Critically evaluate the contributions of functionalism to the study of society. Functionalist theory is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It can be argued that the functionalist theory has made a significant contribution to the study of society. It originates from the work of Emile Durkheim who suggests that social order is possible and society remains stable due to the functioning of several institutions. Everything has a specific function in society and society will always function in harmony. The main institutions studied by functionalism are the family, the education system, religion and crime and deviance.
Murdock argues that the family performs four basic functions in all societies – sexual, reproductive, economic and educational. These four basic functions are essential for social life since without the sexual and reproductive functions there would be no members of society, without the economic function life would cease and without education there would be no socialisation or culture. Without these four basic functions human society could not survive. The family does not perform these functions alone however it makes important contributions to them all. Murdock is often criticised for his picture of the family as he did not consider whether its functions could be performed by other social institutions and he does not examine alternatives to the family. Equally, Murdock illustrates the nuclear family as very harmonious and perfect. There are many ill-functioning families in society which Murdock fails to examine and explain. What is the function of families when the husband and wife fail to have an integrated division of labour and have a healthy sexual relationship?
Talcott Parsons offers an alternative view of the functions of the family and suggests it serves two purposes: primary socialisation and the stabilisation of the adult personality. Primary socialisation refers to socialisation during the early years of childhood, which take place mainly within the family. This is important in contributing to society as our parents supposedly bring their offspring up to grow to be well-behaved, obedient individuals with the right values to help society function. The stabilisation of adult personalities emphasises on the marriage relationship and emotional security the couple provides for each other. This acts to counteract the stresses of everyday life and keep the personality stable. Parsons claims that the family therefore provides a context in which husband and wife can express their childish feelings, give and receive emotional support, recharge their batteries and so stabilise their personalities. However, Parsons’ views on the family are criticised for being incomplete and idealising the family with his picture of well-adjusted children and sympathetic spouses caring for each other unconditionally. It is a over-optimistic and modernist and has little relationship to reality, because as mentioned before, not all families function perfectly. Similarly to Murdock, Parsons also fails to examine alternatives to the family which may provide the same functions for the development of society.
The overall functionalist theory on the family is criticised by Marxism, feminists and some postmodernists. A Marxist would argue that the function of the family is to serve capitalism. Some feminists would argue that the function of the family is for women to serve men and that families are so diverse it is hard to argue that the family has a purpose. Some postmodernists suggest that the nuclear family is not as common as it seems and that there are now many diversities of families due to cultural and social changes. These views are clearly in conflict with the views of functionalism; therefore it allows us to question their validity.
Functionalism also has its set of views on the education system. Emile Durkheim claimed that the main function of education was to transmit society’s norms and values...
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