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  • Structural functionalism, or simply functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees

  • society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.

  • This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the

  • social structures that shape society as a whole, and believes that society has evolved

  • like organisms. This approach looks at both social structure and social functions. Functionalism

  • addresses society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely

  • norms, customs, traditions, and institutions. A common analogy, popularized by Herbert Spencer,

  • presents these parts of society as "organs" that work toward the proper functioning of

  • the "body" as a whole. In the most basic terms, it simply emphasizes "the effort to impute,

  • as rigorously as possible, to each feature, custom, or practice, its effect on the functioning

  • of a supposedly stable, cohesive system". For Talcott Parsons, "structural-functionalism"

  • came to describe a particular stage in the methodological development of social science,

  • rather than a specific school of thought. The structural functionalism approach is a

  • macrosociological analysis, with a broad focus on social structures that shape society as

  • a whole.

  • Theory Classical theories are defined by a tendency

  • towards biological analogy and notions of social evolutionism:

  • Functionalist thought, from Comte onwards, has looked particularly towards biology as

  • the science providing the closest and most compatible model for social science. Biology

  • has been taken to provide a guide to conceptualizing the structure and the function of social systems

  • and to analyzing processes of evolution via mechanisms of adaptation ... functionalism

  • strongly emphasises the pre-eminence of the social world over its individual parts.

  • While one may regard functionalism as a logical extension of the organic analogies for societies

  • presented by political philosophers such as Rousseau, sociology draws firmer attention

  • to those institutions unique to industrialized capitalist society. Functionalism also has

  • an anthropological basis in the work of theorists such as Marcel Mauss, Bronisław Malinowski

  • and Radcliffe-Brown. It is in Radcliffe-Brown's specific usage that the prefix 'structural'

  • emerged. Radcliffe-Brown proposed that most stateless, "primitive" societies, lacking

  • strong centralised institutions, are based on an association of corporate-descent groups.

  • Structural functionalism also took on Malinowski's argument that the basic building block of

  • society is the nuclear family, and that the clan is an outgrowth, not vice versa.

  • Émile Durkheim was concerned with the question of how certain societies maintain internal

  • stability and survive over time. He proposed that such societies tend to be segmented,

  • with equivalent parts held together by shared values, common symbols or, as his nephew Marcel

  • Mauss held, systems of exchanges. Durkheim used the term 'mechanical solidarity' to refer

  • to these types of "social bonds, based on common sentiments & shared moral values, that

  • are strong among members of pre-industrial societies". In modern, complex societies,

  • members perform very different tasks, resulting in a strong interdependence. Based on the

  • metaphor above of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole,

  • Durkheim argued that complex societies are held together by organic solidarity, i.e.

  • "social bonds, based on specialization and interdependence, that are strong among members

  • of industrial societies". These views were upheld by Durkheim, who,

  • following Comte, believed that society constitutes a separate "level" of reality, distinct from

  • both biological and inorganic matter. Explanations of social phenomena had therefore to be constructed

  • within this level, individuals being merely transient occupants of comparatively stable

  • social roles. The central concern of structural functionalism is a continuation of the Durkheimian

  • task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion needed by societies

  • to endure over time. Societies are seen as coherent, bounded and fundamentally relational

  • constructs that function like organisms, with their various working together in an unconscious,

  • quasi-automatic fashion toward achieving an overall social equilibrium. All social and

  • cultural phenomena are therefore seen as functional in the sense of working together, and are

  • effectively deemed to have "lives" of their own. They are primarily analyzed in terms

  • of this function. The individual is significant not in and of himself, but rather in terms

  • of his status, his position in patterns of social relations, and the behaviours associated

  • with his status. Therefore, the social structure is the network of statuses connected by associated

  • roles. It is simplistic to equate the perspective

  • directly with political conservatism. The tendency to emphasise "cohesive systems",

  • however, leads functionalist theories to be contrasted with "conflict theories" which

  • instead emphasize social problems and inequalities. Prominent theorists

  • Auguste Comte Auguste Comte, the "Father of Positivism",

  • pointed out the need to keep society unified as many traditions were diminishing. He was

  • the first person to coin the term sociology. Auguste Comte suggests that sociology is the

  • product of a three-stage development. 1. Theological Stage: From the beginning of

  • human history until the end of the European Middle Ages, people took a religious view

  • that society expressed God's will. In the theological state, the human mind, seeking

  • the essential nature of beings, the first and final causes of all effectsin short,

  • absolute knowledgesupposes all phenomena to be produced by the immediate action of

  • supernatural beings. 2. Metaphysical Stage: People began seeing

  • society as a natural system as opposed to the supernatural. Began with the Enlightenment

  • and the ideas of Hobbes, Locke,and Rousseau. Reflected the failings of a selfish human

  • nature rather than the perfection of God. 3. Scientific Stage: Describing society through

  • the application of the scientific approach, which draws on the work of scientists.

  • Herbert Spencer

  • Herbert Spencer was a British philosopher famous for applying the theory of natural

  • selection to society. He was in many ways the first true sociological functionalist.

