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Social Theory of Functionalism

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 1082 words Published: 16th Aug 2021

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Functionalism is a social theory, it was introduced by a social theorist called Emilie Durkheim in the early 19th centuries. Emilie Durkheim was born in April 1858 in France, he studied philosophy where he discovered the functionalist theory. Emilie Durkheim was mostly well known as the author of the division of Social Labor, also The Rules of Sociological Method, Suicide, and The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011) For example, Functionalism is society consisting of different parts that need to work together to maintain society. Although, Emelie Durkheim was one of the first biggest sociological theorist to use functionalist ideas, which he developed under the influence of the work of Auguste Comte (1798-1857).  Durkheim was famous for believing and having opinions on the structure of society. Although, also Emilie Durkheim’s theories were found on the concept of social facts made as norms and values and also the structure of society. However, Comte disagreed with Durkheim that we could best understand the existence and character of social structures by comparing them both to origins and workings of the biological organisms. For example, just as natural bodies rely on the functioning of their individual organs to survival the harmonious integration of the individual and institutions that are their constituent parts. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011).

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Meanwhile, Durkheim explored the most vital feature of the social structure is that they are made up of norms and many values – cultural definitions of behaviour considered appropriate and much worthy in different settings. Since it is through socialization that we learn these normative definitions, it is only this process which structures people into members of society and therefore also, makes social life much more possible. For Durkheim, the achievement of social life among humans, and the existence of social order in society, which he calls ‘social solidarity’ is ensured by socialization – the process whereby different individuals learn that held standards or rules of behaviour. Durkheim’s phrase of these rules was ‘social facts’. Although these are only visible through the conformity of individuals to them, they are, nevertheless, in Durkheim’s words, ‘external to, and constraining upon’ these individuals. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011).

However, like Marx, Durkheim believes that social progress usually depends on finding other ways to develop the potential for the persons fulfilment and freedom contained within the structural features specific to modern societies. However also, even though Emilie Durkheim and Marx also share the same belief and opinion that the division of labour, and also the social relationships, within which we coordinate how we produce what we need to survive, from part of the shared moral and political environment of society and should be treated as such, rather than being seen only as an issue of commercial profitability. However, according to Marx, the opportunity to the benefits of modernization in terms of harnessing the power of capitalist processes will only be possible when the class- based productive system characteristic of capitalism is put to an end. In contrast rather than economics. He argues that ‘a state of order of peace among men cannot follow of itself from any entirely material cause, from any blind mechanism however scientific it may be. It is a moral task’ (Durkheim 1957: 12). (Jones and Bradbury, 2011).

However, Durkheim was convinced that sociology could fulfil this need for an objective, verifiable and empirically grounded science of moral beliefs. More specifically, Durkheim argued that such a sociology of moral and beliefs, would enable the discovery of the most appropriate moral framework for the complex, socially differentiated and primarily secular societies of Europe, and specifically of France. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011). 

Meanwhile, a simple example of the application of functionalist theory taken from one of Durkheim’s own works, called The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim 1976 [1912]). In this work he drew on the first major field studies collected by anthropologists Spencer and Gillen (1899), who studied the Australian Arunta. The Arunta also belong to much larger groups, called clans. Each Arunta clan consists of people who believe themselves to be a distant common ancestor – that is, they consider themselves to be related. On rare but important occasions, the whole of the clan (including members of many different bands) gathers to worship the totem. In addition, during their day-to-day life as band members, whenever they come across their particular totem they treat with reverence – as kind of sacred objects. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011).

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Talcott Parsons was a functionalist sociologist who believed in the sick role and had also found it very important. Parsons believed the Sick role theory is a way of explaining the particular rights and responsibilities of those who are ill. Since those who are diagnosed with a medical condition cannot always continue with their same duties, i.e. work, school etc. society adapts and allows a reasonable amount of deviation from the typical behavior of a well person.Talcott Parsons believed that there were four aspects of the sick role. Although Parsons had strong beliefs and had saw the sick role as a form of deviance as people are expected to be productive members of society.  Talcott Parsons also said if an ill person is not able to carry out their usual duties the deviant behavior needs to be sanctioned by a medical expert to certify that a person is actually ill, therefore legitimatizing their illness.The four aspects according to Parsons the sick person has rights and obligations to fulfil are firstly the sick person is not at fault for being sick, secondly, the sick person is excused from usual (everyday) responsibilities. Thirdly, the sick person must get well as soon as possible and lastly, the sick person needs to seek and submit to appropriate medical care. (Jones and Bradbury, 2011)


  • Jones, P. Bradbury, L. (2018) ‘Introducing social theory third edition’. (pp.80,82,83,85,89 and 91)


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