A Course in Mad Sociology Lecture 4

Chapter 2: The Sociological Perspectives

Section 1: The Functionalist Perspective

The United States is a nation of over 315 million people. This includes people of different ethnicities, races, cultures, ages, genders, political affiliations, religious beliefs, personal histories, interests and aptitudes among other differences. We break down into different geographic regions with our own cultural and historical influences, broken down further into states, districts, municipalities, communities, neighborhoods, families, and households. Everyone needs access to resources, has different capacity to contribute, must satisfy his or her needs while at the same time living in relative harmony with everyone else nearby.

And yet, somehow, it works. The United States has almost a two hundred and fifty year history in which it has faced many challenges from rapid expansion, industrial development, a Civil War, multiple economic downturns and two world wars. Yes, there are issues, there are areas where we fall short of our values, there are hardships, some created by other people who live within the society, but, overall, the United States works pretty well despite all of the dynamics involved. 

How? This seems almost myraculous, after all, aren’t we all a bunch of autonomous individuals pursuing our own self interests? If so, how do millions of us get along and identify ourselves as being “Americans?” 

This is the first and primary question of sociology. How does society work? 

To answer this question, sociologists have, over the years, developed three major perspectives. The Functionalist, Conflict and Interactionist perspectives, each making different assumptions about society and each offering a different analysis. 

In this chapter we are going to learn about the Functionalist Perspective. In many ways, the functionalist perspective provided the foundation for sociology as an academic discipline. It was the functionalists who built off of August Comte’s desire to make sociology the queen of sciences and elaborated on his ideas of historical development as well as statics and dynamics. 

The Functionalist perspective analyzes society by looking at how the different components of society contribute to its overall functioning. Functionalism is often referred to as Structural Functionalism because, for functionalists, the key to understanding society rests in understanding the underlying and overarching structures of the society. 

As such, the Functionalist Perspective makes certain assumptions: 

    First: Societies tend to be stable and orderly systems. Those elements that destabilize the System tend to be short lived and easily dealt with…

    Second: Elements that are consistently found in a society and are reproduced from generation to generation are so because they serve some kind of function within the society.

Now this second idea is going to prove to be one of our biggest challenges. 

We’ve already talked about August Comte and his contribution to sociology. In many ways, his emphasis on positivism and propositions of historical development and statics and dynamics is going to provide the groundwork for the functionalists.

Herbert Spencer

The Functionalist perspective mostly starts with the English scholar Herbert Spencer. Like Comte, Spencer believed that society operated according to certain laws much the same way as the physical and biological universe. Compte, however, believed that once discovered, these laws could help us develop truly just and good societies based on these laws. Spencer was not quite so utopian as Comte. He believed that once these laws were objectively determined, we should follow them, regardless of the perceived “justice” these laws may entail. After all, if they are laws, then societies must already be following them. Any problems must be the result of trying to defy these natural laws based on presumptions about social justice. The laws should operate in such a way that little intervention is required on the part of any particular institution. 

Spencer offered a model of society analogous to the human body. As biological entities are composed of organs and tissues, societies are constituted of social institutions, communities, groups. A healthy being is so because the organs and tissues are healthy. The same can be said about a society. So long as the institutions and groups within the social body were functioning appropriately, the social body would be healthy. This is called the Organic Model.

Spencer saw three different structures within the social body that were necessary for a healthy society. First, the regulatory, in which relations between different parts of the social environment are managed and the actions of individuals are coordinated. Secondly, the operative, through which the needs of the members were satisfied, including the need to reproduce the membership and pass on its culture. Finally, the distributive, through which materials, members and information travelled through the social body. 

Spencer advanced his organic model as far as possible. It’s perhaps no coincidence that he was conducting his observations in and around the same time that biologists were struggling with the mechanisms for evolution. Ultimately, Charles Darwin advanced his Theory of Evolution through Sexual Selection in 1859. Darwin suggested that species evolve when certain random traits offer an adaptive advantage to individuals within the species. These individuals are then most likely to survive and to pass on their traits. Eventually, these traits become dominant features of new species that may even replace the original. 

