between social groups in the form of strike as well as disaffection amongst, for e.g. young people who cannot get work. Differences between men and women are socially constructed. Their identity is formed by the expectations the society holds against their gender, therefore they will behave the way the society expects them to. There is not a consensus with regard to which are the most important jobs; for e.g. bankers are paid very well but most people would probably argue that nurses are more important to society.

Some groups start with more power and status and are therefore are able to ensure they and their children get access to the education that will mean they then get a higher status jobs. Life chances are affected by status and wealth and the poor have less access to opportunity to gain access and wealth. Tumin argued that going to universities is not really a sacrifice, although many people in the UK would probably argue it will be as fees go up. The work of the functionalists is not supported by empirical evidence, particularly with regard to the idea that there is a value consensus. Marxism is based on the macro theory which, like functionalism, is concerned with the structure of society. Marxism explains inequalities in societies such as the UK by examining the ways in which the bourgeoisie exploit and oppress the working class or proletariat. Inequalities are a result of the economic arrangements people make to meet their basic needs.

Bowles and Gintis used Marxist ideas to explain how the education system reproduced the ideas of the ruling class and legitimated inequalities. They argue students’ experience of schooling is an alienating one. School specifically prepares students for their future as workers in a capitalist system. They argue that school does not prepare everyone in the same way it prepares them according to their future position in society. Bowles and Gintis believe that schools are not meritocratic and that claiming they are is part of the ruling class ideology persuading people that inequalities are fair. Neo Marxists have developed on the ideas of Marxism. They argue that the infrastructure and the social relations that arise from it are important in understanding inequalities, but so too is the role of ideas and culture. They particularly focus on a number of areas to explain inequalities. Areas such as the role of the media; the dominance of the ruling class; the nature of the class structure; and the relationship between cultural, social, and economic capital.

Weber argued that stratification is not just based on the economic relationships people enter into, as Marx argued, but the standing or status a person had and the political influence or power a person might have as a result of membership of a political party or trade union. Class, status and party are all linked to power. However, he accepted that class is the most important determinant of the three in relation to the acquisition of life chances and inequality. Postmodernists argued that the world was becoming increasingly characterised by uncertainty and diversity which cannot be explained by the old grand narratives, that is, the traditional sociological theories. The service sector is now bigger than the primary and secondary sectors. People do not see themselves in class terms; they construct their identities via the media and what they consume. For postmodernists the key to inequalities lies in the development of the post industrial world and the fact that the production of knowledge has taken precedence over manufacturing.

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