Evaluation of Functionalism

Functionalism is one of sociology's core foundational theories. It was pioneered by scholars like Durkheim and Parsons, who are widely regarded as some of the most influential sociologists of all time. 

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Table of contents

    However, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be critical when approaching these theories, not only because society has drastically changed since they were established, but also because we now have a large and extensive body of sociological research. This makes us more informed and enlightened about the world than we once were.

    • We will be evaluating the functionalist perspective.
    • We'll start with a quick refresher on the main idea of functionalism as a structural-consensus theory.
    • This will be followed by a critical evaluation of functionalism. We will examine its strengths and limitations in illustrating the what's, how's, and why's of society.

    What are the main ideas of functionalism in sociology?

    The main ideas of functionalism can be summarised in its double-worded descriptor: structural-consensus.

    A structural-consensus theory

    Evaluation of Functionalism, books in black wooden shelf, StudySmarterFunctionalism is one of sociology's core foundational theories.

    According to the Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology (2006, p. 218), “functionalists argue that society should be understood as a system of interdependent parts. The different parts of social life depend on each other and fulfil functions contributing to social order and its reproduction”.

    The three main assumptions of functionalism are as follows:

    • Institutions and structures work independently and interdependently to produce and reproduce social order in society.

    • Individuals' norms, values, and behaviours are highly influenced by society's structures and institutions.

    • Social order and stability exist because society is based on a value consensus, which means that everybody agrees on what society should look like, how we should behave, and how to achieve that standard.

    You can find an in-depth introduction to the functionalist perspective, its main ideas and key theorists in a dedicated explanation on the StudySmarter web app here.

    The importance of functionalism

    As mentioned, functionalism is one of sociology's core foundational theories. The movement which brought functionalist theory to popularity was spearheaded by some of the most influential scholars of the social sciences.

    The key functionalist theorists

    Let's look at the theories of Durkheim, Spencer, Parsons, and Merton.

    Émile Durkheim

    Durkheim suggested that each of society's structures and institutions serves a valuable function that contributes to the existing social order. Examples of structures which serve such functions are education, religion, and crime.

    Durkheim argued that crime serves the function of social integration, social regulation and social change in society.

    Herbert Spencer

    Spencer proposed the organic analogy as a way to understand the interdependence of systems in society. In a nutshell, the organic analogy compares society and its institutions to a human body and its organs (which all need to function together so that the body can function as a whole). Examples of society's institutions include healthcare, education, religion, the family and many more.

    Talcott Parsons

    Parsons identified the four sub-systems (economic, political, family, and cultural) which make up the overall structure of society. He argued that these sub-systems depend on one another to fulfil their functions so that each sub-system can also fulfil its own.

    The economic sub-system depends on the family sub-system to produce individuals who are socialised and incentivised to join the workforce. Similarly, the family sub-system depends on the economic sub-system to provide work and financial stability that will afford individuals the chance to form families and have children.

    Robert Merton

    Merton provided an internal critique of functionalism by highlighting that not all functions of society's institutions are expected or even desired. He identified two types of functions – manifest functions (expected/anticipated consequences) and latent functions (unsought consequences of social processes).

    What are the critical evaluations of functionalism?

    Evaluation of Functionalism, old books on shelf, StudySmarterSociological theories should be critically evaluated to make sure they are updated and suitable to explain the workings of contemporary society.

    As mentioned, it's important to evaluate even sociology's oldest theories because our ways of life, thinking, and knowledge have changed. This means the lenses through which we see society should also be updated. Additionally, we need to be aware of the relative strengths and limitations of these theories so that we can effectively apply them to other social phenomena. Let's dive in!

    Strengths of the functionalist perspective

    • Functionalism recognises that people's norms, values, and behaviours are influenced by broad social structures.

    • Moreover, the functionalist perspective also provides a sound explanation as to why most people conform to the laws and norms of society.

    • Functionalism helps explain the two levels of institutional functioning – social institutions both serve the needs of society as a whole, but also those of the individual.

    Limitations of the functionalist perspective

    Despite its influence, functionalism has been widely critiqued by sociologists from different theoretical perspectives.

    The conflict approach's critique of functionalism

    Unlike the consensus approach (which functionalism takes), the conflict approach sees society as being based on the conflict between two or more social groups. A major critique raised by conflict perspectives, such as Marxism and feminism, is that functionalism is too optimistic.