Ironically, it was Herbert Spencer who advanced the notion of “survival of the fittest” before Darwin published his revolutionary Origin of Species. If society is analogous to an organism, then it must be motivated by similar rules. Healthy organs will perpetuate the society, but organs in decay will weaken the social body. Societies become stronger and replace other societies that are weaker and less adaptive to the social environment. Though Spencer was not an advocate for military adventurism, he did see conflict and struggle as central components of social evolution. 

He was also dismayed by a disturbing trend in English society. Spencer found that poor people, the least adaptive in society, tended to reproduce the most. He thought this was a problematic trend. If the least adapted people in society out-reproduce the most adaptive, the wealthy, society would be dominated by the least adaptive and must fall. The problem, he felt, was the coercive use of charity, in other words using tax money to support the indigent. Charity allowed the least adaptive in society to reproduce and insulated the poor from suffering the consequences of their own actions. According to Spencer: 

“Beings thus imperfect are nature’s failures, and are recalled by her laws when found to be such. Along with the rest they are put upon trial. If they are sufficiently complete to live, they do live, and it is well they should live. If they are not sufficiently complete to live, they die, and it is best they should die.”

Much to Darwin’s chagrin, this notion of poverty and human value became known as Social Darwinism and is attributed largely to Herbert Spencer. Social Darwinism became a centerpiece of the English concept of the White Man’s Burden and was adopted by American Sociologist William Graham Sumner to justify the immense concentration of wealth in the United States. 

Emile Durkheim

Perhaps the most important early sociologist was Emile Durkheim. He virtually created sociology as an academic discipline with his research on Suicide, which we will talk about later. Durkheim was very interested in what held society together, or what he called Solidarity. Durkheim had a background in anthropology, so he liked to compare modern societies to what he considered primitive societies. That major difference he noticed was that of population. Older societies were held together through what Durkheim referred to as Mechanical Solidarity. In other words, they were held together through shared traditions and values. These are typically small, agricultural societies with little interaction with the outside world. Everyone knows each other. They all share the same religious beliefs, family values, understandings of the world. 

But societies develop according to what Durkheim called the Law of Social Gravity. Durkheim saw modern societies as becoming increasingly more “dense.” This social desnsity was the result of population increases, geographic spread, and improvements in transportation and communication. As social density increases, Mechanical Solidarity is no longer feasible. So what can hold society together under these conditions?

Durkheim is a superhero in sociology

Not to Fear, Durkheim is here! According to Durkheim in his study Division of Labor in Society, society will hold together because individuals in socially dense societies tend to be more specialized in their skill sets. Even though people are less like each other, they still need the fruits of each other’s skills in order to live according to the standards of their time. 

Look, I can build for myself a pretty reasonable shelter, but if I want to have a house, I’m going to have to rely on other people. One guy lays the foundation, another builds the walls, another the roofing, another plasters and puts on the siding. There’s plumbers and electricians and, very important when you live in Florida, the Air Condition guy, there’s finishers and flooring and carpeting and cable and wifi hookup and appliances. Scores of people are involved in my having a house to live in. And even if I could build a house myself from the ground up, I’m still dependent on others who actually make the concrete, process the wood, mix the plaster, extrude the wiring, manufacture the materials that go into my house. When you look at it like that, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of people involved in constructing my house…and because of this, my house is a huge improvement over the log cabins and soddies of my frontier forefathers. This, Durkheim calls Organic Solidarity.

That being said, there are elements of Mechanical Solidarity that are still important for individuals to feel a sense of integration in society, but become more complicated in Organic societies. Along with social density, Durkheim observed a moral density, that is, the extent to which people identify as having a common life. It’s impossible for me to know everybody in my society, but it is possible to, on occasion, perform collective rituals that make me feel tied in with the rest of social world. People who experience this kind of ritualized group identity are less likely to commit suicide. So you perform these rituals when you do things like say the Pledge of Allegiance or wear your school colors on Pep Rally days. These are all rituals very similar to those played out in religious ceremonies.

