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.

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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.

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

Emile Durkheim

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

Bronislow Malinowski

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

Talcott Parsons

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

Criticisms of the Functionalist Perspective on Religion

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

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Ethnic Segregation in Oldham

In December 2016 Dame Louise Carey published a study into social integration and found that ‘high levels of social and economic isolation in some places, and cultural and religious practices in communities…. run contrary to British values and sometimes our laws’. Casey also found that, by faith, the Muslim population has the highest number and proportion of people aged 16 and over who cannot speak English.

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According to a study published in 2016, Oldham has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the UK, but is one of the most segregated places in Britain, but just how segregated is Oldham? In 2017, Sarfraz Manzoor visited Oldham to find out just what ethnic segregation looks like today and how much potential for change there is. (Below is a summary of an article published in The Week, 24 June 2017.)

The Ethnic Divide in Oldham

Safraz spends some time with Imran, who runs a general store in Goldwick, part of Oldham that has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the country. He finds that every single on of the customers in Imran’s store is Asian, and Imran himself says that ”we are not mixed in – we don’t integrate. We don’t do it and it’s wrong’, and he also says that “if a white person were to walk down the street in the local area,  I swear nine out of ten people would crane their neck to at them.”

The Muslim community in Goldwick has its origins in Pakistan and Bangladesh and some of the outdated attitudes and traditions from over there have been imported into this country – some women are expected to walk yards behind their husbands and some men only take their wive’s out twice a year, on their birthdays and anniversaries.

Many members of the Pakistani community actually view Pakistan as ‘their country’, because that’s where their parents came from, a sense of identity reinforced by visits back to Pakistan, which is often the only other country in the world they’ve been to besides Britain.

The Fatima Women’s Association is about a four minute walk from Imran’s store where Manzoor meets with a dozen Pakistani and Bangladeshi women who are learning English. They are among 100 such women who attend thrice weekly English language lessons funded by BBC children in need.

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The Fatima Women’s Association

The problem with this initiative is that some of the women interviewed only want to learn English so that they don’t have to use an interpreter when, for example they go to the doctor, they don’t actually want their children to fully integrate with British society because there is deep apprehension, bordering on fear, of what English culture is and how it may damage their families –  they think English culture is drinking, partying, boyfriends, sex and tolerating things that are not allowed in Islam.

Not one of the women has a white friend and they limit their children’s freedom in similar ways, encouraging them to stick to Asian friends only so that they do not lose their culture.

Reasons to Be Hopeful 

While the above appears to paint a bleak picture of a high degree of ethnic segregation, there are reasons to be hopeful…

Firstly, even amongst the people Manzoor spoke to, stereotypes about white culture were being challenged, chiefly by those who worked with white people, suggesting barriers can be broken down.

Secondly, the degree of segregation found in Oldham is rare. Professor Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics and Birkbeck College, notes that 80% of the wards of Britain are 90% white, and what appears to be happening is that Asians are increasingly moving out of Asian only enclaves and moving to super-diverse areas. It appears that multicultural Hackney is more our future than segregated Goldwick.

Finally, there is the case study of Manzoor himself – who recognised a lot of Goldwick in his own upbringing, but himself ended up marrying a white woman and bringing up mixed race kids.

Initiatives to Increase Ethnic Integration 

A number of things are suggested which might promote integration 

  1. Providing more opportunities for minority women, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds
  2. Providing cross-cultural activities – such as shared cooking events.
  3. Setting up a buddy-system for women learning English as a second language
  4. Making schools more ethnically mixed, even establishing quotas
  5. Doing the same through the National Citizen Service.

Manzoor concludes the article by suggesting that the key to greater integration is to build a society in which everyone feels like it is their home, which in turn will require white culture to stop blaming all Muslims when there are fundamentalist terror attacks, and Muslims need to stop retreating into victimhood when anyone suggests there may be issues within their culture which need confronting.