Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.
The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’
Positivism and Value Freedom
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.
As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.
So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.
Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.
Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.
Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?
Is it possible to completely objective/value free?
The ‘New Right’ – Sociology is not value free – it is left wing propaganda!
Value freedom and Sociology: ‘right wing’ perspectives..
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:
‘Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people… Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent… huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.’
In ‘Bias against Business’, Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:
‘Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies – alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.’
Feminism – Sociology is not value free because it is biased against women
Feminists are critical of the ‘value-free’ scientific claims of ‘malestream’ Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ While Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.
Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bias can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker’s ‘Whose Side are We On’) suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:
‘A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women’s inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women’s subordination must be questioned and challenged… feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary’. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).
Interpretivism – Sociology Cannot and Should not aim to be value free
There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:
Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’.He argues that Sociologists react to political, economic and social events – and what is seen as a political or social ‘issue’, a social ‘problem’ is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality – to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do – Sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.
Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’ – what Positivists call value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment.
‘The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.’
Gouldner, along similar lines to Gomm,argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.
Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: ‘Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.’ He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used.
Howard Becker, in ‘Whose side are we on?’ takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged.
A suggested template for the Methods in Context Question on one of the AQA’s 7191 (1)education and methods in context sample exam papers – the template should work for most Method in Context questions, but it won’t work for all of them (it’ll fit less well for secondary data MIC questions)
Question: 06 Read Item B below and answer the question that follows
Investigating pupils with behavioural difficulties
Some pupils experience behavioural difficulties and problems interacting with others. This can create a major obstacle to learning, for both themselves and their classmates. In some cases, they are taught in specialist schools or in pupil referral units separate from mainstream education. Often, their behavioural difficulties result from problems outside school and many pupils come from materially deprived and chaotic home backgrounds.
Some sociologists may study pupils with behavioural difficulties using covert participant observation. This method enables the researcher to witness directly the pupils’ behaviour and its context. It may also allow the researcher to build a relationship of trust with pupils and parents. However, the researcher may find it difficult to fit in and he or she may need to adopt a specialised role such as teacher or support worker.
Evaluate the strengths and limitations of using covert participant observation to investigate pupils with behavioural difficulties (20)
Suggested Essay Plan
Cover Four things – Sampling/ Representativeness, Access, Validity, Ethics – In relation to the specific topic you are will be researching….
Discuss getting a sample/ Representativeness
How might you gain a representative sample of the group you are studying? Are there any reasons why it might be difficult to get a representative sample?
Will the research method in the question make achieving a representative sample easier or more difficult?
What could you do to ensure representativeness?
Discuss gaining access to respondents
Once you’ve decided on your sample, why might gaining access to respondents be a problem? (think of who you will be researching, and where you will be researching)
Will the choice of method make gaining access easier or more difficult?
What would you have to do to make sure you can gain access to this particular group?
Discuss validity/ empathy/ trust/ Insight
Think of who you will be researching – are there any specific reasons why they may not wish to disclose information, or be unable to be disclose information?
Will the research method in the question make gaining trust easier or more difficult?
What could you do to make sure you get valid data from the people you will be researching?
Think of the specific topic you are researching in relation to who you will be researching – are there any specific ethical problems with researching these people?
Given these ethical problems, is the research method appropriate?
How can you make sure research is ethical?
Based on all of the above is this a practical, theoretically sound and ethical method for this topic
NB – For the Topic you could discuss any of the following:
Who you might be researching
Where you might be researching pupils with behavioural difficulties
Specific characteristics of the subjects under investigation
A Level Sociology – Perspectives on Education Summary Grid
A summmary of the Functionalist, Marxist, New Right, Late Modern/ New Labour and Postmodern Perspectives on the role of education in society – focusing on Key ideas, supporting evidence and criticisms. (Scroll down for ‘test yourself’ link)
Key Ideas about Education
Education performs positive functions for the individual and society.
It creating social solidarity (value consensus) through teaching the same subjects.
Teaching skills necessary for work – necessary for a complex division of labour.
Acting as a bridge between home and soceiety – from paricularistic to universalistic values.
Role Allocation and meritocracy
School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low.
Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees.
Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – Extended Tutorials – (‘cringing together’?)
Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses.
Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer).
Marxists – the education system is not meritocratic (not fair) – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school –
Many schools fail OFSTED inspections,
Not all pupils succeed
Negative In school processes like subcultures/ bullying/ teacher labelling
Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful. The education system tends to work for them. (because they can send their children to private schools) and it suggests there is nothing to criticise.
