According to Talcott Parsons, the disengagement of the church from social life might not necessarily mean that the church is any less important at a social level.
Parsons argues that societies evolve through a process of ‘structural differentiation’ – as societies become more complex, a greater variety of more specialized institutions evolved.
Parsons accepts that religious institutions play less of a role in politics and in the socialization of children than they did in the past, but these functions are taken over by newly evolved institutions – such as representative government and education.
Traditional institutions such as the church evolve to limit themselves to performing a smaller number of functions than previously, but these functions are still vital to the maintenance of the system as a whole.
In modern societies, religious institutions perform three important functions:
They form the basis of morality and the legal system – for example, the 10 commandments form much of the basis of the legal system in modern Britain.
They help people deal with social changes such as the death of individuals – through providing rituals that help them cope with transition. This helps maintain social order.
They help people deal with social contradictions – such as lazy people being rich… according to Christian doctrine, they will go to hell.
For more on Parson’s functionalist perspective on the role of religion in society – please see this post.
Links to other parts of the course….
NB – Parsons argues that all institutions undergo a process of structural differentiation. His view on how religion changes with social modernization is similar to his view on how the family changes – as outlined in his ‘Functional Fit Theory‘ of the family.
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.
This is a work in progress, please click the links above for more detailed posts!
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.
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’.
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.
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
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The American sociologist Talcott Parsons (1961) outlined what is commonly accepted as the Functionalist view of education as it relates to modern societies in the late 1950s.
Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socializing-agency: school acts as a bridge between family and society as a whole, preparing children for their adult roles in society.
Within the family, the child is judged by particularistic standards. Parents treat the child as their own, unique, special child, rather than judging him or her by universal standards that are applied to every individual.
However, in the wider society the individual is treated and judged in terms of universalistic standards, which are applied to all members, regardless of their kinship ties.
Within the family, the child’s status is ascribed: it is fixed by birth. However, in advanced industrial society, status in adult life is largely achieved: for example individuals achieve their occupational skills. Thus it is necessary that the child moves from the particularistic standards and ascribed status of the family to the universalistic standards and achieved status of adult society.
The school prepares people for this transition. It establishes universalistic standards, in terms of which all pupils achieve their status. Their conduct is assessed against the yardstick of the school rules; their achievement is measured by performance in examinations. The same standards are applied to all pupils regardless of ascribed characteristics such as sex, race, family background or class of origin. Schools operated on meritocratic principles: status is achieved on the basis of merit (or worth).
Like Durkheim, Parsons argued that the school represents society in miniature. Modern industrial society is increasingly based on achievement rather than ascription, on universalistic rather than particularistic standards, on meritocratic principles which apply to all its members. By reflecting the operation of society as a whole, the school prepares young people for their adult roles.
Education and Value Consensus
As part of this process, schools socialise young people into the basic values of society. Parsons, like many functionalists, maintained that value consensus is essential for society to operate effectively. In American society, school instils two major values
The value of achievement
The value of equality of opportunity.
By encouraging students to strive for high levels of academic attainment, and by rewarding those who succeed, schools foster the value of achievement itself. By placing individuals in the same situation in the classroom and so allowing them to compete on equal terms in examinations, schools foster the value of equality of opportunity.
These values have important functions in society as a whole. Advanced industrial society requires a highly motivated, highly skilled workforce. This necessitates differential reward for differential achievement, a principle which has been established in schools. Both the winners (the high achievers) and the losers (the low achievers) will see the system as just and fair, since status is achieved in a situation where all have an equal chance. Again, the principles that operate in the wider society are mirrored in the school.
Education and Selection.
Finally, Parsons saw the educational system as an important mechanism for the section of individuals for their future role in society. In his words, it ‘functions to allocate these human resources within the role-structure of adult society’. Thus schools by testing and evaluating students, match their talents, skills and capacities to the jobs for which they are best suited. The school is therefor seen as the major mechanism for role allocation.
