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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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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Malinowski’s Perspective on Religion

A summary of Bonislow Mainowski’s perspective on religion.

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

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

Malinowski Trobriand Islands

Religion and Life-Crises

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

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

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

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

Religion and control

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

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

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

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

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

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

The similarities and differences between Malinowski and Durkheim….

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

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

 

Sources used to write this post

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