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Functionalism & Society


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AQA A2 Sociology

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Functionalism & Society

  1. 1. FUNCTIONALISM & SOCIETY Chapter 4: Sociological Theory
  2. 2. Organic Analogy When describing society, functionalists use an organic analogy – they see society as similar to a biological organism. Parsons identifies 3 similarities…  Both are self-regulating systems of inter-related interdependent parts that fit together in fixed ways  Both have needs which must be met in order to survive (e.g. members must be socialised and organisms need nutrition)  The functions maintain the system ensuring its survival (e.g. the circulatory system and the economy)
  3. 3. How is Social Order possible? Parsons argues social order is achieved through the existence of a value consensus (shared norms & values) which he believes is the glue that holds society together. The basic function of the value consensus is to integrate individuals into the social system thereby directing them to ensure its needs are met.
  4. 4. How does it do this? Parsons identifies two mechanisms within the system which ensure individuals conform to the value consensus… 1. Socialisation: the system socialises individuals to do what it wants them to do. Society therefore becomes part of an individuals personality structure 2. Social Control: conforming to the value consensus must be rewarded but deviant acts must be punished As a result, an individuals behaviour is orientated towards pursuing society’s goals and meeting its
  5. 5. ‘Building Block’ Model Parsons model of the social system… Individual actions governed by norms These norms come in clusters called ‘status roles’ Status roles also come in clusters known as institutions. Related institutions are grouped into sub- systems Factories Bank s Shops Farm s These sub-systems make up the social system
  6. 6. ‘AGIL’ Schema Parsons identifies four basic needs of the system, all of which are met by sub-systems… 1. Adaption: the economic system meets its members material needs 2. Goal Attainment: the political sub-system set goals and resources to achieve them 3. Integration: the religion, media and education sub- system integrate to pursue shared goals 4. Latency: the kinship sub-system provides pattern management (socialisation) and tension management (a place to ‘let off steam’)
  7. 7. Types of Society Traditional Society Modern Society Ascription: status is based on fixed characteristics Achievement: status is based on performance Diffuseness: relationships are broad with a range of purposes Specificity: relationships are narrow and limited to specific purposes Particularism: norms emphasise treating people differently Universalism: norms emphasise equality Affectivity: immediate gratification of desires Affective Neutrality: deferred gratification Collective Orientation: putting the group’s interests first Self orientation: individualism
  8. 8. Social Change If there are two types of society, how do societies change from one to the other? For Parsons, change is a gradual, evolutionary process of increasing complexity and structural differentiation. Referring back to the organic analogy, organisms have evolved from simple structures like the amoeba to highly complex organisms like humans. This is similar in societies. In traditional society a single institution performs many institutions but as society develops, this institution (namely the kinship sub-system) loses its functions to other institutions. In addition, there is dynamic equilibrium where a change occurs in one part of the system and this produces compensatory
  9. 9. Internal Critiques - Merton  Indispensability: Parsons assumes that everything in society is functionally indispensable in its existing form. Merton argues this is an untested assumption and he points to the possibility of ‘functional alternatives’. For example, a single-parent family may socialise their child just as well or better than the nuclear family  Universal Functionalism: Parsons assumes that everything in society performs a positive function for society as a whole but some things may be dysfunctional for some.
  10. 10. Internal Critiques - Merton  Functional Unity: Parsons assumes all parts of society are tightly integrated into a ‘unity’ and that each part is functional for all the rest. Similarly, he assumes that change in one part will have a ‘knock on’ effect on all other parts. In reality, instead of functional unity, some parts may have ‘functional autonomy’ from others. Complex modern societies have many parts some of which may only be distantly ‘related’ to one another. The central point behind Merton’s criticisms is that we cannot simply assume that society is always and
  11. 11. Manifest & Latent Functions Merton also contributes a useful distinction between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. He cites the example of the Hopi Indians who, in times of drought, perform a rain-dance with the deliberate aim of magically producing rain. This is its manifest (intended) function. The ritual may also have a latent (unintended) function such as promoting a sense of social solidarity in times of hardship. This distinction is useful in helping to reveal the hidden connections between social phenomena which the actors themselves may not be aware of.
  12. 12. External Critiques  Logical Criticisms: teleology is the idea that things exist because of their effect or function. Critics argue logically, a cause must come before its effect. Functionalism explains the existence of the family in terms of something else that can only be its effect (socialisation) since socialisation can only come after we have families. It is also criticised for being unscientific as it is not possible to falsify the theory. For example, functionalists see deviance as both dysfunctional and functional (think back to chapter 2, topic 1).
  13. 13. External Critiques  Conflict Perspective: conflict theorists such as Marxists criticise functionalism for its inability to explain conflict and change which arises partly from the organic analogy. Marxists argue society is not a harmonious whole; it is based on exploitation and divided into classes with conflicting interests and unequal power. Stability is the result of the dominant class using ideological manipulation & shared values are a cloak concealing the interests of the dominant class. They see functionalism as a conservative ideology legitimating the status quo – the privileged position of the powerful groups who would have most to lose from any fundamental changes in
  14. 14. External Critiques  Action Perspective Criticisms: Wrong criticises functionalist’s ‘over-socialised’ (deterministic) view of the individual. He argues functionalists effectively say individuals have no free will and we are puppets whose strings are pulled by the social system. In contrast, the action approach sees individuals as creating society by their interactions. A related criticism is that functionalism reifies society (they treat is as a distinct ‘thing’ over and above individuals, with its own needs).
  15. 15. External Critiques  Postmodernist Criticisms: postmodernists argue functionalism assumes that society is stable and orderly. As such, it cannot account for the diversity and instability that exists. In the postmodernist view, functionalism is an example of a meta-narrative that attempts to create a model of the workings of society as a whole. However, according to postmodernists, such an overall theory is no longer possible due to society being increasingly fragmented.
  16. 16. Conclusion Functionalism seeks to answer the fundamental question of how social order is possible – even if its answer neglects conflict and is too deterministic. It can also be said that Merton’s move away from Parsons’ ‘grand theory’, his notion of dysfunctions, and his distinction between manifest and latent functions, all provide useful starting points for research. It is also true that many of functionalism’s critics – especially conflict theorists – end up ‘borrowing’ its basic notion that society is a system of interdependent parts. As Craib notes, Parsons’ theory ‘has its faults, but at