Functionalism, Conflict and Interactionism Theories

The family is the basic unit of a society. Many behaviors are learnt in the families which are later translated in the society as people interact during their day to day activities. Children learn different behaviors at first from their family members where they are taught norms and good behavior. Later on as the child gets to interact with friends during the school going age different behaviors are acquired that tends to shape the children giving them social identity in their societies. The behaviors acquired by the children portray the values the society prefers to others. Failure to adhere to the society’s values and norms renders one a social misfit and hence discriminated against during various societal activities like celebrations. The societies keep evolving from one status to the other. There are always struggles which result to conflicts in the society. This has enhanced the social existence of human beings as the best gets to survive in these harsh conditions. These competitions have mostly caused noticeable social advancements in our societies. Sociology intends to acquire knowledge on the social lives of humans, groups of people from different settings and societies at large. The main interest of sociology is to understand the behavior of humans as social animals. To give more insight on this, various theories have been formulated by different scholars who tend to give an understanding as to the reasons behind a certain behavior in human beings. These theories are tools for analysis on various societal behaviors and give a deeper understanding on different behaviors helping make an informed prediction about a certain person or society. This essay focuses on the functionalism, conflict and interactionism theories and their impacts on the family as a social institution.

Social functionalism theory

This theory studies society as composed of different parts which are related and must function together in fulfillment of their roles. In fact, Herbert Spencer, a sociologist used an analogy of comparing different parts of a society to different organs of the body that must coordinate and work together for proper functioning of the whole body (Urry, 2000, p.23). The body has heart, lungs, brain and others while the society has social institutions like the schools, hospitals, families, work places among others that must function together for the survival of the social body. Therefore, different elements of the society like customs practiced by the society, norms guiding the behavior in the society, traditions adhered to by different members and the different institutions that comprise the society must interplay in their functioning. Many scholars have had a great input in this theory like Durkheim. He noted that modern societies are regulated by division of labour. Each person in the society has a contribution towards consensus of the society’s common goals which guide the society in its proper functioning. This creates social order in the society.

Another contributor is Parsons who further developed the works of Durkheim. For survival of the social body, Parson noted four areas as important. These are; adaptation which is the provision of food and shelter to the societies by the economy, goal attainment which entails the society flourishing in the activities that the different members are engaged in and this reinforces the society’s value consensus, integration involves ensuring cohesiveness in the social system and dealing with any deviance by any member in the society and pattern maintenance that insist on the need for socialization in the society. However, Merton, a functionalist, observed that not every part of a modern society works towards the functional unity of the society but some have divergent actions not meant to enhance consensus as stipulated by Parsons (Urry, 2000, p.26).

According to the functionalist theory, there is the need to view the family as both a social and positive institution. The family is believed to be composed of a husband, the wife and their children. These are likened to the various organs of the body that enables it to function properly. The husband is considered the breadwinner, the wife doing household chores and taking care of the children while the children engage themselves in different activities. However, this idea is criticized by feminists who view the female as being oppressed in this setup. A family has a well defined division of labor. Each person has a defined role which he/she has to perform to its fulfillment to create value consensus of shared common goals which enables the family to function properly. Also the family provides food and shelter to all its members hence enhancing the growth of each member and the society at large. Unwanted behaviors are admonished in the family while good morals and values are highly rewarded and encouraged. This theory enables each member of a family to be an active player in their roles with the intention of realizing the common goals. Application of this theory enables integration of the family to the social system. For example, in the case of eating disorder like obesity, families are able to adhere to a healthy diet. Failure to follow this will lead to stigmatization and bad gossip by the members of the society towards your family. The society looks down upon that family for their failure to cultivate a healthy behavior by regulating their caloric intake (Urry, 2000, p.23).

Conflict theory

This theory is advanced by Karl Marx who notes that people acting as individuals and as groups in a society have inequalities in the materials and non-material resources in their possession. Conflict arises when the powerful groups use their influence in terms of wealth and power to exploit the less privileged (Gordon, 1998, para. 3). The form of exploitation comes in the form of use of brutal force or use of economics. It also argues that social conflicts occurring between various groups are what create a society. Marx observes that societies that are stratifies have two main social groups. These groups are the ruling class and the ruled or the subject class. The dominating class gets its powers through the control of the factors of production thus they subject the ruled class to oppressive means with an intention of maximizing their profits. In the modern day society, several institutions like the judicial and the political system are commonly used by the elite class to further domineer the poor.

