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Ralf Dahrendorf vs Talcott Parsons

Ways in which the theories are structural functionalist and conflict paradigm

Structural functionalism is a broad perspective in anthropology and sociology which aims to interpret the society as a structure having interrelated parts. Functionalism aims to address the society as a whole regarding the functions and responsibilities of its constituent elements including norms, traditions, customs, and institutions. These components are like organs of a body which work together for the proper functioning of the body.

Talcott Parsons was heavily influenced by the works of Max Weber and Durkheim as he synthesized much of his work and philosophies into action theory, all of which he based on the system-theoretical concept. He also applied the methodological principle of voluntary action into most of his works. Parsons believed that the social system consists of actions of individuals.  He started by espousing the significance of the interaction between two people faced with different choices to make concerning how they can act,  choices which are constrained and influenced by some social and physical factors.  Parsons determined and argued that every individual has expectations of the actions of the other and reaction to his or her behaviors and that these expectations and reactions would be deprived of the accepted values and norms of the society they inhabit. Parsons emphasized that in a general context, there would be no perfect fit between norms and behaviors, and such behavior can never be complete or perfect. This is what makes Parsons’ arguments fall under structural functionalism. This is because of his assertions that it is the behaviors of individuals in a society that determines the values, behaviors and norms of that society.

Parsons found social norms as specifically always problematic to him. It is worth noting that Parsons never claimed that social norms and values were agreed upon and accepted and that this reasoning should act to prevent some kinds of universal law.  For Parson, whether the social values and norms were accepted or not was simply a matter of historical question.  Since behaviors are repeated in more interactions, these expectations are institutionalized or entrenched thereby creating a role. The institutionalization of behaviors makes Parsons’ argumenta fall under structural functionalism paradigm. Parson defined a role as a normatively-related participation of an individual in a concrete social interaction process with a specific and concrete partner. Although theoretically, nearly any individual is capable of fulfilling any role, such an individual is usually expected to conform to the values and norms which govern the nature of the roles which they play in the society.  Additionally, one individual can and always fulfills more than one role at the same time. In one hand, an individual can be seen as being a composition of the roles which they play or inhabit. This is true specifically when individuals are asked to describe themselves since they will tend to answer concerning their societal roles.

Later parson developed the conception of roles into the collectivities of all the roles which complement each other as they fulfill functions in the society.  Some roles are found to be bound in the social structures and institutions (educational, legal, economic, and even gender-based). All these roles are functional since they help the society to operate and fulfill all its functional needs so that the society can run smoothly.

Parsons argued that a society where conflict does not exist and where everyone knows what is expected of them, and where expectations are met consistently is in a perfect equilibrium state. Social control and social process are the key processes for attaining this equilibrium.  Socialization is specifically important because it helps in transferring the accepted values and norms of the society to the individuals within the system. Parson argued that perfect socialization could only be realized when all of these norms and values are internalized and when they were integrated into an individual’s personality. Parson noted that this point was completely different and independent if an individual was, for example, autonomous or creative rather than being conforming or passive. He argued that creativity and individuality, to a considerable extent, are phenomena of the institutionalization of the expectations, and are culturally constructed. Socialization is also supported by the negative and positive sanctioning of the role behaviors which meet or fail to meet these expectations (Parsons, pp. 458-459). Punishment may be informal or more formalized through institutions such as mental homes and prisons. If the two processes were perfect, then the society would become unchanging and static, though this may not occur in reality. Parson also recognized this and stated that he treated the structures of the system as problematic and which were subject to change, and that his arguments concerning the equilibrium do not mean empirical dominance of stability over change. He, however, believed that these changes occur in a relatively smooth way. Individuals who interact with the changing situations can adapt through the process of role bargaining. Once roles are established, they can create values and norms which may act to govern further action and are thus institutionalized thereby creating stability across social interactions. In cases where adaptation process cannot adjust due to immediate radical changes or sharp shocks, structural dissolutions occur, and in the processes, new structures are formed, or even a society dies. This model explains the moving equilibrium and emphasizes the need to have social order, and explains Parson’s views on structural functionalism paradigm.

