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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.

Beliefs in society revision bundle for sale

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

The bundle contains the following:

  • 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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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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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.

The bundle contains the following:

  • 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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Scientific Quantitative Methodology in Sociology

Positivists prefer to the limit themselves the study of objective ‘social facts’ and use statistical data and the comparative method to find correlations, and multivariate analysis to uncover statistically significant ‘causal’ relationships between variables and thus derive the laws of human behaviour.

This post explores the Positivist approach to social research, defining and explaining all of the above key terms and using some examples from sociology to illustrate them.

Social Facts

The first rule of Positivist methodology is to consider social facts as things which means that the belief systems and customs of the social world should be considered as things in the same way as the objects and events of the natural world.

According to Durkheim, some of the key features of social facts are:

  • they exist over and above individual consciousness
  • they are not chosen by individuals and cannot be changed by will
  • each person is limited (constrained) by social facts

According to Durkheim what effects do social facts make people act in certain ways, in the same way as door limits the means whereby you can enter a room or gravity limits how far you can jump.

Positivists believed that we should only study what can be observed and measured(objective facts), not subjective thoughts and feelings. The role of human consciousness is irrelevant to explaining human behaviour according to Positivists because humans have little or no choice over how they behave.

For a more in-depth account of social facts, have a look at this blog post: What are Social Facts?

Statistical data, Correlation, and Causation

Positivists believed it was possible to classify the social world in an objective way. Using these classifications it was then possible to count sets of observable facts and so produce statistics.

The point of identifying social facts was to look for correlations – a correlation is a tendency for two or more things to be found together, and it may refer to the strength of the relationship between them.

If there is a strong correlation between two ore more types of social phenomena then a positivist sociologist might suspect that one of these phenomena is causing the other to take place. However, this is not necessarily the case and it is important to analyse the data before any conclusion is reach.

Spurious Correlations

Spurious correlations pose a problem for Positivist research. A spurious correlation is when two or more phenomena are found together but have no direct connection to each other: one does not therefor cause the other. For example although more working class people commit crime, this may be because more men are found in the working classes – so the significant relationship might be between gender and crime, not between class and crime.

Multivariate Analysis

Positivists engage in multivariate analysis to overcome the problem of spurious correlations.

Multivariate Analysis involves isolating the effect of a particular independent variable upon a particular dependent variable. This can be done by holding one independent variable constant and changing the other. In the example above this might mean comparing the crime rates of men and women in the working class.

Positivists believe multivariate analysis can establish causal connections between two or more variables and once analysis is checked establish the laws of human behaviour.

Positivism – Establishing the Laws of Human Behaviour

A scientific law is a statement about the relationship between two or more phenomena which is true in all circumstances.

According to Positivists, the laws of human behaviour can be discovered by the collection of objective facts about the world in statistical form and uncovering correlations between them, checked for their significance by multivariate analysis.

Positivism and The Comparative Method

The comparative method involves the use of comparisons between different societies, or different points in time

The purpose of using the comparative method is to establish correlations, and ultimately causal connections, seek laws and test hypotheses.

The comparative method overcomes the following disadvantages of experiments:

  • Moral problems are not as acute
  • The research is less likely to affect the behaviour or those being studied because we are looking at natural settings
  • The comparative method is superior to the experimental method because allows the sociologist to explore large scale social changes and changes over time

However, a fundamental problem with the comparative method is that the data you want may not be available, and you are limited to that data which already exists or which can be collected on a large scale via social surveys.

Related Posts

Positivism and Interpretivism in social research

Social Action Theory – criticises the positivist approach to social research, arguing that human consciousness is too complex to reduce to numbers.

 

 

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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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Functionalism – An Introduction

An introduction to Functionalism for AS and  A level sociology – covering the basic key ideas of Functionalist thinkers Durkheim and Parsons – social facts, social solidarity, and anomie, the organic analogy, and the importance of socialisation.

Functionalism is a ‘structural-consensus theory’.

The ‘structural bit’ means that Functionalists argue that there is a social structure that shapes individual behaviour through the process of socialisation.

The ‘consensus bit’ means that Functionalists believe that a successful society is based on ‘value consensus’ – people agree around a set of shared norms and values.  This value consensus enables people to co-operate and to work together to achieve shared goals.Functionalism sociology social orderFunctionalists also believe that a successful society has a stable social structure, in which different institutions perform unique functions that contribute to the maintenance of the whole – in the same way that the different organs of the body perform different functions to keep a human being healthy. In a successful or ‘healthy’ society, for example, social life is organised so that the family socialises the young and meets emotional needs, school teaches us broader life skills, the workplace is where we contribute the economy.