Football player Collin Kaepernick taking a knee. He is using a collective ritual to make a personal statement about police brutality. This created a huge controversy. (Photo by Mike Morbeck/Wikimedia Commons)

And we take these rituals very seriously despite the diversity of our group membership. Just recently, football player Collin Kaepernick caused a national outcry when he refused to stand for the National Anthem as a form of protest. These mass rituals help very expansive societies form unifying ideas, what Durkheim “ collective representations.” In the United States, our reverence for the flag and for patriotic rituals like the Pledge, like parades and the Fourth of July are collective rituals that infuse us with a sense of collective consciousness we identify as being Americans. When someone defies these rituals, they are challenging our collective representations, a significant source of our identity–we don’t like that.

Now Durkheim was very prolific and offered perspectives on many things. With regard to the Functionalist Perspective, Durkheim’s biggest contribution was his analysis on Deviance. Durkheim had a problem. If the Functionalist perspective is valid and reliable, and everything that exists in a society serves some function of the society, then how can we account for negative things that happen in society, like crime and immorality? 

By refusing to give up her seat on the bus, Rosa Parks committed a deviant act, she literally broke the law. In doing so, she forced the nation to re-examine its rules with regard to race and segregation.

Well, Durkheim had an explanation. Crime and other forms of deviance were absolutely necessary in society. First, deviance clarifies what is right and wrong. When people do something that the rest of society condemns, they will be inclined to create a rule. You can’t go around poking people in the eye. When we punish someone for breaking a rule, that affirms the importance of the rule for everyone else. Deviance can also unify a community or a society against the deviant, providing crucial integration. Finally, deviants can force us to re-examine our rules and decide if we really want to keep them. Rosa Parks did, in fact, break the law, but her act of deviance sparked a nationwide debate about the nature of these rules. In this way, deviance can lead to social change, and this is one of the few ways that functionalists can account for social change. 

In the twentieth century, few Functionalist theorists were as influential as Talcott Parson’s and Robert Merton, and we will be talking about them a great deal this year. 

Parson’s was interested in how the different structures in society fulfill social goals, and he, like Comte and Durkheim and Weber, was looking for a grand theory to explain it all. Structures, are stable and consistent patterns of interaction, such as institutions and organizations. When you walk into a classroom for the first time, you already have an idea of how things are going to work, that’s because a classroom, and a school and an education system are Structures. Each structure has particular functions. Functions are consequences or outcomes of the structure. 

Talcott Parson’s was notoriously verbose, making his writings painful to slog through. His writing was so weighty that even his contemporary, sociologist C. Wright Mills, made fun of him in his class Sociological Imagination

For Parson’s, every society must have structures in place to fulfill four basic functions. These functions have traditionally been described by the acronym AGIL:

    A: Adaptability: Every society must have ways of adapting to change and disruptions. Currently there are major floods going on in Louisiana. This is a huge disruption for the people living there. Society must be able to respond to these disruptions. We also have a changing economy, that has left its manufacturing history behind and is now moving into a service sector and information based economy. So the old Industrial Arts programs in schools are gone and new computer science classes installed.

    G. Goals: Every society must establish legitimate goals to provide guidance for its members lives. Right now you are reading a Sociology text, probably for a class you are taking. You probably don’t intend to become a sociologist, but you see taking this class as a step toward getting a degree which will help you satisfy socially determined goals like establishing yourself in a career. 

    I: Integration. Every society must develop ways of incorporating its members into the structures that support the society. This is usually done by socializing those born into society and teaching children their roles and responsibilities, but may also involve finding ways to assimilate immigrant groups and newcomers.

    L: Latency. Every society must find ways to perpetuate itself, to survive over the long term, which means passing on values and norms as well as resolving conflicts. 

Parsons identified four basic structures that satisfy these functions: Political Structures, Economic Structures, Cultural Structures and Family Structures. These structures are not particular. They overlap. A school may be a political structure because it is governed by the state, but an economic structure because it spends money and prepares students for taking part in the market. Schools are also cultural structures because they pass on vital norms and values, as well as family structures because families are incorporated into the school system.

Robert Merton looking for something on his chin!

Robert Merton was interested in taking a closer look at these functions of society. He noticed that social structures were pretty complicated things and that the actual functions resulting from the work done by institutions and organizations was not necessarily as expected. Merton described three different functions: Manifest Functions, Latent Functions and Latent Dysfunctions. 