Economic exploitation results in political oppression as those who own the production factors endeavor to assert their control of states through economic powers. For instance many at times, the rich owners of companies and factories use the police or their security forces to protect their properties and to secure contracts that are unfair between the capitalists and the workers. The structure of the economy shapes the structure which includes the ideas and social institutions which are in agreement with the class structure in the society privileged (Gordon, 1998, para. 8).

Competition plays a major part in the conflict theory. The modern conflict theory has four assumptions which it is based on. These are; there is competition over the scarce resources which include money and property, structural inequalities do exist in all social institutions, there are revolutionary movements as a result of the conflicts between the conflicting interests in the society and finally war which is viewed as a unifier rather than a cause to an end of whole societies.

The family as a social unit is different to the principals postulated by the conflict theory. In a family there is division of labor and consensus building thus there is no competition as exhibited in this theory. The family unit entails to live in harmony through the father acting as the head figure of the family making important decisions in consultation with the wife and the children when need arises. The family ensures equality in sharing of its resources thus avoiding any conflict that may arise during day to day activities. In a family, change occurs through an evolutionary process that is slow and gradual taking into consideration the effects the change will have on all individuals. These changes are meant for the common good of the family rather than a small portion of greedy persons.

Finally, there is need for war activities in families but they strive to live in peace and harmony. As members of a family this theory teaches the members to avoid greediness and development of self interests which may lead to breakdown of the family institution but rather work together to avoid unnecessary competition that may lead to warring relationship (Gordon, 1998, para. 7). A family that is united in peace is envied by many people in the society. It is used as a point of reference to show that it is possible to have a happy family. By so doing the society at large develops morally upright views about the family institution.

Interactionism theory

According to this theory, emphasis should not be on the objective elements of a social system. Instead objectives aspects of such a social systesm should be given priority. Interactionists often base their theoretical perspective on human image rather than on the image of the society (Blumer, 1969, p.50). From the point of view of an interactionism theory, human beings are usually perceived as actors who are intent on imitating the behavior of their peers within the society. In this case a continuous assessment of behavior is necessary. Humans are able to rehearse their actions before executing them. Interaction must take place between two or more individuals. This involves the use of confrontation, language, working with others and exchange. These interactions are aimed at passing a message therefore enhancing communication. It is through such interactions that enable people to become active players in creation of their social world.

The social setting according to which people are found defines the meaning of the symbols that are used. Their use goes as far as the agreement by the concerned. An example is development of language where different people in the world have symbols representing different meanings. This theory further argues that social factors are in a state of continuous change to fit changing circumstances and situations (Blumer, 1969, p.58).

The family acts as an institution where most interactions take place in the adoption of different kinds of character traits. Parents treat their children with due respect and they in turn learn to act towards their parents and other seniors in the society based on the meaning obtained from their parents. In understanding language and the traditions of the society children learn how to interpret different symbols from the elder members of the family. Proper interaction within the family and the society at large helps us develop positive self concepts which are then displayed to the outside world. The family as a unit of society is where cultural values are learnt through interactions with others and through observation of the social structures present in our homes and society. The family is thus viewed as an important centre for interaction and for learning good morals that enhance the status of the society.


The family is the basic unit of the society and its where most of the cultural norms and behaviors are acquired. Several scholars have advanced theories which tend to give an understanding of the social structures. Social functionalism theory views the society as a body composed of various organs which must work together for proper functioning while the conflict theory notes that inequalities do exist in our societies due to unequal distribution of resources and this creates conflict between this two social classes. Change occurs through a revolution as a result of war. Finally, the interactionalism theory focuses on the objective aspects but rather on the subjective aspects of our social life and major structural aspects of social systems with Interactionists basing their theoretical perspective on human image rather than on the image of the society. It is worth to note that whichever theory one adopts good morals should be instilled in our children at the family level and this will definitely be translated to our societies.


Blumer, H. (1969). Symbolic Interactionism: Perspective and Method. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Gordon, M. (1998). Conflict Theory. A Dictionary of Sociology. Web.

Urry, J. (2000). Metaphors. Sociology Beyond Societies: Mobilities For the Twenty-First Century. New York, NY: Routledge.

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