Sociologists have construed 3 broad paradigmatic perspectives of human sociality, particularly social stratification: symbolic interactionism, functionalism, and conflict theory.
Symbolic interactionism emphasizes that abstractions are at the core of tribes and societies, and that symbols are the basis of both comity and conflict. George Mead introduced this perspective to American sociology in the 1920s. Among others, Mead observed that an individual’s sense of self is a social product.
Functionalism considers society a complex, entangled system, with groups and individuals contributing to its holistic functioning and stability. The functionalist perspective deems institutions as the collective means to meet individual and social needs. Functionalism’s lineage runs through theories spun by Auguste Comte, Émile Durkheim, and Herbert Spencer. American sociologist Talcott Parsons considered the social fabric woven by a combination of socialization and social control.
Conflictism, like functionalism, views society as a social system. But conflictism considers societies held together by coercion from the dominant factions. Whereas functionalism views society cohering via consensus, conflictism sees social dynamics as an ongoing competition for societal resources.
Conflict theorists argue that those who control the levers of political power apportion society’s resources. Derived from Marx’s considerations of class struggle, conflictism sees social stratification arising from class conflict and blocked opportunity. Stratification is itself a system of domination and subordination in which a ruling elite exploits and controls others (even if indirectly, such as by limiting opportunity and thereby upward mobility).
Each of the 3 perspectives contributes pieces in understanding societal dynamics. Symbolic belief systems form the core of the culture that creates and holds tribes together. Socialization correspondent with the dominant culture generally creates compliant social participants.
Functionalism and conflictism dispute the extent, and hence importance, of societal control. Functionalists believe society is more cooperative than coercive. Conflict theorists turn that notion on its head by observing that coercion results in cooperation.
German-born American sociologist Herbert Gans illustrated the functionalist perspective with his explanation of how poverty serves as a social good by getting society’s dirty work done. In doing so he unwittingly proved conflict theorists’ point.
The existence of poverty ensures that society’s “dirty work” will be done. Every society has such work: physically dirty or dangerous, temporary, dead-end and underpaid, undignified and menial jobs. Society can fill these jobs by paying higher wages than for “clean” work, or it can force people who have no other choice to do the dirty work – and at low wages.
In America, poverty functions to provide a low-wage labor pool that is willing – or rather, unable to be unwilling – to perform dirty work at low cost. Indeed, this function of the poor is so important that in some Southern states, welfare payments have been cut off during the summer months when the poor are needed to work in the field. Poverty persists not only because it fulfills a number of positive functions, but also because many of the functional alternatives to poverty would be quite dysfunctional for the affluent members of society. ~ Herbert Gans
Gans observed how poverty serves valuable social and economic functions on the cheap; poverty as a product of exploitation built into the system – exactly what conflictism posits.