Digging to a hidden Sociological Core. (Neo)Functional Notions within Development Studies

A Literature Review

Term Paper, 2019

21 Pages, Grade: 1.7


Table of Contents


Theoretical framework

Sociological Functionalism and Development

Critical Discussion

Conclusion and Outlook


1 Introduction

Only a handful of social scientific terms can be considered to be as disputed as the presumable catch-all phrase 'development' that is also occasionally called an 'empty signifier' (Ziai 2009).1 Historically, the term went hand in hand with other well-intended terms such as 'empowerment', 'participation' or 'poverty reduction', ultimately resulting in one size fits all-development recipes (Cornwall & Brock 2005) that are rather apolitical (Ferguson 1994). Ziai (2012: 4) summarises Ferguson's (1994) understanding of the term, which he laid out in his widely read and highly influential monography Anti-Politics-Machine, as follows: “'Development' is the name not only for a value but also for a dominant problematic or interpretative grid through which the impoverished regions of the world are known to us.” More precisely, on a rather abstract level, 'development' can also be considered a bundle of normatively positive and interconnected processes which, by now, only took place in some parts of the world (Ibid.). Moreover, and crucially, “[d]evelopment seems as a consensual, non-conflictive goal to be achieved by technical processes to which no one can object.” (Ziai 2016a: 160)

The term quickly gained momentum after the end of the Second World War, when the so-called developed countries began attempting to 'modernise' so-called undeveloped countries (often times their former colonies). Typically, the inauguration address of former US-President Harry S. Truman in 1949 is said to mark the onset of the era of development policy (e.g. Kolland 2005; Ziai 2016b), with the discipline of Development Studies (DS) starting to evolve only a few years later. Initially considered to be mainly economically oriented, DS soon included approaches from a wider range of subjects and even led to the emergence of new sub-disciplines such as the sociology of development (SOD).

In this literature review, I aim to explore functionalist notions within DS and SOD. For this purpose, I will firstly give a short introduction to three related theories of social change: functionalism, structural functionalism and neofunctionalism. In the next step, two important theories in DS that build on them will be presented: modernisation theory (MT) and dependency theory (DT). As this literature review is explicitly not intended to be a mere presentation of theoretical elaborations, I follow an approach that is informed by case examples This paper closes with a summary and outlook on current research gaps within DS.

2 Theoretical framework

Generally speaking, there is no such thing such as a uniform theoretical vocabulary for 'functionalism' (Reckwitz 2003). As a theory that is based on an analogy between societies and biological organisms (e.g. Comte 1875), “[f]unctionalism studies the interrelationships of social phenomena within their systemic and environmental context.” (Turner & Maryanski 1988: 110) 'Function', in this context, not only entails observable manifestations but also latent functions on a deeper level (Macfarlane 2018). Moreover, classic functionalism is commonly perceived as standing in contrast to evolutionism, or as Smith (1973) puts it, it resembles even a kind of 'frozen evolutionism'. In the early 20th century, functionalism succeeded evolutionism as the predominant theoretical concept in social sciences, especially because of the work of the British anthropologists Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown in the 1920s (Reckwitz 2003). Being static in nature and providing an explicitly endogenous view of change, functionalism's achievement lays with the classification of variations rather than the explanation of processes (Ibid.). It cannot only be perceived as a theoretical approach but equally as a paradigm since it both shapes the questions asked while also representing a “way of knowing” that affects many (sub)disciplines, e.g. psychology and political science (Ibid.).