Ralf Dahrendorf theories are based on the conflict paradigm theories of societies. According to Dahrendorf, the problem of conflict in the society is no less complex than that of interrogating societies.  As a generalization, Dahrendorf argued that there are wars and that conflicts exist between political parties thereby indicating two different kinds of struggle. He argued that regarding a given society, there are a lot of conflicts which can be brought upon such a society from the outside or even generated from within. Dahrendorf attempts to synthesize the Marxian class concepts, class conflicts and class interests on one hand and the concepts of modern theory and methodology of action on the other as the analyses social change and conflict.  In this regard, Authority seems to be his focus of social conflicts, and this plays an important role in social structures, as both a source of conflict and an integrative force. In each of the social structures, there are two different classes, the ruled and the rulers. These classes have a conflicting interest which is defined based on the role expectations. Dahrendorf appears to be forced to use the voluntaristic explanation of change and conflict in his bid to try and theoretically account for the occurrences within the same social structure. Also, Dahrendorf fails to fulfill his promise of providing a concept which describes the social change that transcends the given structures as proposed in the Marxian arguments. According to Giddens (pp. 123-125), Dahrendorf’s view of conflict is that it is between the dominating groups and the subject groups and that the authority within any given social associations is dichotomous. He talks up a war between two different political parties as different kinds of struggles, and those there two forms of conflicts. The first conflict is one which arises from within a country or sovereign nation and the historical conditions. The second conflict arises from the expressions of the general societal structural features.

A brief recollection of the sociological theory of conflict shows that the contribution of sociology to the understanding of conflict is greater in some instances than in others. The main aim of a sociological theory of conflict is to overcome the arbitrary nature of historical events which derive these events from the structural elements. Dahrendorf started his conflict theories by arguing that neither Marxism nor structural functionalism alone is capable of providing an acceptable perspective that can describe advanced society. Based on his assumptions, Dahrendorf argued that a society can be divided into the ‘obey class’ and the ‘command class,’ and that class conflict describes the situations of the struggle between individuals with authority and those without.  He first claims that conflicts must have two contending parties, and this view also appears to be too simplistic to describe an advanced society. Dahrendorf argued that it is possible to distinguish innumerable classes. He posited that classes could be found every so-called imperatively c-ordinated group, whether it is a non-professional theatrical group, a business corporation, or a football club. In such groups, it is possible to discern two opposing groups; the subordinates and the superiors.

Dahrendorf argued that in a sense, and regarding sociological analysis, conflicts can only be considered to arise when they can be shown coming from the structure positions independently of the orientation of populations and the historical arguments. What makes Dahrendorf’s arguments more of a conflict theory is the argument concerning exogenous conflicts which he argues are components of the sociological structures. He provides four main points which illustrate his arguments concerning the society. The conflict theorist argues that as groups experience conflicts, their boundaries become stronger and are guarded better.  Dahrendorf argued that conflicts help in setting boundaries between different groups within a social system as it strengthens the consciousness of groups and their awareness of separateness, thereby establishing an identity of groups within the social system.  The conflict paradigm postulates that conflicts helps in making external boundaries and enables groups to experience high levels of internal solidarity.  When groups engage in conflict, their members tend to feel a sense of camaraderie than when it was peaceful times.  Such members will tend to see themselves as more alike and part of the same family who exists for the same reason. Members will also tend to engage in more group rituals and with greater fervency thereby producing greater and improved emotional relationships and ties between the members and this can also create a sense of sacredness.

Ralf Dahrendorf’s theory of power and dialectical change is also an illustration of the conflict paradigm theories.  He sees conflicts as present universally in all human relations. However, he does not consider the inevitability of conflict within members of a group as human nature, rather, he sees it as a normal part of how the society is structured and how social order is created.  He argues that it is a power which defines and enforces the guiding principles of society. In fact, Dahrendorf defines power as factual and a fact of human life. Unlike Parsons, Dahrendorf argues that social order is a consequence of constraint rather than as some consensus surrounding social beliefs.

Current Event Article

Liptak, A. (2017). Court refuses to Reinstate Travel Ban, Dealing trump another legal loss. Retrieved from <>.

What Talcott Parsons would say

Talcott Parson would support this article by stating that the refusal by the court to reinstate the Travel ban which President Donald Trump ordered was based on the concept of the importance of roles and how roles are bound in the social structures and institutions including court and the education system. Parsons could have argued that the conflict between the ninth circuit court and the president are based on roles which ought to augment each other to find an equilibrium but has failed. Parson argued that different roles within the society which are capable of augmenting each other are important in ensuring that the society runs smoothly. With this regard, the president has a role to play as the head of the executive arm of the government, and the court also has a role to play as a member of the judiciary arm of the government, and that these roles should complement each other to ensure that the society or the country can operate smoothly (Chilcote, pp. 56-58). As the executive head, the president has the role to give executive orders, but these orders should be in line with the judiciary system if they have to make the society operate smoothly. However, conflicts normally arise when the different roles between the president and the court do not match or fail to deliver the expected results. Secondly, Parsons could have used the concept of expectations in the society to explain his support for this article.  Parsons argued that expectations between different individuals and groups in the society also explain the functioning of a society. Since courts are social structures and institutions in the American society, Talcott Parson would have argued that they have a role to protect what is ‘American’ (Liptak, Adam, 2017). When the judges argued that preventing refugees from coming to the United States was ‘un-American,’ they were deriving their arguments from the historical structures and institutions which, according to Parson, defines the roles, norms, and behaviors, and values of members of the society.

