Monday, May 16, 2005

 

Functionalism Recap

Contemporary Sociological Theory and Its Classical Roots: The Basics
George Ritzer, University of Maryland


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Modern Theoretical Portraits of the Social World


Chapter Overview



Macro-Theoretical Portraits of the Social World

This chapter discusses macro-level theories that portray static portraits of the social world, including structural functionalism, conflict theory, system theory, and feminist understandings of stratification and gender oppression. These theories are static in the sense that they do not offer explanations of how society changes over time, but focus on how societal structures operate or function at a particular moment in history.

Structural Functionalism

Structural functionalism concentrates on the positive and negative functions of social structures. Societal functionalism is a particular type of structural functionalism that aims to explain the role of social structures and institutions in society, the relationship between these structures, and the manner in which these structures constrain the actions of individuals. According to structural functionalists, individuals have little to no control over the ways in which particular structures operate. Indeed, structural functionalists understand individuals in terms of social positions. For example, when structural functionalists discuss social stratification, they do not refer to individuals, but to the positions these individuals occupy. It is not individuals who are ranked, but positions that are ranked according to the degree to which they contribute to the survival of society. High-ranking positions offer high rewards that make them worth an individual’s time and effort to occupy. The structural functionalist account of stratification has been criticized on the grounds that there must be other ways to motivate individuals to occupy particular positions and perform certain tasks without such a disparate system of rewards.

Talcott Parsons’s Action System

Talcott Parsons’s version of structural functionalism is perhaps the best known. According to Parsons, four functional imperatives are embedded in all systems of action: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency (also known as pattern maintenance). Adaptation refers to the fact that a system must adjust or cope with its external environment, particularly when this environment is deemed threatening. In order for a system to function effectively, it must first define the goals it hopes to achieve. Parsons called this functional imperative goal attainment. Integration is also important to a system, because it needs to regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. Finally, a system needs to furnish, maintain, and renew motivation for individual participation, including the cultural patterns that create and sustain this motivation. Parsons referred to these functions as latency and pattern maintenance. Parsons further differentiated between four types of action systems: the cultural, the social, the personality, and the behavioral organism. Each of these systems performs a specific functional imperative. The behavioral organism takes care of adaptation, the personality performs goal attainment, the social controls integration, and the cultural is responsible for the latency function.

Robert Merton’s Middle Range Theory

Robert Merton expanded Parsons’s understanding of structural functionalism by explaining not only the function of social structures, but also their dysfunctions, nonfunctions, and net balances. Merton’s theory of structural functionalism has been called "middle range" because he moved away from trying to analyze society as a whole toward studying different levels of the social world such as organizations and groups. Merton also introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions — referring, respectively, to intended and unintended consequences. According to Merton, functions can also be characterized as displaying unanticipated consequences.

Ralf Dahrendorf’s Conflict Theory

While structural functionalists tend to emphasize the orderliness and stability of society, conflict theorists like Ralf Dahrendorf characterize society as being in a state of flux and dissension. According to conflict theorists, coercion holds society together, not norms and value. Dahrendorf focused on the role of authority in society, which he viewed as involving the superordination and subordination of groups occupying particular positions within what he called imperatively coordinated associations. Groups within a given association are defined according to their specific interests. These interest groups have the potential to turn into conflict groups, and their actions can lead to changes in social structures.

Nicklas Luhmann’s System Theory

Nicklas Luhmann’s system theory combines aspects of Parsons’s structural functionalism with cognitive biology and cybernetics. According to Luhmann, a distinction can be drawn between a system and its environment. A system develops relational subsystems to simplify the complexity of an environment. This process of simplification involves making choices that are contingent and entail risk. Luhmann focused on autopoietic systems that are characterized by the fact that (1) they produce the elements from which they are constituted; (2) they are self-organizing in terms of boundaries and internal structures; (3) they are self-referential; and (4) they are closed. In order for a system to deal with the complexity of its ever-changing environment, it engages in a process of differentiation, or an effort to copy the difference between itself and its environment. This in turn engenders an increasing complexity of the system itself. Luhmann distinguished between four types of differentiation: segmentary, stratificatory, center-periphery, and functional. Functional differentiation is the most complex; it is the form of differentiation that dominates contemporary society. Although functional differentiation provides a system with wider flexibility, it also has the potential to break the system down if it becomes too complex. Systems use distinct codes, or languages, to set elements that belong to it apart from those that do not.


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