Is It Ever Acceptable To Explain A

Social Phenomenon In Terms Of Its Function? Essay, Research Paper

Before attempting to answer the question it is necessary to define a few terms that will be used in this essay. The first of these is the word function, which as Merton shows has a number of different meanings. He defines it as, “vital or organic processes considered in the respects in which they contribute to the maintenance of the organism.”. Merton also quotes A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, “The function of any recurrent activity, such as the punishment of a crime, or a funeral ceremony, is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the structural continuity.” Stinchcombe provides a definition of a functional explanation as “One in which the consequences of some behaviour are essential elements of the causes of that behaviour.” Stinchcombe states that the most common kind of functional explanation is that of motivation, we perform some action because we want the consequences that follow from that action. A case where a functional explanation may be called for is where observations based on a uniform consequence in a number of situations show that the consequence has been reached by a variety of different behaviours. For example people may use a zebra crossing, a pelican crossing or a subway, whilst all having the same motivation of getting to the other side of the road. Functional explanations are linked to situations of equifinality, that is where various means are perceived to lead to the same end and an actor tries one of these means after another until he reaches that end, at which point he stops changing between means. To illustrate this point Stinchcombe cites the case of the sociological father. In many societies the sociological father is the same actor as the biological father, but this is not always the case. In some instances an uncle, a stepfather, or a grandfather may fulfil this role. Thus the end would appear to be that some man is responsible for the child and there are a number of means by which this can be fulfilled. In order to determine whether a functional explanation of a situation is correct, it is necessary to observe whether equifinality exists in that situation. If the difficulty of achieving a given end is increased and this brings about an increase in the activity of the entity, this suggests that the entity is motivated by a desire to reach the end. Increased activity includes an increased variety of means tried, an increase in the amount of time spent trying to achieve the end, searching for new information and a willingness to sacrifice other things to further the chances of achieving the end. So someone who wanted to become a professional footballer, as opposed to an amateur, might increase the amount of time that they spent training, seek guidance from coaches and give up activities that they find pleasurable but which might hinder their chances of achieving their end, such as smoking. Similarly, if the end is achieved in spite of difficulties which make it harder to achieve, the entity’s actions must be motivated by the end, they must really want it. The view of functionalism expressed so far has been rather simplistic, in that the consequences of an action have been seen only from the point of view of the actor. Obviously in a social system, where a large number of individual actors are interacting the consequences of any one action may be felt by a number of the other actors. The consequences for these other actors of one person’s actions may be good or bad, that is it may have positive or negative externalities. Many things may be good for one group of people and bad for another. Consider shifts in taxation strategy as an example. The question therefore arises as to how it is determined which such actions, patterns of behaviour or institutions persist? According to Marx and his supporters the idea of power is essential in such an explanation. The relative power of the social classes is determined by a number of factors. These include the mode of production, the authority system required by a given technology and by who owns the productive property. So long as these factors remain constant, so will the power structure of the society, and thus the patterns of behaviour. The mode of production changes over time, however, as a result of changes in technology, extensions of the market and larger units of production for example. This in turn brings about changes in the power structure, with changes in the mode of production causing changes in the relative power of the different social classes. The greater the power of a particular class, the more effective it is in causing and shaping social structures. Thus the consequences on powerful classes of a social structure have more importance regarding the maintenance or destruction of that social structure than do its consequences on the less powerful classes. People are thus classified according to how important they are as causes of social arrangements. In functional explanations of a structure greater emphasis is placed on the consequences for powerful people than on the consequences for less powerful people. Another simplification which has so far been made relates to the consequences of a particular pattern of behaviour. So far it has been assumed that the consequences of an action are obvious to the actor and that it is the beneficial nature of these consequences which brings about the action. Merton uses the term manifest function for such cases, defining it as “referring to those objective consequences for a specified unit (person, subgroup, social or cultural system) which contribute to its adjustment or adaptation and were so intended”. There are also latent functions, in which the consequences are unintended and unrecognised. There seem to be a number of benefits for functional analysis in recognising this distinction. Firstly it allows for the use of functional explanations of social patterns which do not appear to have a rational manifest function. For example the manifest function that would be used to explain a Hopi ceremonial raindance would be that it was performed in order to bring about the consequence of rain. But we know that such an action cannot have such a consequence, so the manifest functional explanation is not adequate to explain the existence of the institution of the raindance. Further observation may show that a society that performs a raindance is under normal circumstances fairly dispersed with little social contact between group members. In this case it could be postulated that the latent function of the raindance was to bring together members of the same