There are different views and theories as to the role inequality plays in society. Two common theories are the Functionalist and the Conflict theories. Those of the conflict theory see individuals in society as fighting a constant struggle for resources. For them, inequality is a sign of something lacking in society that needs to be addressed. It’s easy to see how a handful of people would believe this, as it’s in our nature to see how inequality hurts people, and how many people in the country, and in the world for that matter, are affected by it. Who might argue that inequality is a good thing? Functionalists see society as something requiring balance and certain elements essential to its proper function. For them, inequality is in fact a good thing, because certain individuals are required to play certain roles for the proper function of society, even if those roles may not be the most pleasant or beneficial.
Whichever theory one may ascribe to, both are to an extent based on certain aspects of reality. Inequality does indeed put some individuals at unfair positions, where many of them are stuck at and cannot reap the proper benefits one may expect from those positions. With how many resources and privileges there are to share, obviously not everyone can have equal access to them. For example, on the issue of jobs, some that are less than glamorous like food service and retail require some individuals to take up those jobs and at the same time take the pay and benefits that come with them that are less than supportive of jobs that most people would like to have.
So, one could argue that certain forms of inequality like inequality of position are necessary for the benefit of society. Yet at the same time, the work that people put in for achieving certain qualities of life that other people have is often not recognized. When looking at income and wealth inequality, there is a major gap between the mega rich and the rest of the world. “Seven out of ten people live in countries where inequality today is greater than it was 30 years ago.” (Waldman 2017) The inequality experienced by society often stems from smaller aspects of society. as such, theories about inequality are affected by views expressed in other areas of life. Concepts like religion, politics, and even simple personal desire shape the way individuals see inequality and whether it’s beneficial or harmful to the community.
We all require the basic needs that society has to offer, like a job that offers a good or service to the community, but also provides us a decent income necessary for food, shelter, and access to the other pleasures of life. But many necessities are often unjustly distributed unequally across the population. For our country, which is one of the richest in the world and with a population where most work, society often provides benefits in shortage to them. One might see inequality as appearing in two forms. First, there is the observable inequality, like when we see someone living out on the street. This is the kind we see right in front of our eyes, that tends to be hard to ignore.
That inequality is often driven by a much more subtle source, one that usually originates within the government and other bodies that serve it. Those in power are often fueled by a desire to hog the resources of society to themselves and will go to means where they unjustly or unlawfully try to keep that power to preserve the status quo. We might tend to think some people should be cut off from the basic essentials of life if they have broken a law or committed some act that reaps those consequences. But if only this were the case, it should only be a small percentage of the country that should suffer these kind of consequences. As history shows, when society fails to meet the demands of the larger population, they tend to rise up and rebel against those in charge. This was a theory formulated by Karl Marx and other founding fathers of communism.
Functionalists views inequality as something valuable for the stability of society. This however ignores the possibility of inequality not only affecting the bottom population, but in the end also coming back to affect those in charge, and society as a whole then collapses. This is true even at the smaller levels of the community, like when children tend to rebel against their parents when they feel they are unfairly treated and when members of a religious community leave when they feel their religious institution is becoming oppressive. That being said, while it is historically active that many societies rise up against those that treat them unfairly, it is not a thing to always, or even usually, expect. Christopher Crammer argues that “usually inequality comes with a degree of power and repression that are simply too great to overcome; or that there are various obstacles preventing collective action.” (Crammer 2005)
Functionalists believe that inequality is a good thing, or maybe more accurately, a necessary evil. Functionalists believe that society operates based on every individual having a role to play in it, and this therefore means that some people will be stuck in certain positions in life that require them to be there to keep a certain part of society in function. Not everybody is going to get that comfy job that will make them rich or be treated with the same respect as those on the top of society. To some degree, it’s hard to argue with functionalists on this issue. In fact, both conflict and functionalist theories could to some degree blend together in addressing this issue.
We’re all striving to gain access to the same goods of life, but there’s not enough for everybody. So, some people are going to get them while others are not. If you take a company for instance, most of the positions are going to be taken by workers who perform the not always glamorous and sometimes not as important jobs, while only one or a few more people are going to be in the top managerial positions. In that instance, most workers will not rise to that high level of prestige in their work that most people would like to have. This is true in many other areas of society. So, inequality in some instances may be, as functionalists say, beneficial to the order of society.
This also means that not all who hold this view are unempathetic. They just have a different way of seeing the way the community works. But again, the functionalist perspective might only work when it comes to inequality that is basically inevitable. It doesn’t seem to hold up to the inequality that is unjustly imposed on the rest of society. For example, on the issue of workplace inequality, Pamela Tolbert says “the high functioning of our economy rests on the benefits that can be derived from having a more diverse workforce.” (Tolbert 2017) and even in the way it does make sense, the functionalist view doesn’t exactly support the ratio between value and reward each individual shares in society.
The inequality in society is generally based on the inequality in its smaller communities that make it up. Where people are likely to end up in life largely begins with the family. In one instance, the way children are brought up in a family will affect the way they apply themselves to the world. Children who grow up in abusive or unencouraging families are likely to find themselves struggling later in life. However, a more direct component of this is the way whole families are treated in society. Families with high levels of prestige or wealth are more likely to be the high beneficiaries of society, while families of minority backgrounds or even ones that contain individuals with compromised paths will likely struggle finding their place in society. The legacy of families continues through next generations, and in many instances, their legacy is at the front of their appearance. Many families are defined by their race and class. These concepts tend to put them into certain communities with other families who share the same concepts.
Thus, many communities are often defined by those individuals living in it. The reflection of many communities will affect the way society implements policies on them. In many ways, these policies will affect the attitudes of individuals living in those communities that lead them to reinforce prejudices that already exist in those communities. Poor and impoverished communities often experience higher levels of crime, often due to the desperate attempts of individuals trying to make it through their lives, but also because of the negative views from outside of their community that already paint them as violent individuals. This here leads to a conflict within the functionalist view of social inequality. If functionalists view inequality as something beneficial to society, they can’t account for the many problems inflicted on them as a result of society’s unwillingness to find solutions to lift those communities up. They may argue that more developed communities contribute a lot to society, but this would only be for those in society already benefiting greatly from that inequality.
There is a great deal of inequality among other communal groups in society, like religious institutions and political organizations. Inequality in these groups is often affected by a competition of beliefs and the power that those beliefs support. Religious institutions display a great deal of power in this country. Myriam Renaud reveals that that White Catholics, Jews, and mainline Protestants are ‘significantly’ more likely to belong to the top 10% of affluent persons in the United States.” (Renaud 2017) David Aleman argues that “when large institutions block collective action on the large scale… this leaves the political system in the hands of small, organized, compact groups with specific and narrow agendas.” (Aleman 2016) This day and age, these groups are often involved in their bribes to the government, which in turn helps to strengthen that inequality within the country.
However one views inequality and whether it’s beneficial or harmful to society, there is no arguing that inequality is just a fact of life. There are certain institutions that sincerely see inequality as a factor important either for their functioning or just for the community at large. But many individuals use those views that support inequality simply as a means for personal gain, since many benefit from it. It seems like a more important thing to consider is how do deal with the reality of inequality. Everyone serves their own role in contributing to society, so we cannot all share the same glamorous positions that the people above us possess. But if we cannot achieve equality of outcome or even equality of opportunity, how then can anyone argue how inequality benefits society?