Traditional Marxists see the education system as working in the interests of ruling class elites. The education system performs three functions for these elites:
Reproduces class inequality.
Legitimates class inequality.
The Correspondence Principle – School works in the interests of capitalist employers.
Neo- Marxism – Paul Willis – A Classic piece of Participant Observation of 12 lads who formed a counter school cultur. Willis argued they rejected authority and school and just turned up to ‘have a laff’ (rejecting the correspondence theory). However, they ended up failing and still ended up in working class jobs (so supports the reproduction of class inequality).
To support the reproduction of inequality – Who gets the best Jobs. And there is no statistically significant evidence against the FACT that, on aggregate, the richer your parents, the better you do in education.
To support the Legitimation of class inequality – pupils are generally not taught about how unfair the education system is – they are taught that if they do badly, it is down to them and their lack of effort.
To support the Ideological State Apparatus – Surveillance has increased schools’ ability to control students.
There are many critical subjects taught at university that criticise elites (e.g. Sociology).
It is deterministic – not every child passively accepts authority (see Paul Willis).
Some students rebel – 5% are persistent truants (they are active, not passive!).
Some students from poor backgrounds do ‘beat the odds’ and go on to achieve highly.
The growth of the creative industries in the UK suggest school doesn’t pacify all students.
The nature of work and the class structure has also changed, possibly making Marxism less relevant today.
Key Ideas about Education
Neoliberalism and The New Right
Created an ‘education market’ – Schools were run like businesses – competing with each other for pupils and parents were given the choice over which school = league tables.
The state provides a framework in order to ensure that schools were all teaching the same thing – National Curriculum.
Schools should teach subjects that prepare pupils for work: New Vocationalism!
Their policies seem to have raised standards.
Their policies have been applied internationally (PISA league tables).
Asian Countries with very competitive education systems tend to top the league tables (e.g. China).
Competition between schools benefited the middle classes and lower classes, ethnic minorities and rural communities ended up having less effective choice.
Vocational Education was also often poor.
There is a contradiction between wanting schools to be free to compete and imposing a national framework that restricts schools.
The National Curriculum has been criticised for being ethnocentric and too restrictive on teachers and schools.
Late Modernism and New Labour
Government needs to spend more on education to respond to the rapid pace of change brought about by Globalisation.
People need to reskill more often as – government should play a role in managing this.
Schools are also necessary to keep under surveillance students ‘at risk’ of future deviance.
New Labour Policies – the purpose of school should be to raise standards, improve equality of opportunty, and promote diversity and equality.
See Evaluation of New Labour Policies
All developed economies have governments who spend large amounts of money on education, suggesting more (not less like Neoliberals suggest) state education is good.
It is difficult to see what other institution could teach about diversity other than schools.
There did seem to be more equality of opportunity under New Labour rather than under the 2015 Neoliberal/ New Right government.
Postmodernists argue that government attempts to ‘engineer’ pupils to fit society kill creativity
Marxists argue that whatever state education does it can never reduce class inequalities – we need to abolish global capitalism, not adapt to it!
Late-Modern, New Labour ideas about education are expensive. Neoliberalists say that we can no longer afford to spend huge sums of money on education.
Stand against universalising education systems.
See Modernist education as oppressive to many students – especially minority groups
Believe the ‘factory production-line mentality of education kills creativity
Ideas of education which fit with a postmodern agenda include – Home Education, Liberal forms of education, Adult Education and Life Long Learnin and Education outside of formal education (leisure)
Many people agree that schools do kill creativity (Ted Robinson, and Suli-Breaks)
Sue Palmer – Teaching the test has resulted in school being miserable and stressful for many pupils.
Do we really want an education system more like the Chinese one?
The National Curriculum has been criticised as being ethnocentric (potentially oppressive to minority groups).
Late-Modernists – we need schools to promote tolerance of diversity.
Neoliberalism – we need a competitive system to drive up standards in order to be able to compete in a global free market!
Marxists would argue that home education would lead to greater inequality – not all parents have an equal ability – if we leave education to parents, the middle classes will just benefit more, and working class kids will be even further behind.
