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The Functionalist Perspective on Religion: Summary Revision Notes

According to Functionalism, religion acts as a conservative force by reinforcing social norms and promoting social solidarity. This post is A summary of the key ideas of the main Functionalist theorists of religion: Durkheim, Parsons and Malinowski.

The Functionalist Perspective on Religion_2.png

This is a work in progress, please click the links above for more detailed posts!

Emile Durkheim

  • Studied Totemism among Australian Aboriginal clans in which the sacred totem represented different clans.
  • Religious symbols are simultaneously symbols of God and Society, and thus when people worship religion they are also ‘worshipping society’, religious symbols serve as a simplified representation of a more complex whole, reminded individuals that they are merely small and part of a much ‘bigger picture’.
  • Religion acts as a constraining (conservative) force: through religious worship (ceremonies) the ‘collective conscience’ is imprinted on the individual: they literally ‘feel’ the weight of the community on them.
  • Religion reinforces a sense of belonging and shared identity to society.

Bronislow Malinowski

  • Argued religion had more specific functions than Durkheim:
  • Religion helps individuals to deal with the psychological stresses which occur in times of social change – such as births, marriage and deaths. Beliefs can help people ‘make sense’ of death for example and can act as a source of catharsis for the bereaved.
  • Religious rituals also help society through the disruption to social order caused by life changing events such as death.
  • Religion helps people deal with situations which they cannot predict or control – e.g. the Trobriand Islanders used religious ritual when fishing in the dangerous, unpredictable ocean, but not the calm lagoons.
  • Unlike Durkheim does not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor does he see religious ritual as ‘worshipping society’.

Talcott Parsons

  • Saw the main function of religion as being the maintenance of social order.
  • Religion promotes value consensus: many legal systems are based on religious morals for example.
  • Like Malinowski Parsons saw religious beliefs and rituals as helping maintain social order in times of social change (such as death) and to help individuals make sense of unpredictable events.
  • Religion can also help people make sense of contradictory events.

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on Religion

  • Religion does not always promote harmony: it can promote conflict: there may be conflicts within religion, or between religions for example.
  • Ignores the role religion can play in promoting social change
  • Secularisation means that religion performs fewer functions today: thus functionalism may be less relevant.

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  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
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Talcott Parsons’ Perspective on Religion

More than any other Functionalist, Parsons developed Functionalism as a ‘systems theory’: he understands the role of one institution in terms of how it maintains the whole system. You might find it useful to review his general systems approach to social theory here before reading the rest of this post.

Functionalism parsons religion.jpg

For Talcott Parsons, religion is one sub-system among many, and it performs vital but limited functions in the maintenance of social order.

Religion and Value Consensus

Parsons sees religion as part of the cultural sub-system of society and religious beliefs provide a guideline for human action which give rise to a more specific set of norms according to which people should act.

For example, in many Christian societies, the 10 commandments form the basis of laws which govern human behaviour, such as:

  • ‘Thou shalt not kill’ forms the basis of laws against murder
  • ‘Thou shalt not steal’ forms the basis of laws against property theft.

So for Parsons, religious belief provides a set of values, or general principles which form the basis of value consensus, which other institutions then reinforce in more concrete ways.

Religion and Social Order

Much like Malinowski, Parsons sees one of religion’s primary functions as being to help people deal with problems which disrupt social life. There are two categories of problem, which basically mirror Malinowski’s thinking on the matter:

  • Firstly, there are those occasions when people are hit by events which are totally unexpected and have a negative impact, the main example being premature death. In such situations, religion can help people make sense of these events and restore normal patterns of life. A religious belief in the afterlife, for example, offers the bereaved a way of imagining that their dead son/ wife/ friend is ‘waiting for them on the other side’, and so not really ‘gone’ forever.
  • Secondly, there are those routine aspects of life in which people invest considerable time and effort in order to achieve a particular outcome, but are still characterized by uncertainty of outcome. Agriculture is a good example of this: several weeks or even months of the year might be spent sowing and tending crops, only for the whole harvest to be laid waste by droughts or disease. In such situation, religious belief offers an explanation for the disastrous outcome, helps people cope with the hardships with may follow, and helps to restore faith in the initial effort made despite said disastrous outcome.