Structural functionalism, in turn, as a variety of functionalism that focuses on social structures, came to the fore particularly between the 1930s to 1950s, being grounded by Émile Durkheim's emphasis on society's influence on individual behaviour (Abrahams 2018). It most basically asserts societies to need certain levels of social cohesion, solidarity or integration in order to function in the first place (Dew 2014). Talcott Parsons, one of the key figures of the US-American dominated tradition of structural functionalism, elaborated it as searching for continuously requested solutions to problems in society (Luhmann 1970) which ultimately resulted in his development of schemes such as that of AGIL (adaptation, goal attainment, integration, latent pattern maintenance) to explain the very same. Called 'voluntaristic theory of action', this framework emerged from his examination with sociological utilitarianism (Münch 1979) and was particularly intended for so-called advanced industrial societies with the USA as their role-model (Alexander 1987). Initially failing to explain how the schemes themselves were constituted, and hence implying an infinite regress, Parsons solved this problem by differentiating between structures on the one hand, and elements on the other which gained their function by their particular positioning within the structures (Bonacker 2003). Consequently, every kind of action must always be determined by the relationship between those elements respectively subsystems (Münch 1980). However, critique against structural functionalism was rather the norm than the exception. Dahrendorf (1958: 122) made his points particularly clear:

Structural-functional theory […] introduce[d] many kinds of assumptions, concepts, and models for the sole purpose of describing a social system that has never existed and is not likely ever to come into being.

Neofunctionalism, finally, as its own research programme, aimed to make up for the shortcomings of former functionalist notions, but was criticised by some as nothing more than “wishful thinking” (Camic 1986: 695) since itself does not provide an “integrated theory” (Colomy 1990: xxxii) but rather represents a reconstruction of the Parsonian tradition (Schmid 2003). Jeffrey C. Alexander (1985: 9), by far the most important representative of neofunctionalism, admitted himself that he was not providing a model but rather a “picture of the interrelation of social parts”. One of his (1987: 7) most well-known elaborations is his locating of rational (facts) and non-rational (theories) collectivistic approaches on a continuum of scientific thoughts.

Some authors, e.g. Schmid (2003) reject this continuum on the base of the theories' heterogeneity and the difficulty to locate them adequately on a single spectrum. Another measure that he takes to save some of the “core elements of the Parsonian tradition” (Colomy 1990: xviii), is to account them to the 'core' that is resistant to anomalies while its surrounding assumptions are more accessible for change. Remaining in this metaphor, the change of theories resembles more a 'shift' or 'movement' than an actual 'development' (Schmid 2003). By doing so, one could argue, he makes it impossible to compare theories with each other (Ibid.). Consequently, what remains of neofunctionalism's utility is its understanding as a method instead of a distinct theory (Turner & Maryanski 1988) which, as we will see in the next chapter, until now equally played no important role for DS and SOD.

3 Sociological Functionalism and Development

Sociological notions within DS, as well as SOD as such, are characterised by only a handful of dominant theoretical frameworks. Firstly, and most widely known, the modernisation theory (MT), which itself consists of a plurality of heterogeneous notions (e.g. Harrison 2005), tries to explain a phenomenon that is essentially revolutionary, as most (Western) functionalists would agree on (Smith 1973). 'Modernity', as its goal, “include[s] the combination of rationality, territoriality, expansion, innovation, applied sciences, the state, citizenship, bureaucratic organization and many other elements” (Albrow 1996: 55). Hence, MT must be generally understood as a theoretical framework that, from its very outset on, tried to explain factors of development towards a certain pre-set stage of economic and social conditions. Against this background it wonders less that Cohen and Kennedy (2012: 9) criticise Parsons, who was an equally important figure for MT as well as structural functionalism more generally, that he “tended to talk in terms of a wider notion of 'modernization', which involved the 'non-western' world 'catching up' with the achievements of the 'western' world and Japan”.

Nowadays, most often the notion of 'catching-up' is being rejected for its inherently euro-/anglocentric understanding and the implication of only one 'correct' trajectory of (state) development. Crucially, as Klinger (2017) argues and illustrates with the recent US nation-building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, this underlying goal can be dated back to the aftermath of the Second World War. According to the author, a whole generation of scholars contributed to the multidisciplinary MT-literature based on their own wartime experiences, with only three major institutions (all of them US-American) at the forefront of theorising. Ultimately, they strived for gaining new insights about conditions in the former colonial countries, the so-called new states (which itself is an expression of the domination of Western terms since most post-colonial countries equally had a pre-colonial time of existence, even if it was under a different name and territorial constitution).

