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Functionalism

Updated: 1 October 2015

Functionalism is a Structuralist theory – hence it is sometimes known as Structural Functionalism. It is a ‘top-down’ theory that focuses on society rather than the individuals within it. As such, it is a powerful concept for exploring the Lower Right in 4Q/8L and how it influences and is influenced by the Lower Left. In Functionalism society is the focus because the individual is produced by society – ‘social products’, as George Herbert Mead (1913) termed them. People are the product of all the social influences on them: their family, friends, educational and religious background, their experiences at work, in leisure, and their exposure to the media. All of these influences make them who and what they are and how they perceive themselves: the confluence of schemas in their selfplexes.

In this view, people are born into society, play their role in it – like cogs on a wheel – and then die. However, the deaths of individuals do not mean the end of society. Society continues long after they are gone. According to Émile Durkheim (1893), beliefs and moral codes are passed on (memetically) from one generation to the next. Accordingly, it is not so much a case of individuals thinking for themselves in terms of original thought but commonly-shared values and beliefs – memes – which shape the schemas of individuals.

Functionalism emphasises the central role that agreement (consensus) between members of a society on morals plays in maintaining the patterns of shared and stable behaviour which makes social order. In other words, consensus in the Lower Left provides for stability in the Lower Right. This moral consensus – Durkheim’s collective conscience – creates an ‘equilibrium’, the normal state of society. Durkheim was concerned with the question of how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or, as his nephew Marcel Mauss (1925) held, systems of exchanges. In modern complex societies members perform very different tasks, meaning that a strong interdependence develops between them. Durkheim used the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole. Eg: the government – or state – provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. The family is dependent upon the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law-abiding, tax-paying citizens who in turn support the state.

Durkheim argued that complex societies are held together by ‘organic solidarity’. He espoused a strong sociological perspective of society which was continued by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1952) who, following Auguste Comte (1855), believed that the social constituted a separate ‘level’ of reality distinct from both the biological and inorganic matter. Explanations of social phenomena, therefore, need to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively-stable social roles. The concept of the social role here has many of the properties of Robert Dilts’ (1990) neurological level of Identity.

The central concern of Functionalism is a continuation of the Durkheimian task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion of societies which are necessary to ensure their continued existence over time. The various parts of society are assumed to work in an non-conscious, quasi-automatic fashion towards the maintenance of the overall social equilibrium. All social and cultural phenomena are, therefore, seen as being functional in the sense of working together to achieve this state and are effectively deemed to have a ‘life’ of their own. They are thus analysed primarily in terms of the function they play. Individuals are significant not in and of themselves but in terms of their status, their position in patterns of social relations, their roles and the behaviour(s) associated with their status. The social structure is then the network of statuses connected by associated roles.

Social Order
Functionalists study the role of different parts of society – social institutions – in bringing about and maintaining social order. They might study, for example, how families teach children the difference between right and wrong, or how education provides people with the skills and qualifications needed in the world of work. For Functionalists, society is a complex system made up of parts that all work together to keep the whole system going. The economic system (work), the political system, family and kinship, and the cultural system (education, mass media, religion and youth culture) all have their part to play in maintaining a stable society from generation to generation.

A major function of social institutions is to socialise every individual into a system of norms and values that will guide their future behaviour and thinking. In this viewpoint people need to be taught the core values of their society and to internalise them, so that they become shared and ‘taken for granted’. The end result of this process is value consensus – members of society agree on what counts as important values and standards of behaviour. Such consensus – the collective conscience – produces a sense of social solidarity – ie: we feel part of a community that has something in common. We feel a sense of common identity.

In 4Q/8L terms, this is the structural institutions of the Lower Right attempting to define the culture – the way people think and behave – in the Lower Left.

The Henley Model of Regional Competitiveness is a Functionalist approach to how society works

The Henley Model of Regional Competitiveness is a Functionalist approach to how society works

Another important foundation stone of social order in modern societies is the specialised division of labour. This refers to the organisation of jobs and skills in a society. All members of society are dependent upon this division of labour, which supplies a vast and sometimes-invisible army of workers to maintain the standard of living we take for granted. For example, hundreds of unskilled and skilled manual workers, professionals and managers are involved in supplying us with the essential functional prerequisites that any modern society needs to sustain itself. These include the basic needs (food, shelter, clothing and money) and essential services such as electricity, gas, water, sewage systems, support for reproduction and transportation systems – in other words the needs of the BEIGE and PURPLE vMEMES.

