Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Society

Marxists criticise functionalists for having a rose-tinted view of society, Interactionists criticise them for being too deterministic.

Last Updated on November 11, 2022 by

The question below is a possible 10 mark question for the AQA’s Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods paper (paper 3).

Outline and explain two criticisms of the Functionalist view of society (10)

To be on the safe side you want to provide two very different criticisms, develop both of them and briefly evaluate. This is probably overkill to get you the 10 marks.

Conflict theorists (Marxists and Feminists) point out that Functionalists have a rose tinted view of society they focus too much on the positive functions that institutions perform, ignoring the negative ways in which institutions and socialisation can have on certain people. Feminists for example argue that the traditional nuclear family, which is seen as necessary by Parsons, oppresses women, as they are expected to fulfil the housewife role, which ultimately makes women dependent on men for an income, and ends up benefitting men who benefit from women’s emotional and domestic labour. They also ignore the really ‘dark side of family life’ – domestic violence.

You could take this criticism even further by arguing that Functionalist theory is itself ideological – by arguing that societies need nuclear families to provide effective socialisation, this theory itself reinforces the social order. Radical Feminists would argue against the idea that the nuclear family is necessary, as shown by the fact that most single parent families do just a good job as socialising children as nuclear families.

However, Functionalists would still argue that most people are better off with clear boundaries provided by socialisation through institutions as this prevents anomie, which could still be regarded as a curse of modern societies.

Interactionists criticise Functionalism for being a deterministic theory – human behaviour is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed by social institutions, being the puppets of social forces.

There is a considerable amount of evidence against this view – for example despite most people being socialised into traditional gender norms, many people today develop LGTBIQ identities; despite being socialised to obey the law, self-report studies show high levels of minor criminality. It as if people are just pretending to obey social norms, but when you dig deeper and look at things more qualitatively, behind closed doors, this isn’t necessarily the case, and everyone is ‘doing their own thing’.

Postmodernists would be especially critical of the idea that society shapes the individual a postmodern, consumer age, your background and socialisation matter less – consumer society and globalisation allow much more opportunity for individuals to shape their own identities in an active way.

However, it is easy to overstate how free people are – people may think their free, but human action is still patterned and things like suicide and educational success still seem to be shaped by an individual’s social background…


The question below is a possible 10 mark question for the AQA’s Crime and Deviance with Theory and Methods paper (paper 3).

For more help with the A-level sociology exams please see my Exams, Essays and Short Answer Questions page.

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