Liberal forms of education may result in the survival of the fittest’
Assess the Marxist View of the Role of Education in Society
According to Marxists, modern societies are Capitalist, and are structured along class-lines, and such societies are divided into two major classes – The Bourgeois elite who own and control the means of production who exploit the Proletariat by extracting surplus value from them. Traditional Marxists understand the role of education in this context – education is controlled by the elite class (The Bourgeoisie) and schools forms a central part of the superstructure through which they maintain ideological control of the proletariat.
Firstly, Louis Altusser argued that state education formed part of the ‘ideological state apparatus’: the government and teachers control the masses by injecting millions of children with a set of ideas which keep people unaware of their exploitation and make them easy to control.
According to Althusser, education operates as an ideological state apparatus in two ways; Firstly, it transmits a general ideology which states that capitalism is just and reasonable – the natural and fairest way of organising society, and portraying alternative systems as unnatural and irrational Secondly, schools encourage pupils to passively accept their future roles, as outlined in the next point…
Secondly, the second function schools perform for Capitalism is that they produce a compliant and obedient workforce…
In ‘Schooling in Capitalist America’ (1976) Bowles and Gintis suggest that there is a correspondence between values learnt at school and the way in which the workplace operates. The values, they suggested, are taught through the ‘Hidden Curriculum’, which consists of those things that pupils learn through the experience of attending school rather than the main curriculum subjects taught at the school. So pupils learn those values that are necessary for them to tow the line in menial manual jobs.
For example passive subservience of pupils to teachers corresponds to the passive subservience of workers to managers; acceptance of hierarchy (authority of teachers) corresponds to the authority of managers; and finally there is ‘motivation by external rewards: students are motivated by grades not learning which corresponds to being motivated by wages, not the joy of the job.
A third Marxist idea is that schools reproduce class inequality. In school, the middle classes use their material and cultural capital to ensure that their children get into the best schools and the top sets. This means that the wealthier pupils tend to get the best education and then go onto to get middle class jobs. Meanwhile working class children are more likely to get a poorer standard of education and end up in working class jobs. In this way class inequality is reproduced
Fourthly, schools legitimate class inequality. Marxists argue that in reality class background and money determines how good an education you get, but people do not realize this because schools spread the ‘myth of meritocracy’ – in school we learn that we all have an equal chance to succeed and that our grades depend on our effort and ability. Thus if we fail, we believe it is our own fault. This legitimates or justifies the system because we think it is fair when in reality it is not.
Finally, Paul Willi’s classic study Learning to Labour (1977) criticises aspects of Traditional Marxist theory.
Willis’ visited one school and observed 12 working class rebellious boys about their attitude to school and attitudes to future work. Willis described the friendship between these 12 boys (or the lads) as a counter-school culture. They attached no value to academic work, more to ‘having a laff’ and that the objective of school was to miss as many lessons as possible.
Willis argued that pupils rebelling are evidence that not all pupils are brainwashed into being passive, subordinate people as a result of the hidden curriculum. Willis therefore criticizes Traditional Marxism. These pupils also realise that they have no real opportunity to succeed in this system, so they are clearly not under ideological control.
However, the fact that the lads saw manual work as ‘proper work’ and placed no value of academic work, they all ended up failing their exams, and as a result had no choice but to go into low-paid manual work, and the end result of their active rebellion against the school was still the reproduction of class inequality. Thus this aspect of Marxism is supported by Willis’ work.
Traditional Marxist views of education are extremely dated, even the the new ‘Neo-Marxist’ theory of Willis is 40 years old, but how relevant are they today?
To criticise the idea of the Ideological State Apparatus, Henry Giroux, says the theory is too deterministic. He argues that working class pupils are not entirely molded by the capitalist system, and do not accept everything that they are taught. Also, education can actually harm the Bourgeois – many left wing, Marxist activists are university educated, so clearly they do not control the whole of the education system.
However, the recent academisation programme, which involves part-privatisation of state schools suggests support for the idea that Businesses control some aspects of education.
It is also quite easy to criticise the idea of the correspondence principle – Schools clearly do not inject a sense of passive obedience into today’s students – many jobs do not require a passive and obedient workforce, but require an active and creative workforce.
However, if you look at the world’s largest education system, China, this could be seen as supporting evidence for the idea of the correspondence principle at work – many of those children will go into manufacturing, as China is the world’s main manufacturing country in the era of globalisation.