group and reinforce the unity of that group. Similarly, a family with grown up children may get together regularly for a meal. The manifest function of this might be thought to be to provide the offspring with food to help them survive, but if the children are grown up and have their own jobs which provide them with enough money to be able to feed themselves adequately this is plainly not true. The gathering could instead be explained by the latent function of maintaining family unity. The study of latent functions also has the advantage of leading to a significant increase of the realm of sociological knowledge, almost by definition. Since latent functions are unrecognised by the actors they must obviously be unknown until they are investigated. Thus each one that is uncovered is a new discovery and shows that social life is not as simple as it had first seemed. For example the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods has previously been explained by the manifest function of the direct pleasure gained from consuming superior items. A latent function also exists, which is the increase in social status which comes about from consuming luxury goods. For example a third party with no other source of information will attribute higher social status to the person driving the more expensive car. This is a widely accepted and known latent function, which raises an interesting question. Does a function cease to become latent and instead become manifest if following its discovery by sociological investigation it becomes well known? The way in which manifest functions are passed on from person to person and thus maintained through time is not really problematic. If an action provides an immediate, visible and expected benefit to an individual or group, it will provide the individual or members of that group with an advantage over those people who do not perform the action. This may mean that the people who perform the action have a greater reproductive success, thereby leaving more children who will be taught the behaviour, than the individuals who do not perform the action will leave. But such cultural evolution need not be purely vertical, as biological evolution must be. For example when an actor discovers a beneficial action, it can be passed on immediately to the rest of the family or group, to both older and younger people. Manifest functions can thus be spread rapidly through a population by learning, rather than having to wait generations for the behaviour to spread. It may be that the behaviour in itself is not beneficial to the actor who performs it, but that it has positive externality for some other actor or group. If the beneficiaries of the positive externalities were to reward the actor for his action, then it would be beneficial for him to continue doing it. In Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory: The Case For Methodological Individualism (1982), Elster finds fault with the functionalist approach. He claims that all social phenomena are explicable only in terms of individuals – their properties, goals and beliefs. One of the problems of functionalism is the concept of latent functions, which he discusses with reference to the Marxists philosophy. He notes that in certain situations, latent function is analogous to natural selection. For example explanation of market behaviour through a model of competition between firms. However, he also notes that there are many more numerous cases where no analogy with natural selection occurs, latent functions cannot explain their causes. In particular long term positive, unintended and unrecognised consequences of a phenomenon cannot explain it when its short term consequences are negative. Furthermore there is no real analogy with natural selection in the social sciences. In the biological sciences, natural selection is “myopic, opportunistic, impatient” and there is no capacity for strategic planning. In the social sciences such a concept does not exist, and thus must rely on intentional analysis at the level of individual actions. Thus it is much more difficult to see how latent functions could be maintained in a society. By definition the consequences of the action are unrecognised and so it cannot be a case of an individual consciously choosing to continue to perform a given action because of the beneficial consequences that it produces for him. It may be the case that an action has negative consequences for the actor that performs it in the short term, but that it has positive, yet unrecognised and unintended benefits in the long term If this is the case it is difficult to see why the actor would consciously decide to perform the action, since it appears to be disadvantageous. From an evolutionary point of view selection for or against such an action would be dependent on the time scale between the negative and the positive externalities. If the positive consequences were not felt until some long time after the action, it is very difficult to see how such an action would be selected for, since the individual would be at a disadvantage to those who had not performed the action for some period of time. This might include part or all of the reproductive life span and thus reduces reproductive success. The idea of long term benefits is somewhat problematic, since if long enough time is allowed almost any action can be explained in terms of some future event. On the other hand if the benefits were felt shortly after the action was performed and outweighed the initial costs of performing the action, it is more likely that the actions could be explained, at least in principle, by some form of natural selection. He concludes that the proper paradigm for the social sciences is a mixed causal-intentional explanation – “intentional understanding of the individual actions, and causal explanation of their interaction” . The fact that individuals also interact intentionally, results in Elster adopting Game Theory as a useful mode of analysis. Parsons viewed the social system as made up of the interactions of individuals, which are mediated by common standards of evaluation, such as norms. Since individuals share the same definition of a situation in terms of norms their behaviour can be intermeshed to form a social structure. The patterning of action is made possible by the existence of norms which act to control the behaviour of actors and in such a way a stabilised social structure is produced. Individuals are motivated to act in conformity with norms by two classes of process, stabilisation and social control. Lockwood contends that Parsons’ view is too heavily weighted on norms and does not take sufficient account of the substratum, which he defines as ‘the factual disposition of means in the situation of action which structures differential lebenschancen and produces interests of an non normative kind.’ According to Parsons such interests must be integrated with normative patterns governing behaviour in a stabilised social system. Individuals seek their own interests, often in opposition to other individuals and social order is possible to the existence of common norms which regulates such conflict. The presence of a normative order does not mean that the conflict no longer exists, it merely shows that it is continuing. The stability of a society depends upon the success or failure of the normative system and the substratum in determining whether social conflict or social order exist. In order to consolidate the theory of functionalist enquiry, it is useful to consider an example of Parsons’ analysis of a particular social phenomenon. The profound changes occurring in the American family led him to write several analyses of the phenomenon, namely The American Family: Its Relation to Personality And Social Structure (1955). He noted that the American family was undergoing changes manifest as high rates of divorce, changes in the ‘older sex morality’ and a falling birth rate, which was hypothesised as a result of “loss of function of the family”. However, despite the changes, the “disorganisation” is only very general. The high divorce rates have been checked, and more importantly people continue to marry both after divorce and despite high divorce statistics. The birth rate has now fallen but is now stabilising and also, there has been no decrease in rates of annual household formation. Thus the demand to create a family is still high, however, whether maintenance of a family is still important is debatable. The two fundamental problems in the analysis of the family phenomenon, and its change are firstly the problem of the structural and functional relations between the nuclear family on the one hand, and the other elements of kinship complex in the same society. Secondly there has been no clear conception of what are the “root” functions of the family. There has been little attempt to work out the implications of suggesting there are “root” functions. However it is clear that the structurally differentiated society in the west has resulted in non kinship units increasing in importance in society (especially occupational units) and thus America has shown a transfer of function from the nuclear family to non kinship units. Kinship units, other than the nuclear family, are decreasing in importance in social structure, and the nuclear family is becoming more specialised. The isolated nuclear family has thus changed with two major implications, firstly that the “loss of function” of the family is only at the macroscopic level. Secondly, it has caused a change in the socialisation process, namely causing a greater distinction between family and non family members. Considering the former, the family is now almost functionless at the macroscopic level of society, it rarely engages in economic production, it is not a significant unit in the political power system, and is not a major agency of integration of the larger society . Its function is not therefore directly related not to society but to personality. A human is not born, but made through a process of socialisation, both at a primary level as a child, and then maintained through adult life. The family is therefore the institution that carries out this process on a small scale, and this is now its sole function. The second implication concerns the impact for the outcomes of the socialisation process of the role of relatives other than members of the nuclear family. The “isolation” of the family unit results in a greater sharpness of the difference in status between members of the family and non members. During the socialisation process the child is initially fully committed and dependent on the family, but later must become independent – the family must therefore not become a “little society”. A further problem is that the isolation throws together the adult members of both sexes, due to weakening of ties between members and their parents and siblings, leaving them “structurally unsupported”. The result being marriage and parenthood becoming increasingly pressurised and at the same time unsupported by the social structure. Certain conclusions may therefore be drawn. At an individual level the explanation of an action in terms of manifest function seems to be valid and also more compatible with a rational choice model. Explanations of actions in terms of latent functions are more problematical, particularly with regard to their maintenance. At the level of the group, a functional explanation of social structure might be tenable, yet where a cost is involved, this is less evident. Consider the State as an example. Its function might be thought to be to maintain social order, yet in order to sustain this taxes have to be paid resulting in a cost for the individual. The wealthy high income earner will pay taxes to avoid punishment by the state for tax evasion and it might therefore be possible to explain this in terms of individual rational choice, yet this cannot be explained simply in terms of its function for society. The benefits of society for this high income earner are less than the costs of paying tax and using a functional explanation, this is difficult to maintain. Similar objections to the theory are found in the evolutionary debate concerning actions ‘for the good of the species’. This concept is illegitimate in the biological sciences and so too in the social sciences. Religeon might exist due to the benefits to those members of the congregation, yet it does not explain why that religion was established in the first place. For this a functional explanation is not sufficient. A further point of interest is that modern sociology is heavily based upon empirical testing. How does one therefore test the hypothesis that rituals exist due to latent function? Consider the example of the Hopi raindance. How is it possible to falsify the notion that the function of the raindance is to bring together them members of the group. In this sense a majority of phenomena can be explained in terms of latent function. Indeed a more interesting feature of a useful and powerful theory is the ability to predict. In my opinion functionalism is lacking in this respect. In answer to the question I believe it is acceptable to explain certain social phenomena in terms of its function, yet as a general sociological theory it proves to be fallible


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