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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.

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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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How have families and households become more diverse?

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Text Version of the above:

In the 1950s the ‘traditional nuclear family’ was much more common. Since then, the nuclear family has declined and other family and household types increased:

The ‘main types’ of family which have ‘replaced’ the nuclear family:

  • Reconstituted families
  • Divorce-extended families
  • Single parent families
  • Single person households
  • LAT relationships
  • Multigenerational households
  • The modified extended family
  • Shared households/ families of choice

Other forms of increasing family diversity

  • There are more cohabiting rather than married couples
  • There is more cultural (‘ethnic’) diversity
  • There are more openly same-sex couples and families
  • There is greater ‘organisational diversity’: of gender roles
  • There is greater ‘life-course diversity’
  • More adults are continuing to live with their parents

To my mind these ‘cut across’ those above: for example within many of the above categories, there is also cultural variation by ethnicity and sexuality, and the domestic division of labor. 

  • Links to more detailed sources to review your understanding of this aspect of the families and households topic can be found on my families and households homepage.
  • Good luck revising! And remember, it’s not just the knowledge, it’s what you do with it that counts!