Evaluations of Parsons
The main criticisms of Parson’s work comes from Marxism.
Marxists criticize the idea that schools transmit shared values, rather they see the education system as transmitting the values of the ruling class, as outlined in Bowles and Gintis’ Correspondence Principle.
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.Functionalists 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.
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.
. 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 Organic Analogy
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: 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
Resolve differences of opinion, deal with conflict, and punish ‘deviants’.
Reproduce and socialize the next generation so society can carry on
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.
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.
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
To what extent does socialisation shape an individual’s identity?
Is anomie (too much freedom) a problem in today’s society?
Do institutions really perform positive functions? (do we all benefit the same amount or do some benefit more than others?)
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.
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
The Functionalist perspective on the family
The four universal functions of the family
Functional fit theory
Stabilisation of adult personalities
Traditional gender role
The Functionalist perspective on education
Skills for working
Modernisation Theory (Functionalism applied to development)
Aid injections and five stages of growth
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
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!
Functionalists focus on the positive functions performed by the education system. There are four positive functions that education performs
1. Creating social solidarity
2. Teaching skills necessary for work
3. Teaching us core values
4. Role Allocation and meritocracy
1. Creating Social Solidarity
We have social solidarity when we feel as if we are part of something bigger. Emile Durkheim argued that school makes us feel like we are part of something bigger. This is done through the learning of subjects such as history and English which give us a shared sense of identity. Also in American schools, children pledge allegiance to the flag.
Durkheim argued that ‘school is a society in miniature.’ preparing us for life in wider society. For example, both in school and at work we have to cooperate with people who are neither friends or family – which gets us ready for dealing with people at work in later life.
2. Learning specialist skills for work
Durkheim noted that an advanced industrial economy required a massive and complex Division of Labour. At school, individuals learn the diverse skills necessary for this to take place. For example, we may all start off learning the same subjects, but later on we specialize when we do GCSEs.
3. Teaching us core values
Talcott Parsons argued that education acts as the ‘focal socializing agency’ in modern society. School plays the central role in the process of secondary socialisation, taking over from primary socialisation. He argued this was necessary because the family and the wider society work in different principles and children need to adapt if they re to cope In the wider world.
In the family, children are judged according to what he calls particularistic standards by their parents – that is they are judged by rules that only apply to that particular child. Individual children are given tasks based on their different abilities and judged according to their unique characteristics. Parents often adapt rules to suit the unique abilities of the child.
In contrast in school and in wider society, children and adults are judged according to the same universalistic standards (i.e they are judged by the same exams and the same laws). These rules and laws are applied equally to all people irrespective of the unique character of the individual. School gets us ready for this.
Education allocates people to the most appropriate job for their talents using examinations and qualifications. This ensures that the most talented are allocated to the occupations that are most important for society. This is seen to be fair because there is equality of opportunity – everyone has a chance of success and it is the most able who succeed through their own efforts – this is known as meritocracy
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
School performs positive functions for most pupils – exclusion and truancy rates are very low
Role Allocation – Those with degrees earn 85% more than those without degrees
Schools do try to foster ‘solidarity’ – PSHE
Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses
Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Negative Evaluations of Functionalism (Criticisms)
Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – e.g. private schools benefit the wealthy.
Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying/
Postmodernists argue that ‘teaching to the test’ kills creativity.
Functionalism reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
This brief post is designed to help you revise the Functionalist Perspective on the Family, relevant to the AS Sociology Families and Households Module.
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions each perform specific functions within a society to keep that society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
In functionalist thought, the family is a particularly important institution as this it the ‘basic building block’ of society which performs the crucial functions of socialising the young and meeting the emotional needs of its members. Stable families underpin social order and economic stability.
George Peter Murdock – The four essential functions of the nuclear family
Looked at 200 different societies and argued that family was universal (in all of them).
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogomous relationships
2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue.
3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and valuues
4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
1. Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
2. It is feasible that other instiututions could perform the functions above.
2. Anthropological research has shown that there are some cultures which don’t appear to have ‘families’ – the Nayar for example.
