Structural functionalism was a sociological theory developed in the 1930s by Talcott Parsons. Its basis stems from the work of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. The theory was popular in relation to describing social systems like family and government institutions, in that the systems contain members who each held a function within the system; the overall purpose of each member was to keep the system in balance to allow for its continuance. Parsons focused on qualitative data analysis rather than quantitative analysis like the theory of positivism, which it replaced. Structural functionalism was discredited due to its qualitative methodology and its focus on the general rather than the specific, although some social scientists still use it today.
Keywords Conflict; Dimorphic; Hegemony; Parsons, Talcott; Positivism; Qualitative Data; Quantitative Data; Sociobiology; Structural Functionalism
Developed in the 1930s, structural functionalism is a sociological theory that dominated social interpretive approaches until the 1970s. Talcott Parsons, born in Colorado in 1902, presented the theory in the United States based on the work of Max Weber (economist and social historian in Germany) and Emile Durkheim (a social theorist in France). Parsons studied both Weber and Durkheim and translated their work into English a few years after becoming a professor at Harvard in 1927. Parsons is the author of The Structure of Social Action and The Social System, both well known texts within the social science field.
Structural functionalism posits that within every social structure or system — politics, family, organizations — each member of the system has a specific function. Those functions can be small or substantial, are dynamic in nature (i.e., they can change), and work toward the same purpose: to keep the system operational within its environment. According to Parsons, change is evident within any society or system; however, for the system to survive, it must adapt to that change in order to maintain its equilibrium. As part of this maintenance, Parsons identified four imperatives for societies to survive, which he called the AGIL model:
• Adaptation: acquiring and mobilizing sufficient resources so that the system can survive.
• Goal Attainment: setting and implementing goals
• Integration: maintaining solidarity or coordination among the subunits of the system.
• Latency: creating, preserving, and transmitting the system's distinctive culture and values.
A good example of structural functionalism is an ant colony. Ants live within a social system that is structured yet adaptable, with each ant holding a position within that system. While the positions of the ants may be different (worker, queen), their goals are the same: to maintain the colony's status as a functioning unit so it can survive. The queen ant gives birth to a tribe of worker ants who find sustenance and share it with the rest of the system. While not considered as complex as an institutionalized form of government, an ant colony is a system which differentiates between its members, adapts to new environments, and includes members and activities that years ago may not have been acceptable. It does this to function effectively and to promote its survival.
Divergence from Earlier Theories
What made structural functionalism notable is its strong divergence from earlier theories. Social positivism, prominent in the early 20th century, focused on empirical studies of social interaction. Often referred to as logical positivism or empiricism, the theory was concerned solely with concrete facts and quantitative data analysis. Parsons believed that ideas like motivation and goals should also be a theorist's focus, as human interaction can not always be as clear cut as "the inductive model of scientific knowledge that positivism presented" (Smelser, 1990).
As such, Parsons promoted the analytical over the concrete to interpret the roles of the members within different social systems. To further this view, Parsons posited that every action people take is done so within a social context of the system in which they are have been socialized. In addition, each action is taken in an attempt to get along, rather than as a random set of actions or a system of actions to further an individual's gain within the system. For Parsons, work toward the "ends" is always done to maintain the order and balance of the system. The system must be flexible and adaptive, but it cannot allow for deviance. And, while established mechanisms (the legal system) are supposed to keep deviance in check, social order is maintained through the socialization process: the members are taught that deviance is wrong because it harms the survival of the system.
Critics attacked structural functionalism in the late 1960s because the theory was unable to explain phenomena such as social change, disagreement with social and political aims, and the influential underpinnings of the wealthy. Furthermore, feminists were critical of Parsonianism because while the theory supplies an explanation for male privilege, it avoids discussion of the historical contributions of women. As a result of these criticisms, structural functionalism lost its credibility in the 1970s. However, some scientists revert to the theory as it offers a valid explanation of consensus, which supports the concept of social order. It is also considered a useful model of description as a result of its collection of quantitative data.