The intrinsic linking of the Cold War with notions of modernisation is further illustrated by the work of Walt Whitman Rostow whose best-known book, The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, was published in 1960 – the very year of sharply increased tensions between the two superpowers USA and USSR (Solivetti 2005). Written in an easily readable way, the book gained wide reception in pointing out the possibility of development as matching increasing economic well-being with the emergence of democracy – particularly for the then so-called Third World (Ibid.) which, for a couple of decades, was trapped somewhere in between the First (capitalist) and Second (socialist) World. Extracting the quintessence of the work of those classical modernisation theorists, Barnett (2005) lists four particular features for MT which, both in sum and for themselves, clearly indicate a value judgment of what 'correct' development is, dressed in the unsuspiciously appearing notion of 'something must happen': 1. Development takes place from within a society (and hence underestimates the importance of external events such as colonialism); 2. in all societies, it follows essentially the same pattern; 3. prosperity and political stability (to some extent) are the end result of development; 4. past experience from some 'developed countries' can be facilitated to bring about similar results in 'developing countries' (see also Bernstein 1971 for a similar summary).

A short note of reflection deems fruitful at this point. As already became clear, many scholars tend to equate 'modernisation' with 'development', especially those working during the Cold War. Harrison (2005: ix), however, engaging with the topic in the post-Cold War era, attempts to differentiate between the two which for him are both fundamentally about “a far-reaching, continuous, and positively evaluated change in the totality of human experience.” Although he critically discusses 'development' as a valued state that may either not be pursuable or not achievable, he clearly falls short of critically engaging with 'modernisation' which he does not question as such. To be clear: This point of critique is not to say that no social change should happen in the so-called developing countries – the opposite is true. But does it necessarily has to be in the shape of what we understand as 'modernisation' (as it was defined above), or can there be no other trajectories of non-capitalist development? I will come back to this Marxist point of view in chapter 4. For now, turning again to the differentiation between 'modernisation' and 'development', it seems sufficient to follow Lerner's (1967: 21) understanding of modernisation as “the social process of which development is the economic component”. Summing up, it can be said (Harrison 2005: 31) that MT, which was particularly dominant up to the 1960s,

was based especially on the structural functionalism of Talcott Parsons and his related concepts of the pattern variables, both of which had been developed in general sociological analysis and neither of which were designed for particular application to the Third World.

Nevertheless, as already indicated, until today notions of modernisation are still wide-spread within DS and SOD. A few examples promise to be particularly illustrative. Firstly, coming back to Barnett (2005), it can be argued that not the absence of technical specialists for 'modernising' constitutes a problem for 'developing countries' – but rather a lack of sociological and political engagement as the providers of the contexts within which technical decisions are made. Not many examples illustrate this argument as clearly as the (presumably) 'Green Revolution' in some South (East) Asian countries, to which he himself refers to. As Cullather (2004) argues, the introduction of new and genetically modified sorts of rice with higher levels of output and pesticide-resistance exemplarily visualise the boundary between tradition and modernity. Even before the first crops were harvested, the 'miracle rice' was vastly deemed a success (Ibid.) – with its devastating consequences on the quality of soils, for example, only widely publicly known years later. Ultimately, what was frequently also labelled a 'wonder', was crucially “configured as much by image and imagination as by the statistics accumulated by social scientists” (Ibid.: 227) – all of them surely contributing to the paper's striking title: Miracles of Modernization: The Green Revolution and the Apotheosis of Technology.