Functionalists generally believe institutions perform positive functions (they do good things for the individual and society).

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

Durkheim’s Functionalism

Historical Context

Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was the first ever professor of Sociology.

Durkheim’s major works were published between 1893 and 1912 –and his writings are mainly concerned with how the massive social changes at that time would affect French society.
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Below are just two of Durkheim’s key ideas

1. Society shapes the Individual

Durkheim argued that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who comprise it. Members of society are constrained by ‘social facts’, by ‘ways of acting, thinking and feeling which are external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him’.

Social facts include such things as beliefs, moral codes, and basic norms and values which are passed from one generation to the next and shared by individuals who make up a society. From this point of view it is not the consciousness of the individual that directs human behaviour but common beliefs and sentiments which shape his or her consciousness. In short, according to Durkheim, society shapes the individual.

2. Social solidarity socialisation and anomie 

Durkheim believed that too much freedom was bad for the individual – when individuals have too freedom, or when there is no clear guidance about what’s right and wrong, individuals suffer from a sense uncertainty and confusion about their place in world, not knowing what they should be doing, a condition Durkheim called ‘anomie’.

Durkheim argued that societies needed to create a sense of social solidarity – which is making individuals feel as if they part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behaviour. At one level this is achieved through the family, but for Durkheim, feeling a sense of belonging to wider society was also important. Traditionally this was achieved through religion, but Durkheim was concerned that religion was fading, and that modern societies faced a ‘crisis of anomie’.

He also theorised that new institutions such as schools, work places and voluntary organisations would eventually provide the ‘social glue’ which would make people feel like they belonged. Durkheim’s thinking is actually one of the fundamental things which convinced governments the world over to spend billions of pounds on schools – in order to socialise the young and create a sense of solidarity.

For Durkheim, and functionalists in general, socialisation (the teaching of shared norms and values) through institutions is one of the key ways in which social solidari

Talcott Parson’s Functionalism

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

1. The Organic Analogy – we should see society as a system

Talcott Parsons saw society as working like a human body, arguing that institutions in society were like organs in the body – each performing specific functions which were necessary to the maintenance of the whole. Parsons argued that parts of society should be understood in terms of what they contribute to the maintenance of the whole.

Parsons identified various similarities between the human body and a society

The body The Organic Analogy Institutions
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: healthy Normal: low rates social problems.

Parsons believed that societies had certain ‘functional prerequisites which need to be met in order for society to survive. Just like human beings need certain things to survive, so every society has to have certain things in order to function properly. For example, a society must produce and distribute resources such as food and shelter; there has to be some kind of organization that resolves conflicts, and others that socialize the young.

According to Parsons a social system has four needs which must be met for continued survival – These are adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.  In advanced industrial society, these needs are met through specialized sub systems:

Every society needs to Institutions in society which might perform these functions?
Produce goods and services  the work place
Achieve ‘value consensus’ – by teaching people the difference between right and wrong  schools
Resolve differences of opinion, deal with conflict, and punish ‘deviants’.  courts
Reproduce and socialize the next generation so society can carry on  the family

2. Value Consensus

Parsons believed that American society generally worked for most people, and thus preserving the social order (preventing conflict or revolution) was particularly important.

Parsons argued that social order was mainly achieved not through the rule of force, but through institutions promoting Value Consensus – which is agreement around shared values. Parsons argued that commitment to common values is the basis for order in society.

VALUE CONSENSUS.jpg

Two of the most important institutions which do this are the nuclear family and school

The Family is responsible for providing ‘primary socialisation’ – teaching the basic norms and values of our society. Parsons believed the nuclear family was the best type of family for providing a stable upbringing for children, and the best type of family to provide moral guidance (the difference between right and wrong.

Later on in life, education integrates individuals into wider society – providing individuals with a sense of belonging and identity to the wider society. Parsons argued, for example, that education does this through teaching us a shared history and language.

Two of the most important shared values in industrial societies include a belief in the work ethic and a belief in meritocracy (the idea that people are rewarded on the basis of their ability and effort), both of which are taught through education. Parsons argued these were both vital to modern society because a work ethic ensures people value working rather than lazing about and meritocracy means that those people who end up in lower paid jobs accept inequality in society because they believe they at least had a fair chance to do better in life.