As with Malinowski, Parsons argues that religion serves to maintain social stability by relieving the tensions and frustrations that arise following such unpredictable problems.

Religion and Meaning

A third function of religion according to Parsons is that it helps individuals to make sense of experiences which are contradictory.

Probably the best example of this is the way religion helps people to make sense of the injustice of people who profit through immoral behaviour – Christianity, for example, says that these people will reap their punishment in the afterlife, by going to purgatory or hell, while those who ‘suffer virtuously in poverty’ in this life, will reap the reward of heaven.

Thus religion helps people to adjust to the various worldly experiences of inequality and injustice, again maintaining harmony.

Evaluations to follow

Sources 

 

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Malinowski’s Perspective on Religion

The Anthropologist Bronislow Malinowski is the third of ‘three functionalist thinkers’ it’s useful to know about for A-level sociology, the others being Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons.

Malinowski was one of the founding fathers of anthropology, who lived as a participant-observer on the Trobriand Islands, in the South Pacific (near New Guinea) for four years between 1914 and 1918. He  developed his theory of religion based on his observations of the role of religion in this one small-scale society.

Malinowski Trobriand Islands

Religion and Life-Crises

Malinowski argued that the main function of religion was to help individuals and society deal with the emotional stresses which occur during life crises such as birth, puberty, marriage and death.

Death, for example, is socially disruptive, because it not only removes an individual member from the fabric of society, which potentially creates tension, it is also stressful for those with close emotional ties to the deceased, who may not be able to function efficiently for a period of time.

Religion deals with the problem of death through both belief and ritual: a belief in the afterlife (common in many cultures) denies the fact of death and comforts the bereaved, while the funeral ceremony offers a chance for other members of society to comfort the bereaved with their physical presence and it may also act as a form of catharsis.

The funeral is effectively an expression of social solidarity which serves to reintegrate society following the ‘stress’ caused by a loss of one its members.

Religion and control

Manlinowski argued that a second function of religion was to help people deal with situations or events which could not be fully controlled or predicted.

To illustrate this Malinowski contrasted the way in which two different types of fishing were conducted on the Trobriand Islanders (NB – it’s an Island culture, fish is a staple food): Inland Lagoon based fishing was a very different affair to deep-sea ocean fishing.

Fishing in the calm, inland waters of the lagoon was very much a day to day, relaxed affair – there was a high level of certainty that fish would be caught using the tried and tested method of poisoning. There were no religious ceremonies performed during this type of fishing activity.

However, when men went out to fish in the ocean, beyond the barrier reef, there was no certainty of getting a catch, this depended on the luck of a shoal of fish being present, and there was also the danger of death usually associated with going out to sea. During these times the Trobriand Islanders engaged in religious rituals to try to ensure a favourable outcome.

Malinowski theorised that when people are in control of the situation (or at least feel they are) and can rely on their knowledge and skill to provide predictable results, there is no need for religion.

However, when there is uncertainly and unpredictability and danger, people engage in religious rituals to try to ensure a particular outcome: these were social events which served to reduce anxiety by providing confidence and a feeling of control over the situation.

The similarities and differences between Malinowski and Durkheim….

Like Durkheim, Malinowski theorised that the key role of religion was to reinforce social norms and values and promote social solidarity.

Unlike Durkheim, Malinowski did not see religion as reflecting society as a whole, nor did he see religious rituals as involving the ‘worshipping of society’ – he argued that religion had a more specific function: that of reinforcing solidarity during times of emotional stress that threaten to undermine the stability of society.

 

Sources used to write this post

  • Haralamabos and Holborn: Sociology: Themes and Perspective, seventh edition (unchanged in the eighth!).

 

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Emile Durkheim’s Perspective on Religion

In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912) Durkheim argued that all societies divide the world into two basic categories: the sacred and the profane:

  • The profane refers to mundane ordinary life: our daily routine/ grind of getting up in the morning, doing our ablutions, going to college, eating our daily Nachos, and doing the dishes.
  • The sacred refers to anything which transcends the humdrum of everyday life: which typically take the form of collective representations which are set apart from society (spiritual places such as churches or mosques are the most obvious examples of ‘sacred’ spaces.)

