We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1) OR: What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not?
One of the most popular perspectives in sociology from the 1930s until the late 60s was structural-functionalism. Some people are still functionalists but they’re usually pretty quiet about it these days. Functionalism has a long history in Western thought but structural-functionalism is of more recent American vintage. Functionalism was an early European anthropological perspective that was adopted enthusiastically by the American sociologists Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton. Functionalism or structural-functionalism are often uses interchangeably but it’s not my aim here to discuss the distinction or the similarity between these terms. I have ulterior motives.
I start this with a reference to sociology and functionalism and that’s because I’m a sociologist, at least according to the document hanging on my wall in my office. But functionalism has counterparts in all scientific disciplines. Some disciplines seem to still embrace the concepts at least at an elementary level and use the perspective in teaching. As far as I know in human biology classes there is still talk of anatomy and physiology, that is, of the structure of human organs, cells, systems, etc., and their functions. I know that in anthropology there is still reference to the various aspects or institutions of cultures and their function or role in the lives of those cultures. In fact, in sociology, that is also true. Most introductory texts break up society into parts, education, religion, family, economy, polity, art, etc., and the role they play together to keep a society functioning properly or in equilibrium, which is the ideal social state according to sociological functionalists and other scientists too for that matter.
There is some validity to the structural-functionalist perspective, but it’s limited. The perspective has been overwhelmed by much more relativistic perspectives such as the so-called interactionist perspectives but I’ll explore that some other day. It’s certainly true that human bodies have organs and they function more or less well. Emile Durkheim (1858 to 1917) actually referred to sociology as social pathology or the study of what goes wrong with societies or how they get out of kilter. He also referred to sociology as the study of morality but I’ll also leave that for another day. The point here is that in sociology a major perspective sees society as being composed of parts, which serve a function more or less effectively. The family is supposed to serve the function of socializing children and providing a warm, emotionally supportive environment in which children grow up. Religion is supposed to look after our spiritual needs. Education has the task of preparing each generation of people to undertake their adult roles. The economy is supposed to take care of our biological needs for food and other material things we need to live in a particular society at a particular time. If all the parts of society are doing their job, everything is cool and society is working as it should. Of course, I wrote earlier that this perspective has limitations and it does. One of the main limitations is that it treats society as an organism that stands by itself and is, in a sense, sui generis (self generated). I’m being somewhat unfair to functionalism, but not essentially. But that’s not the only problem with functionalism. It wants society to be balanced, but it often isn’t and some institutions or parts of society don’t always do what they’re supposed to do in the way that they’re supposed to. Robert K. Merton understood that and came up with the idea that some things like families are sometimes dysfunctional and the task of the sociologist is to show how things can be put right again. Well, today I want to look at dysfunction in ‘the economy.’
First, I want to be clear that I’m not a functionalist in the least but that doesn’t prevent me from writing about ‘society’ from that perspective. It’s a simplistic perspective because it’s basically ahistorical, but for the moment just pretend that you’ve gone into your doctor’s office and she’s trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with you. Pretend that you’re a doctor of society trying to figure out what’s ‘wrong’ with your society. What criteria would you use to determine whether your society is ok or not? This is not a rhetorical question. I’m interested in your answer. Write a comment.