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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Consensus Theories of Crime -Functionalist and Strain Theories: Summary Version

Introduction/ The basics

  • Consensus Theory – Social Institutions generally work, social control is good, crime is dysfunctional (bad)
  • Closely related to Subcultural Theories
  • 1890 -1940s

Durkheim’s Functionalist Theory

  • Crime is natural and inevitable, society needs crime.
  • There are three positive functions of crime – social integration/ social regulation/ social change

Hirschi’s Social Control/ Bonds of Attachment Theory

  • Crime is most common amongst individuals who are detached from society
  • Four types of attachment – Commitment, Involvement, Attachment, Belief
  • Correlation between truancy, single parent households, unemployment and crime

Merton’s Strain Theory

  • There is a strain between society’s cultural value system (valuing money) and the social structure which fails to provide opportunities for everyone to achieve these goals legitimately.
  • In times of strain, there are five adaptations
  • Three of these are deviant – innovation, retreatism and rebellion.

Institutional Anomie Theory (IAT)

  • Merton’s Strain Theory on steroids.
  • The cultural value system of achieving monetary success has now the core value taught in every institution – The media, and education especially.

Overall Evaluations of Functionalist and Strain Theories of Crime

Positive Negative
  • Generally – recognise the relationship between social structure and crime
  • Durkheim – Crime does exist in every society
  • Durkheim – Recognises that a crime-free society is an unrealistic goal
  • Hirschi – Official Statistics support
  • Merton – Explains different types of deviance
  • IAT – Recognises recent social changes
X –Can’t explain hidden crimes such as Domestic Violence

X – Durkhiem – Fails to ask ‘Functional for whom’ – ignores victims (Left Realism)

X – Can’t explain elite crimes, elites are attached (Marxism)

X – Ignores Power and Labelling, doesn’t recognise that crime stats are socially constructed and elite crimes happen but generally aren’t recorded. (Interactionism)

X – Can’t explain recent decrease in crime.

Merton’s Strain Theory of Deviance

Argues that crime is a result of people being socialised into expecting success but not achieving this success due to limited opportunities.

Robert MertonStrain Theory was first developed by Robert Merton in the 1940s to explain the rising crime rates experienced in the USA at that time. Strain theory has become popular with Contemporary sociologists.

Merton argued that the cultural system of the USA was built on the ‘American Dream’ – a set of meritocratic principles which assured the American public that equality of opportunity was available to all, regardless of class, gender or ethnicity. The ‘American Dream’ encouraged individuals to pursue a goal of success which was largely measured in terms of the acquisition of wealth and material possessions. People were expected to pursue this goal through legitimate means such as education and work. The dominant cultural message was if you are ambitious, talented and work hard, then income and wealth should be your rewards.

However Merton pointed out that these goals were not attainable by all, that the structural organisation of the USA mean that the means to get on were not fairly distributed and it was difficult, if not impossible for some to compete an achieve financial success.

Merton developed the concept of ‘anomie’ to describe this imbalance between cultural goals and institutionalised means. He argued that such an imbalanced society produces anomie – there is a strain or tension between the goals and means which produce unsatisfied aspirations.

Merton argued that when individuals are faced with a gap between their goals (usually finances/money related) and their current status, strain occurs. When faced with strain, people have five ways to adapt:

1. Conformity: pursing cultural goals through socially approved means.

2. Innovation: using socially unapproved or unconventional means to obtain culturally approved goals. Example: dealing drugs or stealing to achieve financial security.

3. Ritualism: using the same socially approved means to achieve less elusive goals (more modest and humble).

4. Retreatism: to reject both the cultural goals and the means to obtain it, then find a way to escape it.

5. Rebellion: to reject the cultural goals and means, then work to replace them.

strain theory

Explaining the Higher Rates of Offending Among Lower Social Classes

Merton developed his theory from a well-established observation from official statistics – that a higher proportion of acquisitive crime is committed by those from unskilled manual backgrounds (or ‘lower social classes’).

Merton noted that American society promoted material success as a ‘legitimate goal’, and encouraged self-discipline and hard work as the ‘legitimate means’ of pursuing that goal, with the idea that any individual, irrespective of their background could, with sufficient effort, achieve material success.

HOWEVER, Merton argued that for those from lower social classes, this ‘dream’ had become an ideology, masking the fact that the legitimate opportunities are not available to all, and worse, those who failed to achieve success via legitimate means were condemned for their apparent lack of effort.

This situation puts great pressure on people to achieve material success by illegitimate means (acquisitive crime) to avoid being branded a failure.

In short, Merton argued that America was a highly unequal and divided society which promoted goals that only some of its population could realistically hope to achieve. Many young, working class men especially had internalised the desire to achieve material success (they wanted cars and nice clothes for example), but the only way they could meet these goals was through crime.

Thus, it is not so much the individual’s flaws that lead them to crime, but rather ‘anomie’ in society – the combination of the pressure to be materially successful and the lack of legitimate opportunities to achieve that success.

Critical Points

  • Firstly,  not all working class individuals turn to crime, and so we need something else to explain why some of them do and some of them do not. Subcultural theorists argued that the role of working class subcultures plugs this gap in the explanation – deviant subcultures provide rewards for individuals who commit crime.
  • Secondly, Merton’s reliance on official statistics means he over-estimates the extent of working class crime and underestimates the extent of middle class, or white collar crime.
  • Thirdly, Strain theory only really explains economic crime, it doesn’t really explain violent crime.
  • Marxists point out that lack of equality of opportunity is at the heart of the Capitalist system. (Elites make the system work for them, which disadvantages the lower classes).

Continuing Relevance

  • Merton’s strain theory is an important contribution to the study of crime and deviance – in the 1940s it helped to explain why crime continued to exist in countries, such as America, which were experiencing increasing economic growth and wealth.
  • Baumer and Gustafson (2007) analysed official data sets in the USA and found that instrumental crime rates were higher in areas where there was a ‘high commitment to money success’ alongside a ‘weak commitment to legitimate means’..
  • It is possible to apply Merton’s theory of anomie to explain White Collar Crime – white collar criminals (those who commit fraud at work, for example) might be those who are committed to achieving material success, but have had their opportunities for promotion blocked by lack of opportunities – possible through class, gender or ethnic bias, or possible just by the simple fact that the higher up the career ladder you go, the more competition for promotion there is.
  • The (2009) applies Merton’s strain theory to explain rising crime rates during a period of economic growth in Malaysia, suggesting we can apply this theory to developing countries and that a ‘general theory of crime’ may thus be possible.
  • Philip Bourgeois (1996) In search of respect shows us that some of the most despised criminals have actually internalised Merton’s success goals.
  • Carl Nightingale: On the Edge – Carl Nightingale developed Merton’s Strain Theory, applying it to inner city youths in the 1990s

Sources

Giddens and Sutton (2017) Essential Concepts in Sociology

This post offers a useful discussion and evaluation of Strain Theory

Revision Bundle for Sale 

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my Crime and Deviance Revision Bundle

Crime Deviance A-Level Revision.png

It contains

  • 12 exam practice questions including short answer, 10 mark and essay question exemplars.
  • 32 pages of revision notes covering the entire A-level sociology crime and deviance specification
  • Seven colour mind maps covering sociological perspective on crime and deviance

Written specifically for the AQA sociology A-level specification.

Related Posts 

Merton’s Strain Theory is taught as part of consensus theory within the A-level sociology Crime and Deviance syllabus. Other consensus theories include: