The theory of consensus has strong roots within the functionalist perspective. Functionalism is a macro approach which sees society as a system of interdependent parts, with a tendency towards equilibrium. A state of perfect equilibrium would be apparent in a society where there is no conflict, where every individual knows what is expected of them and where these expectations are constantly being met. There are functional requirements that must be met in a society for its survival, such as the need for the reproduction of the population. For Talcott Parsons, the set of needs or functional imperatives are met by four subsystems: economic, political, kinship and cultural. Social order is seen to be maintained through value consensus, whereby values are internalised through the early socialisation process and individuals learn the social norms and values of their social position. For norms to be in existence there must be consensus amongst people within society. Early sociological thinker Emile Durkheim focused on the concepts of social solidarity and socialisation, providing the basis for the work of Parsons. Social order and socialisation are the key processes for Parsons in attaining equilibrium. Socialisation is important as it is the mechanism for transferring the accepted norms and values of a society to the individuals within the system. Perfect socialisation occurs when these norms and values are completely internalised so that they become part of the individual’s personality [Ritzer 1983:196]. Socialisation is supported by positive and negative sanctioning of role behaviours creating the need for consensus in relation to the expected behaviour [Cuff and Payne 1984:461]. Society would become static and unchanging if these two processes were perfect and in reality this would be unlikely occur for long. Parsons observes this fact and states that he treats “the structure of the system as problematic and subject to change” [Parsons 1961:37] and also that his concept of the tendency towards equilibrium “does not imply the empirical dominance of stability over change” [Parsons 1961:39].
Interdependence is created through the division of labour and the obligations of social relationships. The functionalist perspective sees the behaviour in society as structural. Parsons stated that “the social system is made up of the actions of individuals” [Parsons and Shills 1976:190]. Parsons determined that every individual has expectations of another’s action and reaction to their own behaviour, and that these expectations are derived from the accepted norms and values of the society they inhabit [Parsons 1961:41]. These social norms are generally accepted and agreed upon producing consensus within society [Gingrich 1999]. Robert Merton fundamentally agreed with Parsons but he noted that his theory was far too generalised [Holmwood 2005:10].
Sociological thinkers like Parsons who greatly emphasise the existence of consensus are often characterised as consensus theorists based on the model of consensus that their views are built upon. Similarly, the sociologists who build theory on the model of conflict have come to be known as conflict theorists.
Although functionalism emphasises the presence of consensus, it does not deny that conflict exists. Conflict is seen to be minimised as individuals accept the inevitability and necessity of social inequalities and although it is accepted it is considered to be of small importance in comparison with the need for consensus and stability. Consensus theorists argue that inequality is functional for society as it can act as a means of encouragement as well as an incentive. Therefore, it can be seen that consensus theorists start from the element of culture and then use it to explain inequality within society. This leads them to stress things like competition as being a core social value.
Similarly to its functionalist counterpart, conflict theories agree that both society and culture influence individual behaviour, nearly but not to the point of determining it, by the way it structures the way individuals are able to think and act. Conflict theorists stress the extent to which individuals, groups and social classes within a society are in competition with each other for whatever it is that people consider to be important. This gives rise to one fundamental problem – conflict theorists, by definition; argue that groups in society are always fighting each other. On the other hand, the structuralist perspective leads conflict theorists to suggest that the structure of society produces social order, and in many respects, consensus. The defining characteristic of any society from a conflict perspective is inequality. Inequality is a main school of thought for Marxist thinkers. Marxism is a macro approach which sees society as a social system based on relationships arising out of conflicts of interest. For this reason, conflict theorists have a tendency to be from a Marxist or feminist perspective; for example, Marxists argue that economic inequality is at the heart of all societies. Unlike consensus theorists such as Parsons, conflict theorists do not start with culture when attempting to explain conflict in society. Instead, they reverse this notion and begin with the starting point that every society will be economically unequal. From this, those who are most powerful in society, (the Bourgeoisie for example), try to socialise the least powerful into accepting inequality in anyway they can. Whereas consensus theorists see conflict as being temporary, conflict theorists regard conflict as an on-going and persistent element of any given society.
Ralph Dahrendorf is primarily associated with conflict theory. He disagreed with Merton’s criticism of Parsons’ scheme being too generalised. He thought instead that Parsons was insufficiently explicit about the values that informed his approach. For Dahrendorf, the ‘consensus’ model with its emphasis on synchronic analysis and on processes tending toward integration was part of a long standing conservative tradition in social thought reaching back to Plato. It was ideal in the sense that it rested on a model of society in which change and conflict are wholly absent. As Dahrendorf suggested:
“It may well be that society, in a philosophical sense, has two faces of equal reality: one of stability, harmony and consensus, and one of change, conflict and constraint. Strictly speaking, it does not matter whether we select for investigation problems that can be understood only in terms of the equilibrium model or problems for which the conflict model is required. There is no intrinsic criterion for preferring one to the other” [Dahrendorf 1958:127]
From this, it can be drawn that Parsons had placed consensus above conflict for no explicit reason. It is for this reason Dahrendorf suggested that sociological attention should be redirected towards conflict. Dahrendorf in fact prefers the term coercion theory to conflict theory. This can be illustrated through his statement whereby he says that “It is not voluntary co-operation or general consensus but enforced constraint that makes social organisation cohere” [Dahrendorf 1959]. In coercion theory, change and conflict are found throughout society. They are the norm rather than the exception.
The work of both Dahrendorf and Parsons illustrates how viewing society in a different light can lead to their categorisation of being either a conflict or a consensus theorist. It can be said that there are two different interpretations of the same thing. Conflict stresses how common values are the end result of economic organisation and inequality, once the most powerful have been able to convince everyone else that things like economic inequality are socially necessary. Consensus on the other hand stresses how common values are the starting point for social organisation. Simplistically, the functionalist perspective offers us a view of society made up of parts, all contributing to the harmonious operation of the whole, a conflict perspective offers a view of society split into essentially two groups, aggregates, or classes, whose interests conflict. Therefore, typically a sociological commentator has the tendency to follow one of these routes. The concept of ideology helps to analyse the interrelations of conflict and consensus. Power, ideology and conflict are always closely connected. Many conflicts are about power, because of the rewards it can bring. Those who hold most power may depend mainly on the influence of ideology to retain their dominance, but are usually able also to use force if necessary.
Early sociological commentators, as well as modern ones also, are characterised as either conflict or consensus theorists dependant on the dominance of these particular concepts in their work. Although conflict and consensus models appear to be widely spread in their principles more so than what they are. The two positions are by no means wholly compatible. All societies probably involve some kind of general agreement over values, and certainly involve conflict. Parsons had in fact sought to account for both power and consensus in his model. Therefore, it is difficult to argue that the two models could be kept entirely apart and used separately for different purposes. It is more realistic in fact to assume that there is a crossover between the two standpoints and that a medium would be best suited. This was illustrated by John Rex who said that “all actual cases lie somewhere along the continuum between perfect cooperation and perfect conflict” [Rex 1961:54]. However, in order to be able to understand each commentators views clearer, it is more simplistic for them to be characterised as either being conflict or consensus theorists. However, although each of the early commentators can be divided into either conflict or consensus theorists, it would be wrong to view them as solely part of this category as conflict and consensus are both apparent in any given society, be it in the past or today.
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