Durkheim, Parsons, Merton, Davis and Moore and Criticisms

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  • 'Social facts'. Durkheim saw the subject matter of sociology as social facts - collective ways of acting that exist outside of individuals.
  • Social facts exert obligations on individuals, determining their actions.
  • Sociological research has to treat social behaviour as the natural scientist would treat the behaviour of particles, through the application of scientific principles.
  • The aim of sociological research is to establish causal explanations of social behaviour and the functions of social facts, (i.e. Causes and effects.)
  • Examples of his work include his study of suicide, functional analysis of the division of labour and the role of religion in society.
  • Durkheim's work provided the philosophical basis for the development of structual-functionalist theory
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  • To Parsons and other functionalists, the most important question for sociology to answer is 'how does society survive and function effectively?'
  • Society is based on a 'value consensus', a set of agreed goals, values and roles that standardise and determine behaviour. Without such a set of core values, social life would be impossible to maintain.
  • The value consensus is established and maintained within the institutions of society. 
  • Society, therefore, is a system. For society to survive, it has to meet certain needs.
  • Society is analagous to a biological organism which has needs which, if they aren't met, will result in that organism dying. As parts of the biological organism function to meet these needs, so parts of the social system function to meet the needs of society.
  • Social needs = Adaption (to the environment); Goal Attainment (shared aims); Integration (to reduce conflict); Pattern Maintenance (maintaining norms and values).
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  • These needs, Parsons called functional prerequisites - things that had to be dealt with in order for society to function and survive.
  • Social equilibrium is the result of social institutions working effectively to meet these needs and produce social stability.
  • Social institutions can therefore be studied in terms of the functions they perform for society and for other social sub-systems.
  • Modern industrial society emerged through a process of structural differentiation. The way in which the needs of society were met changed over time and social institutions such as religion and the family became much more specialised in the functions they performed for society.
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  • Recognised some of the problems with Parsons' approach: Do all institutions in a complex modern society always promote social unity? Do institutions always and only perform positive functions? Are certain social institutions indispensable to society?
  • To Parsons, the answer to all these questions was 'yes' and they were fundamental assumptions made by most functionalists. Merton argues that they cannot be taken for granted, and need to be analysed and proven in the same way as any other aspect for society has to investigated. 
  • Merton used the idea of 'anomie' to illustrate the way in which the value consensus assumed to exist by Parsons, is not so definite. Despite socialisation attempting to establish the same set of values in all citizens, Merton argues that individuals can react in different ways. Some conform but other rebel against, retreat from, create new, or just go through the motions with the values that supposedly form a consensus.
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Davis and Moore.

  • Like Parsons, they argue that social stratification and inequality is inevitable and acts to integrate different groups into society.
  • All roles need to be filled by people who are best equipped to fulfil those roles. Some positions in society are functionally more important than others so it is vital that the best people are trained to occupy these positions. To do this and to undertake the long period  of training necessary, people have to be motivated by higher rewards. The result is inequality but because it is the result of the need to reward those in functionally more important roles, this inequality is accepted within the value consensus.
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A Teleological Theory?

Functionalism seems to work backwards from the effects of a system to identifying the parts of that system. For example, it is assumed that if an institution exists, it must do so for a reason and then functionalism concentrates on suggesting the functions it then performs for society. This does not constitute proof and may in fact be based on faulty reasoning.

Is there a Value-Consensus in Society?

It can be argued that there are many different sets of values in society rather than one established consensus. For example, what are the values of modern Britain? Cultural values based on age, gender, class, ethnicity etc. may all cut across what might be seen as the 'value consensus'.

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How Do We Know When Society is in 'Equilibrium'? 

There don't appear to be any real criteria for judging when a society is in balance, when it is 'healthy' and when it is 'unhealthy'. Although it is more apparent when a society has more-or-less broken down, most of the time, most societies operate in some kind of way, but how do we know if this constitutes 'social equilibrium'?


By arguing that the social system has needs and is organised to meet those needs, functionalism seems to be relegating people to a fairly minor role. The 'system' creates people (seen for example in the functionalist view of socialisation as a one-way process of people learning society's rules) rather than people creating society. Critics argue that people are not as passive as this and behaviour is rarely as systematised as Functionalists seems to claim.

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How Far is Society Based on Consensus?

Conflict is usually represented as a fairly minor element in society to be dealt with in order to restore stability. They don't recognise the possibility of society containing interest groups who compete  for resources and who are in conflict. It may be that what appears to be 'consensus' is the ideology of a dominant group imposed on the rest of society. 

Social Inequality.

 Davis and Moore's explanation of social inequality has been strongly criticised as a rationalisation and justification rather than an appropriate analysis. Tumin has challenged all their assumptions about functional importance, whether talent is unequally is unequally spread, how far everyone has the same opportunities etc.

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