For Durkheim, Religion is the collective practice of marking off and maintaining distance between the sacred and the profane, which is typically done through rituals, such as those associated with the daily or weekly visit to the church or mosque: prayer is an obvious example of an ‘occasional (sacred) ritual’ is marked out from ordinary mundane (or profane) life.

Or in Durkheim’s own words:

Durkheim religion.pngImportantly for Durkheim, anything can be sacred (or rather, a society can determine that anything is sacred): there is nothing in any object or action that makes it inherently sacred: anything can be sacred: not only churches, mosques, and religious books, but in some cultures, trees, or even rocks may be regarded as sacred.

Durkheim believed that in order to understand the role of religion in society, the relationship between sacred symbols and what they represent must be discovered.

A work in progress, to be updated shortly!

Totemism

Durkheim saw Totemism as one of the earliest and simplest form of religious practice. It is most commonly found among aboriginal peoples, such as the Australian aborigines, and North West Native American Indians, who have clan based societies.

Durkheim TotemismDurkheim used the totemic religion of Australian aborigines to develop his theory of religion. Aboriginal society was divided into a number of clans, and members of the clan had certain obligations that had to be fulfilled – such as mourning the death of other clan members or helping seek vengeance if another member was wronged by someone external to the clan. Each clan was also exogenous – people had to marry someone outside of the clan.

Each clan had a totem, typically an animal or a plant which was represented by drawings or carvings made on wood or stone, typically linked to a ‘creation myth’ that explained the origins of that clan and linked current members into that history. The totem served to distinguish the clan from all other clans.

To clan members, the totem was as sacred object, nothing less than ‘the outward and visible form of the totemic principle or god’ – their animal/ plant was sacred and the totemic representation just as sacred if not more so.

Durkheim’s ‘big idea’ is that by worshipping the totem, clan members are actually worshipping society, and thus individuals are reminded that society is more important than the individual, which is essential in Functionalist theory because individuals are dependent on society.

The reason why humankind needs a totem to worship rather than just literally worshipping society (or the clan in the case of Aborigines) is because the clan is too complex a thing for people to conceptualise – religious symbols are just much simpler entities to worship!

Sources used to write this post

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

If you like this sort of thing then you might like my ‘beliefs in society’ revision bundle.

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  • Eight mind maps covering the sociological perspectives on beliefs in society. In colour!
  • 52 Pages of revision notes covering the entire AQA ‘beliefs in society’ specification: from perspectives on religion, organisations, class, gender ethnicity and age and secularisation, globalisation and fundamentalism.
  • Three 10 mark ‘outline and explain’ practice exam  questions and model answers
  • Three 10 mark ‘analyse using the item’ 10 practice exam questions and answers
  • Three 30 mark essay questions and extended essay plans.

The content focuses on the AQA A-level sociology specification. All at a bargain price of just £4.99!

I’ve taught A-level sociology for 16 years and have been an AQA examiner for 10 of those, so I know what I’m talking about, and if you purchase from me you’re avoiding all those horrible corporations that own the major A-level text books and supporting a fully fledged free-range human being, NOT a global corporate publishing company.

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Sociological Perspectives on the Royal Wedding

Just a few thoughts on how you might apply Functionalism and Marxism to the Royal Wedding!

Functionalists might interpret the wedding as one of those symbolic events which brings people together – enhancing a sense of national identity, and possibly social solidarity. You certainly get this impression from Sky News’ Live Stream which is already in full swing – showing footage of the massing crowds, bunting and al.

HOWEVER, if you dig a little deeper,  it seems that this interpretation just doesn’t stack up… for starters, 50% of ‘us Brits’ were indifferent to the royal engagement:

 

And there’s also small but significant undercurrent of anti-royalist sentiment:

On the question of belonging, this New York Times article is well worth a read, on what Black Britons think about Meghan and the royal wedding – it’s an odd one, given the very whiteness of the royal family, FINALLY including a mixed-race woman into the ‘bloodline’…..

Maybe a Marxist interpretation might be more appropriate…..?

