Conclusion to Parsons and functionalism
Parsons was concerned with society as a whole, and with the various institutions and structures within society. Parsons took the idea of function from anthropology “as a way of talking about the consequences of any given pattern of patterns of social interaction for the stability and ongoingness of systems of interaction.” (Johnson, p. 117). These systems could be families or other small groups, or they could be the society as a whole. Parsons thought that social processes could be studied empirically and within a dynamic context to determine the function and consequences of the process for the system as a whole. That is, social action and social processes must be studied relative to the social system as a whole, to determine whether “consequences will be found to fit into the terms of the maintenance of stability of production of change, of integration or disruption of the system...” (The Social System, p. 21-22). This makes it possible to consider integration of parts into the whole as one possible outcome, with deviance, strain, social control, conflict, and dysfunction as other possibilities. For institutions to survive and continue, the latter may be means of bringing a system back to equilibrium and there must be means of “forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase” (The Social System, pp. 319-320). As we have seen in the discussion of AGIL, action systems, and family structure, for the most part Parsons considered the social relationships and social institutions of society to work together well and adjust to each other. He considered there to be a high degree of consensus, social order, integration, and solidarity in societies, with the different parts of the social system functional for the actors, the institutions of which they were part, and the system as a whol.
In terms of change, there are evolutionary processes that lead to change, new forms of specialization, and new values and patterns of action that became regularized and become functional for a given system. Johnson argues that Parsons’s model was not teleological in the sense that the new processes came about because they were functional. In the quote from The Social System, Parsons states, “Without deliberate planning on anyone’s part…” On the other hand, Johnson notes that Parsons did not generally ask who things were functional for. In the latter sense Parsons tended toward a conservative orientation, looking on values and processes as functional for the whole system, rather than merely being functional for a small group or for some at the expense of others. (Johnson, pp. 117-119)
(1910-2003). Merton was initially a
student of Parsons and then became an interpreter and friendly critic of
Parsons. For most of his academic
career, Merton was a professor at
Merton is important in the study of North American sociology for (a) his emphasis on establishing sound quantitative and qualitative methods (CST, pp. 23-24, 27-28), (b) focusing on theories of the middle range (pp. 24-25), and (c) expanding the explanation of functionalism. Merton’s sociological approach involved the study of both social theory and the empirical study of the social world. The two are closely connected to each other and have a mutual impact on each other. Theories of the middle range concern issues such as deviance and crime, social institutions such as the family, and issues such as social analysis of suicide (as studied by Durkheim). These fit between the comprehensive sociological theories of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons and the detailed study of particular situations. Much of the applied sociology of today appears to be in the middle range – sociology of family, gender relations, race and ethnicity, sociology of education, sociology and health, etc. These are studies and analysis that address a variety of issues in relation to the social organization of society as a whole and to details about how social relationships and institutions work in each of these areas. They bridge these two extremes though in that they focus on a set of social relationships and institutions that are common to many situations, at the same time these do not constitute the whole of society.
Merton's discussion of function. While Merton adopted a functionalist approach to the study of society, he subjected function to considerable scrutiny and modified Parsons’s analysis of function. Three concepts that Merton introduced were manifest function, latent function, and dysfunction.
Ritzer (p. 245) notes that Merton criticized some forms of functionalism, questioning
Merton argued that not all parts of modern, complex society work for the functional unity of society, that some values and customs may not be functional for society as a whole (or even for groups within society), and that some aspects of social organization may not be necessary.
In the case of a tool or machine, built by humans, the various parts of the machine are functional for the operation of the machine, otherwise they would not be there. While there may be strains among the parts, a well-designed and well-functioning machine will have the parts adjusted to each other, so the machine carries out its purpose in an efficient, continued, and successful manner. In this case, function is clear-cut in that the machine has a purpose and is designed and structured to accomplish that purpose. In the case of social institutions, which are not deliberately designed by anyone, it is not so clear that function exists in the same sense. That is, each social action, interaction, and relationship has some consequences, but these do not necessarily act to achieve a specific purpose, nor do they always help in adjustment of parts to the whole. There may also be many unintended consequences, which lead in unexpected directions. Organizations, such as businesses or lobby groups, developed to accomplish specific purposes, likely have functional parts to them. But not all social institutions are of this goal-oriented type.
For Merton, what sociologists need to do is to examine each of the processes, groups, values, and institutions empirically, and see how these affect each other. While there may be a function associated with a social action, interaction, relationship, institution, or structure, Merton introduced the division between manifest and latent function and dysfunction and nonfunction. These are as follows.
One is that the adaptation or adjustment of the system is impaired. For example, a poorly managed bureaucracy or business, where roles and tasks are confused and not carried out may prevent the bureaucracy or business from carrying on its tasks, and may mean that the normal adjustment mechanisms do not function. If this is in a for-profit enterprise, the business may fail and go bankrupt as a result. War and much of what is termed “terrorism” appears to be dysfunctional for whole societies in that the normal operation of such societies is impeded or destroyed.
A second type of dysfunction is associated with the question "Functional or dysfunctional for whom?" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 49). While social actions and organizations may function well for some parts of society, they may function to the disadvantage of others in society. For example, the bankruptcy of a corporation initially appears to be dysfunctional in that jobs are lost and services provided by the corporation disappear. But one of the consequences of bankruptcy may be to protect the wealth of many of the owners, and prevent that wealth from being further eroded. Another example is slavery – the existence of this institution may have been functional for the slave owners, their families, expanding their wealth, and for economic expansion. But it was not functional for the slaves and their families.
In summary, Merton contributes to functional analysis by requiring the sociologist to focus on the consequences of each type of social action, process, organization, or institution. By doing this, the sociologist may be able to determine a function or dysfunction, and what are the manifest and latent functions of the social process. At the same time, the functional nature of those alternatives can be considered. Further, by asking who a social process may be functional for, and considering alternative ways for social relationships to be conducted, Merton's modified functionalism can allow for social conflict and different ends.
Conclusions. If there is so many ways of analyzing function, it is not clear that the concept of function is very useful. What is important for a sociologist is to attempt to understand the reasons for social action and the effects of such social action. If a sociologist can do this, then it is not clear that there is any purpose in adding function to this analysis. In addition, much of the sociological analysis of Parsons appears capable of standing alone, without reference to function.
Critics argue that a functional approach does not help explain how society changes and that the functionalist approach tends toward a conservative view of society, one that ignores or is unable to understand conflicts. In addition, a functional approach can be tautological and teleological. The tautological aspect is that any social process that appears to have a particular effect is defined as having that effect. To say that a father performs instrumental tasks in a nuclear family is descriptive and, possibly, analytical. But to say that this is the function may merely amount to defining what the father does as functional. Further, such a statement can be teleological in that what the observed social action is, in this case instrumental action, is being considered as its purpose. In fact, the goal may be achievement of a good life and, given the economic and social structures, instrumental activity such as obtaining an income from a job, is the most common means of doing this.
As description, structural functional approaches may be useful, although it is too static in its approach. Using the functional approach, it is difficult to separate the existing structures and systems from what would be needed for survival. That is, there may be many alternative arrangements that allow systems to survive and prosper. In terms of female and male roles, and the family, there are many such possible forms and structures. There seem to be no ways of judging what is necessary for survival, or even what survival is. In that sense, as an overall theoretical explanation, something is missing.
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Alison Wolf, Contemporary Sociological Theory:
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