Functionalism and Neo-Marxism

Category: Economics
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Functionalism and Neo-Marxism / Conflict theory are two major theories in sociology that have had a great impact on sociological developments over time. Throughout this paper, the basic principles and world view of each of these theories will be covered, as well as some of their weaknesses. Similarities and differences of the two will be elaborated upon, in addition to how they relate to the present-day social issue of homelessness. The paper will conclude with a few closing thoughts on each theory.

Functionalism and Conflict Theory


According to the definition on page 235 in Ritzer’s Sociological Theory textbook, consensus theories, such as structural functionalism, “see shared norms and values as fundamental to society, focus on social order based on tacit agreements and view social change as occurring in a slow and orderly fashion” (Ritzer, 235). Structural functionalism was a notable social science theory in the 20th century. Kingsley Davis, Wilbert Moore, Robert Merton and Talcott Parsons studied and created structural functionalism. Structural functionalism takes several focuses – looking at structure and function when studying the structures of society.

Structural functionalism is a theory that initially sought to explain social institutions as collective means to meet individual biological needs and was originally just called functionalism. The parts work together to promote unanimity and steadiness. Later, it focused on the ways social institutions met social needs, looking at both social structure and functions, and was referred to as structural functionalism. Functionalism looks at society based the function of its basic essential parts – such as customs, traditions, norms and institutions (Ritzer, Chapter 7, 235-236).

Emile Durkheim was considered to be a functionalist for at least part of his career. His main impact to the theory of functionalism was his definition of a pathological and normal society. A pathological society was a society that did not fit the norms or what was common in other societies at the time. The normal society was characteristics shared by all societies at the time. This was a key foundation that came to influence functionalists view of the world and what is a normal society. This also influenced the functionalist view. If something is present in the world, then it must work or serve some function, and therefore, it should not be changed (Onuf, 147).

Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore worked on a theory of structural functionalism known as the functional theory of stratification. They considered social stratification, a society system that ranks categories of people in a hierarchy where it is clear that some groups have greater status, power and wealth than other groups, as being imperative to all areas based on functional necessity. Society is always stratified and stratification is necessary to function. They saw stratification as a system of positions, not of the people themselves who are filling the positions (Ritzer, 237). They supported the idea that the most onerous, obnoxious and unpleasant jobs in all society have the greatest earnings to prompt people to fill the positions needed by the division of labor. An example from Ritzer, page 237, states that “in order to ensure that society has enough doctors, they must receive rewards like great prestige, a high salary and sufficient leisure. People cannot expect people to undertake the burdensome and expensive process of a medical education if rewards were not offered. They convey the impression that if they did not reward those positions, they would persist in being ‘understaffed and unfilled and society would crumble'” (Ritzer, 237).

Talcott Parsons was focused on explaining how we have a normal society, as influenced by Durkheim’s definition of normal. A normal society is characterized by this action system: (AGIL) Adaptation, Goal Attainment, Integration and Latency. Adaptation is the ability of a society to adapt to the physical and social environment. Goal attainment is where the system states what its people should be striving for. An example of this is the American Dream where society tells us to strive to be successful, have a family and gain economic and material value. The third part is integration, which is the ability for all parts of society to work together to obtain society’s goals. The final part is latency, which is how the system motivates its people to obtain the goal that is sought. How to obtain the American Dream? For a society to be functional and sustainable, these 4 systems are required. The overall goal of society is to reach social equilibrium, where each part of society is balanced out by another, such as poverty balances wealth for example (Ritzer, 238 – 250).

Talcott Parsons was an instrumental part of structural functionalism. Durkheim and Weber were influential to him and in his theory, he incorporated some of their work. Parsons supported the idea that actions of individuals make up the social system, initiating with dealings among people that have optional alternatives of how they might act, including those that social and physical factors sway and restrict (Parsons). He was intent that each has expectations of the other’s actions and reactions to a behavior, learned from accepted values and standards of society. In further interactions, as behaviors are repeated and expectations are established, it creates an expectation that is the “normatively-regulated participation in a concrete process of social interaction with specific, concrete role-partners” (Parsons, 167). Anyone can carry out any role, but the person is expected to follow and practice the norms determined for their particular rule (Mayhew). Additionally, one person can have several different roles simultaneously and is thought of as a formulation of those roles. Parsons later evolved the theory into collectivities of roles that support various functions for society (Mayhew). To help society, so that it runs smoothly, Economic, educational, legal and gender-based roles, for example, are connected to institutions and social structures.

Robert Merton was a student of Talcott Parsons. His revised theories were an attempt to save structural functionalism from its eventual downfall. He believed in the probability that any social structure has more than one function and identified 3 main limitations: functional unity, universal functionalism and indispensability. He also developed the concept of deviance. Merton realized that all functions may not benefit society. His theory distinguished several other functions. These were nonfunctions (functions that are neither beneficial nor harmful to society) and dysfunctions (functions that are negative consequences to a specific part of society). He also made a clear distinction between manifest (recognized and intended consequences) and latent (unrecognized and unintended) functions. He also included net-balance, which was a scale determining whether dysfunctions and functions were equal, or if one outweighed the other. Merton also noted that there may be functional alternatives to the institutions and structures carrying out the functions of society. This means that the institutions that currently exist are not indispensable to society and there are functional alternatives (Ritzer, 250-255). Merton overall took functionalism and tried to convert it from a grand theory trying to explain everything to a more micro-level theory looking at how each structure either positively or negatively affected the rest of society.

Merton’s theory of deviance, gleaned from Durkheim’s idea of anomie, is a discontinuity between cultural goals and the accepted methods available for reaching them. This theory explains how internal changes can transpire in a system. He believes there are 5 situations people face: conformity, innovation, ritualism, retreatism and rebellion. Through either innovation or rebellion, internal change can occur in society. Society will attempt to reverse the changes and control, but as the innovation or rebellion builds strength, society will eventually adapt or face discontinuation (Lumen).

Overall, the world view of functionalism in society is that each structure has a specific function or beneficial aspect that served a purpose in the world. The world was clearly functional as it still existed, and by changing things, we could only cause problems that would lead to a nonfunctional world. Later on, in an attempt to save this theory, Merton tried to reduce its level to a more micro-level approach and state that some structures in this world could be a dysfunction, or nonfunction, meaning that they had a negative or neutral benefit on other structures throughout the world.

Functionalism theories had critics based on weaknesses (Tautology, Conservative, ahistorical, supports elite/dominant class) (Ritzer, 237 – 240). The theories were criticized for being unable to account for social change and conflict. It disregarded differences such as race, gender and class, causing tensions to build and conflicts to result. Functionalism was seen as unchanging and at a standstill, other than Parson’s theory which attempted to adjust for this reasoning. Another criticism included an argument that functionalism attempts to account for the development of social institutions entirely through alternatives to the effects that are attributed to them. Parsons, for example, drew directly on many of Durkheim’s concepts in creating his theory. Only at the time of Merton, does a theorist clearly declare that functional analysis does not seek to explain why the action happened, but why it continues or is repeated. Based on this, one can contend that functionalists do not explain the original cause of a phenomenon with reference to its effect. In reverse logic, that social phenomena are reproduced because they serve ends, is unoriginal to functionalist thinking. Therefore, functionalism is viewed as either undefinable or it can be defined by the teleological arguments which functionalist theorists normatively produced before Merton (Crossman). A final criticism was that it was a tautological theory, meaning that its conclusions merely restate the premise. A structure is function because it exists. If something exists, then it must be functional.

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