The Functionalist perspective of religion

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  • The Functionalist perspective of religion
    • Durkheim: Scared = spiritual and profane= ordinary.
      • 'The elementary forms of religious life' (1912) Durkheim studied Totemism, in Australia. People develop moral ties and a collective conscience. The totem is a symbol of society and it is sacred because it is a symbol of society itself.
        • Criticisms of Durkheim: Worsley (1956) there is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane. Also, different societies share the same totem.
          • Mestrovic (1997) (Postmodernist) argues that Durkheims theory is useless because society is to fragmented and there is no longer a single shared value system.
        • Durkheim's theory may apply better to small scale societies with one religion because there may be conflict in two or more religious communities.
    • Religion is a system of interrelated parts. Religion is mainly a conservative force, that promotes social solidarity + social harmony through value consensus.
    • Malinowski - Psychological functions of religion.
      • Religion helps individuals cope with emotional stress that would undermine social solidarity.
      • An example of this is death, as this is disruptive in social groups, and funerals reinforce the feeling of solidarity.
      • Death is the main reason for religion-- for example during the war, church attendance thrived.
    • Parsons: Values + meanings. Religion helps people deal with unforeseen events. Religion legitimates societies central values + is the primary source of meaning.
      • Religion explains suffering as a test of faith and enables people to adjust to adverse events.
    • It answers the 'ultimate questions' such as why the good suffer, such questions make life appear meaningless, and undermines societies values.
    • Bellah- Civil religion unifies Americans - attaches sacred qualities to society itself. 'the American way of life' - loyalty to the nation (pledging allegiance to the flag)
      • This binds Americans together from all different ethnic backgrounds and religious backgrounds. Another example is Nazi Germany + Soviet Union = secular + political beliefs that united societies.
    • Criticisms of Functionalism include: 1) Downplaying social change- sees religion as a conservative force that protects the status quo, and undermines the role of social change.
    • 2) Declining religiosity and secularisation- religion can only perform these functions if people actually hold and practice religion.
    • 3) Religion can be a disruptive and socially divisive influence- value consensus = difficult to maintain in multi-faith societies. Religion seems to play a greater role in dividing people rather than uniting them, such as the conflicts between Catholics and Protestants or Sunni and Shia Muslims.


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