Functionalism, Strain Theory and Subcultural Theories of Crime

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Functionalism is associated with the work of Talcott Parsons. His work dominated US sociology and still provides us with a simple framework for approaching the study of sociology.

Parsons aimed to combine the ideas of Weber (who stressed the importance of understanding actions), and Durkheim (who emphasised the necessity of focusing on the structure of societies and how they function). 

He began with the organic analogy, taken from Durkheim, - he imagined society as a small being that adapts to its environment and is made up of any parts, each performing some action that helps the being to continue to exist. Institutions exists (like a heart for a body), to help maintain society, and without them it would not work.

Like our bodies need to resolve basic needs in order to survive, so does society. Parsons came up with four basic needs that all societies have to satisfy: (AGIL - Aunt Gabby Is Lazy)

  • Adaptation - Providing an adequate standard of life (economically)
  • Goal attainment - Developing ways of making decisions (politically
  • Integration - Developing specialist institutions that seek to limit conflict (social harmony
  • Latency - Dealing with individual beliefs and values; this was divided into two areas:
    - Pattern maintenance: The problems faced by people when conflicting demands are made
    - Tension management: Motivating people to continue to belong to a society and not leave or oppose it  

Pattern Variables

For a society to exist they must follow the previous, however 'society' is a concept that doesn't exist in itself, rather it's a term for a collection of people; so when Parsons says a 'society' must resolve certain problems, what he means is people must act in a certain way to ensure society's continuation. This is the role of culture, to emphasise the fact that members of society ought to act in a certain way to make sure the functional prerequisites are met. 

Parsons says in all societies there are five possible cultural choices of action leading to different forms of social behaviour, meaning cultural differences:

  • Affectivity or affective neutrality - Societies can be characterised by close personal interrelationships between people, or relationships where the majority of interactions are value free. E.g. A small rural society may be based on personal knowledge of others, whilst a large urban society people hardly know each other
  • Specificity or diffuseness - The relationships people have may be based on one link or many
  • Universalism or particularism - In contemporary societies we believe rules should equally be applied to all; this is not the case in many societies
  • Quality or performance - Should people be treated according to their abilities or their social position at birth?
  • Self-orientation or collectivity orientation - Is the happiness of individual lives important, or that of a group?

Value Concensus 

Parsons believed the reason for the high level of order and predictability within society was due to value concensus - this means general agreement about the norms and


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