Talcott Parsons developed a Functionalist perspective on age and ageing in the 1950s. He argued that society mainly functioned around working age adults with children being socialised smoothly into their adult roles within the nuclear family, and adolescence being a rebellious phase of life, but a functional necessity for the reproduction of new nuclear families.
He recognised that old age was a problem for industrial societies given the isolation of the elderly from mainstream social roles and structures.
Parsons believed that childhood was a universal stage of life in all societies when young people were socialised into the pre-existing norms and values of their society.
Gender role socialisation was an important aspect early socialisation with girls being socialised into housewife and mother roles and boys into work and breadwinner roles.
In line with the Functionalist perspective on the family, socialisation of children was seen as a mostly one-directional passive process in which children soaked up norms and values from mainly their parents, but also school.
According to Parsons there was less differentiation in socialisation by gender in the USA compared to other, more traditional societies, meaning there was more equality between the genders: both girls and boys received a similar education, for example, and women did have the opportunity to do paid work. However, gender role segregation throughout childhood and into was still the norm.
Parsons saw adolescence as the period in the life-course when children began to develop a sense of independence from their parents.
This stage was crucial so that new nuclear families could be formed across the generations: at some point children had to break free from loyalty to their parents and shift their primary loyalty to their new (heterosexual) partners and form new families.
This fits in with Parson’s theory of the family: nuclear families, rather than extended multi-generational households, are essential to industrial societies because they are smaller and thus more mobile so they can more easily move into new jobs as industrial capitalism evolves and develops new industries in different geographical areas.
Youth culture did involve an element of rebellion but this deviance was in fact ‘functional’ as it helped individuals to develop the independence from their parents that the system required.
Parsons believed that old age was a problem in industrial society: society tended to centre around work and the nuclear family, which both rely on people of working age.
Once people hit retirement age in the USA, Parsons noted that the elderly were relatively isolated from the most important social structures and interests.
He didn’t really seem to have any solutions to this.
Parsons has been criticised for seeing the ‘life course’ as entirely about meeting the needs of society, the theory is too neat and doesn’t reflect the reality of how ageing works.
Children and adolescents are much more active in constructing their identities than Parsons suggests: children today develop very diverse identities, especially in terms of gender identity, and this simply doesn’t fit with what Parsons says.
Similarly youth culture is an extended phase of life for many, with a signficant minority of people not ‘growing out’ of it until their mid 20s, and many of them don’t go on to form nuclear families at all.
With old age it is hard to argue all retired people are just redundant as Parsons suggests. For a start retirement ages differ, and many old people contribute massively to society either as consumers or volunteers, it seems incredulous to write off an entire large age-cohort as playing no useful function!
Signposting and Sources
This material is primarily relevant to the Culture and Identity module, usually taught as part of the first year in A-Level Sociology.
Part of this post was adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives 8th Edition.
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.
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.
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This material is relevant to the Beliefs in Society second year option taught as part of the AQA’s A-level in sociology specification.
Writing in the 1950s Parsons argued that modern education systems performed two main functions – role allocation and providing value consensus through meritocracy.
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.
Particularistic and Universalistic Values
Parsons argued that, after primary socialisation within the family, the school takes over as the focal socialising: 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: Meritocracy and Value Consensus
Parsons argued that a further main function of schools was to 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.
Ultimately Parsons believed that the education system was meritocratic and because of this it created value consensus in an unequal society.
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 come 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.
Functionalists believe society shapes the individual and that social order and value consensus are good.
Functionalism is a structural consensus theory. Functionalists believe there is a social structure made up of institutions which shape individual behaviour. Institutions such as the family and education socialise individuals and create value consensus.
This post covers the following:
Definitions of the key Functionalist concept: structural and consensus
A summary of the key ideas of Emile Durkheim: social facts, social solidarity, and anomie
A summary of the key ideas of Taloctt Parsons: the organic analogy, the importance of socialisation, value consensus and functional prerequisites.
Evaluations of Functionalism including criticisms and ways in which it may be relevant in contemporary society.
This post has primarily been written as an introduction to Functionalism for AS and A level sociology students.
Functionalism is a ‘structural-consensus theory’
The ‘structural bit’ means that Functionalists argue 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, and the workplace is where we contribute to the economy.
Functionalists generally believe institutions perform positive functions (they do good things for the individual and society), and social institutions work together to provide social order and prevent too much crime and deviance.
This post provides an introduction to some of the key ideas of Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons, two key functionalist thinkers and some overall evaluations of the Functionalist Perspective.
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 rapid and dramatic social changes such as industrialisation at that time would affect French society. . Below are just two of Durkheim’s key ideas
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. 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.
