The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam

The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –

  1. There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
  2. We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
  3. Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
  4. We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
  5. Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
  6. Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)

You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.

 Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’ Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns

  • He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly  
  • He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order

1.    There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’

Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.

Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…


2.     Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour

Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.

3 Individuals need to be restrained

Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.

Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.

Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.

Key Term – Social Solidarity Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.

Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult

Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.

In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.

In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.

Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’  and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving  ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference

Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.

Key Term – Anomie Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.


Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work

4.    The Organic Analogy[1] – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Organs are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundary Has an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

5.    Institutions perform positive functions

Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below

  • Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society. Two of the most important shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
  • The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
  • Education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.
  • Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.

The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites

Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems

Parson’s name for each function (AGIL) This means…. Performed by what institutions?
Adaptation Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Goal Attainment Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Integration Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance) Socialise the young into shared values

Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.

Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this  would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.


6. Social change and social evolution

Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)

Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.

Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective

1.    Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals? 

 2.    It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.

3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it

4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.

5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.

 6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion  – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.

7.    Functionalism is Ideological  – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions

So is Functionalism still relevant today?

Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –

The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.

Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.

Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….

Related Posts

The Functionalist Perspective on The Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

Modernisation Theory (kind of Functionalist applied to Global Development)

Find out More: Basic info

This History Learning Site post has a very basic overview of Functionalism

Find out More: Extension sources

This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…


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4 Responses to The Functionalist Perspective – Class Notes for A Level Sociology (Year 2)

  1. Pingback: The Functionalist Perspective on Society – A Summary | ReviseSociology

  2. Pingback: Functionalist Theory – for A2 Sociology Theory and Methods – Knowledge Check List | ReviseSociology

  3. Pingback: Functionalism – Theory and Method - sociologylive

  4. Pingback: How I would’ve answered A level sociology paper 3: crime and deviance with theory and methods, June 2017 | ReviseSociology

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