The Marxist Theory of the reproduction of class inequality and its legitimation through the myth of meritocracy does actually seem to be true today. There is a persistent correlation between social class background and educational achievement – with the middle classes able to take advantage of their material and cultural capital to give their children a head start and then better grades and jobs. It is also the case that children are not taught about this unfairness in schools, although a small handful do learn about it in Sociology classes.
In conclusion, while Marxist theory might be dated, all of the four major ideas still seem to have some relevance, especially their ideas about the reproduction and legitimation of class inequality, so I would say Marxism is one of the more accurate perspectives which helps us understand the role of the education system today, both nationally and globally.
These class notes on Functionalist Theory should be all you need to revise this topic for your A level sociology exam
The key ideas of Functionalist perspective are as follows –
There is such a thing as a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms values passed on through institutions which shape the individual –
We should study society scientifically and at the macro level – looking for the general laws that explain human action.
Socialisation is important – individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. The integration and regulation of individuals is a good thing.
We should analyse society as a system – look at each bit by looking at the contribution it makes to the whole
Social institutions generally perform positive functions – value consensus social integration; social regulation; preventing anomie and so on
Advanced Industrial society is better than primitive society – one of the main reasons social order is so important is so we don’t go backwards – (ties into the idea of progress)
You would do well to be able to distinguish between the ideas of Emile Durkheim – one of the founding fathers of Sociology and Talcott Parsons – who developed Functionalism in the 1940s and 50s.
Durkheim and Functionalism
Durkheim is one of the founding fathers of Sociology. He basically believed that social structure and social order were important because they constrained individual selfishness. However, he realized that as societies evolved, so people became more individualistic – more free – and so maintaining social order became more of a problem for society. The question of how social order was to be achieved in complex societies was one of his chief concerns.
Emile Durkheim 1858-1917: The first ever ‘Professor of Sociology’
Durkheim: The Historical Context In order to understand Durkheim’s work you need to understand the historical context in which he was writing. Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a student of the Positivist Auguste Comte. Durkheim and the first ever professor of Sociology. Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 – so he was writing in the middle of modernity and experiencing the industrialisation and urbanisation of France. Durkheim believed that the social changes ushered in by modernity threatened social order and his sociology is a response to this. His social research had two main concerns
He wanted to ensure that modern societies were harmonious and orderly
He wanted to create a science of society so that we could generate clear knowledge about how to bring about social order
1. There is such a thing as a ‘Social Structure’
Durkheim believed that there was such a thing as a social structure – made up of norms and values. He argued that this structure existed above the level of the individual because norms and values precede the individual – they already exist in society when we are born into it. Durkheim believed that people’s behaviour was shaped by the system of norms and values that they were born into.
Durkheim believed that the social structure consisted of ‘social facts‘ – phenomena which were external to the individual and constrained their ways of acting…
2. Sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behaviour
Much of Durkheim’s work was aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity and also trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve organic solidarity. In order to do this he argued that we needed to use objective, social scientific methods to find out the general laws that govern societies.. You should refer to the section on Durkheim’s scientific methods and his study of suicide in the Positivism/ sociology and science handout.
3 Individuals need to be restrained
Durkheim believed that individuals had a biological tendency to be naturally selfish and look out for themselves and that it was up to society to regulate these naturally selfish desires ultimately for the benefit of all. Too much freedom is bad for both the individual and society. This is quite an obvious idea really – all Durkheim believed is that greater levels of human happiness and ‘progress’ could be achieved if people cooperated together rather than competing like animals in a war of all against all over scarce resources.
Societies somehow have to ensure that individual’s naturally selfish tendencies are restrained and in order to do this societies need 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 – a process Durkheim called Moral regulation.
Both Social Solidarity and Moral Regulation rely on the effective socialisation of individuals into the wider society. Socialisation is the process whereby individuals learn the norms and values of a society.
Key Term – Social Solidarity
Where there is a sense of feeling part of something greater. A shared feeling of working together to achieved the collectively agreed on goals of society.
Achieving solidarity in advanced industrial society is difficult
Durhkeim argued that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies. In the former, solidarity happens automatically, while in the later it is more difficult to achieve.
In Primitive society, for Example: Feudal Britain, before industrializati were small scale and locally based, with people living in the same area all their lives. There was also very little role differentiation and no complex division of labour. Generally speaking, people have shared experiences of the same village, the same activities and the same people all there lives. Durkheim argued that when people share the same reality and the same goals, and are closely reliant on one another, moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. People also shared one religion which provided a shared set of moral codes to all people. Durkheim referred to this situation as mechanical solidarity: Solidarity based on similarity.
