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Functionalism in Sociology
The history of sociology is essentially a series of various competing paradigms and views of society and about how society is constructed as well as its nature and function As Thomas Kuhn pointed out in his groundbreaking work The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, all paradigms are to a certain extent influenced by subjective predilections and views and are therefore never truly objective. However functionalism, as one of the many sociological paradigms, built its view of society and the way in which society's function on the basis of scientific objectivity. As will be discussed in this paper, the functionalist view was also influenced by the social, cultural and historical milieu which formed its context.
The functionalist approach to the study of society is premised on the assertion that every society needs stability and order to function correctly and that this order is maintained by the interaction between the different "parts" or institutions in that society. Essentially the functionalist model of society is one where the functional integration of societal institutions is the core of social harmony and health. Therefore the terms balance and equilibrium in a sociological sense are extremely important in the functionalist approach.
Functionalism posits two central concepts as its main points of emphasis. These are the application of the scientific method and objectivity in the analysis of society and the analogy between the individual organism and societal functioning. ( FUNCTIONALISM) This analogy provides the model for the interdependent way in which society functions to maintain order and stability.
Talcott Parsons is one of the modern exponents and theorists of the functionalist approach to society. He was of the view that there are certain stable structural categories responsible for the functioning and perpetuation of the society as a whole. He focused his theoretical concerns on one of these categories or institutions, namely medicine, to illustrate his ideas.
In order to fully understand and discuss functionalism in Sociology it is important to briefly refer to the scientific method in Sociology, as this provides the basis for the functionalist approach to the study of society. Sociology as a discipline is part of the scientific examination and understanding of human behavior and society. In this sense, and as a science, it attempts to " ... discover the causes and effects that arise in social relations among persons and in the intercommunication and interaction among persons and groups." ( Sociology) As a scientific enterprise sociology also includes within its parameters the ... study of the customs, structures, and institutions that emerge from interaction, of the forces that hold together and weaken them, and of the effects that participation in groups and organizations have on the behaviour and character of persons."
Sociology therefore subscribes to the accepted scientific method of the other natural sciences. However there is much debate and contention about the nature of the scientific method and whether it is entirely applicable to sociological discourse.
The history of sociology and its relation to science also meant that, in order to establish itself as a recognized discipline with academic status, sociology needed to conform to the dominant scientific or rational view of the time. As the famous sociologist Robert Merton stated.
In order to interpret and discuss social reality we must first have a picture, some sort of pattern, or an image of the interrelationships amongst the many variables that circumscribe human interaction. The SCIENTIFIC METHOD or METHODOLOGY provides a systematic, organized series of steps that insures maximum objectivity and consistency in researching a problem. It provides a shared basis for discussion and analysis, and helps to promote reliability and validity (consistency and accuracy).
(Keel, R.O. 2003)
The above view of sociology as a particularly scientific enterprise relates to the objective and value neutral approach to social order and stability that was adopted by the functionalists. Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) was one of founders of this approach to sociology whose writings form the basis for functionalist theory. He made use of scientific and statistical techniques in sociological research. Thomas Hobbs was possibly one of the precursors to the functionalist view of society who saw society and social order as essentially a social contract between various groups and individuals. The social contract is
... A special kind of covenant, namely, one in which each man agrees with every other man to transfer his natural right to govern himself to a sovereign authority (a single person or a group of persons) and in which each man in common with every other man confers upon this sovereign authority his power to govern himself.
(Mintz, S.I. 1970. p 34).
While this is close to the functionalist ideal of consensus, there are many differences between this view and strict functionalism.
The central perspective of functionalism is based on two interrelated aspects. Firstly, the application of the scientific method to the objective world and secondly the analogy between the way the human organism functions and social order. Both these aspects point to the emphasis on order and balance for the functionalists. In terms of society this means that social order is created and kept in equilibrium and balance by the relationship between the different institutions in the society. Without this necessary balance there would be chaos and a breakdown of social functioning
The importance of the scientific method for functionalism and the organic approach to sociological analysis is that it is based on the assertion and belief that "... one can study the social world in the same ways as one studies the physical world." (FUNCTIONALISM) This means that the social world for the functionalist is one which, like the other sciences, is "objectively real" and therefore can be studied using interviews, surveys and statistics.
Another very important aspect of the functionalist approach is that, using the scientific view of objectivity, a study of society can be value free. In other words, objective studies of social phenomena as functional aspects of the whole are not based on any value judgment but are relatively free from any value assumptions or prescriptions.
The essence of the functional approach lies in the organic analogy. This analogy to the way in which the human body works implies that a society works well and is healthy according to the harmonious functioning of the different institutions in that society. These parts or institutions function to maintain the society or the whole much in the same way that the different organs of the body maintain health through their proper functioning. It is also imperative that the different institutions in a society function in harmony and in such a way as to maintain and sustain the complex working of the entire society.
Drawing on metaphors from biology, functionalist sociologists view societies as wholes or systems, which consist of interacting and self-regulating elements. Each of the elements works to maintain the whole, so ensuring the stability or order of the system.
(Sociological theory and pharmacy practice research)
Therefore, in this view, the various institutions in a society such as education, religion, heath and medical etc., are all relevant only in terms of their particular interlinking functions in relation to the society as a whole. For example, the institution of religion is seen as an important functional aspect of society " ... just as the organs of the body have functions which are necessary for the body's survival." (FUNCTIONALISM) A clear definition of the functional approach is " ... A theory stressing the importance of interdependence among all behavior patterns and institutions within a social system to its long-term survival." (Functionalism (sociology) Wikipedia)
Using the example of religion the functionalist would see the role of this institution within the overall functioning of the society as a means of dealing with fears and anxieties which would otherwise lead to stress and which in turn might result in a dysfunctional society. From this perspective the institution of religion fulfils an important function in all societies. A social function is defined as "the contribution made by any phenomenon to a larger system of which the phenomenon is a part." (FUNCTIONALISM)
Another central aspect of functionalism in sociology is the importance of order and stability. This view, which has been questioned by later theoretical perspectives, states that order is essential and vital to the healthy functioning of the whole society. This again refers to the analogy to the healthy organic functioning of the individual where all the organs must work in harmony to produce a healthy living environment.
It is also useful to relate the emphasis on order and stability in functionalism to social and historical contexts. After the First and Second World Wars society was seen by many as a problem solving science, to remedy the ills of society and to " ... solve the problems arising out of the First World War, mass immigration, urbanization, depression, and various types of crimes associated with these." (The Paradigmatic Status of Sociology) Therefore there is a case to be made for the view that the functionalist emphasis on order…[continue]
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