Functionalism goes back a long way in history with its views and theories on society, with the work of Spencer and Comte. Its theories were then taken on within the work of Emile Durkheim and a lot more recently by Talcot Parsons in America 1940-50’s. Functionalism was the most dominant sociology within America but has declined more recently due criticisms from other perspectives and the answers they provide society with.


From as far as functionalism has gone back, from about the 1830’s onwards, it has been largely based on society being a system like the human body requiring a combination of social institutions in order to function. Its theorists seek to explain the existence of social institutions in accordance to the role they perform for society. It focuses on society rather than the individual in it and hence is a structural theory. It uses positivist methodology that is in decline as a modern research technique as there is more call for an empathetic understanding to society and a focus on the individual.


Within society the functionalists outline what they call functional prerequisites, these are what society requires in order to exist. Some functionalists believe that these prerequisites are institutions such as family or social stratification. They are easily identified in every type of society even though they can vary, like the caste system in India varies a great deal from our own stratification system but affects the whole society and makes it functional which fits their definition of a prerequisite. This view is held by sociologists such as Davies and Moore (1967) and Murdock (1949). However this does not show how much these prerequisites can differ between societies and satisfy a different need. Opposing this is the functionalist Marion Levy (1952) she offers a different definition of a social prerequisite. She believes that they are the factors that keep society in existence and without them society will no longer exist due to something like a world war where society is destroyed. In this definition the prerequisites are essential parts for society like reproduction, also that every essential job in society is carried out contributing to the whole. The functionalist view on the prerequisites I believe are still valid when assessing today’s society as the institutions do help to stabilise and help societies. With more modern sociology I don’t think they are essential to the survival of society and cant change but they do play a very big part in the functioning of society. The problem with this view is that society will not end when the prerequisites are not in place but change to a new society with slightly different needs from its institutions.


Next I will look at the concept of function. This is what the functionalists use to describe the relationship between the individual aspects of society in relation to the whole. They outline all institutions as beneficial but three as indispensable as well, which in modern sociology it is still the case. The functionalists do not talk about many dysfunctional institutions but do say they exist, in line with current views about society. The three indispensable institutions are religion, social stratification and the family. All three are present in all societies and under a conservative view they are all considered important and functional. Inline with this way of thinking they are not changed because of what they offer is essential whether or not an alternative can be provided. These right wing views are also still present within modern day society.


The functionalist Durkheim introduced the idea of social facts; these are external to individuals but act on them in a constraining way. These can be like laws that don’t affect the person in society apart from stopping a certain aspect of their behaviour from occurring. Durkheim suggests two ways in which these can occur firstly by determining the cause of it from previous facts, the other that it is needed to help one of the functions of society. Both are present in society as a whole, these according to functionalists control and maintain the functions of society that is mainly true in today’s society with law and order as a form of social control. Durkheim pointed out that in society a combination of social facts like morals and values, which restrict and keep some control over society, and needs like food and reproduction, which are essential. In present society this is also clearly present with values and norms taught throughout the socialization process and societies control that is mostly accepted and holds functions of society together and keep them functional. The functionalists are aware that these functions may not always run smoothly but believe there will always be enough compliance from all other ‘organs’ of society to keep it functioning.


Parsons shares one of Durkheim’s view that was social control in society is more than just fear, that individuals have moral constraint and compared it to a business deal. Whereby a certain amount of agreement is made on what is wanted from society and then rules are based around this. All societies have this morality in order to stay functional and realise it is constructive. With these same values amongst most members of society a common identity is formed and common goals can be achieved, modern society in a lot of ways conforms to this in that we have divisions which are accepted and rules that are accepted, a society which we are meant to perceive as fair. Functionalists’ views put forward an existing social equilibrium where by a combination of social control and socialization run society and its institutions. I don’t think that this equilibrium fully exists in society. Parsons also uses the functionalists’ term of a prerequisite only he has four parts to it adaptation, goal attainment, integration and pattern maintenance. All of these need to be in place for society to function. In any society the basic functions will emerge, food shelter etc, but then these need to be maintained. After this new members to the society are taught to behave to conform to this by laws and values, the institutions acceptable to most of society causing its existence. Parsons believes that religion is at the root of all societies and justify norms and values to individuals. At present religion has much less control over individuals and all control is of less relevance today with strikes crime and contempt for the way society’s institutions operate. Although this is not enough to stop or change these institutions as they are still helpful within society.


Social differentiation is the only way functionalism provides reasoning for change. As society develops institutions become more specialised and precise in their values and carry out fewer functions, this leads to a lapse in overall society values which changes society and re-integrates institutions with new prerequisites. I think this differentiation of society has happened but that the re-formation of the overall society as one system has not entirely happened like that functionalists describe society as.


Critics of functionalism throw up arguments which suggest that it has never been properly relevant therefore suggesting it isn’t contributing reasonable arguments for a modern society. Functionalism points out the reasons for functions within society but the effect of these can only be seen once they have developed and that the cause behind them is that they are essential to society in order for survival. There is no evidence that individuals create institutions to keep society working only that they develop because they are essential. It is difficult to determine whether the effects of institutions are good for society or not and whether it is purely down to them. These are constantly changing so the effects can not always be tied to one institution so elimination of these may or may not prove dysfunctional, functionalism would disagree that every institution is there and has developed and should stay shared by conservatives, saying it is there and must be for a reason so changing it would be too bigger risk.


Parsons says control is through consensus but there is no evidence to show this and I think in today’s society this may be true as a majority but not the whole system of society. The main problem with all functionalist perspectives is that they share the view that society dictates how every individual acts and will act throughout their life and everything is predetermined for them, this is very much disagreed with by anti-positivists theories of research which looks into the individuals rather than the society and tries to reason that they have control over what institutions society creates and how they control them.


I would like to conclude that functionalism has lost some of its relevance in relation to modern day society; it still holds the base ideas about institutions and functions which other theories have been based and created from. No theory can provide all the answers at the time it was created so it is not expected that it is entirely relevant more than 150 years later. Also I think for a comprehensive understanding in sociology of society both society as the key and the individual as the key need to be assessed. Different aspects of society may be explained by these very different views but overall functionalism is able to give us an understanding of society and is still relevant in some aspects to explaining modern day societies.


Just my evauluation and views upon the topic of functionalism and its current relevance in society

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