The functionalist theory is one that views the society as one that is social system made up of interrelated components. Each of these components is important and works together towards the achievement of a whole complete society. A common analogy supporting the functionalist theory is the human body which has several body organs which usually work together with problems in one organ affecting the rest of the body. The major components within a society are customs, traditions, norms and institutions such as families.
It is agreed among major functionalists that social institutions make the essential components of society with rules and regulations being needed so as to organize the society in an effective manner. Functionalism within the discipline of anthropology developed in the early 20th century as a reaction to the extremes of the diffusionist and evolutionary theories developed within the 19th century (Goldschmidt 1996).
The change was as a result of a change in focus from the more speculative diachronic examination of cultural traits and social customs as survivals to a more synchronic examination of the various social institutions existing within functioning societies. Functionalists were attempting to increase socio-cultural examination beyond the limits of the evolutionary notion of social history which viewed cultural traits and social customs as the residual pieces of cultural history.
The theory has anthropological roots based on the thoughts and works of Bronislaw Malinowski, who argued that social institutions existed so as to meet the physiological needs of individuals within a society. As such, social stability was achieved by ensuring the needs of the individuals comprising the society were met with adequate knowledge of the feelings and motives of these individuals forming a basis for understanding how the society functioned. He viewed culture as the main element that ensured the needs of the members of a society were met.
It is also based on the works of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown who argued that the basic divisions of anthropology were the various processes of human life within a social structure interlinked through interactions. Stability within society was therefore achieved through social practices that would repeat themselves and develop overtime supporting each other. As such, he theorized functional analysis as the attempt to understand social stability by observing how these social practices would fit together.
The functionalist theory is also based on the thoughts and works of major social positivists and was first theorized by Auguste Comte following the French revolution which resulted in social malaise. This led him to see the need for social cohesion within society. This was followed by the works of Emile Durkheim that advanced the theory of organic solidarity, whose major emphasis was on the fundamental function that ethical consensus played in ensuring social order as well as building an equilibrium within society.
His main concern was how certain societies were able to maintain stability and be able to survive hence proposed that such societies are usually have subdivisions with the separate divisions being held mutually by common values and symbols. In addition, Talcott Parsons argued that a social system is usually one that is comprised of the actions of individuals who are faced with a variety of choices which in turn are influenced by several social and physical factors.
He posited a social system that had four types of action systems which included culture, personality, organismic, and society, with each these four systems having to satisfy four functional needs which were latency, adaptation, integration, and goal attainment. His analysis involved studying the processes and trade offs of social structures within and between the four system levels (Turner and Maryanski 1991). Central principles in the functionalist theory Functionalist analysis studies the social importance of phenomena.
It seeks to examine the various functions that these phenomena serve within a society in order to preserve the whole (Jarvie, 1973). According to Malinowski, the major concepts included: • Understanding behavior based on an individual’s motivation in addition to both rational and irrational behavior; • Recognizing the interrelationship of the various items which comprised a culture forming a system; and • Recognizing a particular item and identifying its function within the contemporary operation of a culture.
Radcliffe-Brown based his works on those of Emile Durkheim who had posited that social phenomena comprised a domain of reality that was independent of any biological or psychological facts. As such, social phenomena have to be explained in terms of the other social phenomena occurring within the domain (Broce, 1973). Radcliffe-Brown therefore studied the circumstances under which the various social structures are upheld within society.
He developed an analogy between organic life and social life in order to be able to explain the idea of function hence placing emphasis on the contribution of phenomena to preserving social order. Functional analysis has given value to social institutions. This is because it considers them as integrated and active components of a social system and not as simple customs (Langness, 1987). Functionalism has also contributed to the current idea that traditional usages have been formed by the necessity that human beings have to live collectively in harmony.
Its emphasis on exhaustive fieldwork has offered an in-depth study of human societies. In addition, the study of functional interrelationship between institutions and customs has provided a framework for collecting information on how societies function. Major criticisms There have been several criticisms raised against the functionalist theory leading to its decline. The functionalist theory has been criticized for its major ignorance towards historical process in addition to its presumption that societies exists in an equilibrium state (Goldschmidt, 1996).
Interactionist theorists have criticized this theory due to its failure to conceptualize sufficiently the multifaceted nature of individual actors and the methods of interaction within societies. Marxist theorists have criticized functionalism due to its conservativism and the fixed nature of examination used that underlined the role of social phenomena in the preservation of the status-quo within society (Holmwood, 2005). Constructionist theorists have criticized functionalism due to the use of classificatory theories that characterized phenomena based on their functions (Turner and Maryanski, 1991). Responses to Critiques
Comparative functionalism, developed by Walter Goldschmidt, attempts to respond to the difficulties that have developed as a result of Malinowski’s argument that a culture can be comprehended on its own with institutions been seen as products of the various cultures within which they were created. Comparative functionalism seeks to understand institutional differences between cultures by examining phenomena within the different cultures and the problems experienced in these societies. This approach is worthwhile since it is aware of the universality of the functions to which social institutions are a response to.
Problems are usually consistent from one culture to another culture, but the institutional solutions that will be needed will vary from one culture to another (Holmwood, 2005). As such, one begins with analyzing the problem so as to find out how institutional procedures provide solutions. Neo-functionalism is an attempt to revise British structural-functionalism. Some neo-functionalists seek to analyze phenomena based on particular functional requisites. Other neo-functionalists focus on matters of social integration, social evolution, and social differentiation.
Others examine how the various cultural processes such as rituals, values, and ideologies integrate with social structures. However, neo-functionalism places little emphasis on how phenomena are able to meet system needs (Turner and Maryanski, 1991). This approach is worthwhile since it provides a bridge between human behavior, which frequently involves cooperation, and natural selection, where individual interaction involves competition more than cooperation. References Broce, G. (1973). History of Anthropology. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company. Goldschmidt, W. (1996). Functionalism. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol 2.
David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: Henry Holt and Company. Holmwood, J. (2005). Functionalism and its Critics, in Harrington, A. Modern Social Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Jarvie, I. C. (1973). Functionalism. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company. Kuper, A. (1996). Anthropology and Anthropologists. London: Routledge. Langness, L. (1987). The Study of Culture. Novato, California: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, Inc. Turner, J. H. & Maryanski, A. (1991). Functionalism. In Borgatta, E. F, Encyclopedia of Sociology, Vol 2. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
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