Theory: Functionalism (Consensus)

Theory: Functionalism – A Consensus Theory – A Structural Theory – A Macro Theory
Change in Society – Gradual, evolutionary
If one part of the system does break down and becomes dysfunctional then this can
affect all other aspects of society. For example dysfunctional families have been
connected to crime, mental illness and low levels of educational achievement, in
this way social order and stability are threatened (in the same way heart disease
will cause the whole body to become weak). Where socialisation is inadequate, or
aspects of society become dysfunctional, or where social change is rapid anomie can occur. According to
Durkheim this means a state of normlessness, which is when society is unsure of what social norms are.
Durkheim developed a number of concepts to help him to explain
and research society. ‘Social Fact’ was one of them. In order to
discover ‘Social Fact’ scientific research methods are preferable.
Functionalists therefore see sociology as a science and therefore
favour the quantitative, positivist approach. They like
questionnaires, structured interviews and official statistics.
Durkheim’s Suicide study is a classic example of using official Statistics to
research societal causes of suicide. (see crime learning table on Suicide.)
Functionalists also accept official Crime Statistics.
Cultural systems socialise individuals to conform to society’s norms and values. This
creates a value consensus, which is a shared agreement of norms and values by all individuals in society.
According to Parsons (who was inspired by Durkheim), this maintains social order so that society is able to
function properly, creating a stable and harmonious society. Because of this social
change will be slow and gradually evolves.
Links to RM
Key Ideas
Functionalism is a structural theory that was created by Durkheim (1858 - 1917) that
studies sociology as a whole. It sees contemporary society as a system with all parts
inter-related and working together to meet the needs of society. In other words, society
operates like a living organism (the body) with interdependent structures of society
such as medicine, families, education and religion (the heart and lungs etc). Every
society is made up of four sub-systems: economic, political, family, and cultural systems
such as education, religion and the media. Each sub-system functions to maintain a
healthy society.
Functionalism has wider theoretical appeal. Its underlying ideas have been taken up by other
structural perspectives and has generated new theories and research from the New Right e.g. like
functionalists, the New Right believe that the family is the ‘heart’ of society.
Functionalism recognises the structural nature of society. It demonstrates the links between major social
institutions for e.g education, religion and the economy.
Durkheim’s and Parson’s work has provided insights that have helped modern sociologists to understand
contemporary societies and many of its basic assumptions still guide much sociological research. For example, the
idea that society should be seen as a whole, society is structured and that social structure directs human
Functionalists maintain that social inequality in society is both inevitable and functional, so acts as a motivator
for people to strive for high social class positions.
Application of Functionalism
Functionalism tends to over-emphasise the harmonious nature of society and fails to see that
some groups are disadvantaged by society. Marxists, for example, criticise functionalism for its
inability to explain conflict e.g. between the working and ruling class and change. It could be
Educational systems socialise individuals into norms and values
argued that they look at the world through ‘rose tinted glasses’.
through the formal and hidden curriculum e.g. citizenship education.
Educational systems provide a vital role in allocating individuals into a
Teleology is the idea that things exist because of their effect or function. For example, the functionalist claim that
class based society through meritocratic principles.
the family exists because children need to be socialised is teleological – it explains the existence of the family in
terms of its effect. However, critics argue that a real explanation of something is one that identifies a cause – and
The family is at the heart of society. Murdock (1949) claimed that the
logically, a cause must come before its effect.
family is so useful to society that it is inevitable and universal.
One of the main functions of the family is primary socialisation,
Functionalism provides an inadequate explanation of social change. It simply states that if change does occur it will
through which children learn to accept and value the norms and
be due to evolutionary factors rather than anything else.
values of society.
Dennis Young (an action theorist) criticises functionalism’s deterministic view of the individual. Individuals have no
Religion plays a functional and positive role in society. It integrates people and provides support
freewill or choice – they are mere puppets whose strings are pulled by the social system. The action approach
and guidance. In ‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ Durkheim described religion as the
takes the opposite view – that individuals create society by their interactions.
primary force for social regulation.
Neo-functionalists such as Bellah (1970) believe that religion still performs essential social
Finally, postmodernists argue that functionalism assumes that society is stable and orderly. As such, it cannot
functions, but on a more individualised basis.
account for the diversity and instability that exist in today’s post-modern society.
They offer a structural causal explanation of crime & deviance. The causes are said to lie within
the social structure of society and subcultures.
Durkheim believed that a certain amount of crime and deviance could be seen as positive for
society, helping to clarify boundaries of acceptable behaviour and generate change.
Although functionalists provide a useful insight into the workings of society the theory is ideologically driven. Therefore, the theory is reductionist as it fails to take into account competing theoretical ideas.
Postmodernists are critical of the functional meta-narrative as they claim to have a ‘totalising’ (all encompassing) theory of society. Postmodernists maintain that rival narratives should be considered for a full account
of social life.