Should is a four… er… six letter word

For all the posturing about the threat of relativism, we still live in a society that enshrines the worst aspects of structural functionalism.

As a quick refresher, structural functionalism is a sociological view that holds that everything that occurs within a society has some kind of function. Some functions may be openly stated, some functions may happen unintentionally, but there are functions.[1] There’s also an evolutionary undercurrent here as well – an implication that any institution, group, or function that persists must be a net positive for society. Otherwise, it claims, that part of society would not be able to continue. [2]

That last part frequently leads to a judgment call – that therefore, whatever exists now in society should exist, and must therefore be useful and good. And that’s crap.

However, this viewpoint has an emotional appeal to many people – because it’s easy. It means that whatever currently exists should exist, exactly the way it is now. [3] Just because it gets by the way it is does NOT imply that it cannot be better.

Look at marriage as one convenient example. We’re still hearing a lot about the “traditional” view of marriage [4] being under attack. Divorce rates, same-sex marriages, and people wanting to marry toasters oh my! Okay, so the last is a little nonsensical, but the other two aren’t as big of a deal as they’re made out to be.

Or at least, they don’t have to be.

The functionalist viewpoint tends to avoid splitting off the function from the activity itself. For a practical example here, it holds that marriage is there to raise children. Which is a function – but not a function that requires any particular kind of formal relationship between any particular gender of people. That function also doesn’t apply to anyone who is unable (or unwilling) to have children themselves.

At this point, the functional mindset switches gears – then marriage is about X, or Y. Each of those functions may be needed in society – but there are few marriages that embody all of these functions. There’s few that (IMHO) do most of those functions really well. The ability to enumerate the things society does is clearly functionalism’s strength – but it’s dogmatic lack of flexibility is its weakness.

In a world where things change faster each day, we need the flexibility to make sure the functions of society are met (or improved) without being rigidly held to the dogma that held years ago.

I mentioned this all before when talking about lesbian mothers; the arguments both there and here are principles. There is no such thing as something that people automatically should do.

There are always choices.

[1] For example, public schools are explicitly there to teach children, but also indoctrinate them into following rules, obeying a schedule, and the like.
[2] Which actually doesn’t make sense – unlike a biological organism, an individual portion of society can be only a negative as long as there are other positive parts of that society can take up the slack.
[3] Which again doesn’t make sense. Biologically, we still have organs that don’t do much besides get inflamed and make us ill (appendix, I’m looking at you!), or systems that are horribly inefficient (hello, eyes!).
[4] Which isn’t. Women were essentially property after marriage (and frequently before, up until the 20th century.

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  1. June 4, 2009

    This might be creepy, but I saw your blog on Facebook, and this entry struck me as interesting.

    I disagree with your take on functionalism. There are limits, but I don't believe that Durkheim's analysis included societal roles that remain stagnant. Functionalism acknowledges necessary change. Society requires fluidity, particularly in these "Gen Y" times, and because that's what's best, change is absolutely necessary. It doesn't contradict functionalism; it runs parallel to it.

    Society, as you mentioned, evolution. That doesn't mean that roles are set or that sexism, racism, and ageism are for the best, just like biological evolution doesn't imply that our physical attributes are perfectly gauged towards the environment.

    I'm sure we are inclined to view it differently. My home base is in biological anthropology, an area that is nothing if not deemed "too functionalist" by other sociological/anthropological standards.

    Wow, I said a lot. I think that means "Good entry, dude!"

  2. June 4, 2009

    *Society, as you mentioned, experiences evolution. K.

  3. June 4, 2009

    Meghan, I think you're correct that Durkheim didn't think of society as stagnant. Your observations of what society needs are spot-on, esp. regarding fluidity.

    However, I'd also argue that what was commonly seen as functionalism – especially in mid-twentieth century America – has little to do with Durkheim, and more to do with social Darwinism and eugenics. It was more about maintaining the status quo – or worse, simply researching the status quo and presenting it as something that should be.

    Instead, I hearken more towards the ameliorative movement, which does share a Durkheimian thread of looking at society with an aim of improving it for all peoples.

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