This relates back to the previous point – individuals need to be integrated in shared values in order to be directed to meet the system’s needs. For Parsons the system has two mechanisms for ensuring that individuals conform to shared norms and meet the system’s needs: socialization and social control.

Evaluating Functionalism

Think about the following questions – try to think of evidence for and against each question which both supports and criticises these key ideas of functionalism

  1. To what extent does socialisation shape an individual’s identity?
  2. Is anomie (too much freedom) a problem in today’s society?
  3. Do institutions really perform positive functions? (do we all benefit the same amount or do some benefit more than others?)
  4. Do we have value consensus in today’s society?

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on the Family

An Introduction to Marxism for AS Sociology

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

 

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Evaluating the Functionalist Perspective on Education

Functionalist theorists such as Durkheim and Parsons argue that education systems are meritocracies and that they perform positive functions such as secondary socialization and role allocation, but how valid are these views today?

Before you read the material below, make sure you have a clear understanding of the functionalist view of education. You should have notes, organised into at least four points which functionalists make about the role of education in society. Then read/ watch the material below and annotate your notes, linking each piece of evidence to a particular aspect of the Functionalist theory of education, stating whether the evidence supports or critics that particular aspect of the theory (of course, some of the evidence might be ambiguous). You could also comment on how valid the evidence is.

Evidence you could use to evaluate the Functionalist view of education

Firstly Cross National Comparisons suggest support for the Functionalist view that formal education and qualifications are functionally advantageous for society as a whole, as they are correlated with a society’s level of economic development.

education-country-comparisons

Human Development statistics show a clear relationship between improved education, higher skilled jobs and economic growth. In the most developed countries such as those in Northern Europe children spend more than a decade in full time education, with the majority achieving level three qualifications (A level or equivalent) while huge numbers of children in Sub-Saharan Africa receive only a basic primary or  secondary education, with actual enrolment figures in school much lower, and only a few going on to level three education or level four (university level).

You can use Google Public Data to compare a range of Education Indicators across a number of countries

Of course as a counter-criticism, it’s worth keeping in mind that correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation in every country. 

Secondly Exclusion statistics suggest that the education system doesn’t act as an effective agent of secondary socialisation for every child, although the numbers of exclusions are small, with only 4% of pupils being given a fixed term exclusion and less than 0.1% being permanently excluded.

school-exlusions

However, some types of student are much more likely to be excluded – boys are three times more likely than girls, FSM students 4 times more likely than non FSM and Black-Caribbean and mixed white and Black-Caribbean 3 times more likely than the figures as a whole, suggesting that school works better for some types of student than others, which is something Functionalists do not consider.

Thirdly, backing up the above point, Statistics on persistent absenteeism show that slightly more pupils are routinely absent from school, with about 6 % of pupils missing more than 15% of school in any one term – however, the numbers are much higher for special schools and again for boys and FSM students.

Fourthly, Employment statistics from the ONS demonstrate a strong correlation between educational level,  employment skill level and income – those with GCSEs earn 20% more than those without GCSEs and those with degrees earn about 85% more than those with only GCSEs. This set of statistics from The Poverty Site further demonstrates that those with poor GCSCEs/ no qualifications are approximately five times more likely to either be unemployed or in low paid-work (less than £7/ hour) compared to those with degrees. This demonstrates at least partial support for the theory or Role Allocation – the higher your qualification, the better paid job you get (although this says nothing about whether this is meritocratic).

This more recent survey of graduate compared to non graduate earnings backs this up – post graduates earn more than graduates, and graduates earn more than non-graduates…

To simplify it – for 16-64 year olds, on average, graduates earn about £8K more a year than non-graduates and postgraduates earn another £8K year a more than graduates.

graduate-earnings

However, the gap between the earnings of non-graduates and graduates has narrowed in the last decade… .In 2005 graduates earned 55% more than non-graduates, but by 2015, they only earned 45% more.

graduate-earnings-2015

Fifthly, and criticising the view that schools are meritocratic, A recent Longitudinal Study found: ‘three years after graduation, those from more advantaged socio-economic backgrounds and those who attended private schools are more likely to be in the ‘top jobs’….

‘This research shows that even if we compare students from the same institution type, taking the same subjects and with the same degree class, socioeconomic status and private schooling still affects an individual’s chance of securing a top job,’ the report concluded.

