In Joseph Tainter’s description of complex societies (Tainter, 1988) he refers to a common dichotomy or distinction between two perspectives or schools of describing the development of our societies that I find very useful in many current debates. These perspectives are referred to as the conflict perspective and the integration or functionalist perspective and the distinction may be as old as the description of civil society itself.
“In essence, conflict theory asserts that the state emerged out of the needs and desires of individuals and subgroups of a society. The state, in this view, is based on divided interests, on domination and exploitation, on coercion, and is primarily a stage for power struggels. […] The state serves, thus, to maintain the privileged position of a ruling class that is largely based on the exploitation and economic degradation of the masses.”
Examples of proponents of the conflict school according to Tainter are Marx, Engels, and more contemporary examples are found in postmodern approaches such as post-colonial and feminism/gender studies. The conflict or struggle can today be seen in analysis of the relation between men vs women, upper class vs working class, ethnic Westerners vs immigrants, urban vs rural, politicians/state vs citizens/individuals.
In contrast we have the integrationist view:
“Integrationist or functional theories suggest that complexity, stratification, and the state arose, not out of the ambitions of individuals or subgroups, but out of the needs of society.” The major elements of this approach are: a) shared, rather than divided, social interests; b) common advantages instead of dominance and exploitation; c) consensus, not coercion; and d) societies as integrated systems rather than as stages for power struggles.”
From this perspective society and the development of all its aspects is mainly seen as a consequence of the outer conditions such as food production, competition and warfare with other societies, or as a way for achieving an optimal development as a whole. Proponents of the integrationist view are, according to Tainter, Spencer, Sumner, Durkheim, Moret, Davy, and Service. Please note that I’m not a sociologist so I can’t really verify Tainter’s examples here in detail. Nevertheless I would argue that “my field” of adult development psychology and also integral theory according to Ken Wilber lean towards the integrationist side. This since society and the culture provide support for the individual’s development in contrast to e.g. Freudian view where the individual is in conflict with the cultural demands.
Either schools or perspectives have strong and weak points and, needless to say, neither of them should be elevated to represent the true nature of a society. But instead of elaborating those, let’s give an example from the gender equality debate.
According to the conflict school (mainstream feminism and gender studies) we live in a patriarchy where gender roles were created in order for the male gender role to oppress the female. The main focus is on questions about power and inequality between the genders. From this perspective women traditionally have been kept at home so that men can dominate the public sphere and gaining all the politic and economic power.
The view on the creation of gender roles from the integrationist school gives at hand that they are fundamentally a result of the nature of reproduction, food production and war waging. Women are kept at home for the main reason that men are stronger and more expendable. It is for a society, as a whole, functional to sacrifice men and keep women safe, a view that is argued by e.g. Warren Farrell in the USA and Pelle Billing in Sweden where my experience is derived.
The dichotomy of the conflict and integrationist perspectives refers to views on society as a whole, but a reason I find it useful is that it can be applied to social interactions at various levels, such as analysis of economy and debt, organizations, families, relations, psychology etc. It can be useful to reveal blind spots, for example the case of gender studies in Swedish academia. As I said, I’m not a sociologist, so please correct me if I’m wrong.
Tainter, J. A. (1988) The collapse of complex societies. Cambridge university press, GB.