  • In fact, while Durkheim is widely considered the most important functionalist among positivist

  • theorists, it is well known that much of his analysis was culled from reading Spencer's

  • work, especially his Principles of Sociology. Spencer allude society to the analogy of human

  • body. Just as the structural parts of the human body - the skeleton, muscles, and various

  • internal organs - function independently to help the entire organism survive, social structures

  • work together to preserve society. While most avoid the tedious tasks of reading

  • Spencer's massive volumes, there are some important insights that have quietly influenced

  • many contemporary theorists, including Talcott Parsons, in his early work The Structure of

  • Social Action. Cultural anthropology also consistently uses functionalism.

  • This evolutionary model, unlike most 19th century evolutionary theories, is cyclical,

  • beginning with the differentiation and increasing complication of an organic or "super-organic"

  • body, followed by a fluctuating state of equilibrium and disequilibrium, and, finally, the stage

  • of disintegration or dissolution. Following Thomas Malthus' population principles, Spencer

  • concluded that society is constantly facing selection pressures that force it to adapt

  • its internal structure through differentiation. Every solution, however, causes a new set

  • of selection pressures that threaten society's viability. It should be noted that Spencer

  • was not a determinist in the sense that he never said that

  • Selection pressures will be felt in time to change them;

  • They will be felt and reacted to; or The solutions will always work.

  • In fact, he was in many ways a political sociologist, and recognized that the degree of centralized

  • and consolidated authority in a given polity could make or break its ability to adapt.

  • In other words, he saw a general trend towards the centralization of power as leading to

  • stagnation and ultimately, pressures to decentralize. More specifically, Spencer recognized three

  • functional needs or prerequisites that produce selection pressures: they are regulatory,

  • operative and distributive. He argued that all societies need to solve problems of control

  • and coordination, production of goods, services and ideas, and, finally, to find ways of distributing

  • these resources. Initially, in tribal societies, these three

  • needs are inseparable, and the kinship system is the dominant structure that satisfies them.

  • As many scholars have noted, all institutions are subsumed under kinship organization, but,

  • with increasing population, problems emerge with regard to feeding individuals, creating

  • new forms of organizationconsider the emergent division of labourcoordinating and controlling

  • various differentiated social units, and developing systems of resource distribution.

  • The solution, as Spencer sees it, is to differentiate structures to fulfill more specialized functions;

  • thus a chief or "big man" emerges, soon followed by a group of lieutenants, and later kings

  • and administrators. The structural parts of society function interdependently to help

  • society function. Therefore, social structures work together to preserve society.

  • Perhaps Spencer's greatest obstacle that is being widely discussed in modern sociology

  • is the fact that much of his social philosophy is rooted in the social and historical context

  • of Ancient Egypt. He coined the term "survival of the fittest" in discussing the simple fact

  • that small tribes or societies tend to be defeated or conquered by larger ones. Of course,

  • many sociologists still use him in their analyses, especially due to the recent re-emergence

  • of evolutionary theory. Talcott Parsons

  • Talcott Parsons was heavily influenced by Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, synthesizing

  • much of their work into his action theory, which he based on the system-theoretical concept

  • and the methodological principle of voluntary action. He held that "the social system is

  • made up of the actions of individuals." His starting point, accordingly, is the interaction

  • between two individuals faced with a variety of choices about how they might act, choices

  • that are influenced and constrained by a number of physical and social factors.

  • Parsons determined that each individual has expectations of the other's action and reaction

  • to his own behaviour, and that these expectations would be "derived" from the accepted norms

  • and values of the society they inhabit. As Parsons himself emphasized, in a general context

  • there would never exist any perfect "fit" between behaviours and norms, so such a relation

  • is never complete or "perfect." Social norms were always problematic for Parsons,

  • who never claimed that social norms were generally accepted and agreed upon, should this prevent

  • some kind of universal law. Whether social norms were accepted or not was for Parsons

  • simply a historical question. As behaviours are repeated in more interactions,

  • and these expectations are entrenched or institutionalized, a role is created. Parsons defines a "role"

  • as the normatively-regulated participation "of a person in a concrete process of social

  • interaction with specific, concrete role-partners." Although any individual, theoretically, can

  • fulfill any role, the individual is expected to conform to the norms governing the nature

  • of the role they fulfill. Furthermore, one person can and does fulfill

  • many different roles at the same time. In one sense, an individual can be seen to be

  • a "composition" of the roles he inhabits. Certainly, today, when asked to describe themselves,

  • most people would answer with reference to their societal roles.

  • Parsons later developed the idea of roles into collectivities of roles that complement

  • each other in fulfilling functions for society. Some roles are bound up in institutions and

  • social structures. These are functional in the sense that they assist society in operating

  • and fulfilling its functional needs so that society runs smoothly.

