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Critically Evaluate the Contributions of Functionalism to the Study of Society Essay

Critically evaluate the contributions of functionalism to the study of society. Functionalist theory is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It can be argued that the functionalist theory has made a significant contribution to the study of society. It originates from the work of Emile Durkheim who suggests that social order is possible and society remains stable due to the functioning of several institutions. Everything has a specific function in society and society will always function in harmony.

The main institutions studied by functionalism are the family, the education system, religion and crime and deviance. Murdock argues that the family performs four basic functions in all societies – sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. These four basic functions are essential for social life since without the sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society, without the economic function life would cease and without education there would be no socialisation or culture. Without these four basic functions human society could not survive.

The family does not perform these functions alone however it makes important contributions to them all. Murdock is often criticised for his picture of the family as he did not consider whether its functions could be performed by other social institutions and he does not examine alternatives to the family. Equally, Murdock illustrates the nuclear family as very harmonious and perfect. There are many ill-functioning families in society which Murdock fails to examine and explain. What is the function of families when the husband and wife fail to have an integrated division of labour and have a healthy sexual relationship?

Talcott Parsons offers an alternative view of the functions of the family and suggests it serves two purposes: primary socialisation and the stabilisation of the adult personality. Primary socialisation refers to socialisation during the early years of childhood, which take place mainly within the family. This is important in contributing to society as our parents supposedly bring their offspring up to grow to be well-behaved, obedient individuals with the right values to help society function. The stabilisation of adult personalities emphasises on the marriage relationship and emotional security the couple provides for each other.

This acts to counteract the stresses of everyday life and keep the personality stable. Parsons claims that the family therefore provides a context in which husband and wife can express their childish feelings, give and receive emotional support, recharge their batteries and so stabilise their personalities. However, Parsons’ views on the family are criticised for being incomplete and idealising the family with his picture of well-adjusted children and sympathetic spouses caring for each other unconditionally.

It is a over-optimistic and modernist and has little relationship to reality, because as mentioned before, not all families function perfectly. Similarly to Murdock, Parsons also fails to examine alternatives to the family which may provide the same functions for the development of society. The overall functionalist theory on the family is criticised by Marxism, feminists and some postmodernists. A Marxist would argue that the function of the family is to serve capitalism. Some feminists would argue that the function of the family is for women to serve men and that families are so diverse it is hard to argue that the family has a purpose.

Some postmodernists suggest that the nuclear family is not as common as it seems and that there are now many diversities of families due to cultural and social changes. These views are clearly in conflict with the views of functionalism; therefore it allows us to question their validity. Functionalism also has its set of views on the education system. Emile Durkheim claimed that the main function of education was to transmit society’s norms and values through generations. Social solidarity is essential for the welding of mass individuals into a united whole.

Functionalists such as Durkheim argue that education builds a sense of commitment and belonging to a society and a belief that the whole of society is more important than a single individual. Durkheim argued, ‘to become attached to society, they will come to see that they are part of something larger themselves; they will develop a sense of commitment to the social group’. Durkheim also claimed that the school serves a function which cannot be provided by the family the peer group. Individuals must learn to cooperate with those who are neither their family nor their friends.

In this way, children learn to respect authority figures, such as teachers, and get along with other members of society they would be forced to interact with in later life such as bosses and colleagues. These social interactions are essential for keeping society harmoniously balanced and functioning. Durkheim claimed that along with teaching us to interact with different social groups, education serves to strictly reinforce school rules and ensure that children realise that these should be followed.

Punishments should reflect the seriousness of the damage done to the social group by the offence and teach individuals that it is wrong to act against the interests of the social group as a whole. In Durkheim’s words: ‘it is by respecting the school rules that the child learns to respect rules in general, that he develops the habit of self-control and restraint simply because he should control and restrain himself. It is the first initiation into the austerity of duty. Serious life has now begun’. Durkheim finally argues that education teaches individuals specific skills necessary for their future occupations.

Schools transmit both general values which provide the necessary skills for social survival. Industrial society is united by value consensus and a specialised division of labour whereby specialists combine to produce goods and services. Education is essential for this because it trains individuals to develop the skills which will be useful for their future occupations. In the current education system children are given the opportunity to learn technical and practical skills as well as academic skills which all come together to help society function.

However, Durkheim is criticised for several reasons. Firstly, he assumes that societies have a shared culture which can be transmitted through the education system. Britain for example is now multi-cultural and it is therefore debatable whether there is a single culture on which schools could base their curriculum. If a school bases their curriculum on a single culture they are often accused of ethnocentrism, which is a difficult issue to overcome when schools bring together children of many different cultural backgrounds and ethnicities.