‘An individual who has a parent who is a manager and who attended a private school is around 7 percentage points more likely to enter  the highest status occupations. Male graduates from a managerial background who attended a private school are around 10 percentage points more likely to enter the highest status occupations.

But academics do not know whether the advantage given to private school pupils is simply the ‘old boys’ network’ or whether they learn better social skills so appear more confident in job interviews.

‘Our results indicate a persistent advantage from having attended a private school. This raises questions about whether the advantage that private school graduates have is because they are better socially or academically prepared, have better networks or make different occupational choices.’

Sixthly, this TED talk by Ken Robinson (An RSA animated video of a talk) – Offers several criticisms of the contemporary education system –  you could loosly call this a post-modern/ late modern criticism of the role of modernist education, which also criticises the Functionalist paradigm that school performs positive functions.

In short, Robinson argues that modern education lets most kids down in the following ways –

  1. It stifles their creativity by focusing too much on academic education and standardised testing – kids are taught that there is one answer and it’s at the back, rather than being taught to think divergently.
  2. It tests individual ability rather than your ability to work collaboratively in groups (which you would do in the real world).
  3. Lessons are dull – out of touch with children who are living in the most information rich age in history.
  4. It medicates thousands of kids with Ritalin – which Robinson sees as the wrong response to kids with ADHD – we should be stimulating them in divergent ways.

Related Posts 

The Functionalist Perspective on Education – revision notes

The Marxist view of Education  and the New Right view both criticise the Functionalist view of the role of education

This is an evaluative posts – click here for a reminder of the key skills in sociology and an explanation of different ways you can evaluate perspectives.

 

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Positivism, Sociology and Social Research

This post provides a brief overview of Positivist Research Methods, which consist of a scientific approach to social research using quantitative data to ensure objectivity and reliability. (In contrast to the Interpretivist approach to research which favors qualitative data.)

Positivism

The historical context of Positivism is that it emerged out of The Enlightenment and The Industrial Revolution….

The Enlightenment  refers to a period of European history spanning from 1650 to 1800. During this time, the authority of the church was challenged as people started to believe that knowledge should be derived from science rather than from God. The Enlightenment witnessed the birth of modern science which lead to massive social changes. The following three core beliefs (there were others too!) emerged out of The Enlightenment:

  • Underlying laws explained how the universe and society work (wasn’t just God’s will)
    Scientific study could reveal these laws.
  • All men could understand these laws (unlike religious belief – God’s will is unknowable)
  • Laws could be applied to society to improve it (the belief in progress and the pursuit of happiness).

The Enlightenment, Industrialisation’, ‘Progress’ and the Birth of Sociology

The 18th and 19th centuries saw a number of new scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry and biology. Most notably for students of Sociology, scientific discoveries lead to new technologies which in turn lead to industrialisation, or the growth of factory based production and the building of such things as railways.

This in turn lead to much social transformation – such as Urbanisation and the growth of what Marxists called the Proletariat. Many commentators from the early 19th century onwards were disturbed by the contradiction between the huge advances, or progress being made in science and industry and the apparent worsening of the lives of the majority. As hundreds of thousands of people flooded into expanding industrial city centres such as Manchester and elsewhere in Britain and Europe, these new urban centres were plagued with new social problems – most notably poverty, unemployment, and social unrest.

It was in this context that August Comte founded Sociology – Comte basically believed that if we can use scientific findings to bring about improvements in production through industrialisation then we can study the social world and figure out how to construct a better society that can combat social problems such as poverty, lack of education and crime.

Auguste Comte (1798-1857): The Founder of Scientific Sociology (aka Positivism)

August Comte - The Founder of Positivist Sociology
August Comte – The Founder of Positivist Sociology

Comte introduced the word “Sociology” in 1839. The term “Sociology” is derived from the Latin word Socius, meaning companion or associate, and the Greek word logos, meaning study or science. Thus, meaning of sociology is the science of society.

Comte concentrated his efforts to determine the nature of human society and the laws and principles underlying its growth and development. He also laboured to establish the methods to be employed in studying social phenomena.

Comte argued that social phenomena can be like physical phenomena copying the methods of natural sciences. He thought that it was time for inquiries into social problems and social phenomena to enter into this last stage. So, he recommended that the study of society be called the science of society, i. e. ‘sociology’.

The General Ideas of Positivism – or The Scientific Method Applied to the Study of Sociology

1. Positivists believe that sociology can and should use the same methods and approaches to study the social world that “natural” sciences such as biology and physics use to investigate the physical world.

