The Functionalist view on Religion

These revision cards are to be used for the revision of Functionalism when it comes to Religion.

It sums up the main theorists, criticisms along with examples you can apply in the exam 


HideShow resource information

Conservative Force vs Radical Force

  • Functionalists believe Religion is a Conservative Force
  • It helps to keep society the same ("maintaining the status quo" sounds better)
    • It functions to maintain social stability, and prevents society from falling into a state of anomie
  • Other structural theories (Marxism and Feminism) believe that Religion keeps things the same for the benefit of the ruling class or the male population
1 of 8

Emile Durkheim

  • Main function of Religion:
    • Socialises society's members into value consensus
    • This is done by:
      • Setting certain values apart and introduce them with a special significance
        • e.g. Satanism (The Eleven Satanic Sins)
      • Encouraging collective worship
        • e.g. Westboro Baptist Church (they all live in the same place, in a small community)
  • Durkheim's study was of the religion Totemism in Aboriginal tribes
    • He argued that "Totemism is the purest form of religion"
  • A totem is an object with symbols with significance to the community
  • There are a number of ceremonies around the totem which bring the tribe together
  • Durkheim concluded that because the tribes worship the totem, which includes images of things relevant to their society, they are actually worshipping society, and not a higher being.
2 of 8

Emile Durkheim

  • Durkheim also seperated objects, activities and symbols into two:
    • Sacred
      • Things with a supernatural element attached
        • e.g. Skull Cap (Judaism)
      • Sacred objects can be profane to another person in a different place
    • Profane
      • A normal object with no supernatural element attached
        • e.g. a table
      • Profane objects can become sacred
3 of 8

Criticisms of Emile Durkheim

  • Worsley
    • "There is no sharp division between the sacred and the profane
    • "Different clans share the same totem"
    • Even if Durkheim is right about Totemism, this doesn't prove that he has discovered the essence of every religion
  • Durkheim's theory may apply better to small-scale societies with one religion in them.
    • It's harder to apply to large scale societies where two or more religious communities may be in conflict
    • His theory may explain social integration within communities, but not the conflicts between them
  • Mestrovic (Postmodernist)
    • Durkheim's ideas cannot be applied to modern society because the increasing diversity has fragmented (divided) the collective conscience
      • There is no longer a single shared value system for religion to reinforce
4 of 8

Bronislaw Malinowski

  • Like Durkheim, he sees religion as reinforcing social norms and values which promotes social solidarity and value consensus
    • However, he doesn't see religion as reflecting society as a whole
  • He studied Trobriand Islanders off the coast of New Guinea
  • Malinowski's interpretation placed more emphasis on psychological functions for the individual that would undermine social solidarity
    • "Religion is a powerful mechanism for stability"
    • There are two types of situation where religion performs this:
      • Where the outcome is important, uncontrollable and uncertain
        • e.g. Trobriand Islanders
          • Performed a ceremony before going out fishing in dangerous conditions in the sea. If the ceremony was done incorrectly, they would die.
      • At times of crises
        • Puberty, Bar Mitzvah (Judaism)
        • Death, Funerals
        • Birth, minimal noise at birth (Scientology)
5 of 8

Criticisms of Bronislaw Malinowski

  • Exaggerates the importance of religious rituals in helping people to cope with the situations of stress and uncertainty
  • Like Durkheim, his findings may be true in a small scale society, but does it apply to large scale, modern industrialised societies?
6 of 8

Talcott Parsons

  • Parsons agrees with Malinowski that religion helps people cope with unforeseen events and uncontrollable outcomes
  • He came up with two other essential functions of religion:
    • It creates and legitimates society's central values, serving to promote value consensus and thus social stability
      • e.g. Protestantism in America
    • It is the primary source of meaning
7 of 8

Evaluation of Functionalism

  • It emphasises the social nature of religion and the positive functions it performs
  • Neglects the negative aspects
    • e.g. Religion as a source of oppression of the poor or women
  • It ignores religion as a source of division and conflict, especially in complex modern societies where there is more than one religion
    • Where there are many religions (religious pluralism), it is hard to see how it can unite people and promote integration
8 of 8




Very helpful; it was taught in a bit of a rush in class and this has helped me understand my notes better. Thanks a lot :)

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Religion and beliefs resources »