Term Paper: Functionalism in Sociology the History

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[. . .] In terms of the need for stability the analogy between society and an organism therefore aimed at a situation of homeostasis where " ... social systems work to maintain equilibrium and to return to it after external shocks disturb the balance among social institutions. "(FUNCTIONALISM)

This state of order and social equilibrium is achieved through the socialization process. This means that in order for an institution to function correctly the members of the society must be socialized into or internalize the various norms and values of the institution. This also leads to another significant functionalist concept which is the consensus value that socialization creates. Consensus value is the agreement of the individuals as to the values of the society. "Functionalist analyses often focus on the individual, usually with the intent to show how individual behavior is molded by broader social forces." (FUNCTIONALISM) This is an essential component necessary for the stabilization of the various institutions in the society. Furthermore, consensus and socialization are important in ensuring the conformity of the individuals in a society. Without this conformity the society and its parts run the risk of destabilization. Conformity and consensus also refer to the particular social roles that the individual is expected to adhere to in society. These roles, whether they are parent, priest or plumber, are all "prescribed" in terms of the institutional requirements of the society.

Where controls are not created through value consensus the society must employ various special control mechanisms in order to ensure that the stability and unity of the social whole is maintained. "These social control mechanisms range from sanctions imposed informally -- sneering and gossip, for example -- to the activities of certain formal organizations, like schools, prisons, and mental institutions." ( FUNCTIONALISM)

Therefore, through socialization, consensus and control mechanisms the important aspect of order and stability is maintained. The functionalist sees these controls as essential to the correct and stable functioning of any society. However it is precisely this emphasis on order and control that is criticized by many contemporary sociologists.

(Paragraph 3) Criticism

There are numerous critiques of the functionalist approach. The following are some of these central criticisms.

One of the central critiques is that functionalism is guilty of the error of reification. This refers to the issue of talking about " ... social institutions having "needs" and "purposes" in the way that human beings can be considered to have such things? " ("A" Level Sociology) In other words, this aspect focuses on the fallacy of discussing that is not human as human or alive. This also relates to the central critique of functionalism which is the reduction of individualism

Another common criticism is the insistence that every aspect of society must have a function. This view is prone to tautology as well as being limited in its perception of the depth and complexity of any society where many aspects do not have a distinct "function." This insistence on the primacy of function has also been questioned by other theoretical schools of thought which see dysfunction and conflict as having an important role in society. Conflict theorists for example would see various aspects which are essentially dysfunctional from a functionalist point-of-view, as essential to the development and stability of a society. This view suggests that "Conflict is not necessarily a negative aspect of society since it produces social change." (TRADITIONAL SOCIOLOGICAL PARADIGMS)

One of the central critiques of functionalism is that it does not, as a theory, sufficiency provide for the reality and need for social change. Radical change and revolutions in a society are not adequately catered for within the ambit of functionalism. In other words, the central criticism in this regard is that functionalism, while it does provide for insights which contribute to the sociological analysis of society, is also limited in terms of explaining many aspects of social, change and growth. The emphasis in the functionalist approach is on value consensus and the socialization process.

This leads to a cardinal critique; namely the over-emphasis on order and control at the expense of individuality, human progress and growth. Functionalism can all too easily be used as a legitimatization or excuse for oppression and the denial of human individuality and expression. Within the context of the main theoretical stance there is too much emphasis on conformity and too little attention given to need for individual expression in society outside the prerequisite for conformity and order. Socialization itself can be seen as an important contributory factor in the maintenance of order, but it can also be seen as a destructive aspect which impinges and retrains individual growth and liberty. " ... because people are, by definition, socialized into a set of existing cultural values (and they live their lives according such values), it follows that all human activity / choice effectively takes place in the context of this institutionally-determined cultural order. "("A" Level Sociology)

The functionalist emphasis on functional dependence also stresses the maintenance of the status quo and therefore does not provide the necessary theoretical foundation for change in society. In a theoretical sense, functionalism does not take into account of change and conflict as ubiquitous and important aspects of society.

Another related and central critique is the underlining assumption in functionalist approach that all institutions are necessary "good" or beneficial just because they contribute to order. This does not take account of the fact that many institutions can be oppressive and repressive. For example many theories and particularly those from a Marxist point-of-view, see the institution of religion as a central form of oppression within the context of capitalistic society. Another example is that "Radical feminists have also argued that the family group is an oppressive and exploitative group, this time in favour of men. ("A" Level Sociology)

Possibly the central and most disturbing aspect is that, in functional theory,

... The emphasis that tends to be placed upon identifying the functions an institution performs (and the supposed benefits it brings to society as a whole) leads to an implicit support for the political and economic status quo - in crude terms, a tendency to try to justify "things as they are" as the best of all possible social arrangements.

("A" Level Sociology)

However the functionalist tendency to reduce the value of the individual in society has drawn the greatest criticism. This is also aligned to the view that the functionalist approach reduces the choices that the individual has in a society. "People deviate from social norms, for example, not because they are irrational, "naturally bad" or whatever. Deviation occurs because people are placed under various kinds of social pressure that effectively limit their potential choices of action. ("A" Level Sociology)

There are also epistemological arguments about the way in which functionalism tends to " ... describe social institutions solely through their effects and thereby does not explain the cause of those effects ... " (Functionalism (sociology) Wikipedia) This also points to the view that functionalism only describes and deals with some aspects of society.


The functionalist approach to society has many flaws. However, it should also be borne in mind that that are many positive aspects to this view of society and social functions. Firstly it provides a clear and accessible theoretical model which provides a profound insight into the way in which society works. This is achieved by the functional analysis of the way that institutions interact to provide society with its stability and cohesion. The analysis of consensus and socialization is an invaluable theoretical tool in understanding the way that conformity works and functions. It should also be remembered that functionalism, as was mentioned in the introduction, is only one paradigm or view of the way that society works. As such it is limited by its accepted presuppositions as well as by historical context. On the other hand the various criticisms of functionalism are well founded. Functionalism does not provide an adequate model to explain radical social change and it also tends towards a consensus driven model of society which negates the worth and meaning of individualism. Possibly a conflict and concessus model of society in combination could achieve a more comprehensive view of the subtle working of society. However, despite its failings, the functionalist theory of society is valuable in discussing the various factors and forces that go to make up society and as such it is still a viable and important sociological theory.

In conclusion it can be stated that the fault lines in functionalism are largely due to the fact that it generally subscribes to the scientific method. There are many sociologists who view this method as intrinsically flawed and not being applicable to the study of society. What is also very significant is that the very idea of science and the scientific method has also been opened to doubt and sociological analysis and the idea of a non-subjective method is becoming increasingly questioned by sociologists and… [END OF PREVIEW]

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