The Basics
Functionalism is mainly associated with the
work of two sociologists
Emile Durkheim
… and Talcott Parsons 1902-1979
Sociological theories always have to be understood
in terms of the time in which they were developed
For Durkheim key features of the C19 were:
- the specialised division of labour
..and the movement of people
from country to city –urban life
…and it’s still going on in other parts of the world
For Parsons two particular things
struck him about life in 1950s USA
The considerable affluence enjoyed by
..and the vast scale of
urban society
Downtown Los Angeles – early 1900s and 2010
Times of progress and improvement ? Functionalists thought so.
Both sociologists developed a view which
focuses on the idea that societies
EVOLVE , grow or develop - a bit like living
Societies are simply
organised to start with, but
over time they grow and
become more complex
Like an organism, societies
have certain needs
Needs are called
All societies have these needs
– but they can achieve them in
different ways
Systems are developed to meet the
An education system
A political system…..
.. And so on
The systems and the society are held
together because everyone shares the
same values
There is a shared culture
The shared culture is transmitted through
socialisation into common norms and values
Social order is created
through the use of sanctions
Society changes as systems or structures
become more complex
In large scale industrial society new ways
have to be found to meet functional
The need for specialised workers and
means the old system of aristocratic elites
will not work
industrial society therefore
becomes meritocratic
Functional Necessity
..anyone can make it – if they have talent
But things don’t always
work so smoothly
Robert Merton said industrial societies could
…if essential needs are not being met or if
some groups cannot achieve the goals of the
whole society
So don’t think that all functionalists are the
same – it’s a complex body of theory
Not a bad theory
But how could you criticise it?
it assumes value consensus
Taiwan, Turkey,
UK, Ukraine
Political discussions around the world
It generally has an inadequate view of power
– everyone seems fairly equal
Do we all start from the same position with equal power and resources?
it seems deterministic – as with
Marxism, people still seem very much
at the mercy of social structures
Over to you
Like all theories it has strengths and
But one point worth remembering is
that even sociologists who don’t
likefunctionalism much, usually
recognise the importance of Durkheim
– he believed in the idea of social