Despite the continued existence of royalty being one of the most obvious reminders of the class divide in the UK, there is some evidence that the state (in the form of the police) are very much inclined to work for the elite class, and suppress those who would oppose it, or even just make it look a bit untidy:

For example, it’s unlikely that the homeless of Windsor probably will celebrating the event, given that the local police have been involved in seizing their Belongings Before the Royal Wedding in an attempt to ‘clear up the area’, maybe so ‘brand Britain’ looks its best for the global media

You also have to wonder how many anti-royalist protesters have been arrested and locked up this morning: the video below shows some anti-royalist protesters on their way to do some ‘street theatre’ being arrested for ‘pre-crime back in 2011 a few hours before Kate and Will tied the knot.

 

Then there’s the apparent disdain with which the royals are treating the ‘commoners’: despite her £400 million fortune, the Queen isn’t even prepared to stump up a free lunch for the 2000 ‘commoners’ who have been invited to Windsor Castle to celebrate the big day – the ‘normal’ guests have [been advised to bring a picnic lunch](https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2018/may/03/bring-your-own-picnic-royal-wedding-guests-bemused-by-lack-of-catering).

So while I wish Harry and Meghan as individuals all the happiness in the world, maybe we should wish that the institution surrounding them would just whither away?

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Evaluate the Functionalist Perspective on the Role of Education in Society (30)

An Essay Plan for A Level Sociology paper 7192 (1) using the PEEC method – Point, Explain, Elaborate, Criticise repeat. You should also include an introduction and an evaluative conclusion. 

  • Point – Simply state something Functionalists say about education
  • Explain – Explain what is meant by the ‘Function’ of education mentioned previously
  • Expand – this could mean giving examples, evidence, or explaining in more depth
  • Criticise – criticise with evidence against or limitations

(P1) Secondary Socialisation and Value consensus       

  • The teaching of norms and values after the family – leading to agreement around these norms and values
  • Formal Curriculum – Shared history/ Shared language/ Shared religion
  • Team sports – working together shared aim
  • Ethnocentric Curriculum
  • Sub cultures
  • More school types – more diversity, surely = less value consensus?

(P2) Teaching skills for work – economic function          

  • Diverse subjects,
  • Punctuality
  • Vocationalism and apprenticeships have expanded
  • Are apprenticeships useful?
  • Tea servers

(P3) Bridge between home and school  

  • School prepares us for the world outside the family – it acts like a society in miniature
  • Particularistic/ Universalistic Standards
  • Doesn’t apply to everyone – Home schooling

R(P4) Role Allocation  

  • Different qualifications sift people into appropriate jobs
  • Does this through exams – sifting and sorting
  • Meritocracy (since 1944)
  • Marxism – not meritocratic – myth of meritocracy,
  • Private schools
  • Feminism – gender stereotyping and subject choice

Evaluate using other perspectives –

  • Marxism – Agrees with Functionalists that school socialises us into shared values, but these values are the values benefit the ruling class (we get taught that inequality is natural and inevitable, we believe in the myth of meritocracy and so end up passively accepting society as it is.
  • Feminism – Functionalism ignores the gender divide in school
  • Interactionism – Argues Functionalism is too deterministic – it sees individuals as passive, but there is a lot more evidence that pupils are active and aren’t just moulded by the school system

Conclusion – You must point out that this perspective is too optimistic and overgeneralises!

 

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What is the difference between Functionalism and Marxism

Functionalists have a very general analysis of the role of education in society, simply looking at how it contributes to the maintenance of social order, whereas Marxists analyse the role of education by focusing on how it performs different functions for different social classes.

As I see it, Marxists offer a ‘deeper layer’ of analysis compared to Functionalists, although critics of Marxism may say they seeing class divisions where there are none.

Below is a basic comparison of Functionalist and Marxist perspectives on the role of education in society:

Functionalism: Education serves the needs of an industrial society by providing it with an advanced, specialised division of labour

Marxism: Education part of the ideological state apparatus, and works for the Bourgeois

Functionalism: Education serves the needs of the social system by socialising new generations into shared norms and values which provide harmony and stability

Marxism: Teaches us the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – we believe we fail because it’s our own fault, thus put up with inequality

Functionalism: The formal and hidden curriculums helpsprepare children for service to society

Marxism: Correspondence Theory – Hidden Curriculum makes us accept authority without question

Functionalism: Education provides the means for upward mobility for those prepared to work hard

Marxism: Education reproduces class inequality – middle class kids more likely to succeed and get good jobs

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Taclott Parsons’ Perspective on Education

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961) outlined what is commonly accepted as the Functionalist view of education as it relates to modern societies in the late 1950s.