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 is 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 in 20th century Europe, and that modern societies faced a ‘crisis of anomie’.
He 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 in Europe to create national education systems 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 was one of the key ways in which social solidarity was to be achieved.
Talcott Parson’s Functionalism
Writing in the 1940s and 1950s Talcott Parsons built on Durkheim’s work
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:
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
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.
When evaluating Functionalism we need to keep in mind that it is a historical perspective: Durkheim’s work is over a century old and Parsons was writing in the 1940s and 1950s, so it is quite likely that some of the key ideas aren’t that useful in helping us to understand modern society.
Criticisms of Functionalism
The easiest way to criticise Functionalism is to use some of the other sociological perspectives, and some of the points below do that.
It is difficult to argue today that there is value consensus in society – societies around the world seem much more divided. Brexit in Britain, for example, divided the nation in half, and America is split into anti- Trump and pro-Trump supporters, and divided by strong attitudes on abortion.
Marxists believe Functionalism is biased and ideological – Functionalists such as Parsons said that Value Consensus was necessary because they wanted to preserve the social order, whereas in reality society is based on inequality and exploitation and it is in the interests of the exploited to join together in revolution.
Interactionists and argue that individuals are less constrained by the social structure than functionalists suggest – individuals have more freedom to shape their own lives and are less predictable than Functionalists suggest.
Postmodernists argue that there is no such thing as a social structure or social norms, rather ‘society’ (if there is such a thing) is fluid and diverse.
Ways in which Functionalism may still be useful for understanding contemporary society
While some of the key ideas of Functionalism may not seem to ‘fit in’ with society today, some concepts do seem to be relevant…
Durkheim’s idea of ‘anomie’ for example may be more relevant than ever before – it seems fair to say that society is more disordered and chaotic than ever – and the amount of people suffering with mental health disorders is higher than ever – and maybe the level of uncertainty has got something to do with this…?
While it is fair to say that on an individual level people are unpredictable, when we look at things from a macro perspective, societies appear more predictable (if not entirely predictable) – there are clear statistical patterns which emerge by social class, gender and and ethnicity, a main theme of A-level sociology – for example, in general, children from poorer households as a whole do worse in education that children from richer households.
Functionalism: Discussion Questions
Think about the following questions – try to think of further contemporary 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?)
Do we have value consensus in today’s society?
Functionalism: Find out More
The Functionalist perspective is a recurring theme in the first and second years of A level sociology, and if you will find many of the above ideas expressed in more detail, and applied more specifically in the following posts:
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
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Functionalists focus on the positive functions of education – creating social solidarity, teaching core values and work skills and role allocation/ meritocracy
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
Education Creates 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.
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 specialise when we do GCSEs.
The most obvious examples of this function of education are in the compulsory sector, especially with vocational education where students learn the specific skills required for particular professions – everything from engineering and construction to media and IT technicians and beauty therapy.
Durkheim believed that one of the most impressive things about modern education systems was that they simultaneously taught us core values and a sense of belonging to the whole (See below) while at the same time they teach us the DIFFERENT and DIVERSE skills that a modern economic system requires to function.
Education teaches pupils 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.
Functionalists believe that meritocracy is extremely important for peace in society because people will only accept status and wage differences if those in lower status jobs believe they themselves had (or have) a fair chance to climb the ladder and get a higher status and better paid job themselves.
Positive evaluations of the Functionalist view on education
School performs positive functions for most pupils most of the time – even though students might not want to go to school sometimes and not necessarily enjoy school some of the time, the majority come out after 13 years of formal schooling as reasonable human beings.
There does seem to be a link between education and economic growth, suggesting a good education system benefits the wider society and economy. All countries in Western Europe have very good education systems while many poorer countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have many more problems with their education systems, such as low attendance rates.
Exclusion and truancy rates are relatively low, suggesting there is very little active resistance to schooling.
Schools do at least try to foster ‘solidarity’ – through PSHE lessons and teaching British Values for example.
Education is more ‘work focused’ today – increasing amounts of vocational courses. If you look at post-16 education especially there is a lot of diverse courses offered and it it is difficult to see how technologically advanced post-industrial economies could function without a thriving post-16 and university sectors.
Schooling is more meritocratic than in the 19th century (fairer)
Criticisms of the Functionalist View of Education
It is usual in A-level sociology to criticise one perspective using other perspectives, but in the case of Functionalism there are many more stand alone criticisms that we can make!
Marxists argue the education system is not meritocratic – wealthier students from higher socio-economic backgrounds still, in 2022, get better results than poorer students from lower socio-economic backgrounds, this is true within the state school system , but the largest difference in achievement is between the 7% of very wealthy students who attend fee paying independent schools and the 93% who attend state schools.
