function, functionalism
Although the use of the concepts of function and functionalism is usually associated with the work of Talcott Parsons in modern sociology, there is a long tradition of functional explanation in studying societies, and a form of modified functionalism is now undergoing a revival. Among the founders of sociology, Émile Durkheim is most closely associated with functionalism, since he often employs analogies with biology. The most prominent of these is an organic analogy , in which society is seen as an organic whole, each of its constituent parts working to maintain the others, just as the parts of the body also work to maintain each other and the body as a whole. This idea is basic to his conception of organic solidarity. Durkheim did distinguish between functional and historical explanations and recognized the need for both. A functional explanation accounts for the existence of a phenomenon or the carrying out of an action in terms of its consequences-its contribution to maintaining a stable social whole. For example, a functional explanation of the existence of crime is that it serves to mark out and reinforce (through punishment) the boundaries of socially acceptable behaviour, so that crime is therefore a normal feature of social life. Similarly, religious institutions serve to generate and maintain social solidarity. Historical explanations are an account of the chronological development of the same phenomena or actions. Modern functionalism, through the work of Robert Merton, distinguishes between manifest functions (intended consequences or consequences of which the participants are aware) and latent functions (unintended consequences of which the participants are unaware). The latter may or may not be generally beneficial.
There has been a strong and often explicit functionalism present in sociology and social anthropology throughout most of this century. There has also been an implicit functionalism in the more determinist forms of Marxist theory, where so-called surface features of the social formation (such as political systems, ideologies, and trade unions), are seen as produced by, in order to maintain, the underlying relations of production. However, probably the most famous functionalist analysis in sociology is the so-called functional theory of social stratification offered by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore, although Davis also wrote a functionalist textbook, Human Society (1949), and made a spirited defence of functionalism in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association in 1959 (see’The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology’, American Sociological Review, 1959).’s celebrated essay on ‘The Positive Functions of Poverty’ (American Journal of Sociology, 1972), said by some to have been written as a parody of structural-functionalism, is actually a superb example of ideologically neutral functional analysis.
In the late 1960s functionalism came under sustained attack from various sources. It was argued that this approach could not account for social change , or for structural contradictions and conflict in societies, and that its reliance on stability and on the organic analogy rendered it ideologically conservative: it became fashionable to refer to functionalism as consensus theory . This particular group of criticisms is not entirely accurate. Parsons's evolutionary theory, seeing historical development in terms of the differentiation and reintegration of systems and subsystems, can account for change and at least for temporary conflict until the reintegration takes place. The existence of functional explanations in Marxism indicates that they can exist alongside a recognition of contradictions in social systems . Durkheim himself was able to combine functionalist explanations with a sometimes radical form of guild socialism.
The telling criticisms of functionalism have been epistemological and ontological . The epistemological argument is that a functionalist explanation is not an explanation at all in that it does not identify causal mechanisms and processes; it is, instead, assumed that social institutions are adequately explained in terms of their putative effects. The ontological arguments have to do with what we think is the nature of society itself. Some theorists, who are happy to accept that society has an existence over and above individuals, nevertheless also argue that we cannot attribute needs (for example Parsons's four, famous, so-called functional prerequisites of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency) to a society as such, since that is to grant societies the same qualities as human beings. Furthermore, even if we can attribute needs to a society, it does not follow that because these needs exist they will be met. It requires a proper historical and causal explanation to show why and how they are met. Anthony Giddens argues that all functionalist explanations can be rewritten as historical accounts of human action and its consequences; that is, human individuals and their actions are the only reality, and we cannot regard societies or systems as having an existence over and above individuals.
For most of the 1970s and a good part of the 1980s, it seemed as if functionalism as a school of thought and as a way of understanding and explaining social phenomena had disappeared, but during recent years there have been some interesting attempts at a revival: in America under the impetus of Jeffrey Alexander; in Germany in the work of Niklas Luhman; and, in Britain, in an interesting revision of Marxism by the philosopher G. A. Cohen.
Alexander argues (in Neofunctionalism, 1985) that functionalism is perhaps best understood as a broad school (rather like Marxism), in which there are many variations of approach, rather than a systematic theory in the manner of Parsons. He maintains that we should not take it as providing explanations, but as a description which focuses on the symbiotic relationships between social institutions and their environment, taking equilibrium (stability) as a reference-point for analysis, rather than as something which necessarily exists in reality, and treating structural differentiation as a major form of social change. This effectively strips functionalism of the determinism of systems theory . For Alexander, functionalism is simply one approach among many, and has the virtue of focusing attention on aspects of the social ignored elsewhere.
Cohen's argument (in Inquiry, 1982) takes up a position which can be found in a different form in Durkheim's work. He suggests that societies can be seen, not as having needs in the way that individuals can be said to have needs, but as having what he calls dispositional facts; that is, features of a social environment which encourage the continued existence of a particular institution, but did not actually cause that institution to come into existence. Cohen's example is racism, which historically might be the result of a range of factors, but which survives because once in existence it helps the capitalist system to survive, by dividing the working class and making social control easier. In a rather similar way Jon Elster, a leading exponent of modern rational-choice theory, argues that we have to employ a functionalist explanation to show why capitalist firms on average adopt a policy of profit maximization. Independently of how they come into existence, the market selects for survival those that come closest to this optimal strategy, and thus imposes it upon them (see Ulysses and the Sirens, 1979). Functionalism, then, still has a place in sociology-albeit a more restricted place than when the Parsonsian version was dominant. See also deviance, sociology of ; development, sociology of ; division of labour ; Malinowski , Bronislaw; Radcliffe-Brown , A. R.; social integration and system integration ; systems theory.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.


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