In advanced Industrial society the number of specialised tasks increase and the Division of Labour becomes more complex. Individuals become more interdependent as people become less self-sufficient and more dependent on a larger number of people that they do not know. As a result, the ability of religion to provide the same moral codes to all individuals declines. The problem is that people no longer lead the same lives, they are different to each other, and modern societies need to find a way of achieving solidarity based on difference rather than solidarity based on similarity.
Because of these differences, Modern societies run the risk of excessive individualism and face a ‘crisis of moral regulation’, a condition which Durkheim called ‘anomie’ and Durkheim thus argued that achieve moral regulation and regulating individuals was the primary problem facing advanced industrial societies. The problem was one of achieving ‘organic solidarity’: ‘social solidarity based on difference
Durkehim argued that, given the decline of religion, labour organizations and education would provide society with the necessary moral regulation in advanced industrial societies. Focussing on education, Durkheim argued that what education does is simultaneously teach us the diverse skills required for an advanced division of labour and provide us with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history and with there being shared assemblies.
Key Term – Anomie
Where modern social systems encourage excessive individualism – as a consequence there is a general lack of agreement around norms and values – some commentators describe anomie as a state of normlessness.
Talcott Parson’s Functionalism
Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work
4. The Organic Analogy – we should see society as a system
Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions that 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.
The Organic Analogy
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: low rates social problems.
5. Institutions perform positive functions
Following the organic analogy, Parsons sought to understand institutions by analyzing the positive functions they played in the maintenance of social order. Some of the positive functions Parsons identified include those below
Institutions generally promote Value Consensus – One of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of 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 shared values include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means people believe that hard work should be rewarded.
The Family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of our society – it provides early socialization; the stabilization of adult personalities and also somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life – acting as a release valve.
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.
Other institutions regulate individual behavior through social sanctions, preventing crime and deviance escalating out of control.
The Idea of Functional Pre-requisites
Parsons believed that societies had certain functional prerequisites. Functional pre-requisites are things that societies need in order 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
Parson’s name for each function (AGIL)
Performed by what institutions?
Adapt to the environment and the production of goods and services
Decide what goals society as a whole should aim to achieve
Achieve social cohesion
Latency (Pattern Maintenance)
Socialise the young into shared values
Parsons argued that society’s needs must come before the needs of the individual. This is why he is so keen to stress the importance of the family and education passing on particular norms and values that bind people together in value consensus.
Stretch and Challenge – find out more about Functional- Prerequisites
Functionalist theory about what ‘needs’ societies have is far from perfect. Their theories about what needs societies have come from the following two sources -Sociologists and Anthropologists have studies thousands of different societies and cultures to discover if there are any institutions which appear in all of them. George Peter Murdock in the 1940s argued that the family exists in every society while Davis and Moore (1960s) argued that there is some form of stratification system in every society. Functionalists thus concluded that at the very least societies need some form of family and some form of stratification system in order to survive.Marion J Levy (1952) reflected on what kinds of conditions would lead to the collapse of society. She argued that this would happen if members became extinct, if they became totally apathetic, involved in a war of all against all, or if they were absorbed into another society. Thus she argued that all societies needed mechanisms to ensure that these things did not happen. It follows that societies needed some kind of mechanism for reproducing new members.
6. Social change and social evolution
Parsons viewed social change as a process of ‘social evolution’ from simple hunter-gatherer societies to more complex forms of advanced industrial society. More complex forms of society are better because they are more adaptive – more able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more able to harness the talents of a wider range of individuals (because they are meritocratic). They are thus more able to survive. (This is actually quite Darwinian – human beings thrive more than monkeys because they are more able to adapt their environment to suit them – advanced industrial societies thrive because they are more able to adapt their environment compared to hunter- gatherer societies.)
Parsons argued that initially economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, but increasingly values become the driving force behind social progress. He argued that the values of advanced industrial societies were superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow a society to be more adaptive, whereas traditional values are more likely to prevent change and keep things the way they are.Now reflecting back to Parson’s analysis of the family and education, we can see that the reason he stresses the importance of these is because they are keeping together the most advanced society – the best – if the family etc. collapse, we may regress back to a more primitive form of social organisation.