HOWEVER, there is evidence that a disadvantage gap opened up during school lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, with poorer students falling further behind than richer students, this actually suggests that when schools are open as usual, they at least narrow that achievement gap to an extent!
Marxists would also argue that the Functionalist view of education is ideological – the fact that it focuses on the postive functions of education means it reflects the views of the powerful – the education system tends to work for them and they suggests there is nothing to criticise.
The Functionalist perspective on education was developed in the late 19th century (Durkheim) and the 1950s (Parsons) – during modernity, but with the shift to postmodernity society has changed and the British school system seems to have adapted with it.
For example, schools today focus more on developing the individual rather than teaching duties and responsibilities that individuals should adopt towards society – it’s more about the individual and less about solidarity (following the shift from modern to postmodern society)
Functionalism ignores the negative sides of school – e.g. bullying and there are a minority for who it doesn’t work, such as those permanently excluded. If we were to do the kind of in-depth research Interactionists prefer we might find that a significant minority of children are harmed during school in more subtle ways.
It is difficult to argue that schools performed any of the above four functions during the disruption caused by the government’s response to the pandemic, especially not being judged by universalistic standards (no standardized exams) or meritocracy (because private school teachers inflated their students’ grades more than state school teachers).
Video summary of the Functionalist Theory of Education
Contemporary Evidence to Evaluate Functionalism (2022 update)
Students need to be able to evaluate sociological perspectives using contemporary evidence and a lot has happened in the last few years, most of the evidence suggesting that the Functionalist view of education is extremely limited in helping us to understand the role of education in society.
Below I consider five pieces of contemporary evidence mainly from 2020-2022 and what they suggest about some of the key ideas of Functionalism as applied to education.
The shift to the Ebacc
The government plans to make 90% of pupils sit GCSEs from with the Ebacc suite of subjects by 2025. This will result in a more similar experience of education for 14-16 year olds studying towards GCSEs and the Ebacc as the Ebacc consists of a relatively narrow range of subjects: English, maths, the sciences, history or geography and a language.
On the surface this move away from allowing students to have more choice in what they study could lead to more of a shared collective conscience and thus solidarity and value consensus as students are taught a higher proportion of rational (e.g. a lot more science) and critical subjects – so more students might finish their GCSEs thinking more similarly.
The ArtsProfessional blog points out that this will result in more students from more deprived backgrounds studying subjects NOT on the approved Ebacc list because such students are more likely to do seven rather than nine GCSEs – and they have to do seven from the list above as part of the Ebacc. This means we could have poorer students being excluded from creative subjects and P.E. because these aren’t on the list, while richer and more able students do the seven Ebacc subjects plus two or three other GCSEs of their choice.
It’s also likely that more able and affluent students will get better results in their Ebacc and have a more rounded subject base because of their additional subjects, while less able and poorer students end up with only Ebacc GCSEs and weaker results.
So the net effect of making students sit a narrower range of subjects is an increase in the inequality of outcomes along class lines, which goes against the idea of meritocracy as it reproduces class inequality.
The Problem with PREVENT and British Values
The requirement to teach British Values in schools started in 2015 and emerged out of the PREVENT agenda, which required schools to intervene when they suspected (mainly Muslim) children were being radicalised and drawn into terrorism.
The government defines British values as democracy, respect for the rule of law, individual liberty and tolerance and respect for those with different faiths – and the theory behind getting students to think about what ‘being British’ means is that it might to create a new tolerant and respectful national identity based on these values and help prevent radicalisation and terrorism.
OFSTED’s vision is that British Values are embedded into the curriculum and taught through several critical thinking subjects such as history and english – through which students learn about the historical struggles for democracy and the emergence of civil society. Ideally, students would also be taught to think about whether these values are universal beyond Britain.
However, according to a 2018 article in the Conversation it is highly unlikely that the requirement on schools to teach British Values is going to promote Value Consensus in any meaningful way.
Some schools, for example, confuse British Values with British stereotypes and get students to do projects such as doing collages of what Britishness in involving pictures of the Queen (or now King) and fish and chips, which hardly promote critical thinking.
A second problem is that these values are so general that each of them can be interpreted in many different ways, and they are also full of contradictions.
For example, there are different forms of democracy, other than our first past the post system, and ‘individual liberty’ is context dependent and clearly has its limits, but where? And as to the rule of law: Boris Johnson didn’t even respect that during lockdown so that is laughable. Hence any discussions around what the specifics of these values should mean could potentially reveal or even open up divisions between pupils.
There is also a problem that the whole PREVENT and British Values agenda emerged as a response to Islamic fundamentalism – it could potentially lead to further marginalisation of Muslim children in schools as the implicit message is that it’s mainly targeted at making Muslim children conform to this new Britishness (whatever that is!)