Parsons emphasized that in a general context, there would be no perfect fit between norms and behaviors, and such behavior can never be complete or perfect. Parson would have argued that there cannot be a perfect fit between the court rulings which are norm-based, and the presidential orders which are behavior-based, thereby making such executive orders to be incomplete or imperfect.

Ralf Darhendorf would critique this article based his arguments on the conflict paradigm. Dahrendorf argued that there are differences between political parties and that this indicates the different political struggles in society. The executive orders by President Trump to bar refugees from coming to the United States is an apolitical struggle which conflicts with the Democrat stand that refugees should not be barred from entering the country. The difference in opinion between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party confirms what Dahrendorf terms as political struggle due to the inherent differences between any two political parties in society. He could have argued that decision by the court to deny reinstatement of the travel ban on refugees and from the seven countries is not based on the historical and structural institutions in the United States but rather are based on the differences between the president and the court, or the differences between the Republican and the Democratic Party. This way, he could have argued d these differences is what brings conflict between the executive orders and the court rulings (Dahrendorf, pp. 173-174). Dahrendorf argued that in a sense, and regarding sociological analysis, conflicts can only be considered to arise when they can be shown coming from the structure positions independently of the orientation of populations and the historical arguments.

The problems of the theories

Structural functionalism- Talcott Parson

In my opinion, Talcott Parson’s theory of structural functionalism has several flows. First, as a structural functionalism theory, it fails to account for the social changes or the structural and social conflicts and contradictions. Secondly, it is a static theory without any concept of change. Although Parsons Theory allows for some change, it can be deduced that it is an orderly change process. It is important to recognize that the society is faced with several changes because it is dynamic and that these changes in the society bring about the conflict. This aspect has totally been ignored by the major proponents of structural functionalism theory. This makes Parsons Theory appear to be static and highly inaccurate. Although it is true that Parson’s theory places some emphasis on the equilibrium and the need to return to social order, it can be argued that this is subject to the period in which Parson was writing his theory. Therefore, this is a theory which has been bypassed by time and may not work in the contemporary society.

In my opinion, Ralf Dahrendorf’s arguments concerning conflict relation between interests oriented behavior and norm-oriented behavior give rise to what is known as the reductionist consequence. Dahrendorf’s theory is characterized by legitimate authority, with rules expected to rule while the ruled are expected to obey. It is also conceivable that the ruled expect the rulers to try and preserve the status quo. However, what is inconceivable is that the rulers expect the ruled to try and overthrow the present order, thereby leading to a two mutually exclusive expectations, to revolt and to obey. This is a consequence of equating role expectations and interests, and this contradiction solely lies on the role of the ruled. It is this contradiction which exists between accepting legitimate authority and resisting it that makes Dahrendorf’s theory less convincing. The incidence of illegitimacy and legitimacy of authority are in an inexplicable relation with each other in the same way rebellion and obedience of the ruled. Based on the role theory context, this dilemma becomes difficult to be solved.


Talcott Parson’s theoretical views were heavily influenced by Max Weber and Durkheim. He is mostly known for his theory of social action and as one of the major proponents of structural functionalism social theories. He argued that for a system or society to function properly, there must be a need for the different structures within that system to work towards an equilibrium which satisfies the needs of that system. In his voluntaristic Theory of Action, he held that actors are individuals who are viewed as goal seeking and also have alternative means they can use to achieve those goals. He argued that both exogenous and endogenous actions can influence the actions of actors within a society. However, Parsons’ theories fail to account for the social changes or the structural and social conflicts and contradictions. Dahrendorf, on the other hand, argued his social theories based on the conflict paradigm and stated that conflict is normal in a society with divergent views and political and democratic struggles. He maintained that power could only be used to maintain social order. If he were living today, he would have argued that Donald trump’s executive orders are important because they would ensure that there is social order.




Works Cited

Chilcote, Ronald H. Theories of comparative politics: the search for a paradigm reconsidered. Westview Pr, 1994.

Dahrendorf, Ralf. “Toward a theory of social conflict.” Journal of conflict Resolution vol.2, no. 2 (1958): 170-183.

Giddens, Anthony. Central problems in social theory: Action, structure, and contradiction in social analysis. Vol. 241. Univ of California Press, 1979.

Liptak, Adam. Court refuses to Reinstate Travel Ban, Dealing trump another legal loss. 2017. Retrieved from <>.

Parsons, Talcott. “The professions and social structure.” Social forces vol. 17, no. 4 (1939): 457-467.

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