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Assess the Strengths and Weaknesses of the Functionalist Approach to Society Essay

Functionalism is seen as a macro-scale approach to society; it sees society as a whole rather than looking at parts of it. Due to this, functionalism sees society as a body (organic analogy), all the institutions work together to make society. This is particularly useful when observing society in order to understand the way in which it functions and the way in which all the institutions (organic analogy: organs within the body) work together to sustain society as a whole.

Functionalism being a macro-scale approach is therefore seen as a strength as it allows functionalist sociologists to observe society, and its institutions, as a whole. Functionalism is also seen as a consensus theory, it sees society as fair and just, and it acknowledges that many societies, including the majority of western ones, have democracy and all individuals within a particular society share the same or similar norms and values. This could therefore be seen as a strength as it acknowledges that democracy does exist in many societies.

However, as functionalism is a macro-scale approach and sees society as a whole, it could miss crucial factors/ groups which contribute to the functioning of society; these include small groups and tribes, such as gipsies. Not acknowledging these minority groups within society could lead to functionalist sociologists lacking crucial information about how society functions and how minority groups live within a large society. This could therefore be seen as a weakness of functionalism as it fails to acknowledge that there are minority groups within society.

Also, as functionalism is a consensus theory where all individuals within a particular society share the same or similar norms and values and sees society as being fair and just; however, it fails to acknowledge that there are inequalities within society, these inequalities could be present amounts social class, gender or ethnicity. However, other approaches, such as Marxism and Feminism acknowledge that there are inequalities within society which raises the question as to whether functionalism is the most appropriate approach to use when studying society.

This is therefore seen as a weakness of functionalism as society does have many inequalities which functionalism fails to acknowledge. Talcott Parsons, a functionalist sociologist who elaborated on Durkheim’s work about society and its functions, claimed that society is like an organism, in particular, the human body. He argued that all institutions, such as the family and the education system, within society function together to maintain society just as the organs within a human body work together to maintain life.

In particular, Parsons identified three similarities between the human body and society; he claimed that they were both systems within themselves – all the parts of a body and the institutions within society fit together in fixed ways. He also identified that these ‘systems’ have needs – the human body needs nutrition to help it sustain life, whereas society needs adequate socialisation in order for society to continue functioning in the way that it does.

Parsons also stated that both the human body and society have functions – the functions of the systems within the human body ensure that the body’s needs are meet thus maintaining life; whereas, in society, the economy functions to maintain the social system. As parsons’ analogy helps sociologists to better understand the way in which institutions in society work together to maintain a ‘healthy’ society, it can be seen as a strength of functionalism as it helps to structure sociologists’ perceptions about how society functions.

Parsons also identified four needs of society and how they are met. He claimed that society needs adaptation, this is where the material needs of society are met; for example, individuals within society work in order to gain their wages which in turn provides for their material needs. He also argued that society needs goal attainment – society needs to set goals and achieve them; this need is met via the political – political leaders set goals for society to achieve and these goals help to improve society.

Integration is another need which Parsons identified, this is where cohesion between the different institutions, such as the family and education system, is promoted; this is done to avoid chaos and conflict. Latency is also needed by society, this refers to the way in which individuals cope with problems in society – they may turn to religion to reduce the strain which has been put on them by society. These needs which Parsons identified can be seen as a strength of society as they help sociologists to understand what society needs in order to function adequately.

However, functionalist sociologist, Merton disagreed with the needs which Parsons identified. Merton claims that Parsons ignored the fact that there are institutions within society that can be dysfunctional, for example, religion can form cohesion but can also cause divisions within society. According to Merton, Parsons failed to acknowledge this. Merton also argues that Parsons fails to differentiate between intended (manifest) and unintended (latent) functions within society and therefore, Parsons’ idea about the needs and functions of society are very simplistic.

Merton also criticises Parsons’ idea about indispensability, he assumes that everything is necessary in the way that it is; for example, children can only be socialised adequately in a two parent, nuclear family, however, Merton rejects this claim as he argues that adequate socialisation can occur even within a single parent family. Due to Merton’s arguments, some aspects of functionalism, such as the needs and functions of society, are seen as a weakness of society.

There are also other criticisms of functionalism; it’s argued that functionalism explains the effects before the causes. For example, functionalism claims that children need to socialised (this is the effect) and therefore the family exists (this is the cause). Due to this, may sociologists argue that the functionalism approach is not one which can be used to explain society properly. Also, Marxist sociologists argue that functionalism has failed to explain conflict and change within society; the approach claims that society is harmonious and built on consensus.

However, Marxist and Feminist sociologists argue that exploitation and inequality do exist in many forms, such as social class and gender inequality; however, functionalism has failed to acknowledge this and is therefore considered to be an approach which has traditional ideology which is outdated. This therefore shows flaws to the functionalist approach and therefore points out the weaknesses within the functionalist approach.

Overall, in conclusion, the functionalist approach has many strengths and weaknesses about the way in which society functions and the needs it requires. It strengths are seen in the way in which it explains the basic needs and function of society, these explanations can be used by other sociologists to improve and maintain an adequate society. However, other approaches, such as Marxism and Feminism have criticised functionalism due to its lack of acknowledgment of exploitation and inequality which occurs within society. However, overall, it is a balanced argument.

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