The specialised division of labour, therefore, is crucial because without it, society would soon descend into chaos. Consequently, another function of social institutions is to prepare young people to take their place in the division of labour by transmitting the memes that education, qualifications, working hard and a career are all worthwhile things. This ensures that young people will eventually come to replace workers who have retired or died – and so social order is maintained and society perpetuated.

For Talcott Parsons & Bryan Turner (1951), the provision of an ongoing labour force to continue to supply the basic needs is Adaptation, the economic function of a society. To function sustainably, every society has to provide an adequate standard of living for the survival of its members – whether the society is a primitive hunter-gatherer grouping or a complex industrial society.

Parsons & Turner identify 3 other types of functional prerequisites:-

  • Goal attainment – the political function. Societies have to develop ways of making decisions. Mechanisms can vary from tribal councils (typical of PURPLE dominating the Lower Right of 4Q/8L), through dictatorships (usually driven by RED), to democracies (based on BLUE and ORANGE thinking)
  • Integration – social harmony. Each institution in a society develops to fulfil particular functions. In doing so, they may sometimes come into conflict. Eg: in Capitalism, the economic inequalities between different groups may cause resentment between them. Therefore, societies need specialist institutions and concepts – eg: religions, charity, voluntary organisations, etc – that can involve members of different groups in a common focus and, therefore, endeavour to limit the potential clashes from conflicting interests
  • Latency – individual beliefs and values. This fourth functional prerequisite focuses on individuals, rather than the structures of society. Parsons & Turner divide latency into 2 areas:-
    — pattern maintenance: the problems faced by people when faced with conflicting demands – eg: the identity conflict and cognitive dissonance a British devout Muslim might feel between the demands of their religion and the ‘anything goes’ attitudes of a an increasingly secular and liberal society
    – tension management: the need a society has to motivate people to continue to belong to and contribute to society rather than leave it or oppose it. Again, this can be illustrated by the UK’s need to prevent young Muslims being radicalised and overtly opposed to the ‘British way of life’

Social Roles and Identity
People’s identities as, for example, fathers, mothers, children, neighbours, workers, etc, etc – in the way Dilts uses the term – are largely controlled by the appropriate value consensus. This defines and therefore largely determines what social roles each social position has to adopt if it is to fit successfully into society. Accordingly, those who occupy social positions are expected to behave in certain ways. Peter Berger (1963, p112) calls this “a typified response to a typified expectation”. A social role is a cluster (memeplex) of normative expectations (memes) that set out a script for social actors in particular social positions. That script defines standards of appropriate and inappopriate thoughts and behaviours for the social role.

From Robert K Merton (1957), we can use the example of the teacher who knows how they have to behave in relation to students, head teachers, other teachers, governors, parents, etc, etc. Equally, there is a clear set of expectations about what makes a ‘good’ mother or father, son or daughter. For example, people defined as ‘normal’ parents will engage in socially approved behaviour – they will protect their children from harm rather than neglect them or inflict excessive physical punishment on them; they will give them unconditional love; they will support them economically, etc.

Its important to note that these expectations may change according to gender – hence the commonly-held belief that working mothers, rather than working fathers, may be a cause of psychological damage in children. (See: Maternal Deprivation.)

Functionalists point out that our experience of socialisation and social control ensures that most of us will attempt to live up to the social and cultural expectations of our social roles almost without question.

Action Frames of Reference & Social Change
Although Radcliffe-Brown is often cited as the founder of Structural Functionalism, Talcott Parsons is the theorist most closely associated with use of the term. Parsons is the dominant figure in understandng the development of modern Western society from a Functionalist perspective.

According to Parsons (1937), Sociology needs a set of concepts that allows talk of social action, rather than physical events or biological behaviour. Parsons thought of these concepts as an action frame of reference. There are 5 basic elements to an action frame of reference:-

  • Actors – those who actually carry out the actions
  • Ends – the goals these people pursue
  • Means – the resources available to achieve the ends
  • Conditions – the particular context in which the actions are carried out (the life conditions of the Gravesian approach)
  • Norms – the standards by which people choose ends and means they think are appropriate

Therefore, understanding of social life needs to be grounded in the action frame of reference – ie: the functions of the roles and institutions in society will only be fulfilled if people actually take the action to meet those needs.

