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We hope this Unit 4 essay from the AQA syllabus might be an inspiration to students.

Assess the contribution of functionalism to an understanding of society

Functionalism is a key theory in the modern era. It has certainly been foundational in developing an understanding of society, but we must also remember that Parsons – it’s key exponent in the 20th century also used social action theory to develop a concept of how it is that society not only exists on functional prerequisites (the economy, goal attainment, integration and individual beliefs and values) but how we act. How far can we say that functionalism has held it’s own in this mending together of the two theories and how far can we say functionalism has been able to withstand the criticisms directed towards it?

Parsons refers to four functional prerequisites – latency, integration, goal attainment, and adaptation. These clearly mark out a role for the individual and so are a definite development from Durkheimian functionalism which stressed the ‘collective consciousness’. Furthermore Parsons has brought to the table a number of ‘pattern variables’. These also tend to involve interaction within a functionalist framework. For example the pattern variable of affectivity concerns the actual closeness between peoples in communities themselves. Durkheim stressed the less defined influence of religion, not examining the actions of individuals in the community itself. Further examples from Parsons include specificity or diffuseness and universalism. Both stress a paradigm of interaction between society and the individual with the stress on the former. In some respects then there has been quite a considerable move towards social action theory in Parsonian theory. His adoption of an evolutionary approach is a key underlying factor that enables him to still maintain the organic analogy of functionalism. And so society is still held together as it operates. But with what? The emphasis may have shifted here from the power of religious solidarity to the power of the economy.

What then is it that social action theory contributes to a modern understanding of society? It is not only the influence on functionalism itself. But the fact that social action theory in itself is a major contributor. Weber’s concept of ‘verstehen’ or understanding is vital here. He argues that we cannot simply see society top down. This is not an adequate explanation. We must understand individuals acting. We must observe how people act and seek for a cause behind this action. Weber was interested in the causes of western industrialist capitalism and so studied a particular religious group who were influenced in their economic action by their religion. Key to Weber’s thesis is the notion of calling and divine election amongst Calvinists. This religious grouping believed that they had been called by God, and that this calling needed to be worked out in some way in the world. It was not enough for them simply to be members of the church since they understood the world to be God’s creation. Some kind of successful interaction was necessary to show that they had in fact been called. The motive for their action, although socially expressed was initially motivated by their belief in God. Functionalism certainly played a part in this since the structure of society in which to work was necessary for there to be meaning to their actions. But the actions were not simply given meaning by society – they already possessed a vital meaning before the actions were carried out.

There are question marks over whether this type of functionalist interactionism (Weberian) can understand today’s world because of the difference in symbols used to express the value of a person’s work. Although symbolic interactionism may be said to focus too much emphasis on individual meaning of the self and the symbol it may help to update and modify some social action theories.

In conclusion functionalism in the modern era has developed since Durkheim to incorporate social action theory. It nevertheless retains the name because of the foundational reality in nature given through the organic analogy. Without social action theory, however, it would not possess the same power to understand. It is an integral component. Social action theory is also dependent on the contribution of functionalism. Both theories are not substantially altered, but could be modified by a consideration of symbolic interactionism.