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Introduction to Functionalism Functionalism: Durkheim, Structure, Discipline & Belonging This week we start to take a look at one of the main and earliest theoretical frameworks within sociology – that of Functionalism.

Introduction to Functionalism.

An introduction to the main sociological theories There are many different varieties and strands of sociological theories, but in this module we are going to take an introductory look at five of the main theories:

• • • • •

Functionalism Marxism Symbolic Interactionism (Social Action Theory) Feminism(s) Postmodernism

The theories that we are going to learn about all view society in very different ways – they act almost like ‘filters’; enabling us to look at society in very different ways. The first theory that we will study is functionalism. This theory derives from the writings of the early French sociologist Emile Durkheim (18581917). According to functionalism all people/institutions work towards the effective ‘functioning’ of society. Functionalism is a macro theoretical perspective (what do you think this means?) •

and attempts to analyse and explain all institutions – and the function(s) they perform - within society.

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Introduction to Functionalism.

Try to think of as many social groups and institutions as you can that exist within society – and, think of the functions that they perform.

This theory is also sometimes termed a structural consensus approach: Structural in that it is a macro approach which attempts to understand how things work in society on a wide scale. And: ‘consensus’ – which means that [according to functionalism] everybody in society agrees to the way it is organised, structured and operated. We all consent to the way society is. If we didn’t consent to it [if we didn’t like it or agree to it] we would do something about it. This doesn’t mean that individuals can or should attempt to change society – but large groups of people can – if they all consent to this change.

The main ‘concepts’ of functionalism:

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Introduction to Functionalism.

Main concepts of

Functionalist theory:

‘Selfish’ view of human nature

Organic Analogy

Egoism (and the Homo Duplex)


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Introduction to Functionalism.

To what extent do you agree with the Functionalist approach to understanding society?

Acronym for the main functionalist ‘concepts’


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Introduction to Functionalism.

‘Moral Education’ by Emile Durkheim (1960) Free Press Discuss what you think the following quotes taken from the above book mean: “Contrary to the all too popular notion that moral education falls chiefly within the jurisdiction of the family, I judge that the task of the school in the moral development of the child can and should be of the greatest importance.” • •

What do you think is meant by ‘moral education’? How do you think Durkheim envisages the school ‘teaching’ this type of discipline?

“Since morality is a discipline, since it commands us, it is evident that the behaviour required of us is not according to the bent of our individual natures … It has been said that the function of morality is to prevent the individual from encroaching on forbidden territory; in a sense, nothing is more accurate, Morality is a comprehensive system of prohibitions. That is to say, its objective is to limit the range within which individual behaviour should and must normally occur.” •

What do you think is meant here by ‘forbidden territory’?

“Discipline is in itself a factor of education … moral character can be attributed only to discipline. Through it and by means of it alone are we able to teach the child to rein his desires, to set limits to his appetites of all kinds, to limit and, through limitation, define the goals of his activity.” •

Why do you think Durkheim sees discipline and morality as essential for controlling desires; what do you think he is concerned about?

“The characteristics of society in general impose discipline and morality upon children who enter into education. This is the best proof that society is something other than a number of individuals.” •

Do you agree with this statement that ‘we’ as society dictate the kind of discipline expected & taught in school? Is ‘your’ preferred type of discipline instilled in schools now?

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Introduction to Functionalism.

Other Influential functionalist theorists: The Functionalist theory of

Robert Merton [Strain Theory] Merton adapted Durkheim’s concept of ‘anomie’ and argued that ANOMIE is created through an increase in materialistic culture: A materialist consumer culture places a strain on the majority of society. The ‘mass’ of society cannot accumulate considerable wealth. As a result of this they cannot achieve the material goals set within society. This model stresses that crime/deviance is the outcome of strain between what people want to achieve and what is actually possible. How do you think these ‘material goals’ are set? Who sets them; do we ‘abide’ by them? When people cannot achieve these goals – depression, frustration, anger, inadequacy etc. result and affect their lives.

Merton presents five modes of adapting to strain caused by the restricted access to socially approved goals and means. Conformity is the most common, where Individuals accept both the goals as well as the prescribed means for achieving those goals. Conformists will accept, though not always achieve, the goals of society and the means approved for achieving them. Individuals who adapt through innovation accept societal goals but have few legitimate means to achieve those goals, thus they innovate (design) their own means to get ahead. The means to get ahead may be through robbery, embezzlement or other such criminal acts.

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Introduction to Functionalism.

In ritualism, the third adaptation, individuals abandon the goals they once believed to be within their reach and dedicate themselves to their current lifestyle. They play by the rules and have a daily safe routine. Retreatism is the adaptation of those who give up not only the goals but also the means. They often retreat into the world of alcoholism and drug addiction. They escape into a non-productive, non-striving lifestyle. The final adaptation, rebellion, occurs when the cultural goals and the legitimate means are rejected. Individuals create their own goals and their own means, by protest or revolutionary activity.

Travis Hirschi (1960’s)

‘Control Theory’

[or social control theory]

This slightly different functionalist theory, advocated by Hirschi, attempts to explain why people ‘do not’ commit crime. Hirschi argues that criminal activity occurs when an individuals attachment to society is weakened; therefore we should concentrate on understanding the people who do not turn to crime – and nurture these qualities. According to Hirschi people who do not turn to crime illustrate qualities of at least one or all of the following categories. Obviously the more a person appreciates the following categories, the less likely they are to commit crime. • • • •

Attachment – caring and involved relationships with other people. Commitment – to the general roles & values required by society: behaviour, career etc. Involvement – people should have plenty to do – become too preoccupied to get involved in crime. Belief – in the morals/rules of society e.g. marriage, religion, education etc.

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Introduction to Functionalism.

The functionalist view summarised

• This approach views people as being born into a ‘selfish’ state of human nature. Wanting own needs, desires, impulses etc. fulfilled at the expense of everyone else. [e.g. new-born child] • Human nature also desires co-operation, order, stability, routine and familiarity. (Durkheim terms this ‘split’ in the human psyche as Homo Duplex.) • As a result of these two needs [selfishness & cooperation] – society has developed a complex interlinked network of institutions that act to ‘check’ the selfishness in humans [family, education, law & order]; and promote discipline, order & stability. • Shared values, discipline, rules of behaviour etc. are dictated by important institutions in society. [The Mass Media] • Functionalists argue that if discipline, order, routine etc. [boundaries] are not maintained and stringently enforced – Egoism & Anomie will develop which renders society in directionless chaos. • In order for society to remain stable & intact – we should maintain traditions [such as marriage], and promote discipline and self-restraint

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Week 5: Introduction to Functionalist theory reading  

This week we start to take a look at one of the main and earliest theoretical frameworks within sociology – that of Functionalism.