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Sociological Theory


Functionalism and Social Institutions

Functionalism analyzes how society functions by studying the roles and relationships of social institutions.

Functionalism views society as a system of parts working together to maintain a social equilibrium. Also called structural functionalism, this approach is based on the idea that social institutions serve to enable a society to endure and to thrive. A social institution is complex set of interdependent social forces that meet basic needs and serve to reproduce patterns of behavior. Social institutions help to produce an organized set of roles, rules, and norms that perform a set of social functions. They work together to create social order, a stability in a society. Institutions such as government, religion, law, education, the economy, and the family influence and reinforce patterns of social behavior. Sociologists working within the structural functionalist model focus on how social institutions constrain behavior as well as shape beliefs and attitudes.

Whereas conflict theory focuses on the factors that can break a society apart, structural functionalism focuses on the developments that hold societies together. Functionalism views a society as a complex system of parts working together toward shared goals. An analogy for functionalism is to compare society to the human body, in which diverse organs and physiological systems function interdependently to preserve life. For example, a functionalist approach considers how the education system in a society functions to prepare people to work, which contributes to the economy. The economy functions best when there are educated workers; a strong economy supports families and the government, allowing these institutions to contribute to social order. However, functionalism also analyzes how negative events, behaviors, and practices contribute to social order. Poor schools that fail to educate young people, for instance, can function to create a larger criminal population, since lack of education might encourage criminal behavior. This can serve to provide a steady population of inmates for prison systems. Expanded prison systems create job opportunities, as more guards, administrators, and lawyers are needed. When for-profit prisons are involved, a larger criminal population functions to create profits, fueling the economy. Functionalism does not argue that all parts of society function for the greater good. Rather, it explores how societies achieve social order. It also analyzes the ways societies mold people and transfer norms, customs, and traditions to subsequent generations. Social institutions such as the government, churches, and families socialize members of society, establishing stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior. These can include patterns such as marriage and having children, consumption patterns that contribute to the economy, and patterns of discrimination that ensure certain social groups provide inexpensive labor.

Social Institutions

Functionalism views people as shaped by social institutions that work together to maintain social order.

Durkheim's Influence on Functionalism

French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858–1917) was instrumental in shaping early functionalist thought. Durkheim was intrigued by how societies maintained stability and survived. Durkheim believed that if humans were left to pursue their desires unchecked, the result would be chaos and that people need external forces, such as religion, to create boundaries of acceptable behavior. He wrote, "The passions first must be limited ... But since the individual has no way of limiting them, this must be done by some force exterior to him." Durkheim identified this outside force as the collective conscience, a set of generally accepted social rules, norms, values, and beliefs that have become embodied in institutions and form the basis of society. Accordingly, Durkheim viewed children as novice members of society who must learn how to think and behave through processes of socialization (the ways people learn the values and norms of their society).

Durkheim also expanded Marx's notion of alienation, a sense of separation or estrangement from an essential part of the self. He argued that alienation would lead to anomie, a sense of loss and normlessness––not having norms to guide and understand behavior. This results in the breakdown of social bonds. For instance, factory workers who feel no sense of connection to their work and do not see their labor as having meaning and value in the larger society might experience anomie.

Functionalists believe that societies function when the institutions governing human behavior are strong and in equilibrium, or balance. Societal problems such as suicide, crime, and social unrest are caused by a breakdown of these institutions. Durkheim's famous example of this was suicide. His work brought a new approach to understanding suicide, by looking at it as caused, at least in part, by social forces rather than existing as a fundamentally individual act. He studied suicide rates in different countries at different times and concluded that rates rose during times of significant change, when social ties were at their weakest. Durkheim termed this anomic suicide, or suicide that occurs because of anomie. Individuals experience a crushing sense of a lack of norms, leading to a feeling that the daily structure of life has no meaning. Functionalists argue that strong social institutions, including religion, family, education, and the like, serve to prevent these feelings in most individuals.