Taclott Parsons.png
A typically convoluted quote from my man TP – He’s basically saying ‘individual ability, not class background is what determines achievement’

 

Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socializing-agency: school acts as a bridge between family and society as a whole, preparing children for their adult roles in society.

Within the family, the child is judged by particularistic standards. Parents treat the child as their own, unique, special child, rather than judging him or her by universal standards that are applied to every individual.

However, in the wider society the individual is treated and judged in terms of universalistic standards, which are applied to all members, regardless of their kinship ties.

Within the family, the child’s status is ascribed: it is fixed by birth. However, in advanced industrial society, status in adult life is largely achieved: for example individuals achieve their occupational skills. Thus it is necessary that the child moves from the particularistic standards and ascribed status of the family to the universalistic standards and achieved status of adult society.

The school prepares people for this transition. It establishes universalistic standards, in terms of which all pupils achieve their status. Their conduct is assessed against the yardstick of the school rules; their achievement is measured by performance in examinations. The same standards are applied to all pupils regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race, family background or class of origin. Schools operated on meritocratic principles: status is achieved on the basis of merit (or worth).

Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that the school represents society in miniature. Modern industrial society is increasingly based on achievement rather than ascription, on universalistic rather than particularistic standards, on meritocratic principles which apply to all its members. By reflecting the operation of society as a whole, the school prepares young people for their adult roles.

Education and Value Consensus

As part of this process, schools socialise young people into the basic values of society. Parsons, like many functionalists, maintained that value consensus is essential for society to operate effectively. In American society, school instils two major values

  1. The value of achievement
  2. The value of equality of opportunity.

By encouraging students to strive for high levels of academic attainment, and by rewarding those who succeed, schools foster the value of achievement itself. By placing individuals in the same situation in the classroom and so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality of opportunity.

These values have important functions in society as a whole. Advanced industrial society requires a highly motivated, highly skilled workforce. This necessitates differential reward for differential achievement, a principle which has been established in schools. Both the winners (the high achievers) and the losers (the low achievers) will see the system as just and fair, since status is achieved in a situation where all have an equal chance. Again, the principles that operate in the wider society are mirrored in the school.

Education and Selection.

Finally, Parsons saw the educational system as an important mechanism for the section of individuals for their future role in society. In his words, it ‘functions to allocate these human resources within the role-structure of adult society’. Thus schools by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefor seen as the major mechanism for role allocation.

Evaluations of Parsons

The main criticisms of Parson’s work comes from Marxism.

Marxists criticize the idea that schools transmit shared values, rather they see the education system as transmitting the values of the ruling class, as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.

Marxists have also criticised the idea that schools are meritocratic, arguing that meritocracy is a myth, because in reality, which schools may treat pupils the same, class inequalities result in unequal opportunities.

Related Posts 

This post provides a more in-depth account of the Functionalist Perspective on Education. For a simplified version please see this post.

If you like this in-depth sort of thing then you might also like my post on Durkheim’s view of education.

 

 

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What are ‘Social Facts’ ?

Social Facts are one of Emile Durkheim’s most significant contributions to sociology. Social facts are things such as institutions, norms and values which exist external to the individual and constrain the individual.

Durkheim

The University of Colorado lists as examples of social facts: institutions, statuses, roles, laws, beliefs, population distribution, urbanization, etc. Social facts include social institutions, social activities and [the strata of society – for example the class structure, subcultures etc.]

The video below provides a useful introduction to the concept of social facts….

The video suggests that the concept ‘social fact’ is a broad term designed to encompass the social environment which constrains individual behaviour.

It uses the analogy of a how the physical structure of a room limits our actions (we can only go in and through the door or windows for example; in the same way the social facts which make up our social environment constrains us – norms, values, beliefs, ideologies and so on effectively limit our choices.

