Functionalism – An Introduction

An introduction to Functionalism for AS and  A level sociology – covering the basic key ideas of Functionalist thinkers Durkheim and Parsons – social facts, social solidarity, and anomie, the organic analogy, and the importance of socialisation.

Functionalism is a ‘structural-consensus theory’.

The ‘structural bit’ means that Functionalists argue that there is a social structure that shapes individual behaviour through the process of socialisation.

parsons-social-structure

The ‘consensus bit’ means that Functionalists believe that a successful society is based on ‘value consensus’ – people agree around a set of shared norms and values.  This value consensus enables people to co-operate and to work together to achieve shared goals.

VALUE CONSENSUS.jpg

Functionalists also believe that a successful society has a stable social structure, in which different institutions perform unique functions that contribute to the maintenance of the whole – in the same way that the different organs of the body perform different functions to keep a human being healthy. In a successful or ‘healthy’ society, for example, social life is organised so that the family socialises the young and meets emotional needs, school teaches us broader life skills, the workplace is where we contribute the economy.

Functionalists generally believe institutions perform positive functions (they do good things for the individual and society).

This post provides an introduction to some of the key ideas of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, two key functionalist thinkers.

Durkheim’s Functionalism

Historical Context

Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was the first ever professor of Sociology.

Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 –and his writings are mainly concerned with how the massive social changes at that time would affect French society.
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Below are just two of Durkheim’s key ideas

1. Society shapes the Individual

Durkheim argued that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who comprise it. Members of society are constrained by ‘social facts’, by ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him’.

Social facts include such things as beliefs, moral codes, and basic norms and values which are passed from one generation to the next and shared by individuals who make up a society. From this point of view it is not the consciousness of the individual that directs human behaviour but common beliefs and sentiments which shape his or her consciousness. In short, according to Durkheim, society shapes the individual.

2. Social solidarity socialisation and anomie 

Durkheim believed that too much freedom was bad for the individual – when individuals have too freedom, or when there is no clear guidance about what’s right and wrong, individuals suffer from a sense uncertainty and confusion about their place in world, not knowing what they should be doing, a condition Durkheim called ‘anomie’.

Durkheim argued that societies needed 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. At one level this is achieved through the family, but for Durkheim, feeling a sense of belonging to wider society was also important. Traditionally this was achieved through religion, but Durkheim was concerned that religion was fading, and that modern societies faced a ‘crisis of anomie’.

He also theorised that new institutions such as schools, work places and voluntary organisations would eventually provide the ‘social glue’ which would make people feel like they belonged. Durkheim’s thinking is actually one of the fundamental things which convinced governments the world over to spend billions of pounds on schools – in order to socialise the young and create a sense of solidarity.

For Durkheim, and functionalists in general, socialisation (the teaching of shared norms and values) through institutions is one of the key ways in which social solidari

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

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

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

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions which 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.

Parsons identified various similarities between the human body and a society

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.

Parsons believed that societies had certain ‘functional prerequisites which need to be met in order for society 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:

Every society needs to Institutions in society which might perform these functions?
Produce goods and services  the work place
Achieve ‘value consensus’ – by teaching people the difference between right and wrong  schools
Resolve differences of opinion, deal with conflict, and punish ‘deviants’.  courts
Reproduce and socialize the next generation so society can carry on  the family

2. Value Consensus

Parsons believed that American society generally worked for most people, and thus preserving the social order (preventing conflict or revolution) was particularly important.

Parsons argued that social order was mainly achieved not through the rule of force, but through institutions promoting 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 institutions which do this are the nuclear family and school

The Family is responsible for providing ‘primary socialisation’ – teaching the basic norms and values of our society. Parsons believed the nuclear family was the best type of family for providing a stable upbringing for children, and the best type of family to provide moral guidance (the difference between right and wrong.

Later on in life, 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.

Two of the most important shared values in industrial societies include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy (the idea that people are rewarded on the basis of their ability and effort), both of which are taught through education. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means that those people who end up in lower paid jobs accept inequality in society because they believe they at least had a fair chance to do better in life.

This relates back to the previous point – individuals need to be integrated in shared values in order to be directed to meet the system’s needs. For Parsons the system has two mechanisms for ensuring that individuals conform to shared norms and meet the system’s needs: socialization and social control.

Evaluating Functionalism

Think about the following questions – try to think of evidence for and against each question which both supports and criticises these key ideas of functionalism

  1. To what extent does socialisation shape an individual’s identity?
  2. Is anomie (too much freedom) a problem in today’s society?
  3. Do institutions really perform positive functions? (do we all benefit the same amount or do some benefit more than others?)
  4. Do we have value consensus in today’s society?

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

An Introduction to Marxism for AS Sociology

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One Response to Functionalism – An Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Functionalist Perspective on the Family | ReviseSociology

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