  • Contrary to prevailing myth, Parsons never spoke about a society where there was no conflict

  • or some kind of "perfect" equilibrium. A society's cultural value-system was in the typical case

  • never completely integrated, never static and most of the time, like in the case of

  • the American society in a complex state of transformation relative to its historical

  • point of departure. To reach a "perfect" equilibrium was not any serious theoretical question in

  • Parsons analysis of social systems, indeed, the most dynamic societies had generally cultural

  • systems with important inner tensions like the US and India. These tensions were a source

  • of their strength according to Parsons rather than the opposite. Parsons never thought about

  • system-institutionalization and the level of strains in the system as opposite forces

  • per se. The key processes for Parsons for system reproduction

  • are socialization and social control. Socialization is important because it is the mechanism for

  • transferring the accepted norms and values of society to the individuals within the system.

  • Parsons never spoke about "perfect socialization"—in any society socialization was only partial

  • and "incomplete" from an integral point of view.

  • Parsons states that "this point [...] is independent of the sense in which [the] individual is

  • concretely autonomous or creative rather than 'passive' or 'conforming', for individuality

  • and creativity, are to a considerable extent, phenomena of the institutionalization of expectations";

  • they are culturally constructed. Socialization is supported by the positive

  • and negative sanctioning of role behaviours that do or do not meet these expectations.

  • A punishment could be informal, like a snigger or gossip, or more formalized, through institutions

  • such as prisons and mental homes. If these two processes were perfect, society would

  • become static and unchanging, but in reality this is unlikely to occur for long.

  • Parsons recognizes this, stating that he treats "the structure of the system as problematic

  • and subject to change," and that his concept of the tendency towards equilibrium "does

  • not imply the empirical dominance of stability over change." He does, however, believe that

  • these changes occur in a relatively smooth way.

  • Individuals in interaction with changing situations adapt through a process of "role bargaining."

  • Once the roles are established, they create norms that guide further action and are thus

  • institutionalised, creating stability across social interactions. Where the adaptation

  • process cannot adjust, due to sharp shocks or immediate radical change, structural dissolution

  • occurs and either new structures are formed, or society dies. This model of social change

  • has been described as a "moving equilibrium," and emphasises a desire for social order.

  • Davis and Moore Kingsley Davis and Wilbert E. Moore gave an

  • argument for social stratification based on the idea of "functional necessity". They argue

  • that the most difficult jobs in any society have the highest incomes in order to motivate

  • individuals to fill the roles needed by the division of labour. Thus inequality serves

  • social stability. This argument has been criticized as fallacious

  • from a number of different angles: the argument is both that the individuals who are the most

  • deserving are the highest rewarded, and that a system of unequal rewards is necessary,

  • otherwise no individuals would perform as needed for the society to function. The problem

  • is that these rewards are supposed to be based upon objective merit, rather than subjective

  • "motivations." The argument also does not clearly establish why some positions are worth

  • more than others, even when they benefit more people in society, e.g., teachers compared

  • to athletes and movie stars. Critics have suggested that structural inequality is itself

  • a cause of individual success or failure, not a consequence of it.

  • Robert Merton Robert K. Merton made important refinements

  • to functionalist thought. He fundamentally agreed with Parsons' theory. However, he acknowledged

  • that it was problematic, believing that it was over generalized [Holmwood, 2005:100].

  • Merton tended to emphasize middle range theory rather than a grand theory, meaning that he

  • was able to deal specifically with some of the limitations in Parsons' theory. Merton

  • believed that any social structure probably has many functions, some more obvious than

  • others. He identified 3 main limitations: functional unity, universal functionalism

  • and indispensability [Ritzer in Gingrich, 1999]. He also developed the concept of deviance

  • and made the distinction between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions referred

  • to the recognized and intended consequences of any social pattern. Latent functions referred

  • to unrecognized and unintended consequences of any social pattern.

  • Merton criticized functional unity, saying that not all parts of a modern complex society

  • work for the functional unity of society. Consequently, there is a social dysfunction

  • referred to as any social pattern that may disrupt the operation of society. Some institutions

  • and structures may have other functions, and some may even be generally dysfunctional,

  • or be functional for some while being dysfunctional for others. This is because not all structures

  • are functional for society as a whole. Some practices are only functional for a dominant

  • individual or a group [Holmwood, 2005:91]. There are two types of functions that Merton

  • discusses the "manifest functions" in that a social pattern can trigger a recognized

  • and intended consequence. The manifest function of education includes preparing for a career

  • by getting good grades, graduation and finding good job. The second type of function is "latent

  • functions", where a social pattern results in an unrecognized or unintended consequence.

  • The latent functions of education include meeting new people, extra-curricular activities,

  • school trips. Another type of social function is "social dysfunction" which is any undesirable

  • consequences that disrupts the operation of society. The social dysfunction of education

  • includes not getting good grades, a job. Merton states that by recognizing and examining the

  • dysfunctional aspects of society we can explain the development and persistence of alternatives.

  • Thus, as Holmwood states, "Merton explicitly made power and conflict central issues for

  • research within a functionalist paradigm" [2005:91].

  • Merton also noted that there may be functional alternatives to the institutions and structures

  • currently fulfilling the functions of society. This means that the institutions that currently

  • exist are not indispensable to society. Merton states "just as the same item may have multiple

  • functions, so may the same function be diversely fulfilled by alternative items" [cited in

  • Holmwood, 2005:91]. This notion of functional alternatives is important because it reduces

  • the tendency of functionalism to imply approval of the status quo.