Functionalism and Consensus Theory for Unit 4

Functionalism is very much associated with American sociology from roughly the 1930's to the 1960's, but it's origins lie in the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, at the end of the 19th century.

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Durkheim argued that crime and deviance can only be explained by looking at the way societies are socially oranised - at their social structures. Functionalism is therefore a structuralist theory.

Structuralist theories are generally also positivist theories. This means that they see human behaviour as being shaped by social forces, or social facts, beyond the control of the individual. In other words, people behave the way they do because the social forces bearing down on them propel them (possibly against their will) in a particular direction.

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Functionalism sees society as being a social system that is made up of inter-dependent social institutions such as family, education, the political system, the criminal justice system and religion. Functionalists often use a biological analogy to describe how society works, likening it to the human body, with all its organs working together to bring about good health - just as all the social institutions of society work together to bring about social order.

Functionalists argue that capitalist societies are generally characterised by social order. According to functionalism, social order is dependent on four social processes.

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Successful socialisation into value consensus.

Members of society learn the basic norms and values of society during primary socialisation that occurs in the family.

Secondary agents of socialisation such as education systems are vital in that they transmit shared cultural values to produce conformity and consensus. Durkheim believed that subjects such as history, language and R.E link the individual to society, past and present, by promoting a sense of pride in historical and religious achievements of their nation. Parsons argued that the main function of education was to act as a bridge between the family unit and wider society, Durkheim argued that the major function of religion is to socialise society's members into value consensus by investing certain values with a sacred quality, by infusing them with religious symbolism and special significance. 

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Social Integration

This refers to people's sense of belonging to society or a community. Socialisation agencies such as education function to bring about a sense of social integration through the teaching of, for example, history and religion. The mass media may create the conditions for social integration by promoting nationalism or by creating moral panics. Religion creates moral communities, which people identify with; for example, Christian, Muslim or Jewish.

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Social Control

Once members of society have been socialised into values, they need to be regulated morally by having their values reinforced by informal agencies of control such as the family; for example; through praise and punishment, and religion; for example, through promises of heaven and threats of hell. Formal agencies of control such as the criminal justice system; for example, police, the law, the judiciary and fear of imprisonment, also encourage people to conform.

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Members of Society are encouraged to take their pl

Education encourages learning skills and attitudes through exams and qualifications, so that we can work in jobs that suit our abilities; families encourage us to commit to a career.

However, Durkheim argues that value consensus is weaker in modern life, especially urban life, has undermined the authority of religion and the family. Durkheim argued that city dwellers were more likely to experience anomie (moral confusion), meaning that they are less committed to society's rules and laws and therefore more likely to engage in actions that challenge value consensus such as crime and deviance.

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Evalution of Functionalism

It is over deterministic, suggesting that behaviour is wholly determined by social factors. It does not consider choice or the interpretations of individuals.

It presents an over-socialised picture of people being turned into conformist citizens. However some people may resist this process.

It fails to account for the social conflict that exists in modern societies, placing too much emphasis on consensus and order, although Durkheim's concept of anomie did anticipate the potential for social conflict.

It fails to consider possible social dysfunctions such as the domestic violence that occurs in some families.

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