    For instance, functionalists suggest that social stratification is beneficial because it allocates individuals to roles based on their talent and functional importance. However, Marxists argue that social stratification is based on a system of inequality, which is harmful to the working class due to economic exploitation and the class conflict between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

    Similarly, feminists might offer a critique of the functionalist perspective of the family. Talcott Parsons is known for many of his contributions to functionalism, including the warm bath theory. Here, he proposed that the family acts as a metaphorical 'warm bath' that helps the male breadwinner relax after a long, stressful day at work. Feminists argue that this theory dismisses the prevalence of domestic violence perpetrated by men in the family, and fails to consider the unequal power dynamics in many nuclear families – particularly the relationship between a husband and wife.

    The interactionist critique of functionalism

    Interactionism is a sociological microtheory that takes a bottom-up approach to understanding society. Rather than believing that society shapes the individual, interactionists hold that social interactions, interpretations, and the meanings which people attach to them are what constitutes 'society'.

    However, functionalists suggest that people's norms, values, and behaviours are all shaped by broad social systems which we are neither aware of, nor can we change. As such, the major critique of functionalism put forward by interactionist theorists is that it is far too deterministic.

    A theory or concept is described as deterministic when it suggests that human beings don't have free will when it comes to their thoughts and behaviours.

    Postmodernist critique of functionalism

    Postmodernism is a relatively new branch of thinking in the social sciences. The main premise of postmodernism is that society is now much more individualised and less predictable than it once was.

    As such, postmodernists critique functionalism (as well as other structural theories like Marxism and feminism) by arguing that they can no longer explain human behaviour. What does explain human behaviour are the modern patterns of globalisation and consumerism, which make society fragmented and identities particularly unique. Socialisation and broad structural influences no longer matter when it comes to shaping our norms, values, and behaviour. In sum, the functionalist theory, according to postmodernist theorists, is largely outdated.

    Evaluation of functionalism: summary

    Let's now summarise the evaluation of functionalism that we have conducted throughout this explanation. This will give us a better understanding of the various perspectives that approach the functionalist theory in different, critical ways.

    An overview of the evaluation of functionalism

    PERSPECTIVEEVALUATION

    General evaluation

    Recognises the influence of broad social structures on people's norms, values, and behaviours. Explains the general trend of conformity, as well as the societal and individual functions of institutions.

    Conflict approach

    Functionalism is too optimistic in its assumption that all institutional functions are beneficial:

    • Marxists argue that social stratification is harmful and exploitative of lower social classes.
    • Feminists argue that the family can be dysfunctional and exploitative of women.

    Interactionism

    Functionalism is too deterministic in its approach to understanding how people's identities and behaviours are shaped. Rather than society shaping the individual, it is the individual's interactions (and our interpretations of them) that shape society.

    Postmodernism

    Functionalism, like other structural theories, are outdated because postmodern society is characterised by a sense of individualism and unpredictability that cannot be explained by a singular theory.

    Evaluation of Functionalism - Key takeaways

    • The main ideas of functionalism are that:
      • Institutions and structures work independently and interdependently to produce and reproduce social order in society.

      • Individuals' norms, values, and behaviours are highly influenced by society's structures and institutions.

      • Social order and stability exist because society is based on a value consensus.

    • Durkheim, Spencer, Merton, and Parsons are key functionalist sociologists.
    • Functionalism recognises the influence of broad social structures on people's behaviours and explains the general trend of conformity/social order.
    • The conflict approach criticises functionalism for overestimating the benefits of all institutional functions. Interactionist theorists argue that individuals shape the society, rather than the other way around.
    • Postmodernists suggest that functionalism is no longer useful for understanding a widely fragmented and individualised society.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Evaluation of Functionalism

    What is the functionalism perspective in sociology?

    Functionalism (or the functionalist perspective) is a core sociological theory. It states that society is a system of interdependent institutions which all work together to produce social order. 

    What is an example of functionalism in sociology?

    Functionalism is applied to various social phenomena in sociology. A key example is Émile Durkheim's explanation of crime, where he argues that crime is inevitable and beneficial for social integration, social regulation and social change to take place in society. 

    Who is the father of functionalism in sociology?

    Functionalism is a theory which dates back to many centuries ago, and thus different sources will offer different interpretations of who can be named the 'father' of functionalism. Some state that sociologists such as Herbert Spencer and Émile Durkheim invented functionalism, while others trace its origins back to Aristotle and other Greek philosophers. 

    What are the critics of functionalism?

    Examples of the critics of functionalism include conflict theorists, postmodernists and interactionists. Functionalism has been critiqued for over-estimating the benefits of all societal functions, for being overly deterministic, and also for being somewhat outdated. 

    How does functionalism explain social change?

    Functionalism explains social change as an adjustment to changes or tensions in the existing social order. For instance, Durkheim suggests that high crime rates can lead to social change because it enables legislators and other forms of authority to see that society's general norms and values and not aligned with those of its members. 

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