2. By adopting “scientific” techniques sociologists should be able, eventually, to uncover the laws that govern societies and social behaviour just as scientists have discovered the laws that govern the physical world.

3. Positivists believe that good, scientific research should reveal objective truths about the causes of social action – science tells us that water boils at 100 degrees and this is true irrespective of what the researcher thinks – good social research should tell us similar things about social action

4. Because positivists want to uncover the general laws that shape human behaviour, they are interested in looking at society as a whole. They are interested in explaining patterns of human behaviour or general social trends. In other words, they are interested in getting to the ‘bigger picture’.

5. To do this, positivists use quantitative methods such as official statistics, structured questionnaires and social surveys. Statistical, numerical data is crucial to Positivist research. Positivists need to collect statistical information in order to make comparisons. And in order to uncover general social trends. It is much more difficult to make comparisons and uncover social trends with qualitative data.

6. These methods also allow the researcher to remain relatively detached from the research process – this way, the values of the researcher should not interfere with the results of the research and knowledge should be objective

Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) – Positivism and Quantitative Sociology

Emile Durkheim - Founding Father of Sociology
Emile Durkheim – Founding Father of Sociology

The modern academic discipline of sociology began with the work of Émile Durkheim (1858–1917). While Durkheim rejected much of the details of Comte’s philosophy “positivism”, he retained and refined its method. Durkheim believed that sociology should be able to predict accurately the effect of particular changes in social organisation such as an increase in unemployment or a change in the education system.

Durkheim believed the primary means of researching society should be the Comparative Method which involves comparing groups and looking for correlations or relationships between 2 or more variables. This method essentially seeks to establish the cause and effect relationships in society by comparing variables.

Durkheim’s Study of Suicide (1897)

Durkheim chose to study suicide because he thought that if he could prove that suicide, a very personal act, could be explained through social factors, then surely any action could be examined in such a way.  Durkheim’s method consisted of comparing the incidence of various social factors with number of cases of suicide.  Durkheim did this work so well, that seventy years later his study was still being cited in textbooks as an excellent example of research methodology

The starting-point for Durkheim was a close analysis of the available official statistics, which showed that rates of suicide varied:
• From one country to another – countries experiencing rapid social change had higher suicide rates.
• Between different social groups – The divorced had higher suicide rates than the married.
• Between different religious groups – Protestants had higher suicide rates than Catholics

Durkheim noted that these rates were relatively stable over time for each group. The rates may have gone up or down, but the rates remained stable relative to each other. Durkheim theorised that if suicide was an entirely individual matter, untouched by the influence of social factors, it would be an astonishing coincidence if these statistical patterns remained so constant over a long period of time.  Entirely individual decisions should lead to a random pattern.

Durkheim used his data to derive his now famous theory – that suicide rates increase when there is too little or too much social regulation or integration. Social Regulation is the extent to which there are clear norms and values in a society, while social integration is the extent to which people belong to society.

Even though this study is now almost 120 years old it remains the case that suicide rates still vary according to the levels of social integration and regulation.

Positivism and Social Facts
Durkheim argued that social trends are ‘social facts’ – they are real phenomena which exist independently of the individuals who make them up. He claimed that by if sociology limited itself to the study of social facts it could be more objective. He argued that these facts constrain individuals and help us to make predictions about the way societies change and evolve.

Some Criticisms of the Positivist Approach to Social Research

  • Treats individuals as if they passive and unthinking – Human beings are less predictable than Positivists suggest
  • Interpretivists argue that people’s subjective realities are complex and this demands in-depth qualitative methods.
  • The statistics Positivists use to find their ‘laws of society’ might themselves be invalid, because of bias in the way they are collected.
  • By remaining detached we actually get a very shallow understanding of human behaviour.

Theory and Methods A Level Sociology Revision Bundle 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Theory and Methods Revision Bundle – specifically designed to get students through the theory and methods sections of  A level sociology papers 1 and 3.

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  • 74 pages of revision notes
  • 15 mind maps on various topics within theory and methods
  • Five theory and methods essays
  • ‘How to write methods in context essays’.

 

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Related Posts 

Official Statistics in Sociology

Positivism and Interpretivism – A Very Brief Overview

Further Reading 

S Cool – Positivism (click through for link to Positivism)

The Open University – Positivism 

The Open University – Interpretivism