Lecture: Functionalism

Competing Paradigms: Functionalism

I. Differing sociological perspectives

A. The natural and social sciences, including sociology, understand the world in terms of paradigms.
There are three main theoretical perspectives in sociology that focus on two different levels of analysis.
1. Macro-level perspectives: These explanations focus on large-scale patterns of society.
2. Micro-level perspectives: These explanations focus on small-scale patterns of society

B. Sociology developed in the mid-19th century as a result of three factors:
1. Social Upheaval in Europe resulting from the Industrial Revolution; The shift from agriculture to factory production changed people's lives. People were forced off the land and moved to cities where they found anonymity, crowding, filth, and poverty. Work conditions were very bad. This great social change in Europe begged for explanation.
2. Imperialism (conquering other nations exposed people to differing cultures); This exposure to people of different cultures raised questions about why cultures differed.
3. The success of the natural sciences created a desire for answers about the social world as well. Chemistry and Physics were making large advances and so it seemed only logical to apply scientific methods to the social world

C. Hence, early theoretical paradigms sought to explain inequalities. So, when we think about the differing paradigms, we must answer two fundamental questions:
1. What are the basic assumptions about society underlying the theoretical perspective?
2. How does the theoretical perspective explain inequality?

II. Macro-level theoretical perspectives

1. Basic Assumptions
a. Society is a system
b. All of the parts are inter-connected
c. Social phenomena exist because they fulfill a function

2. Structure of the argument
a. What is the phenomena to be explained?
b. Identify a potential threat to the system (what would happen if this phenomena didn't exist?)
c. Identify the mechanism by which the target feature preserves the system (how does it all work?)

3. Example: Talcott Parsons on Education
Phenomena to be explained -
Inequalities exist in the educational system. Why do some students finish post-graduate work while others retain only a high-school education?
Potential threat -
Without inequalities, there would be an absence of motivation for individuals to fill society's most demanding and difficult positions and to work responsibly once in those positions.
Mechanism - sorting
Schools then, preserve the system (or stop the potential threat of poor motivation) by sorting individuals according to merit and giving the greatest rewards to those who stay the longest.

4. Criticisms of the functionalist perspective
a. It is difficult to assess the objective importance of a position in the system.
b. Certain aspects of inequality are not explainable by a positions importance. Rewards are not necessarily connected to a positions importance:
* There are many anomalies: ex. professional athletes/entertainers
* There is too much inequality: CEO's make 95 times a factory worker
* Inequality exists within the same positions: gender inequality
* What about inheritance?: where your parents were in the system effects where you end up.

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