As a structural theory, Functionalism sees social structure or the organisation of society as more important than the individual. Functionalism is a top down theory. Individuals are born into society and become the product of all the social influences around them as they are socialised by various institutions such as the family, education, media and religion.
Functionalism sees society as a system; a set of interconnected parts which together form a whole. There is a relationship between all these parts and agents of socialisation and together they all contribute to the maintenance of society as a whole.
Social consensus, order and integration are key beliefs of functionalism as this allows society to continue and progress because there are shared norms and values that mean all individuals have a common goal and have a vested interest in conforming and thus conflict is minimal.
Talcott Parsons viewed society as a system. He argued that any social system has four basic functional prerequisites: adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance. These can be seen as problems that society must solve if it is to survive. The function of any part of the social system is understood as its contribution to meeting the functional prerequisites.
Adaptation refers to the relationship between the system and its environment. In order to survive, social systems must have some degree of control over their environment. Food and shelter must be provided to meet the physical needs of members. The economy is the institution primarily concerned with this function.
Goal attainment refers to the need for all societies to set goals towards which social activity is directed. Procedures for establishing goals and deciding on priorities between goals are institutionalized in the form of political systems. Governments not only set goals but also allocate resources to achieve them. Even in a so-called free enterprise system, the economy is regulated and directed by laws passed by governments.
Integration refers primarily to the ‘adjustment of conflict’. It is concerned with the coordination and mutual adjustment of the parts of the social system. Legal norms define and standardize relations between individuals and between institutions, and so reduce the potential for conflict. When conflict does arise, it is settled by the judicial system and does not therefore lead to the disintegration of the social system.
Pattern maintenance refers to the ‘maintenance of the basic pattern of values, institutionalized in the society’. Institutions that perform this function include the family, the educational system and religion. In Parsons view ‘the values of society are rooted in religion’.
Talcott Parsons maintained that any social system can be analysed in terms of the functional prerequisites he identified. Thus, all parts of society can be understood with reference to the functions they perform.
A main supporter of Functionalism is Emile Durkheim who believes that sociology is a science. He is a structuralist and positivist and thus disagrees with empathy, meanings and the social action theory.
Functionalists believe that society is based around a value consensus and social solidarity, which is achieved by socialisation and social control.
These are two types of social solidarity Durkheim believed in:
Mechanical Solidarity – These societies have people involved in similar roles so labour division is simple. Therefore, a similar lifestyle is lived with common shared norms and values and beliefs. They have a consensus of opinion on moral issues giving society a social solidarity to guide behaviour. As there is a societal agreement, there is pressure to follow the value consensus, so therefore most do.
Organic Solidarity – Industrialisation meant population grew rapidly with urbanisation occurring. As society develops, a division of labour occurs. This is when work becomes separate from the home and the state organises the education, health care and criminal justice systems. A parent back then would be the teacher, doctor, judge and jury as well as a parent.
Today people have such diverse and specialist roles that moral codes have weakened and anomie has occurred (a lack of norms and values and self-control). Social order is no-longer based on having a common set of values but rather is enshrined in the law and highlighted by deviance.
Another in support of Functionalism is Talcott Parsons. Parsons claims that society is the way it is as social structures are interconnected and dependant on each other. Functionalists therefore see change as evolutionary – change in one part of society will eventually occur in another. Social ills e.g. crime and deviance, have disabling effects on society and gradually effect other parts. They recognise interconnections between various parts of society occur due to a value consensus. Parsons believes that as society changes, it develops and the pattern variables within it will become more complex. Change, therefore, trickles throughout society. Parsons summed this up as the ‘Organic Analogy’.
Functionalists believe that sociological matters should be explained with scientific facts. This is otherwise known as Positivism. The founder of Positivism, Angste Comte, describes it as a method of study based primary facts, objectively measured, from which makes it possible to identify issues in society that effect individuals and leaves room for innovation in law and establishing new legislation. An example of this would be statistics. Positivists believe that sociology should adopt the methodology of the natural sciences and focus only on directly observable social facts and correlate them with other observable social facts.
Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex