The structural functionalist approach in sociology is a framework that sees society as an intricate system whose divisions work together to encourage unity and constancy. According to sociologists such as Parsons and Neil Smelser society is a complex system made up of various parts like a living organism, all the elements of society’s structure work together to keep society alive. (Newman, 2010)
A famous metaphor used to describe this approach is that by Herbert Spencer, he says “the interrelated parts of society are organs, which work towards the proper functioning of the body as a whole.” (Urry, 2000) Structural functionalism means that social organizations, that together form a social structure, function to preserve the harmony of the society (Macionis, 1989).
This approach focuses on the importance of social structure and their social functions.
The approach was based on the work of Émile Durkheim, who concentrated on the role that moral consensus plays in upholding social order and forming equilibrium. He proposed that societies tend to be divided, with the divisions held together by shared values. Durkheim claimed that complex societies are held together by organic solidarity. (McClelland, 2000) These views were supported by Radcliffe-Brown, who was influenced by Auguste Comte. (Edwards, Neutzling, & Murphy, 2001)
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A structural functionalist approach to politics was devised in the 1970s by Powell and Almond. They argued that, in order to understand a political system, it is essential to understand its structures and in addition, their particular functions. This was a new idea, that opposed the approaches normally accepted those of dependency theory and the state-society theory. These theories saw all political systems as the same, and paid no attention to the unique features of each. The various functions of a political system include socialisation, recruitment and communication. (Rice, 1999)
Robert Merton (1957) distinguished between manifest functions, latent functions and dysfunctions of society. He described manifest functions as intended consequences of any social pattern, therefore relating to the function the social structure is meant to produce, such as in education, training school students for employment or in health the manifest function would be helping sick people. Latent functions illustrate the unintended consequences, things that happen as a result of the structure, but not the intended purpose. In the education structure this refers to things such as school trips and meeting new people, while in health this could include any volunteer work. Dysfunctions of society relate to the undesirable consequences such as not graduating, failing to get a good job, or not curing the sick (Merton, 1957).
Structuralism treats culture as the primary source of interaction. It is more concerned with how culture shapes us than in how culture is shaped. Scholars taking this approach have concentrated on how norms, values and language direct our behaviour. (Brinkerhoff, White, & Ortega, 2008) Structural functionalists are generally joint in the view that rules, both norms and laws, are needed to sort out an effective society and, that social institutions form the necessary elements of the social structure.
Some of the research concerns for structural functionalists include the role of the family in society and how it integrates with culture and neighbours and friends, the role of a societal deviate and how that effects how a society runs or the role of religion on a society’s well being and spirituality.
Social institutions play a key role in keeping society stable and able to function by goods and services produced and distributed provide ways of dealing with conflict. (Newman, 2010) Durkheim states that if an aspect of social life does not contribute to society it will eventually disappear. (Swedberg, 2003)
Contrasting the other key theoretical approaches, the structural functional model derives from a range of authors. Typically it is associated with Talcott Parsons, but also includes work from Comte, Merton, Durkheim and Weber. This approach became popular throughout the 1960s when Parsons studied the work of afore mentioned Weber and Durkheim, and translated this into English. He used their concepts and models to create his action theory, which he based on the theory of voluntary action, which opposed the Marxian view. (Gingrich, 2002)
Functionalism shares theoretical similarity with the empirical method. Parsons thought structural functionalism was just a description of a stage in the development of social science rather than a specific school of thought. (Parsons, 1975)
Parsons said that each person has expectations of how other people will act and react to his own behaviour, and that these expectations would come from the accepted norms and values of society. (Parsons, 1961) From this thought he created the idea of roles being collectives, which are bound into social structures. He said that these were functional due to the fact that they assist society in operating to create a smooth running culture. (Gingrich, 2002) He claims that the processes in reaching dynamic equilibrium are social control and socialisation. He believes these are important as they transfer the norms from society into individuals, and so become part of their personality. He described the equilibrium as when there is no conflict in society and where everyone reaches the expectations the culture has created. (Ritzer, 1983)
Structural functionalism was the leading theoretical belief throughout most of the 20th century. It has been criticised however, for accepting existing social arrangements without investigating how they might take advantage of some groups or individuals within society. (Newman, 2010)
A critique of structural functionalism is that it assumes regular interaction between a political system and its environment. This causes the approach to fail to notice the likelihood of change and so ignores the potential for political conflict. The approach supposes that the status quo is in effect. (Kamrava, 1996) Another critique in the area of politics is that of ethnocentrism. Structural functionalism does not account for authoritarian or dictatorial political systems. The system and environment interaction makes it only applicable to western democratic systems. Places where people in society have no input in the world of politics are often left out when describing structural functionalism. (Kamrava, 1996)
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Functionalism has been criticized by scholars for being unable to explain social change. They say that the perspective is static. Parsons contradicts this by reiterating that the theory does account for this in his moving equilibrium idea. (Parsons, Theories of Society: foundations of modern sociological theory, 1961) The theory does stress on equilibrium and quick return to social order, but this is a sign of the time when the theory was developed, just after the 2nd world war. At this time social order was very important and could account for why Parsons concentrated on social order rather than social change. (Encyclopedia, n.d)
Structural functionalism has also been described as not being teleological. This is because they rely too much on the concept that social structures have goals. It tries to justify why structures exist without backing it up empirically. (Ritzer & Goodman, Chapter 7 summary, 2004) It attempts to describe social structures through their effects but doesn’t explain the cause. (Encyclopedia, n.d) However, Durkheim said that “the determination of function is necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena” (Coser, 1977)and “when the explaination of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfils” (Coser, 1977) which means that he explains the cause of effects, and as Parsons was influenced by his ideas its likely he used this notion when creating his theory. Merton disregards this as he says that functional analysis doesn’t try to explain cause of effects so is not teleological. (Encyclopedia, n.d)
A further criticism is that society cannot have needs the same way a human does, and the ones it does have do not necessarily have to be met. Gidden’s thinks that functionalist explanations could be rewritten as historical accounts and not as a theory. Giddens perspective of structuration, aims to explain society by saying that although all human action is performed in and influenced by a pre existing social structure, and is slightly determined by the rules of that structure; the rules are not permanent but can change according to human action. (Giddens, 1986)
A further criticism is that it doesn’t explain why people choose to go with the norms or to go against them.
Theorists believing in other perspectives such as conflict theorists, Marxists and feminists, critique the functionalistic approach when arguing for their idea. Feminists argue that functionalism fails to address the suppression of women. (Hunter, n.d) Parsons realised that he had oversimplified in this respect, and instead focused on positive functions of the family for society as a whole and not the dysfunctions of women.
Conflict theorists thought the approach relied too much on integration and harmony within society and so forgot about conflict and peoples independence. (Holmwood, 2005) Lockwood thought that Parson’s didn’t account for organisations that didn’t work together. He said that this is what causes conflict. Parsons counteracted this issue by stating that issues of conflict and cooperation were accounted for in his model. (Holmwood, 2005) Parson’s created an ideal for society and by doing this he restricted his analysis. Merton corrected and aided the growth of this approach by introducing the idea of tension and conflict into structural functionalism. (Merton, 1957)
Overall the main assumptions of structuralist theory are that exterior social powers create boundaries in individual behaviour and that social order is based on shared values. The system of social structure and social order has needs that have to be met to survive and remain stable. This theory allows for social change but declares that it is slow and evolutionary, and so social structures do adapt to fit the needs of system. Parsons says that inequality is seen as functional for society. This approach is associated with the positivist thesis and quantitative methods. It explains predictable patterns of behaviour within social groups, and the influence of culture and society on individuals but cannot explain the cause of the effects. Conflict theorists disagree on the consensual view and feminists believe there isn’t enough emphasis on the dysfunctions in family of women.
Functionalism can be applied to nearly all the key topics in sociology, for example Durkheim used functionalism to explain suicide rates in particular groups and societies. (Gingrich, Social facts and suicide, 1999). Other themes include family, education, religion and deviance and are still used today to explain the way we live.
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