Most of the people reading this chapter right now are students, maybe high school, maybe college. When you were looking for colleges you probably went on-line or went to college fairs or sent away for information. Perhaps you were sent brochures and pamphlets describing the colleges and why you should enroll. Well, the stuff that’s on the brochure are the Manifest Functions. They are the expressed goals of the institution. So when you sign up to go to my alma mater, the University of South Florida — Go Bulls!–you know that you are going to get a quality education, lots of academic programs, athletics, a vibrant campus life, financial assistance, great housing options. You know, if you complete your degree, that that piece of paper you get will be worth something and will open doors for you. That’s what the institution is telling you it is going to do. 

Merton, however, also observed that institutions like Universities, also fulfill other functions that do not make it to the brochure. For instance, many of you who are in college may find your future spouse…or future first spouse as the case may be. That’s not on the brochure. You may make contacts that can advance you in your career. You will certainly be exposed to ideas that will make you question your beliefs. You will be taught to conform to expectations that may be otherwise meaningless to you. You will learn how to negotiate an often unreasonble bureaucratic monstrosity just to register for your classes. None of these things are advertised, but they are an integral part of college life. These are called Latent Functions

Latent functions, however, are not always of the positive kind. Sometimes the functions of institutions can actually have a negative impact. For instance, you may be subject to abuse and harassment at your university. Universities and colleges can be a locus for criminal activity, sexual exploitation and drug and alcohol abuse. Merton referred to these as Latent Dysfunctions

The death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police officer is just one more example of the overlap between racism and police brutality. Is this a case of just a few bad apples, or is racism an instrumental part of the police force as a social structure? If so, what is the function? Or is it a Latent Dysfunction? How we respond to social issues like this is often premised on how we define the problem.

Functionalism is a powerful tool for sociological analysis. It’s great for getting a big picture understanding of the society and breaking down the structures and functions of the society. The functionalist, like Durkheim did with Suicide and religion and deviance, can take major issues like racism, analyze the structural implications and explain their perpetuation as a function of the institution. Recently, the disproportionate number of deaths of African Americans at the hands of police officers has inspired movements like #blacklivesmatter and mobilization of Civil Rights organizations. A couple of commonsense explanations have been offered suggesting that this is the result of a small handful of bad or racist cops acting on their prejudice, or on the other side of the issue, simply a matter of black men being more likely to resist the police than white men. The functionalist, however, predicts that this issue is more than just a result of decisions made by police officers or suspects, but rather that racism is a structural element of policing in the United States that will require more than just rooting out the bad apples. What’s more, this racism, since it has been a consistent part of American culture, serves some kind of function for the society as a whole. What is that function? Or perhaps there is some latent dysfunction in the relationship between police precincts and the black communities they are charged with serving and protecting. 

That may be the most important contribution of the functionalist perspective. Functionalism forces us to think outside of the box, to explore possibilities that are more complex and more comprehensive than the simple common sense notions. 

However, it’s philosophically problematic to argue that something serves a function based on nothing more concrete than that it exists. We have a circular argument in which something exists because it serves a function and we know it serves a function because it exists. This is a philosophical fallacy called a tautology.

The functionalist also has a hard time explaining conditions that do not conform with the assumption that society is a stable and orderly system. Some societies are not, and most societies experience instability at some point in their history. Many societies, like the United States, enjoy overall stability, but still have local pockets of instability. How is this possible? 

Functionalism often takes the perspective of the dominant groups in society and emphasizes perpetuation of the status quo without much concern for subordinate groups that are abused by the status quo. 

The functionalist perspective is also given to a certain fatalism. Functionalism isn’t interested in empathy or sympathy with those who get the short end of the social stick. It’s just a simple matter of structures and functions. But real people are experiencing these structures and functions, and some are better served than others. Some are exploited, but this is of little significance to functional analysis. If, for instance, racism does serve a function in society, what incentive do we really have to eradicate it. In which case, what’s the point of even having a discipline of sociology?

Next Lecture I hope to address some of these concerns by looking at the Conflict Perspective.

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