Sociology is about identifying the relationship between the social conditions and people’s behaviour.

 This second video is a bit more complex…

According to Durkheim, social facts emerge out of collectives of individuals, they cannot be reduced to the level of individuals – and this social reality is real, and it exists above the level of the individual, sociology is the study of this ‘level above the individual’.

As far as Durkheim was concerned this was no different to the concept that human life is greater than the sum of the individual cells which make it up – society has a reality above that of the individuals who constitute it.

A key idea of Durkheim – that we should never reduce the study of society to the level of the individual, we should remain at the level of social facts and aim to explain social action in relation to social facts.

(Not in the video) – this is precisely what Durkheim did in his study of suicide by trying to explain variations in the suicide rate (which is above the level of the individual) through other social facts, such as the divorce rate, the pace of economic growth, the type of religion (all of which he further reduced to two basic variables – social integration and social regulation.

In this way sociology should aim to be scientific, it should not study individuals, but scientific trends at the level above the individual. This is basically the Positivist approach to studying society, as laid down in Durkhiem’s 1895 work ‘The Rules of Sociological Method’.

NB Durkheim’s study of suicide is just about the best illustration of the application of social facts that there is – In which he researched official statistics on suicide in several European countries and found that the suicide rate was influenced by social facts such as the divorce rate, the religion of a country, and the pace of economic and social changed – Durkheim further theorized that the suicide rate increased when there was either too much or too little integration and regulation in society. 

The major criticism of Durkheim’s concept of social facts is that the statistics he claims to be ‘social facts’ aren’t – suicide stats are open to manipulation by the people who record them (coroners) – and there is huge potential for several suicides (intentional deaths) to be mis-recorded as open verdicts or accidental deaths and thus we can never be 100% certain of the validity of this data, thus theorising on the basis of cross national comparisons based on said data is risky.

It is possible to apply this ‘social construction critique’ to a range of statistics – such as crime stats, unemployment stats, immigration stats, happiness stats, and a whole load more, which means that while there may be a really existing social world external to the individual, it’s not necessarily possible to know or measure that world with any degree of certainty or to understand how all of the various social facts out there interact with each other. NB This may well explain why no one seems to be able to make predictions about economic crashes, Arab Springs, or election results these days! 

Other critics, such as phenomenologists (kind of like precursors to Postmodernists), argue that the whole concept of an external reality is itself flawed, and that instead of one external reality which constrains individuals there are a multitude of more fluid and diverse social realities which arise and fade with social interaction. From this perspective, we may think there is a system of social norms and values out there in the world, but this is only ‘real’ for us if we think it to be real; this is nothing more than a thought, and thus in ‘reality’ we are really free as individuals. (Monstrously free, if you like, to coin a phrase.)

Do Social Facts Exist?

Durkheim’s view of society and the Positivist method have been conceived over 100 years ago, and it has been severely criticised by Interpretivists and Postmodernists, but this hasn’t stopped many researchers from adopting a quantitative, scientific approach to analysing social trends and social problems at the level of society rather than at the level of the individual, and there does seem to be something in the view that society constrains us in subtle and often unnoticed ways, many of which you would’ve come across over the two year A level sociology course.  

Firstly, the suicide rate still varies according to various social factors (‘social facts’?)

For example, after noting that the male suicide rate is 3 times higher than the female suicide rate, and highest for men in their late 40s, This 2016 suicide report by the Samaritans (UK focus) notes that ‘Research suggests that social and economic factors influence the risk of suicide in women as well as men’

suicide

Hence as Durkheim said in the 19th century, the decision to kill yourself isn’t just a personal decision, it’s influenced by whether your’re male or female and your age. (As a 43 year old male, I don’t find this graph particularly encouraging, then again at least I’m into ‘the hump’ rather than staring at it from my 30s and with only 8 years of shit to go.) 

Secondly, the birth rate/ total fertility rate seem to be effected by a number of ‘social facts’

Think back to the module on the family – while the decision to have babies seems personal and private, the number of children women have, and the age at which they have them seems to be influenced heavily by society. The decline in the birth rate is now  a global trend – and while there are different ’causes’ which have led to its reduction, some of the more common ones appear to be women’s empowerment and education , economic growth and state-promoted family planning.

