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 there is a social structure that shapes individual behaviour through the process of socialisation.

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.

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, and the workplace is where we contribute to the economy.

Functionalists generally believe institutions perform positive functions (they do good things for the individual and society), and social institutions work together to provide social order and prevent too much crime and deviance.

Functionalism sociology social order

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

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 rapid and dramatic social changes such as industrialisation at that time would affect French society.
.
Below are just two of Durkheim’s key ideas

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. 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.

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 is 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 in 20th century Europe, and that modern societies faced a ‘crisis of anomie’.

He 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 in Europe to create national education systems 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 was one of the key ways in which social solidarity was to be achieved.

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

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

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 bodyInstitutions
Each Organ has a unique functionInstitutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniouslyAll institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependentOrgans are interdependent
Has an identifiable boundaryHas an identifiable boundary
The sum is greater than its partsThe sum is greater than its parts.
Normal: healthyNormal: 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

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.

VALUE CONSENSUS.jpg

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

When evaluating Functionalism we need to keep in mind that it is a historical perspective: Durkheim’s work is over a century old and Parsons was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, so it is quite likely that some of the key ideas aren’t that useful in helping us to understand modern society.

Criticisms of Functionalism

The easiest way to criticise Functionalism is to use some of the other sociological perspectives, and some of the points below do that.

  • It is difficult to argue today that there is value consensus in society – societies around the world seem much more divided. Brexit in Britain, for example, divided the nation in half, and America is split into anti- Trump and pro-Trump supporters, and divided by strong attitudes on abortion.
  • Marxists believe Functionalism is biased and ideological – Functionalists such as Parsons said that Value Consensus was necessary because they wanted to preserve the social order, whereas in reality society is based on inequality and exploitation and it is in the interests of the exploited to join together in revolution.
  • Interactionists and argue that individuals are less constrained by the social structure than functionalists suggest – individuals have more freedom to shape their own lives and are less predictable than Functionalists suggest.
  • Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a social structure or social norms, rather ‘society’ (if there is such a thing) is fluid and diverse.

Ways in which Functionalism may still be useful for understanding contemporary society

While some of the key ideas of Functionalism may not seem to ‘fit in’ with society today, some concepts do seem to be relevant…

Durkheim’s idea of ‘anomie’ for example may be more relevant than ever before – it seems fair to say that society is more disordered and chaotic than ever – and the amount of people suffering with mental health disorders is higher than ever – and maybe the level of uncertainty has got something to do with this…?

While it is fair to say that on an individual level people are unpredictable, when we look at things from a macro perspective, societies appear more predictable (if not entirely predictable) – there are clear statistical patterns which emerge by social class, gender and and ethnicity, a main theme of A-level sociology – for example, in general, children from poorer households as a whole do worse in education that children from richer households.

Functionalism: Discussion Questions

Think about the following questions – try to think of further contemporary 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?

Functionalism: Find out More

The Functionalist perspective is a recurring theme in the first and second years of A level sociology, and if you will find many of the above ideas expressed in more detail, and applied more specifically in the following posts:

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

The Functionalist Perspective on Education

The Functionalist Perspective on Crime

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – more in depth material for the end of the second year!

It is usual to contrast Functionalism to Marxism and so I personally teach an Introduction to Marxism after this introduction.

parsons-social-structure
parsons-social-structure
parsons-social-structure

4 thoughts on “Functionalism – An Introduction”

  1. Great question. I guess it’s just a matter of this being such a ‘big theory’ that it’s impossible for there not to be contradictions in there somewhere, which is probably why Functionalism has had its day. Some of the more recent theorists do address what you say about meritocracy – with concepts such as ‘bounded agency’ – we have agency but it’s steered by society.

    Great comment!

  2. This is a great summary but I’m confused how functionalists then reconcile this position with their believe in meritocracy. Doesn’t meritocracy assume a degree of individual agency? How can we say that individuals are a product of a society that precedes them on the one hand while saying they, as individuals, didn’t work hard enough on the other.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.