Secondly, his views on the education system are in conflict with those of Marxism, which argues that education serves to transmit a dominant culture and serve the interests of the ruling class rather than the members of society as a whole. Finally, functionalism has its views on the way crime and deviance applies to society. Functionalism looks at society as a whole and looks for the source of deviance in the nature of society rather than in the individual. Social control mechanisms such as the police and courts are argued to be necessary to keep order in society.

Durkheim argues that crime is inevitable because not every member of society can be equally committed to the collective sentiments of society. Durkheim also claims that crime can be functional because all social change begins with some form of deviance and a certain amount of social change is healthy for society. Merton, 1968, argued that deviance results from the culture and structure of society itself. Since members in society are placed in different positions in the social structure, for example different social classes, they do not all have equal opportunities.

This situation can generate deviance – for example, members of the lower classes, such as the working or under class may resort to crime due to their position in the social structure because they are deprived of things essential for survival. Merton also outlined the five responses to cultural goals: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. The first way in which society can respond to cultural goals is through conformity. Members of society conform both to success goals and to the normative means of reaching them.

They strive for success by accepted means. The second response is innovation in which individuals reject normative means of reaching success and turn to deviant means such as crime. Merton argues that members of the lower social strata are more likely to select this route to success. Merton claims that they have little access to conventional and legitimate means of becoming successful. Low qualifications mean little opportunity for jobs and advancement since their route to success is blocked. Therefore they turn to crime, which promises greater rewards than legitimate means.

Membership of the lower social strata is not alone enough to produce deviance however – pressures from society contribute to an individuals need to deviate. The third response is known as ritualism. Those who select this as an alternative are deviant because they have largely abandoned the commonly held success goals. Members of the lower middle class who have less opportunity than other members of the middle class are likely to take the path of ritualism. However, they have been strongly socialised to conform to social norms so they do not turn to crime.

They scale down or abandon their success goals. Ritualists are deviant because they have rejected the success goals held by most members of society. The fourth and least common response is retreatism which applies to ‘psychotics, chronic alcoholics and drug addicts’. They have strongly internalised both the cultural goals and institutionalised means, however they are unable to achieve success. They resolve their situation by abandoning both the goals and the means of reaching them. They ‘drop out’ of society defeated and resigned by their failure.

They are deviant in two ways: they have rejected both the cultural goals and the institutionalised means. The fifth and final response is rebellion. This involves both rejection of both success goals and institutionalised means and replaces them with their own different goals and means. They wish to create a new society. Merton says ‘it is typically members of a rising class rather than the most depressed strata who organise the resentful and the rebellious into a revolutionary group’. Hannon and Defronzo, 1998, carried out a study which gives empirical support for Merton’s five stages.

In a study of 406 metropolitan counties in the USA, they found that those with higher levels of welfare provision had lower levels of crime. They argued that the welfare provision opened up opportunities for people to achieve the goal of material success. They argued that the welfare provision opened up opportunities for people to achieve the goal of material success through legitimate means and therefore reduced anomie and the crime which could result from it. However, critics have argued that Merton’s five stages neglect the power relationships in society as a whole within which deviance and conformity occur.

Taylor, 1971, criticised Merton for not carrying out his analysis far enough and failing to consider who makes the laws and who benefits from them. The whole game may have been rigged by the powerful with rules that guarantee their success. These rules may be the laws of society. Merton is also criticised for being deterministic because it fails to explain why some people who experience effects of anomie do not become criminals or deviant. It over-exaggerates working-class crime and underestimates middle-class and white collar crime.

Furthermore, Taylor, Walton and Young, 1973, criticise that Merton’s theory cannot account for politically motivated criminals such as freedom fighters who break the law because of commitment to their cause rather than the effects of anomie. In conclusion, functionalism has made great contribution to the study of society as it offers explanations for the functions of the major institutions in society. However, the whole functionalist theory is based around the idea that these institutions serve to keep society functioning and harmonious.

Almost all their ideas are criticised by Marxism, which suggests the complete opposite – that all institutions serve the interests of the ruling class and capitalism rather than serving the needs of the general members of society as a whole. As shown above, we can compare perspectives such as Marxism, feminism and postmodernism with functionalism to assess its advantages and disadvantages. The functionalist theory is an important perspective widely covering most aspects of society, however it falls flat where it is criticised for being too deterministic and failing to consider the chaos and disorganisation in society.


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