Parsons used structural functionalist methodology to interpret many areas of society. When he delved into the realm of political science, controversy ensued. Boskoff (1959) states that, "The development of political sociology reflects the social scientist's dislike of artificially neat disciplines and their consequent production of isolated bodies of fact and generalization" (71). It could have been that Parsons did not like the all-inclusive packages of other theories and wanted to expand the political arena to that of his own liking. In his theoretical expansion into politics, he used four levels of analysis, moving from the broad to the restricted.
First, Parsons identified a general theory of social systems within the two-party voting system. He believed that because the ability to vote cut across social and cultural boundaries, there was overwhelming support for the social system of politics as a whole. Second, as political campaigns are functional within a society, an over-all political organization is prominent. Third, in addition to the function of an organized political system, having the flexibility to vote for either side — a two-party system model — is also the crux of Parsons' political theory. Boskoff (1959) notes that
Here the mechanism of cross pressures derived from two or more solidary groups, reference groups, causes (1) an increase in voting interest among those politically indifferent; and (2) shifts in voting choices. Cross-pressures operate principally on those persons involved in social change and subject to the processes of social mobility and thus prevent the development of rigid voting patterns in the face of important changes in the over-all society (p. 71).
Finally, Parsons held fast to the specific voting system of the United States. Focusing on society as a whole, Parsons believed that the people of the country would participate in the voting process simply as a function of membership within the group. Boskoff criticizes this point by suggesting that, in fact, everyone does not vote and when they do, only certain segments of society — those within specific ethnic, economic, and cultural divisions — are the ones who step up to the plate (Boskoff, 1959, p. 71-72).
Also, it is important to point out that Parsons' theory relies entirely on the proposition that the voting process is the most relevant demonstration of a two-party political system. Boskoff (1959) disagrees and identifies several other indicators that need analysis within this context.
[A] proper functional analysis of our two-party system should also focus on such phenomena as the nature of municipal, county, and state elections; the rural-urban imbalance in state legislatures; the realities of intraparty structure and function, including the selection of candidates, patronage systems on all levels, and ideological factions; the considerable range of one party controls; the extraparty role of pressure groups and lobbyists; the significance of appointed administrators, particularly on regulatory commissions; the effectiveness of specific policies and programs developed and administered by both parties in such fields as agricultural problems, labor-management relations, financial controls, civil rights, and crime control; and finally, the repercussions of two-party maneuvering on foreign policy in a shaky two power world (p. 73).
To defend Parsons' limited perspective, it is necessary to note that his theoretical interpretation was focused on the voting of one presidential election because that was the data to which he had access. He took that information and, as many theorists do, put his own framework to work to identify a possible explanation for human behavior. Interestingly, Parsons' data concluded that an election campaign itself "does not convince most voters. Instead, it tends to increase interest in the election and to encourage identification with" parties rather than candidates (Boskoff, 1959, p. 71-72).
Sociology Class: The Family Structure
Mathieu Deflem (2007) teaches his upper-level sociology course as a continuum of sociological theory taught at the introductory levels. He notes that while several theorists are discussed throughout his seminar, Talcott Parsons is one that receives a great deal of attention, as Parsons' work was the crux of sociological theory for decades; in addition, it links twentieth-century sociology between the classical perspective of the early 1900s to the contemporary one utilized today, fitting well in the middle of the two.
One of the ideas behind using film to depict Parsons' theoretical perspective is that structural functionalism (and theories in general) earn the consideration of criticism simply because they exist. A large criticism of Parsonian theory is that it is too abstract. As Deflem's students are seeing the teacher after already learning (probably in sociology 101) about this abstractness and its effect in the downfall of structural functionalism, Deflem spends time concentrating on the benefit of abstract ideas before presenting films.
I … find it particularly useful in the teaching of Parsons' theories to communicate to students the notion that the development of abstract theoretical ideas does not imply that such theorizing cannot be applied to the study of empirical phenomena. The exact opposite is true (Deflem, 2007, p. 4).
The teacher moves from the abstract to the specific and considers the family system that is a prominent focus within Parsons' theory.
A consideration worth noting is that Parson's theory — that everything...
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