Parsons argued that socialisation is the key to the passing on, or reproduction, of socially acceptable patterns of behaviour. Social institutions do this in a number of ways:-

  • They socialise people into key values of society, such as the importance of nuclear family life, achievement, respect for authority and hierarchy, etc. The result is that most members of our society share common values and norms of behaviour (value consensus). Thus, we can predict how people are going to behave in the vast majority of social situations. The family, education and the mass media are primarily responsible for this function.
  • They give some values and norms a sacred quality so that they become powerful formal and informal moral codes governing social behaviour. These moral codes underpin our definitions of criminal, deviant and immoral behaviour – see Crime and Deviance – the Difference. An example of a formal moral code is ‘do not steal’ – because it is embodied in the law – while examples of more informal moral codes are ‘do not lie’ or ‘do not commit adultery’. The social institutions of religion and the law are primarily responsible for the transmission of these codes, although media reporting of crime and deviance also contributes by reminding members of society about what counts as ‘normality’ and what counts as deviance. The media also publicises the punishments handed out to those who indulge in behaviour that lies outside the consensus.
  • They encourage social solidarity (a sense of community) and social integration (a sense of belonging). For example, the teaching of history is an important means of achieving this goal, because it reminds members of society about their shared culture. This encourages healthy PURPLE and a greater senses of social cohesion.

So, our behaviour is largely controlled by the rules of the society into which we are born. The result is that we don’t have to be told that what we are doing is socially unacceptable. Most of the time we will probably feel inhibited from indulging in deviant behaviour in the first place because we are so successfully immersed in the common values of society by our experience of socialisation.

Like Durkheim, Parsons viewed society as naturally being in a state of equilibrium. Therefore, according to his equilibrium model, as change occurs in one part of society there must be adjustments in other parts. If this does not take place, the society’s equilibrium will be threatened and strains in the social order will occur. Parsons posited that society changes in 4 distinct and inevitable processes. These are:-

  • Differentiation – refers to the increase in complexity of social organisations
  • Adaptive Upgrading – whereby social institutions become more specialised in their processes
  • Inclusion – occurs where groups previously excluded from society because of such factors as race, gender, social class, etc, are now accepted
  • Value Generalisation – this is the development of new values that tolerate and legitimate a greater range of activities

See Social Change for more on these aspects of Parsons’ thinking.

Pattern Variables
In seeking to understand how societies work, Parsons developed the concept of pattern variables which he saw as 5 choices in action with regard to social behaviour:-

  • Affectivity or affective neutrality: societies can be characterised either by close interpersonal relationships, with PURPLE strong, or by relationships where the majority of interactions are value free, with PURPLE and BLUE weak. Eg: personal knowledge of others is likely to be strong in a small rural village, inhibiting significant (secondary) deviance; in a large urban conglomerate people often hardly know each other, with relative anonymity allowing RED self-expression to take place with fewer chances of recrimination from others for failing to conform to the norms of the commonly-held value consensus.
  • Specificity or diffuseness: whether people’s relationships are based on one link or many. In larger, more complex societies, people may know someone in one social role only – eg: teacher or work colleague. In smaller, less complex societies, the teacher may also be cousin, lay reader at the local church, etc.
  • Universalism or particularism: the BLUE/GREEN vMEME harmonic which governs much thinking in modern Western countries applies the principle that the rules apply equally to everybody – even if, in practice, they sometimes don’t. In other types of society, it is generally accepted that the rules don’t apply universally but that particular people – eg: royalty, religious leaders, certain ethnic groups – may be able to behave quite differently to the rules.
  • Quality or performance: linked to the previous choice, this is the question of whether people should be treated according to their abilities (merit) or by their social position at birth (ascription).
  • Self-orientation or collectivity orientation: whether societies stress the importance of individual lives and self-fulfilment or focus on the welfare of the group will be influenced by whether the express-self or the conform/self-sacrifice side of the Spiral is dominating in the collective psyche of those with the power to make decisions and/or influence decision-making. (Changes in these orientations are explored in Is Collectivism being overtaken by Individualism?)

The way a culture behaves in terms of these 5 pattern variables influences how people play out their social roles.