Web

This isn’t just me saying this, it’s backed up by a whole load of number crunching of global data on birth rates which are summarised in this excellent Guardian article.

According to the The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) there are a number of factors that can play a role in a country’s fertility rates, including its investment in education, the availability of family planning services, the status of women’s rights and the prevalence of early and forced marriage.

“Population dynamics are not destiny,” the UNFPA’s population matters report says. “Change is possible through a set of policies which respect human rights and freedoms and contribute to a reduction in fertility, notably access to sexual and reproductive healthcare, education beyond the primary level, and the empowerment of women.”

Thirdly, educational achievement still varies enormously by (the social fact of) social class background

It’s depressing to have to remind you about it, but from the Education module you learnt that social class background has a profound impact on educational achievement. The graph below shows achievement by FSM pupils compared to all other pupils.  ‘FSM’ stands for ‘Free School Meals’ – to qualify for FSM status a child needs to be in approximately the bottom sixth of households by income -NB FSM is only a proxy for social class, one indicator of it, the only one we have to hand which is convenient. (The government doesn’t collect information on social class and educational achievement for ideological reasons). 

fsm-educational-attainmentKeep in mind that this is the bottom sixth by income compared to all other pupils. If you separated out the top sixth, you’d probably see a 90% 5 A-C achievement rate (or something like that).

Again if you think back to the lessons on material and cultural deprivation, coming from a poor background seems to weigh heavily on ‘poor kids’ while coming from a middle class background confers material and cultural advantage on the children of wealthier parents. Sad to say but educational results in England and Wales are most definitely NOT a reflection of just intelligence.

For the full report click here

The Spirit Level – Equality as a ‘Social Fact’?

One of the best examples of a Positivist approach to social research carried out in recent years is ‘The Spirit Level’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett.– a study of the effects of wealth and income inequality on a whole range of social problems 

mental-illness

Chapter by chapter, graph by graph, the authors demonstrate that the more unequal a rich country is,the worse its performance is likely to be in a whole range of variables including:

  • life expectancy
  • infant mortality
  • obesity
  • child wellbeing
  • amount of mental illness
  • use of illegal drugs
  • teenage pregnancy rates
  • homicide and imprisonment rates
  • levels of mutual trust between citizens
  • maths and literacy attainment
  • social mobility (children rising in social scale compared with their parents)
  • spending on foreign aid

The authors consider and eliminate other possibilities, and conclude:

 ‘It is very difficult to see how the enormous variations which exist from one society to another in the level of problems associated with low social status can be explained without accepting that inequality is the common denominator, and a hugely damaging force.”

Inequalities erode “social capital”, that is, the cohesion of a society, the degree to which individual citizens are involved in their society, the strength of the social networks within it, and the degree of trust and empathy between citizens.

The mechanisms by which inequality impacts on societies, it is suggested, is that individuals internalise inequality, that their psyches are profoundly affected by it, and that that in turn affects physical as well as mental health, and leads to attitudes and behaviours which appear as a variety of social and health problems.’ 

So if you’ve got an anxiety disorder, blame Thatcher, she’s the one whose government kick started the march towards inequality.

Social Facts… In summary 

According to Durkheim (a French dude from the 19th century), society exists at a level above the individual and it kind of has a life of its own. It consists of social facts such as institutions and the class structure which constrain individuals depending on their relation to said social facts.

Durkheim believed that we should limit ourselves to studying ‘social facts’ at the level of society – aim to understand how and why social trends vary, and do this in a scientific way.

Understanding more about how these social forces drive social change, and deriving the laws which govern human interaction is the point of sociology according to Durkheim, and doing this requires us to study social facts at the level of society, there is no need to focus on individuals.

Some of the findings of this type of research based on social facts include……. 

  • Being male, 40-50, poor, and divorced means you are more miserable and more likely to kill yourself (Oh yeah, I’m not poor, or divorced, so yay I’m OK!)
  • Economic growth, female empowerment, and family planning policies have led to women having fewer babies
  • Being from a poor household means you’re much more likely to get crap CGSEs
  • The more unequal a country in terms of wealth and income the worse of everyone is in pretty much every way imaginable, especially those at the bottom.

