a consensus/structural/macro theory
Functionalism is one of the key consensus theories in sociology.
Functionalism is a structural theory. It focuses on how the different parts of society function together in the best interests of the society as a whole.
Functionalism is also a macro theory. Sociological macro theories analyse social systems and populations on a large scale.
Key institutions – education, families, law, political parties, pressure groups and churches – all function and interact in such a way that gives society its structure.
When functionalists examine a part of society, they ask: What is its function?Haralambos (2018)
Each institution has a function that it contributes to the overall health of the society as a whole. Durkheim explained this with his ‘organic analogy’ – where a society needs all its key interrelated institutions to function effectively in the same way that a human body needs all its various organs to work together to maintain the health of the individual.
Functionalists argue that individuals are made by the structure/institutions of the societies in which they exist.
Societies, and all their key institutions, are held together by a shared set of norms, values and beliefs around which there is a general consensus (agreement).
These shared norms, values and beliefs will usually include social order and social control, both of which set out clear guidelines in society in terms of what behaviours will be tolerated and what the consequences are likely to be for not following what the majority accept is required for a stable and peaceful society.
Functionalists are interested in how the norms, values and beliefs of a society are transmitted generation to generation and see socialisation as central to this process.
Socialisation is the main way we ‘learn’ how to fit into society. We will experience primary socialisation from the family and secondary socialisation from education and other key institutions of society as we experience our whole life.
Functionalists are aware that there will be occasions when certain institutions in society fail to function in the ways they’re supposed to. Durkheim referred to this situation as ‘anomie’ – the lack of,or decline of, key norms and values in society.
However – anomie need not always be a completely negative experience for society and may act as a deterrent, a warning and may even result in positive social change (see functionalist studies on crime and deviance).