Structural Differentiation and Religion

According to Talcott Parsons, the disengagement of the church from social life might not necessarily mean that the church is any less important at a social level.

Parsons argues that societies evolve through a process of ‘structural differentiation’ – as societies become more complex, a greater variety of more specialized institutions evolved.

Parsons accepts that religious institutions play less of a role in politics and in the socialization of children than they did in the past, but these functions are taken over by newly evolved institutions – such as representative government and education.

Traditional institutions such as the church evolve to limit themselves to performing a smaller number of functions than previously, but these functions are still vital to the maintenance of the system as a whole.

In modern societies, religious institutions perform three important functions:

  • They form the basis of morality and the legal system – for example, the 10 commandments form much of the basis of the legal system in modern Britain.
  • They help people deal with social changes such as the death of individuals – through providing rituals that help them cope with transition. This helps maintain social order.
  • They help people deal with social contradictions – such as lazy people being rich… according to Christian doctrine, they will go to hell.

For more on Parson’s functionalist perspective on the role of religion in society – please see this post

Links to other parts of the course….

NB – Parsons argues that all institutions undergo a process of structural differentiation. His view on how religion changes with social modernization is similar to his view on how the family changes – as outlined in his ‘Functional Fit Theory‘ of the family.

This theory of structural differentiation is part of his general functionalist theory of social change as evolution.

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