Merton's Approach to Functionalism

American sociologist Robert K. Merton (1910–2003) also studied the functions of different social institutions. He noted that some functions are explicit and intentional and serve to create order and stability in society. However, he argued that other functions are unintentional and are often not recognized. For example, the function of a school system is to educate children and prepare a future workforce. However, schools may also function to produce or reinforce racial or class inequalities, since children from different classes and races often have markedly different educational experiences. In the United States, children from high-income families tend to attend well-funded schools that have more and better textbooks and technology, more experienced teachers, and more enrichment programs such as art and music. These children leave school better prepared for higher education and good jobs, while children from low-income families are much more likely to have fewer opportunities. Data from the Pew Research Center has also shown that high-income children are mostly white, while children of color are more likely to be low-income. For example, data from 2014 shows wide gaps in household income based on race, with the median household income of white families almost $30,000 more per year than that of black and Hispanic families. This reflects longstanding patterns in American society. Thus, educational disparities perpetuate racial as well as class inequalities that characterize American society.

Merton addressed questions of dysfunction in society, such as crime. He developed the concept of strain theory, a theory that deviant behavior is caused when society values certain achievements or behaviors but then blocks some people from achieving them. For instance, a society might consider acquiring wealth as a primary value. Accordingly, it offers legitimate paths to achieving wealth, such as getting an education from a good school and then a high-paying job. This is an example of a manifest function, an intended consequence of a social behavior or social institution. Manifest functions involve the deliberate intention to produce a positive outcome, such as education and good jobs. But good schools are expensive and exclusive, and there are not enough high-paying jobs for everyone. Faced with these obstacles, some people lower their expectations and reject the goal of acquiring wealth. But others who continue to embrace the social goal of wealth, despite lacking access to socially approved means of acquiring wealth, may turn to crime as an alternative means.This is an example of a latent function, an unintended consequence of a social behavior or social institution. Innovation often occurs in this way. Innovators create new ideas, opportunities, and processes. However, innovation is not necessarily positive. In Merton’s model a person chooses illegal activity, such as dealing drugs, because there are no clear legal paths to wealth for that individual as an innovator.This person does not necessarily intend to innovate, but this behavior is innovative because the person chooses to forge a path toward wealth that is not one offered and approved by the surrounding society.

Criticism of Functionalism

Criticism of functionalism includes that it does not address social change and does not consider factors like race, gender, class, and conflict.

With functionalism's focus on how societies form and stay together, critics have argued that it does not adequately address how they change. For instance, the Industrial Revolution led many people to give up an agrarian lifestyle and move to cities. Social institutions such as religion and education had left people unprepared for massive urbanization and were unable to provide peace, prosperity, and cohesion.

Functionalism has also been accused of being circular. Critics say that it seeks to explain why societies are the way they are simply by describing them. In this view functionalism describes how certain behaviors serve social needs and how they are perpetuated but not how or why they arose in the first place. The theory has also been criticized for treating people as passive creatures. Functionalist research tends to view humans as lacking agency, waiting for social institutions to guide them. Critics argue that societies are not themselves living things that have wants and needs like humans do; society does not decide how humans should behave to suit it. Rather, people decide for themselves what is best, and they may decide that acting in a way that furthers the interests of society is also in their best interests. Another criticism is that it does not take into account factors such as race, gender, social class, and social conflict. These factors also impact the social experience of individuals in different ways.

Robert Merton addressed this criticism to some extent through his strain theory, which proposes explanations for why and how people deviate from society's norms. Merton argued that each society has institutionalized goals (goals that are valued by the society and culture), such as obtaining education, getting a good job, and living in a safe neighborhood. At the same time, society defines acceptable ways of attaining those goals. Some members of society have more access to the means of achieving those goals than others. Those who have little or no access to socially accepted means must find other ways of reaching the goals. For example, wealth is a socially accepted goal. Acceptable ways to achieve wealth include a college education and networking. But people who cannot afford college or who do not have access to helpful networks might use crime as a means to achieve the goal of wealth.

Functionalism assumes that social institutions develop in a way that is best for society. Because of this, the theory has been criticized for legitimizing the status quo and marginalizing calls for change. Some sociologists consider structural functionalism a bygone theory. It reached its peak popularity after World War II but began to fall out of favor in the 1960s, as sociologists expanded their fields of inquiry and diversified their theoretical approaches.