Crticisms of the Functionalist Perspective
1. Is there really a ‘structure’ that exists independently of individuals?
2. It is difficult to assess the effects of institutions – In order to establish whether an institution has positive functions, one would need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution actually had on all individuals and all other institutions. This is extremely difficult to do because it is impossible to isolate the effects of an institution on other things.
3.Functionalism exaggerates the extent of Value consensus and Social Order – Parsons is criticized for assuming value consensus exists rather than actually proving it
4.Michael Mann argues that social stability might be because of lack of consensus rather than because of it. If everyone really believed in the value of achievement then disorder might result because not everyone can get the highest reward. It follows that social stability is more likely if the people at the bottom of society – the majority are tuned out.
5.Functionalism is a deterministic theory – Human behavior is portrayed as being shaped by the social system, as if individuals are programmed b social institutions.
6.Functionalism ignores conflict and coercion – Marxists argue that mainstream social values – like those in pattern variable B, are actually the values of elite groups, and thus social order is imposed on the majority by a relatively small group of elite actors.
7. Functionalism is Ideological – Functionalism is a conservative social theory. By arguing that certain institutions are necessary – such as the family, religion and stratification systems – they are actually justifying the existence of the social order as it is, also by focussing on the positive functions
So is Functionalism still relevant today?
Despite the flaws mentioned above perhaps Functionalism should not be rejected out of hand –
The idea that we can usefully look at society as a system and that the parts are interdependent is an assumption made by governments who inject money into education or welfare in order to achieve a desired end.
Similarly the idea that we can help countries develop from primitive to advanced by giving aid is still a very common idea, and many in the developing world aspire to become like countries in the West.
Finally, statistics still reveal some interesting correlations between someone’s position in the social structure and their chances of something happening to them. For example….
This video from the School of Life provides a useful non-A Level version of Durkheim’s thought – A level Sociology really oversimplifies Durkheim to the point of mis-teaching him (sorry folks!) so this video might be a better starting point than all of the material above…
Vocational Education refers to teaching people the specific knowledge and skills to prepare them for a particular career. Vocational Education can either be on the job training – such as with apprenticeships, or courses focused on a particular career in a college (typically 16-19).
The New Right introduced Vocational Educational in the 1980s. At the time they argued that Britain needed job-related training in order to combat high levels of unemployment at that time, and in order to prepare young people for a range of new jobs emerging with new technologies, and to make them more competitive in a globalising economy.
Two vocational policies the New Right introduced were National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) and the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). The former involved building a portfolio of evidence to prove you had the specific skills necessary for a job, and the later involved on the job training, in which trainees received a small wage, funded by the government.
At first glance, the expansion of Vocational Education in the 1980s seems to support the Functionalist view of education – as it seems be about getting people ready for work and performing the function of ‘role allocation’ more effectively, however, there were a number of criticisms of early Vocationalism
Two criticisms of these policies were that NVQs were seen by many as an inferior qualification to the more academic ‘A’ level subjects, and much on the job training was of a low quality because it wasn’t very well regulated – some trainees were basically just glorified tea boys (according to research by Marxist sociologist Dan Finn in the 1980s.)
New Labour expanded Vocational Education, seeing it as a way to provide individuals with the training needed to be competitive in a globalised Post-Fordist, high skilled/ high waged economy.
The main plank of Labour’s Vocational Policy was The New Deal for young people which Provided some kind of guaranteed training for any 18-24 year old who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. This was set up in 1998 and initially cost £3.5 billion. Employers were offered a government subsidy to take on people under 25 who had been unemployed for more than 6 months. By March 2003 almost 1 million people had started the New Deal, and 40% of them had moved on to full-time unsubsidised jobs.
A second central aspect of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was the introduction of The Modern Apprenticeships scheme in 2002.There are many different levels of Apprenticeships in a huge range of industries, and they typically involve on the job training in sectors ranging from tourism to engineering. Those undertaking them are paid a small wage, which varies with age, while undertaking training.
Some of the early modern apprenticships were criticised for being exploitative – some companies simply hired workers to a 6 week training course and then sacked them and rehired more trainees as a means of getting cheap labour. However, overall, apprenticeships have been a huge success and there are now hundreds of thousands of people who do them in any one year.
A third strand of New Labour’s Vocational Policy was The Introduction of Vocational A levels –Today, the most commonly recognised type of Vocational A level is the BTEC – Which Edexcel defines as being ‘designed as specialist work-related qualifications and are available in a range of sectors like business, engineering and ICT. A number of BTECs are recognised as Technical Certificates and form part of the Apprenticeship Framework.’
