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  • Created by: Amy
  • Created on: 26-01-13 19:16


Societies are systems and are studied as a whole. They are made up of different parts, known as social institutions, which functionalists examine in terms of their contribution to society as a whole. These institutions (e.g. family, education, religion, legal system, and media) have positive functions for society and help create the value consensus essential for a healthy society. Value consensus creates social order and is achieved through the processes of socialisation and social control.

1.       Social order is achieved through the existence of a shared culture, or a ‘central value system’, which creates a smooth, running society.

2.       A culture is a set of norms, values and beliefs and goals shared by members of a society, it provides a framework that allows individuals to cooperate by laying down rules about who they should behave and what others may expect of them.

3.       Social order is only possible so long as members of society agree on these norms and values. Parsons called this agreement value consensus; it is the glue that holds the society together.

4.       If social order or value consensus were not possible, society would go into a state of anomie.


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The two mechanisms for ensuring conformity are:

a.       Socialisation: the social system can ensure that its needs are met by teaching individuals to want to do what it requires them to do.

b.      Social control: positive sanctions reward conformity, whilst negative ones punish deviance.

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Parsons: the social system and four functional pre

The four functional prerequisites refer to the basic needs of society that must be met if society is to work. Every part of society contributes to at least one of these:

Adaptation: the social system must meet the material needs of its members, achieved through the economic system (e.g. family as a unit of production/consumption)

Goal attainment: society establishes the goals members should work towards, achieved through the political system.

Integration: the social system ensures its members pursue the same goals, achieved through education, media, religion, etc. 

Latency (or pattern maintenance): how society is maintained over time, achieved through commitment to the core values of society

Adaptation and goal attainment refer to instrumental needs e.g. production of food for people; integration and latency are expressive needs of expressing emotions.

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Parsons: Dynamic equilibrium and social change

Social change can occur in society. When this happens, change needs to occur elsewhere in the social system to maintain the balance (or stability). This is known as dynamic equilibrium e.g. the change to industrialisation led to changes in the family to meet the needs of an industrial economy (the family evolved in to the compact, mobile nuclear family). 

Furthermore, social change leads to institutions losing functions, a process known as structural differentiation e.g. industrialisation led to the family losing functions such as caring for the sick and educating children because other specialist institutions took on these functions, leaving the family with two basic functions of primary socialisation and stabilisation of adult personalities

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The internal critique of functionalism: Merton

Merton criticises the view that social institutions works together. Many may have some form of functional autonomy i.e. independence (e.g. little connection between the economic system and rules of tennis). Furthermore, in some institutions perform dysfunctions that could be harmful for society e.g. domestic violence.

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The external critique of functionalism

Action theorists criticise functionalism for being too deterministic.

Marxists argue functionalists ignore conflict in society and how institutions only serve the needs of capitalism

Feminists argue functionalists ignore conflict caused by a patriarchal society where all institutions benefit men (family because they have their meals cooked for them)

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