Study Notes

Consensus Theories - Functionalism

Level:
A-Level
Board:
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 15 Sept 2022

The sociological perspective, functionalism, developed from the writings of the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim (1858-1917).

Emile Durkheim argued that society was like a human body (the organic analogy). Society was made up of various institutions that acted like the organs of the body: they all needed to be functioning properly for the body to function. Problems in one area of society (such as high levels of crime, for example) could be a symptom of dysfunctions somewhere else (just as a headache is not always caused by banging your head). In order for society to run smoothly there has to be the correct balance of social cohesion and social control.

By social cohesion, Durkheim meant the extent to which people in society were bound together in common purpose. By social control, he meant the extent to which people were prevented from behaving in an anti-social manner. He believed the good society had neither too little nor too much of either of these qualities. Too little social cohesion and you have a selfish society where people do not look out for each other. Too much, and people do not seek personal advancement which stifles progress. Too little social control and you have lawlessness and chaos. Too much and you have oppression and tyranny. He argued that this balance was best maintained by consensus: i.e. agreement.

Critical to functionalism is the idea of socialisation. This is the process that creates a value consensus and therefore social solidarity. There are two stages of socialisation:

  • Primary socialisation: learning the particularistic values of family and community through family (occurs at a young age).
  • Secondary socialisation: learning the universalistic values of wider society through education, media and other institutions.

Functionalism is essentially a conservative idea, based on the view that social change is a gradual process that happens naturally when the consensus shifts.

Key functionalists you might have encountered in other modules or go on to encounter, include:

  • Talcott Parsons
  • Davis and Moore
  • Young and Wilmott
  • Robert Merton
  • Walt Rostow

Key functionalist ideas include:

  • Organic change (rather than radical change)
  • Meritocracy (people achieve their position in society through effort and ability, rather than through inheritance)
  • Social institutions have positive functions

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