While the purpose of this was to try and eradicate the traditional vocational-academic divide it was mostly working class children went down the vocational route, while middle class children did A levels, which many middle class parents regard as the only ‘proper qualifications’, and from a broadly Marxist analysis Vocational Education simply reinforces the class divide.
In conclusion, the fact that Vocational Education has gradually been extended over the years suggests that successive governments see it as playing an important role in our society, especially in getting children ready for work and providing them with the type of skills our economy needs. It is also clear that a number of children simply are not suited to a purely academic education, so in an increasingly diverse society, it is likely to have a continued role to play. However, we also need to recognise that there are problems with it, such as with unscrupulous employers using on the job training as a means of getting cheap labour, so steps need to be taken to ensure it is effectively regulated.
Functionlists focus on the positive functions performed by the nuclear family such as primary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities. Also includes criticisms from other perspectives!
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
This brief post is designed to help you revise the Functionalist Perspective on the Family, relevant to the AS Sociology Families and Households Module. It summarises the work of George Murdoch and Talcott Parsons and then offers some general criticisms .
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions each perform specific functions within a society to keep that society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution as they see it as the ‘basic building block’ of society which performs the crucial functions of socialising the young and meeting the emotional needs of its members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability.
Before you go any further you might like to read this more in depth post ‘Introduction to Functionalism‘ post which covers the key ideas of Functionalism.
George Peter Murdock – The four essential functions of the nuclear family
George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy. 2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue. 3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values 4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
It is feasible that other instiututions could perform the functions above.
Anthropological research has shown that there are some cultures which don’t appear to have ‘families’ – the Nayar for example.
Talcott Parsons – Functional Fit Theory
Parsons has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.
The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.
In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.
I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:
Criticisms of Parson’s Theory of Functional Fit
It’s too ‘neat’ – social change doesn’t happen in such an orderly manner:
Laslett found that church records show only 10% of households contained extended kin before the industrial revolution. This suggests the family was already nuclear before industrialisation.
Young and Wilmott found that Extended Kin networks were still strong in East London as late as the 1970s.
Parsons – The two essential or irreducible functions of the family
According to Parsons, although the nuclear family performs reduced functions, it is still the only institution that can perform two core functions in society – Primary Socialisation and the Stabilisation of Adult Personalities.
1. Primary Socialisation – The nuclear family is still responsible for teaching children the norms and values of society known as Primary Socialisation.
An important part of socialisation according to Functionalists is ‘gender role socialisation. If primary socialisation is done correctly then boys learn to adopt the ‘instrumental role’ (also known as the ‘breadwinner role) – they go on to go out to work and earns money. Girls learn to adopt the ‘expressive role’ – doing all the ‘caring work’, housework and bringing up the children.
2. The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the emotional security which is achieved within a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons working life in Industrial society is stressful and the family is a place where the working man can return and be ‘de-stressed’ by his wife, which reduces conflict in society. This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’
General criticisms of the Functionalist perspective on the family
It is really important to be able to criticise the perspectives. Evaluation is worth around half of the marks in the exam!
1. Downplaying Conflict
Both Murdock and Parsons paint a very rosy picture of family life, presenting it as a harmonious and integrated institution. However, they downplay conflict in the family, particularly the ‘darker side’ of family life, such as violence against women and child abuse.
2. Being out of Date
Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women is very old-fashioned. It may have held some truth in the 1950s but today, with the majority of women in paid work, and the blurring of gender roles, it seems that both partners are more likely to take on both expressive and instrumental roles
3. Ignoring the exploitation of women
Functionalists tend to ignore the way women suffer from the sexual division of labour in the family. Even today, women still end up being the primary child carers in 90% of families, and suffer the burden of extra work that this responsibility carries compared to their male partners. Gender roles are socially constructed and usually involve the oppression of women. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist’s view of separation of roles into male breadwinner & female homemaker. These roles lead to the disadvantages being experienced by women.
4. Functionalism is too deterministic
This means it ignores the fact that children actively create their own personalities. An individual’s personality isn’t pre-determined at birth or something they have no control in. Functionalism incorrectly assumes an almost robotic adoption of society’s values via our parents; clearly there are many examples where this isn’t the case.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle
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