A second example are modifications to MT and empirical cases that contradict it. Starting with the latter, in the last couple of years, Turkey experienced a significant slide towards authoritarianism, challenging the widely accepted relationship between democracy and wealth and hence, one of the foundations of MT. The literature on democratisation, which can be considered closely connected to that on MT, overwhelmingly agrees on that the more democratic features a certain society is consisting of, the harder it gets to turn authoritarian. Despite a flourishing civil society, a rising middle class and positive economic growth (Sarfati 2017), among other factors, Turkey is almost in free fall in terms of rankings of its state of democracy (e.g. Freedom House 2019). Arguing that more and more societal forces are stripped from their democratising qualities (e.g. Islamic civil society organisations), Sarfati (2017) aims to solve this puzzle for which MT has not yet found any kind of exhausting answer.

Modifications to MT themselves, as a rather bundle of theories (e.g. evolutionism, diffusionism, structural functionalism) than its own consistent framework (Harrison 2005), can be considered the rule rather than the exception. Luo Rongqu (2006), for example, in his monography A New Thesis on Modernization, facilitated a lens of historical development to analyse stages of societal change in some East Asian countries, including China – a world region that is frequently ignored in discussions on modernisation. He centrally argues that assuming that modernisation, in fact, is a necessary stage of societal change, multiple paths characterise this movement rather than a single direction (Ibid.; Peng 2009). A similar claim, also with regard to China, is made by Alpermann (2016) who discusses recent publications of the internationally renowned political scientist Francis Fukuyama. He interprets the latter's theoretical perspective as 'Modernisation 1.5' since he, although sticking with the inherently teleological modernisation paradigm, adds some important, yet no crucially new updates to earlier versions of it. Due to some shortcomings, e.g. an underspecified concept of the presumable consciousness of the Chinese middle-class and the 'missing link' of social identity, Fukuyama's insights do not qualify to speak of a 'Modernisation 2.0' (Alpermann 2016). In order to reach this stage, the author calls for a wide-reaching overhaul of the modernisation debate as such.

A final example for discussions about modernity can be found in other sub-disciplines of sociology. Within what he calls the Sociology of Education in Developing Countries, Ball (1981) discusses the functions of education within the paradigm of modernisation as well as dependency theory (DT), which leads us straight to the second functionalist theory within DS and SOD. Ball (Ibid.) argues that both paradigms ascribe educational systems only singular importance (even though highly contradictive ones), with MT rooting in Parsons' structural functionalism that, for 'becoming modern', suggests a resocialisation process across the whole population of a 'modernising society'. Seen through a lens of dependency, however, 'modernisation' must be understood as incorporation into the world market and capitalist social order – with education as both a basis as well as medium of cultural imperialism rather than a liberating process itself. He sums up that (at least until the 1980s) the sociology of education in African countries was firmly in the grip of functionalist and positivist traditions that were dominant in the 1960s in Europe. Almost as if to provide an example par excellence for Ball's (1981) claims, Lever published his Sociology of South Africa as a contribution to the Annual Review of Sociology in the same year. In this review, which must be read against the background of the then still dominant and racist regime of apartheid, the author traces the history and institutions of sociology in South Africa in which functionalism was the dominant influence in both its English and Afrikaans universities until well into the 1960s. Moreover, Lever (1981) also notes that there were not too few studies on attitudes and opinions of those groups marginalised by apartheid, but rather a lack of the studies' adequateness. Not only did he find a structural bias of studies on race and ethnicity towards educated blacks, but also poor sampling designs and problems in the standardisation of scales.


1 Due to its highly disputed nature, 'development' will be put in inverted commas throughout this review.

Excerpt out of 21 pages


Digging to a hidden Sociological Core. (Neo)Functional Notions within Development Studies
A Literature Review
University of Leipzig  (Institute of Sociology)
Seminar on Theory and History of Theory: Neofunctionalism: Jeffrey C. Alexander and Richard Münch
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, Development Studies, Modernization Theory
Quote paper
Max Schmidt (Author), 2019, Digging to a hidden Sociological Core. (Neo)Functional Notions within Development Studies, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/502732


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