The EU Referendum in 2015 firmly split the UK population down the middle, with approximately half the population voting to stay in the EU and half voting to leave.
This is the only time that the UK Population has been offered the chance to vote directly on a specific social policy and the fact that it divided the nation in half suggests that there is no meaningful value consensus around the idea of how Britain should relate to the wider world.
And clearly if there is no value consensus in adult society, schools have roundly failed to foster any sense of value consensus on this issue during the last five decades!
Graduate Labour Market Statistics
The 2021 Graduate Labour Market statistics suggest some broad support for education performing the role allocation function, where a tiered education system sifts and sorts people into higher and higher skilled roles.
86.7% of graduates were employed in 2021 compared to 67.2% of non-graduates:
And graduates were three times as likely to be in ‘highly skilled’ jobs compared to non-graduates, suggesting that going to university successfully sifts most graduates into higher skilled jobs.
HOWEVER there are still around 25% of graduates who end up in lower skilled jobs so clearly the system isn’t that effective, and it’s also clear that going to university is NOT the only way to secure a higher-skilled job.
According to the 2021-22 apprenticeship data The total number of people doing apprenticeships in 2021-2022 was approximately 750 000, with the main sectors being health and social care and business administration.
The majority of people doing apprenticeships are under 25 and this suggests that apprenticeships are working alongside more traditional further and higher education institutions (colleges and universities) to further perform the function of role allocation.
The numbers of people doing apprenticeships certainly aren’t sufficient to suggest that apprenticeship, work based learning is undermining the role allocation function being performed my colleges and universities.
Functionalists focus on the positive functions of the nuclear family, such as secondary socialisation and the stabilisation of adult personalities.
Functionalists see the family as one of the essential building blocks for stable societies. They tend to to see the nuclear family as the ideal family for industrial societies and argue that it performs positive functions such as as socialising children and providing emotional security for parents.
There are two main Functionalist theorists of the family: George Peter Murdock and Talcott Parsons.
Murdock argued that the nuclear family was universal and that it performed four essential functions: stabilising the sex drive, reproduction, socialisation of the young and economic production. (Obviously this has been widely criticised!)
Parsons developed the Functional Fit Theory: In pre-industrial society families used to be extended, but with industrialisation families became nuclear because they fitted industrial society better.
The Functionalist Perspective on the Family: Overview
This post covers:
The Functionalist view of society
George Peter Murdock’s theory of the universal nuclear family
Talcott Parsons’ Functional Fit Theory
The possible positive functions of the family today
Evaluations and criticisms of the Functionalist view of the family from other perspectives.
The Functionalist View of Society
Functionalists regard society as a system made up of different parts which depend on each other. Different institutions perform specific functions within a society to keep society going, in the same way as the different organs of a human body perform different functions in order to maintain the whole.
Functionalists see the family as a particularly important institution because it as 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.
Before you go any further you might like to read this more in depth post ‘Introduction to Functionalism‘ post which covers the key ideas of Functionalism.
George Peter Murdock – Four essential functions of the nuclear family
George Murdock was an American Anthropologist who looked at 200 different societies and argued that the nuclear family was a universal feature of all human societies. In other words, the nuclear family is in all societies!
Murdock suggested there were ‘four essential functions’ of the nuclear family:
1. Stable satisfaction of the sex drive – within monogamous relationships, which prevents sexual jealousy. 2. The biological reproduction of the next generation – without which society cannot continue. 3. Socialisation of the young – teaching basic norms and values 4. Meeting its members economic needs – producing food and shelter for example.
Criticisms of Murdock
Feminist Sociologists argue that arguing that the family is essential is ideological because traditional family structures typically disadvantage women.
It is feasible that other institutions could perform the functions above.
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
Parsons 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:
Two 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.
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.
The stabilisation of adult personalities
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’.
Criticisms of Functional Fit Theory
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.
The Positive Functions of the Family: A summary
Functionalists identify a number of positive functions of the nuclear family, below is a summary of some of these and a few more.
The reproduction of the next generation – Functionalists see the nuclear family as the ‘fundamental unit of society’ responsible for carrying that society on by biological reproduction
Related to the above point one of the main functions is primary socialisation – teaching children the basic norms and values of society.
This kind of overlaps with the above, but even during secondary socialisation, the family is expected to help educated children alongside the school.
The family provides psychological security and security, especially for men one might say (as with the ‘warm bath theory’.)
A further positive function is elderly care, with many families still taking on this responsibility.
Murdock argued that monogamous relationships provide for a stable satisfaction of the sex drive – most people today still see committed sexual relationships as best.
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!
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.
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
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.
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