The components of the programmes

I have used the following criteria for something to be regarded as a programme:

  • 1. Ontological standpoints about the social world. Seen from the perspective of the programme authors, this is not a central point and this aspect is strongly over-emphasised in much discussion of functionalism. It is, however, the case that all programmes discussed herein contain an image of the social world and I try to give an account of this image in order to provide a context for the methodological discussion. As much of the criticism of functionalism has to do with ontological ideas of consensus and systems’ striving for balance and equilibrium, it is important to show the much more multifaceted and complex worldview of the early functionalists.
  • 2. A comprehensive theoretical perspective with a conceptual apparatus. The conceptual apparatus not only should be used to say something about the social world but must also lay the groundwork for gathering knowledge about the social world. The theoretical perspective means that the concepts are interrelated and that their relation to the world “outside” the theory is made explicit. To list a multitude of interesting observations based on concepts is not the same as formulating a coherent conceptual set for generating knowledge. In the presentation of the programmes it becomes obvious that they are not singularly focused on the concept of function. As conceptual schemes, it is fair to say that they all are structural-functional programmes.
  • 3. Methodological principles about how social research shall be conducted, how material shall be collected and analysed. This is analogous to the notion that a theory is not merely a plurality of claims about reality, but primarily a description of concepts and theoretical mechanisms that enable these claims.

The narrative perspective and structure

My reading and presentation of functionalist work is basically sympathetic and benign. This is not based on my being a functionalist or being uncritical, but I think that the functionalist tradition, for a change, deserves such a reading. What could possibly be a problem with a benign and curious attitude is the abundance of negative associations with the functional tradition, which 1 have mentioned in previous chapters. The background for this exercise in a sympathetic reading is to be found in Jurgen Habermas’ normative ideal of “communicative action”, where the main principle of integration should be not on basis of power, but on good argument in sincere exchange (Habermas, 1984, 1987). In this book I have tried to identify basic arguments in favour of a functionalist position as a contrast to the widespread and established negative argumentation. In the introduction I mentioned the paradox that the global context becomes all the more relevant as social science at the same time as sociology has tended to be become more specialised and hyperdifferentiated. Against this background there are strong reasons to pay sincere attention to one of the foremost holistic traditions in social science.

In the description of the functionalist programmes, I have chosen to apply my own narrative structure when describing the sundry programmes. The writings of the functionalist authors have widely differing structures and often contain a mix of ontological, theoretical and methodological reasoning.

This is true, also in the case of the explicit programme texts and not only for the more anthropological writings. The most explicit programme texts are A Natural Science of Society by Radcliffe-Brown, A Scientific Theory of Culture by Malinowski and The Structure of Society by Levy. For each programme, I attempt to distinguish between an ontological part where I describe the general view of society and a theoretical and methodological part where I describe the view of science and ideas of how an empirical analysis shall be conducted. The question to be asked and discussed is: can functionalism as a research strategy deliver any important insights?


  • 1 Interestingly, the postulates about the essence of humanity, as being informed and rational on the one hand and being competent actors on the other hand, belongs to opposing traditions in social science. The axiom of rationality belongs to the rational choice tradition, whereas the idea of competent actors belongs to the micro-sociological and interactionist tradition.
  • 2 For some examples of Parsons’ responses to methodological critique, for example, Parsons (1960, 1961).
  • 3 Examples of this abstracted kind of reasoning are, for example, Parsons (1953, 1966), and Parsons and Smelser (1984).
  • 4 Analytic structures and their implications are discussed in the chapter on Marion Levy and in the concluding chapter.
  • 5 Philip Abrams points out a similar problem when it comes to understanding, according to Parsons, what is the driving force behind the development of social systems. Abram writes: “the process of development as Parsons described it often seemed to be driven forward by the logic of development itself in the form of functional necessities of the modernising social system” (Abrams, 1982, p. 113).
  • 6 When I once discussed Parsons’ approach with Renée C. Fox (one of his students), she emphasised Parsons’ eclectic and theoretically including attitude.
  • 7 As mentioned in the previous chapter, Colomy identifies with Parsons this eclectic attitude, that is, Parsons’ idea that there are no fundamental inconsistencies between the classics Durkheim, Freud, Weber and the functionalist tradition.
  • 8 See, for example. Parsons (1961, 1975, 1979/80).
  • 9 For a multifaceted discussion of ways of reading and interpretation, see Ekegren (1999) and Eco et al. (1992).
  • 10 Even if my primary purpose is not to search for inconsistencies but to present a reasonably coherent view, I have, when relevant, discussed vagueness and paradoxes.
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