Criticisms of Functionalism
Wes Sharrock, John Hughes & Peter Martin (2003) identify a number of criticisms of Functionalism:-

  • Functionalism overemphasises the level of agreement (consensus) in society. Its understanding of society is too simplistic and fails to explain the social conflicts that characterise much of the modern Western world. In this respect, it fails to account for changes in social behaviours which once would have been portrayed as deviant – eg: women with young children going out to work, cohabitation before or even instead of marriage, abortion or homosexual relationships. Nor does it account for diversity in ethnicity and religion.
  • ome Functionalists have attempted to get around this criticism by reference to sub-culture. In Functionalist terms, this can be defined as a way of life subscribed to by a significant minority who may share some general values and norms with the larger culture, but who may be in opposition to others. For example, in a multicultural society like the UK, some minority ethnic groups may retain very traditional ideas about women’s roles, marriage, homosexuality, etc.
    This criticism is not entirely accurate as Durkheim clearly allocated a function to crime and deviance as solidifying social cohesion in some instances and providing a catalyst to bring about social change in others.
  • Tied in with the above criticism is the fact that many Functionalists concentrate primarily on the universal nuclear family in modern societies, with the growing diversity of family types not considered.
  • Functionalism has also been accused of ignoring individual behaviour which goes against the collective conscience. Whether by choice, motivation or temperament, people may demonstrate behaviour and ideas which obviously are not imposed on them by structural factors beyond their control. They do not always conform to the pattern variable choice of their society. In this sense, Functionalism may present an ‘oversocialised’ picture of human beings.
    Interactionists, PostModernists and Late-Modernists all tend to argue that people are much more reflexive, making choices and constructing their lives. Effectively, such criticisms state the obvious – ie: that the Lower Left of 4Q/8L – culture, the way people act and behave – can get out of kilter with the Lower Right in terms of the social roles society says they should fulfil.
    Neo-Functionalists such as Jeffrey Alexander (1985) and Nicos Mouzelis (1995) argue that, with a slightly modified approach to it, the Functionalist viewpoint does allow people to be ‘reflexive’ and make decisions for themselves.
  • The metaphor of society with its social institutions being like a body with its internal organs also comes in for criticism from Sharrock, Hughes & Martin on the grounds that biological organisms have a natural form and a natural life cycle whereas ‘society’ is just a concept made up of the activities of, perhaps, millions of people.
  • Sharrock, Hughes & Martin also argue that there are inherent contradictions in the Parsons concept of equilibrium and the Parsons & Turner delineation of functional prerequisites. If the functional prerequisites are fulfilled by social institutions, unless there are external changes which impact upon the functional prerequisites, logically societies should never need to change.

Additionally Functionalism has been accused by Marxists of ignoring the fact that power is not equally distributed in society. They argue that social institutions such as the modern family are organised to support and benefit the ruling class and the Capitalist economy, rather than benefiting all of society. Labelling theorists argue that some groups have more wealth and power than others and may be able to impose their norms and values on less powerful groups.

However, Marxists and other Conflict theorists don’t, as such, undermine the Functionalist concept that social institutions contribute to the overall working of society. What they do is reveal the power dynamics that underpin the functions of social institutions to produce a society that works much more in the interests of some groups than others. It’s the resultant nature of the society produced that they object to.

Feminists also criticise Functionalists for the ignoring male dominance that often is present in society. Furthermore, the sexual division of labour it usually describes is no longer universal, with the relative roles of women and men in modern families clearly gradually changing.

Again this criticism is not entirely accurate. While Functionalism can be portrayed as generally describing a status quo, Parsons, in particular, with his concept of value generalisation, does allow for incremental change in some areas, with society re-balancing itself to accommodate such changes. Major changes in society, such as the acceptance of changes in the roles of men and women, have been largely incremental and, for the most part largely absorbed by society as a whole – with some significant discrepancies such as the failure to resolve the issue of high rates of male unemployment in former manufacturing and mining areas.

Perhaps surprisingly some of the most potent criticism of Parson’s Structural Functionalism comes from fellow Functionalist Merton who notes that:-

  • Parsons assumes institutions work always for the overall benefit of society and never considers institutions becoming dysfunctional. He cites religion as an example of an at-times dysfunctional institution, as it can both bring people together and drive them apart.
  • Parsons doesn’t distinguish between manifest, intended functions and latent, unintended functions. This makes the analysis of society much more complex than Parsons portrays it as.
    Berger uses the example of anti-gambling legislation: its manifest function is to suppress gambling but the latent function is to create an illegal empire of gambling syndicates!

As an approach on its own, Functionalism clearly cannot explain society as a whole. As an approach to explore the Lower Right of 4Q/8L, with recognition of the vMEME design and/or domination of the social institutions being considered, it gives us powerful insights into the way social institutions impact upon the other Quadrants and are impacted by changes in them driven by individuals and culture.

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