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The functionalist model of how society works has many limitations and a few strengths. Explain and assess this view.

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Some of the greatest functionalist social theorists of history were Claude Levi-Strauss, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx. What all of these thinkers have in common was that they were inspired by the modernistic ways of thinking that characterized the philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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Some of the greatest functionalist social theorists of history were Claude Levi-Strauss, Emile Durkheim, and Karl Marx. What all of these thinkers have in common was that they were inspired by the modernistic ways of thinking that characterized the philosophy of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Modernity at its most basic level implies that all of society proceeds invariably towards specified end results, the achievement of which represents transcendence over archaic social forms. In regard to the functionalist perspective, this usually implies that societies engage in certain processes or maintain certain points of view because they contribute to the goals of modernity in concrete and predictable ways.

This way of thinking has several drawbacks. First, and most importantly, it assumes that there is only one “correct” social formation that can be achieved and that all of the energies and resources of society must be directed towards it. Durkheim, for example, argues in his monograph The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, that there are specific, discernible, fundamental properties that define all religions. Among these, he considers the existence of a Church and certain totemic objects that have a shared symbolic meaning and characterize the experiences of all practitioners of a specific religion. These elements have a function in maintaining the stability and propagation of that religion. For this reason, they are permanent and non-interchangeable parts of religious life.

There are some advantages to this way of defining religion. On the one hand, it allows us to recognize, form definitions of, and assign significance to certain aspects of religious practice that are commonly shared between many different cultures and people, regardless of their specific belief systems. On the other hand, it allows us to form concrete categories in our minds about what religion is, how we define it, and how it bears significance to our own lives. This is fundamental to human beings’ ability to generate meaning.

However, there are many drawbacks to the functionalist way of thinking, whether we are speaking about religion or anything else. Most fundamentally, it presumes that the concrete, elemental components of society are eternal and that once human beings have figured them out, they will be able to work with them with scientific perfectibility. This dismisses the transient nature of certain phenomena and denies people and society agency to make their own decisions and to operate with any level of autonomy. The post-structuralist, post-functionalist perspective, most famously expounded by philosophers like Foucault and Derrida, treats the ephemeral existence of society and social phenomena as the only reality and thus directly refutes functionalist theory.

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