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Durkheim and Functionalism

Durkheim was concerned by rapid social change from a traditional society with a simple social structure to a complex modern society.


Traditional society

was based on mechanical solidarity with little division of labour, where its members were all fairly alike. A strong collective conscience bound them so tightly together that individuals In the modern sense did not really exist.


Modern society

has a complex division of labour, which promotes differences between groups and weakens social solidarity. Greater individual freedom must be regulated to prevent extreme egoism from destroying all social bonds.


Rapid change

undermines old norms without creating clear new ones, throwing people into a state of anomie (normlessness) that threatens social cohesion.


Social facts

Durkheim sees society as a separate entity existing over and above its members- a system of external social facts shaping their behaviour to serve society's needs.


Parsons: a society as a system

The organic analogy: functionalists see society as like a biological organism. Parsons identifies three similarities between society and an organism.


System (the organic analogy)

System- both are self regulating systems of inter-related, interdependent parts that fit together in fixed ways. In society, the parts are social institutions, individual roles etc.


System needs (the organic analogy)

System needs- organisms have needs that must be met if they are to survive. Society's members must be socialised if society is to continue


Functions (the organic analogy)

The function of any part of a system is the contribution it makes to meeting the system's needs and thus ensuring it's survival. For example, the circulatory system carries nutrients to tissues, the economy meets society's need for food and shelter.


Value consensus and social order

Parsons' central question is 'how social order is possible?' How are individuals able to cooperate harmoniously? Social order is achieved through a central value system or shared culture: a set of norms, values, beliefs and goals shared by members of a society.
Parsons calls this value consensus. He sees it as the glue that holds society together.


Integration of the individual

Value consensus makes social order possible by integrating individuals into the social system and directing them towards the system's needs.


For Parsons, what two mechanisms ensure that individuals conform to shared norms and meet the systems needs?

Socialisation- through socialisation in the family, education, work etc. individuals internalise the system's norms and values so that society becomes part of their personality structure
social control- positive sanctions reward conformity, negative ones punish deviance
socialisation and social control ensure that individual's are orientated towards pursuing society's goals and meeting its needs. By following social norms, each individual's behaviour will be relatively predictable and stable, enabling cooperation to occur.


The parts of the social system

Parson's model of the social system is like a series of building blocks
Norms- at the bottom of the system, specific norms or rules govern individuals' actions
Status roles- are 'clusters' or sets of norms that tell us how the occupant of a status must act, e.g. teachers must not show favouritism
Institutions- are clusters of status roles, e.g. the family is an institution made up of the related roles of mother, father, child etc.
Sub systems- are groups of institutions. For example, shops, farms and factories
The social system- these sub systems together make up the social system


The system's needs: AGIL

Adaptation- of the environment to meet people's material needs (e.g. food, shelter). These are met by the economic sub system
Goal attainment- society needs to set goals and allocate resources to achieve them. This is the function of the political sub system.
Integration- The different parts of the system must be integrated together to pursue shared goals. This is performed by the sub system of religion, education and the media.
Latency- refers to processes that maintain society over time. The kinship sub system provides 'pattern maintenance' and 'tension management', ensuring individuals are motivated to continue performing their roles


Parsons identifies two types of society...

Traditional societies and modern societies


Define traditional society

(with ascribed status). Relationships are broad and multi purpose; norms are particularistic (treating different people differently); immediate gratification is emphasised; the group's interests come first- collective orientation


Define modern society

(with achieved status). Relationships are limited to specific purposes; norms are universalistic (same rules for everyone); deferred gratification is emphasised; individualistic orientation


Social change

change is a gradual, evolutionary process of increasing complexity. Just like organisms, societies move from simple to complex structures. In traditional society, a single institution-kinship- performs many functions, e.g. providing political leadership, socialisation and religious functions. As society develops, the kinship system loses these functions, to political parties, schools, churches etc.
This is structural differentiation- a gradual process in which separate, functionally specialised institutions develop, each meeting a different need. Gradual change occurs through moving equilibrium: as a change occurs in one part of the system, it produces compensatory changes in other parts


Merton's internal critique of functionalism

The functionalist Merton argues that Parsons is wrong to assume that society is always a smooth-running, well integrated system. He criticises three key assumptions made by Parsons



Parsons sees everything in society- family, religion etc. as functionally indispensable (absolutely necessary) in its existing form. Merton argues that this is an untested assumption and that there may be 'functional alternatives'


Functional unity

According to Parsons, all parts of society are tightly integrated into a single whole, so a change in one part affects all other parts. However, complex modern societies have many parts, some of which may be only distantly 'related' to one another and may have 'functional autonomy' (independence) from others.


Universal functionalism

For parsons, everything in society performs a positive function for society as a whole. Yet some things, e.g. poverty, may be functional for some groups (e.g. the rich) and dysfunctional for others (e.g. the poor)


Manifest versus latent functions

Merton makes a useful distinction between 'manifest' (intended) and 'latent' (unintended) functions. This distinction helps to reveal the hidden connections between social phenomena that the actors themselves may be unaware of. For example, the manifest function of the Hopi Indian rain dance was to cause rain, but the latent function was to promote solidarity during hardship caused by drought.


External critiques of functionalism- teleology

Teleology is the idea that a thing exists because of its purpose or function. For example, functionalism, claims that the family exists to socialise children- it explains the existence of the family in terms of its effect. A real explanation must identify a cause- and logically, as a cause must come before its effect, , we can't explain an institution's existence in terms of its effect



Functionalism is unscientific because its claims are not falsifiable by testing. For example, it sees deviance as both dysfunctional and functional- something which could never be disproved.


Conflict perspective criticisms

Marxists argue that shared values are not agreed but imposed on society in the interests of the dominant class.
Conflict theorists see functionalism as a conservative ideology legitimating the status quo, e.g. assumptions of 'indispensability' help to justify the existing social order as inevitable and desirable.


Social action perspective criticisms

Wrong criticises functionalisms 'over socialised' or 'deterministic' view of individuals in which they have no free will or choice- they are mere puppets whose strings are pulled by the social system


Postmodernist criticisms

Postmodernists argue that functionalism cannot account for the diversity and instability that exists in today's society. Functionalism is an example of a meta narrative that attempts to create a model of the workings of society as a whole. Such an overall theory is no longer possible because today's society is increasingly fragmented.