Talcott Parsons – Functional Fit Theory
Parson’s has a historical perspective on the evolution of the nuclear family. His functional fit theory is that as society changes, the type of family that ‘fits’ that society, and the functions it performs change. Over the last 200 years, society has moved from pre-industrial to industrial – and the main family type has changed from the extended family to the nuclear family. The nuclear family fits the more complex industrial society better, but it performs a reduced number of functions.
The extended family consisted of parents, children, grandparents and aunts and uncles living under one roof, or in a collection of houses very close to eachother. Such a large family unit ‘fitted’ pre-industrial society as the family was entirely responsible for the education of children, producing food and caring for the sick – basically it did everything for all its members.
In contrast to pre-industrial society, in industrial society (from the 1800s in the UK) the isolated “nuclear family” consisting of only parents and children becomees the norm. This type of family ‘fits’ industrial societies because it required a mobile workforce. The extended family was too difficult to move when families needed to move to find work to meet the requirements of a rapidly changing and growing economy. Furthermore, there was also less need for the extended family as more and more functions, such as health and education, gradually came to be carried out by the state.
I really like this brief explanation of Parson’s Functional Fit Theory:
Criticisms of Parson’s Theory of Functional Fit
Basically – it’s too ‘neat’ – social change doesn’t happen in such an orderly manner:
Laslett found that church records show only 10% of households contained extended kin before the industrial revolution. This suggests the family was already nuclear before industrialisation.
Young and Wilmott found that Extended Kin networks were still strong in East London as late as the 1970s.
Parsons – The two essential or irreducible functions of the family
According to Parsons, although the nuclear family performs reduced functions, it is still the only institution that can perform two core functions in society – Primary Socialisation and the Stabilisation of Adult Personalities.
1. Primary Socialisation – The nuclear family is still responsible for teaching children the norms and values of society known as Primary Socialisation.
An important part of socialisation according to Functionalists is ‘gender role socialisation. If primary socialisation is done correctly then boys learn to adopt the ‘instrumental role’ (also known as the ‘breadwinner role) – they go on to go out to work and earns money. Girls learn to adopt the ‘expressive role’ – doing all the ‘caring work’, housework and bringing up the children.
2. The stabilisation of adult personalities refers to the emotional security which is achieved within a marital relationship between two adults. According to Parsons working life in Industrial society is stressful and the family is a place where the working man can return and be ‘de-stressed’ by his wife, which reduces conflict in society. This is also known as the ‘warm bath theory’
General criticisms of the Functionalist perspective on the family
It is really important to be able to criticise the perspectives. Evaluation is worth around half of the marks in the exam!
1. Downplaying Conflict
Both Murdock and Parsons paint a very rosy picture of family life, presenting it as a harmonious and integrated institution. However, they downplay conflict in the family, particularly the ‘darker side’ of family life, such as violence against women and child abuse.
2. Being out of Date
Parson’s view of the instrumental and expressive roles of men and women is very old-fashioned. It may have held some truth in the 1950s but today, with the majority of women in paid work, and the blurring of gender roles, it seems that both partners are more likely to take on both expressive and instrumental roles
3. Ignoring the exploitation of women
Functionalists tend to ignore the way women suffer from the sexual division of labour in the family. Even today, women still end up being the primary child carers in 90% of families, and suffer the burden of extra work that this responsibility carries compared to their male partners. Gender roles are socially constructed and usually involve the oppression of women. There are no biological reasons for the functionalist’s view of separation of roles into male breadwinner & female homemaker. These roles lead to the disadvantages being experienced by women.
4. Functionalism is too deterministic
This means it ignores the fact that children actively create their own personalities. An individual’s personality isn’t pre-determined at birth or something they have no control in. Functionalism incorrectly assumes an almost robotic adoption of society’s values via our parents; clearly there are many examples where this isn’t the case.
A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle