We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1)

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.

4 thoughts on “We’ve got this all wrong. (Part 1)

  1. Hey Roger! My answer is partially influenced by many years in Norway.

    What I find interesting about living here is that the structures are strongly in place and reflect my own values of how a government should operate but I find I am often in conflict with how people behave on the social level. If you could help me solve this riddle from a sociological perspective I would be forever thankful.

    I have come to the partial conclusion that because Norway has such a strong government state (collective apparatus has their structural needs met, supported by a duty to pay into collective care via taxation) that this leaves the individual to become very self-focused and not give a damn about the stranger. I HATE this part of being here and it can’t be the only reason – I think Viking heritage/ideology plays a role too in this “what’s mine is mine is mine because I deserve it”. Sense of entitlement is extremely high here. One example of this socially atrocious behavior, is how strangers treat one another on the bus, streets, stores etc (just ask Marika about almost being mowed down by a woman with a baby carriage – someone who would have assumed entitlement that her needs are important, maybe even more so than that of a childless woman….anyway). For example, today I almost lashed out in anger when ONCE AGAIN on the way to work I was struck by another passenger’s’ bag. This happens OFTEN and DAILY without “them” once signaling to me that they have noticed that they have hit me in the head, arm, or stepped on my foot etc. Nor do “they” make any attempt to not hit strangers with random items!! True born- and- raised Norwegians seem to not notice/openly react if this happens to them. If and when someone says sorry or holds a door open for me my immediate thought is that they must be foreign. And ultimately this behaviour reminds me that I am foreign, which then leads into a tailspin of not belonging/identifying with being Norwegian and a burning desire to run back to Union Bay.

    So, onto my criteria for a functioning society, which will be a combination of what I have experienced in Norway and in Canada.

    Not in order of importance:
    1. Access and the ability to participate on an equal playing field- healthcare, education, politics.
    2. Cultural development – arts, music and language as avenues of expression that are not curtailed which leads to freedom of expression and the ability to say your piece to society, to your boss, to your family and friends. Recognizing that there are some rules to play by like no harm unto others (which needs to be defined on a relative level).
    3. Support – for when times are tough. By the collective system and the social one.
    4. Acceptance of diversity.
    5. Fullfilment – are people happy? Yes, tragedy falls upon us all but are we a happy society?

    Probably loads of more criteria but these were just off the top of my head! Beers and bitching about Norway when I get back home??

    – Cheers,



  2. The list of symptoms is staggering and they might obscure the diagnosis, where to begin? Rhetoric obscures the obvious, and as a whole, its difficult to find the true pulse of society. I believe society is sick, but with what and how serious is yet to be determined.
    There are signs of improvement; world wide people are waking up to the idea that there is more to the world then the sum total of their possessions. Movements like Idle No More give me hope for a future prognosis -one that takes the sting out of the current trend in consumption at any cost.
    Compassion and empathy for the plight of the whole, as opposed to the dreams of the one, is what I want to see, a simple perspective that has potential to heal.


  3. The first thing that comes to my mind is who well is society preparing youth to enter the adult world? Are there jobs available for our university graduates that will compensate them in such a manner that they will feel that all their hard work getting a degree has paid off. Will their employment utilize their education well so that they are glad they got their postsecondary education? I realize that for some, especially women, the satisfaction of having been educated might be enough, if they are ABLE and CHOOSE, and I emphasize the word choose to have children and stay at home to raise them. If they are able, once their children are a bit older, to re-enter the workforce with skills that will give them satisfying jobs with good financial compensation, and not have to settle for low-paying jobs beneath their abilities. Even in this day of so-called equality of genders, the reality is that women are still usually the ones to stay at home with the children, and to me that is not necessarily a bad thing at all. Are we also producing young adults who are talented in the trades with opportunities to train as carpenters, plumbers, electricians etc and do we value their work and present these careers as just as important for the intelligent good students and university degrees? I don’t like the term “the best and brightest” to be for only university-bound students, because it implies that for a bright student to choose a trade is a mistake. (I was biased in that way and have recently changed my mind. My eldest son was a straight A student and could have gone to university, but he told me he loves carpentry, can make good money at it, and is now in business for himself, hiring others to work for him, and I am very proud of him). Long-winded as usual, but you get my drift.


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