Comparison of functionalism and symbolic interactionism

Ensayo, 2002
11 Páginas, Calificación: 2ii (B)


Comparison of functionalism and symbolic interactionism

Both functionalism and symbolic interactionism are sociological theories i.e. sets of ideas which provide an explanation for human society. Like all theory, sociological theory is selective because it cannot explain everything or account for the infinite amount of data that exist. Theories are therefore selective in terms of their priorities and perspectives and the data they define as significant. As a result, they provide a particular and partial view of reality. There are a wide variety of sociological theories, and they can be grouped together according to various criteria. One of the most important of these is the distinction between structural or macro perspectives and social action or micro perspectives. These perspectives differ in the way they approach the analysis of society. Functionalism is an example of a macro perspective as it analyses the way society as a whole fits together whereas symbolic interactionism is a micro perspective because it stresses the meaningfulness of human behaviour and denies that it is primarily determined by the structure of society.

Functionalist analysis has a long history in sociology and it first emerged in 19th century Europe. It is prominent in the work of Auguste Comte and Herbert Spencer. Comte, who is credited with inventing the term sociology, aimed to create a naturalistic science of society to explain past development of mankind and predict its future course. He said that there would be basic laws, but also some added complexities. Spencer used organic analogies to demonstrate his views of society and he concluded that with evolutionary growth come changes in any unit’s structure and functions and that increases in size of units is invariably accompanied by an increase in the differentiation of social activities. Functionalism was developed by Emile Durkheim and refined by Talcott Parsons as well as by Robert K. Merton. It was the dominant social theory during the 1940s and 1950s, but since that time it has steadily dropped from favour, partly because of damaging criticism, partly because other approaches are seen to answer certain questions more successfully, and partly because it simply went out of fashion. Symbolic interactionism as opposed to functionalism is a distinctly American branch of sociology and it emerged later in the 19th century or rather in the early part of the 20th century. It is developed from the work of a group of American philosophers who included John Dewey, William I. Thomas and George Herbert Mead all of whom were influenced by William James and Charles Horton Cooley. George Herbert Mead is generally regarded as the founder of symbolic interactionism which was later refined by Herbert Blumer. It has been criticised for reflecting the cultural ideals of American society and for being idiographically biased. Both theories have been very influential and symbolic interactionism continues to be a lively tradition in American social psychology. Also Turner and Maryanski have argued that, although functionalism has many flaws, it remains useful and that many of its basic assumptions still guide much sociological research.

Functionalism views society as a system: that is, as a set of interconnected parts which together form a whole. The basic unit of analysis is society, and its various parts are understood primarily in terms of their relationship to the whole. The most important aspects of functionalism are structure, function, functional prerequisites, value consensus and social order, all of which are incorporated in the theory. The early functionalists often drew an analogy between society and an organism such as the human body. They argued that an understanding of any organ in the body, such as the heart or lungs, involves an understanding of its relationship to other organs and, in particular, its contribution towards the maintenance of the organism. In the same way, an understanding of any part of society requires an analysis of its relationship to other parts and, most importantly, its contribution to the maintenance of society. Continuing this analogy, functionalists argued that, just as an organism has certain basic needs that must be met if it is to continue to exist. Thus the main social institutions – such as the family, the economy, religion, and the educational and political systems – are analysed as a part of the social system rather than as isolated units. In particular, they are understood with reference to the contribution they make to the system as a whole. The basic needs or necessary conditions of existence are sometimes known as the functional prerequisites of society, but it is often hard to identify them. The concept of function in functionalist analysis refers to the contribution of the part to the whole. More specifically, the function of any part of society is the contribution it makes to meeting the functional prerequisites of the social system. Parts of society are functional in so far as they maintain the system and contribute to its survival. Thus a function of the family is to ensure the continuity of society by reproducing and socialising new members. A function of religion is to integrate the social system by reinforcing common values. Functionalists also employ the concept of ‘dysfunction’ to refer to the effects of any social institution which detract from the maintenance of society. However, in practice, they have been primarily concerned with the search for functions, and relatively little use has been made of the concept of dysfunction. Functionalist analysis has focused on the question of how social systems are maintained. This focus has tended to result in a positive evaluation of the parts of society and so many institutions are seen as being beneficial and useful to society. Some institutions, such as the family, religion and social stratification, are even seen as indispensable. This view has led critics to argue that functionalism has a built-in conservative bias which supports the status quo.

Durkheim has very opposing views to symbolic interactionism as he rejects that society is constructed by its members. He argued that society has a reality of its own over and above the individuals who comprise it. Members of society are constrained by social facts, by ways of acting, thinking and feeling, external to the individual and constraints, whether in the form of laws or customs, come into play whenever social demands are being violated. Beliefs and moral codes are passed on from one generation to the next and shared by individuals who make up a society. From this point of view it is not the consciousness of the individual that directs behaviour, but common beliefs and sentiments that transcend the individual and shape his or her consciousness. Durkheim assumes that the explanation for the continuing existence of a social fact lies in its function, that is, in its usefulness for society. He thinks that society has certain functional prerequisitions, the most important of which is the need for social order which is necessary because of human nature. He believes that humans have two sides to their nature. One side is elfish and egoistical. Humans tend to look after their own interests, which makes it difficult for individuals to be integrated into society. However, there is another side to human nature: the ability to believe in moral values. Society has made use of this side of human nature if social life is to be possible. Durkeim assumes that social life is achieved by consensus, a collective conscience consisting of common beliefs and sentiments. This constraints individuals to act in terms of the requirements of the society. Since the collective conscience is a social fact and therefore external to the individual, it is essential that it be impressed upon him or her.


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Comparison of functionalism and symbolic interactionism
Oxford University  (New College)
2ii (B)
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ISBN (Ebook)
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418 KB
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BA (Oxon), Dip Psych (Open) Christine Langhoff (Autor), 2002, Comparison of functionalism and symbolic interactionism, Múnich, GRIN Verlag,


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