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Functionalism is a consensus theory that sees society as a complex structure whose parts have to work together in order to function. Emile Durkheim was the one to come up with this theory, he initially envisioned society as an organism, just like within an organism each part has to work efficiently in order for it to run as a whole, each part plays a necessary part and none can function alone. If one part experiences a fail then other parts must adapt to fill the void. There are parts of society that are of social institutions, each of which is designed for different needs and to help different parts of society. Primary institutions include family, government, economy, media, education and religion. When an institution is no longer needed or serves a role in society then it dies away, new institutions however emerge when new needs evolve.
An example of how the institutions work together to ensure society functions: the government provides children with education, the family of the children pay taxes, the government relies on these taxes to keep itself running. The families depend on the school to ensure their children have good jobs and provide for their own families. These children then become taxpaying citizens who support the government. All parts of society produce an order and stability if all work together. Social change occurs when something in society disrupts the system, things such as deviant behavior and crime has an affect on the system. The government then has to change to ensure society isn’t disturbed.
The family’s role in society is to teach kids the basics; before they go to school they learn basic norms that all humans master, such as walking or talking. From the age of 0-5 the family is the most important influence on a child’s life, the family teach children norms and values that prepare them for what they learn in school. Family also provides society with the next generation with biological reproduction.
Education provides the next generation with knowledge on key fundamentals of the world. Schools teach children what they need to know to progress further into life. For example, qualifications are earned in order to get a job, further education is required for more advanced jobs that have more of an affect on society. Functionalists focus on 4 positive things that the education system performs. These include: creating social solidarity, teach necessary skills for work, teach core values and role allocation.
Social solidarity: solidarity is when you feel as if you are part of something bigger, Durkheim argued that school makes you feel like you have solidarity. This is achieved through learning subjects such as history and art; all subjects that are taught in school give students a shared sense of identity. It is argued that school prepares you for life in a much wider society than you know when learning.Teaching core values: Functionalists such as Parsons argue that school plays the largest role in secondary socialisation, this is due to family and wider society working in different principles, school teaches children how to adapt to cope in the wider world.
If education didn’t function the way it does in contemporary society then many industrial economies wouldn’t function, an example of this is higher education such as university. However, school today focuses more on teaching children set content rather than teaching them duties and responsibilities that are needed to progress in life. For example, children aren’t taught to pay taxes or get a mortgage; they aren’t taught things that would help them in a wider society. Children aren’t taught to be individual or expressive, individuality is important for children when growing up as it shapes them into what they’re going to be like when they’re adults. Students are made to wear the same thing, look the same and learn the same stuff; all children are examined on the same things and aren’t given the chance to express themselves in alternate ways. Marxists argue that education is about transmitting the values of the ruling class. Children that fail at school feel as though they don’t belong in society, therefore reject the values of school and form subcultures and result in deviant behavior.
There are many critics of this theory, many stating that the functionalist theory is too optimistic, it is argued that functionalism shows an overly harmonious picture of society and underestimate conflict. Functionalism also doesn’t recognise the differences between class, region or ethnicity, the functionalist picture is reflective of a happy, middle class family. For example, lower classes might not be able to afford to send their children to school, or in some parts of the world education is not offered or they are refused access to it. Some children are made to work from a young age for example; in third world countries boys have to work from a young age to provide for their family due to the father leaving.
Functionalism presents the idea that only socialisation determines ones life, functionalists do not see that humans are unpredictable and are most likely to stray away from predictable ideas.
In conclusion, functionalism is a theory designed by Emile Durkheim who was criticized for being overly optimistic. His theory focused merely on certain institutions and he ignored many other factors that influence society. In contrast to theories such as Marxism and feminism, functionalism focuses on the positives in society and bases the theory around what is going right in society, rather than what is going wrong. Functionalism argues that all parts of society has to interconnect in order for society to work, if one part doesn’t function then all will fail to function.
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