So that’s all pretty useful, right? Basically we need to make the world more equal, empower more women, and help poor children and middle aged men more and everything’ll be a whole lot better….

Related Posts 

Positivism in Social Research 

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The Functionalist Theory of Society for A Level Sociology – Revision Notes

Functionalism as a Structural/Systems Theory – it focuses on the needs of the social system as a whole; it is a consensus theory – it sees society as based on shared values; it is also a modernist theory – it believes that research can find the truth and lead to progress. Functionalism is closely related to the New Right and Modernisation Theory.

Functionalism for A Level Socioogy
Functionalism for A Level Socioogy

Introduction/ Society as a System

  • Historical Context: the 1890s to the 1950s
  • Parsons uses the term ‘organic analogy’ to describe society.
  • Parsons sees three similarities between society and a biological organism: both are self-regulating, both have needs, both have sub-systems which perform specific functions.

Emile Durkheim’s Functionalism (1858 – 1917) – The first ever ‘Sociologist’

  • Concerned with understanding rapid social change brought about with industrialisation
  • Traditional society based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ and strong collective conscience
  • Industrial society = more complex causes change and anomie, challenge of modernity = how to achieve ‘organic solidarity’
  • Society exists as a separate entity above its members, as a system of ‘social facts’. It affects people irrespective of their individual thoughts and feelings.
  • Studied suicide to illustrate the above.

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

  • Society is based on value consensus and social order
  • Society needs individuals to be integrated – this is achieved through socialisation and social control
  • The social system has four basic needs: instrumental (adaptation and goal attainment) and expressive (integration and latency)
  • Social change is gradual and evolutionary/ progressive – societies gradually evolve by moving from simple to more complex and larger structures.

Robert Merton’s Functionalism 

  • Merton’s Three Internal Critiques of Functionalism: Not everything is necessary; not everything is interconnected; some institutions are dysfunctional
  • Merton’s ideas of Latent and Manifest Functions: Intended and unintended (so functions may be more complex than Parson’s suggests)

Overall Evaluations of Functionalism

  • Durkheim’s study on suicide – trends still true today
  • Governments view society as a system
  • Development theorists view society as a system.
  • X – Logical Criticisms – Functionalism is teleological – it explains an institutions existence in terms of its effect, and the effect may not be necessary
  • X – Conflict Perspectives – Functionalism ignores power inequality and exploitatio
  • X – Action Perspectives – Functionalism is deterministic
  • X – Postmodernist Critiques – society is not as stable, orderly, or predictable as Functionalists suggest.

Functionalism applied to other topic areas within sociology

Functionalism Summary

The Functionalist perspective on the family

  • The four universal functions of the family
  • Functional fit theory
  • Primary socialisation
  • Stabilisation of adult personalities
  • Traditional gender role

The Functionalist perspective on education

  • Secondary socialisation
  • Social Solidarity
  • Skills for working
  • Meritocracy
  • Role Allocation

Modernisation Theory (Functionalism applied to development)

  • Aid injections and five stages of growth
  • Cultural Barriers
  • Capitalist/ Industrial model of development

Functionalist and Social Control theories of crime

  • Bonds of attachment theory
  • Positive Functions of Crime
  • Inevitability of crime

Functionalist research methods – Positivism

  • Social Facts
  • Objectivity
  • Official Statistics
  • Correlations
  • Generaliseablity
  • Science

If you like this sort of revision-thang, then why not contribute to my early retirement fund and buy these revision notes for Theory and Methods – they’re structured as in the picture below, and cost less than a pint of yer finest ale!

Functionalism notes

The notes cover the following sub-topics:

  1. Functionalism
  2. Marxism
  3. Feminism
  4. Social Action Theory
  5. Postmodernism
  6. Late Modernism
  7. Sociology and Social Policy

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Summary Grid covering the Functionalist perspective on the family, education, crime and global development (modernisation theory)

The Functionalist Perspective on Society – Class Notes

Marxist Theory for second year sociology – Knowledge Check List