The theory of neo-functionalism

 The theory of neo-functionalism


Without exaggeration, one may say that in the history of social anthropology and sociology, no theory has generated so much of interest, enthusiasm, and response as did functionalism. Known by different names (such as ‘functional approach’, ‘structural-functional approach’, ‘structural-functionalism’, ‘Functional School’, etc.), functionalism emerged as some kind of a unified methodology and theory in the 1930s. Earlier, right from the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a body of scattered ideas and propositions. The theory of neo-functionalism Until the 1960s, its reputation was unassailable, as its adherents were scholars of outstanding merit, who were known (and are still known) for various other contributions besides developing it both in terms of theory and method. For example, the famous American functionalist, Talcott Parsons, is well known for his contribution to family sociology, the school as a social system, role analysis in medical institutions, professions and problems of the blacks, evolutionism, etc. Similarly, Robert Merton’s contribution to social structure and anomie, deviance and conformity, dysfunctions of bureaucracy, sociology of science, survey methods, role-set, etc, will always be referred.

Criticisms of Functionalism

The theory of neo-functionalism: One of the main criticisms of functionalism is that it does not adequately deal with history. In other words, it is inherently ahistorical (but not antihistorical). It does not deal with the questions of past and history, although the advocates of functionalism have considered evolution and diffusion as important processes of change. Functionalism in social anthropology in the 1930s emerged as a reaction to the nineteenth century ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘speculative’ evolutionism and diffusionism. It also tried to overcome the ethnocentric biases of the earlier approaches, which regarded the contemporary pre-literate societies, popularly known as ‘primitive societies’, and certain customs and practices found among them as remnants of past. Edward Tylor unhesitatingly regarded the ‘contemporary primitives’ as ‘social fossils’ and ‘survivals’ of the past, assuming that their study would guide us to an understanding of the cultural traits of the societies of prehistoric times (Harris 1968: 164-5). This would help us in reconstructing the history of humankind. 

There are two views on this issue. First, the problem is believed to lie with the theory of functionalism, because when the parts of a society are seen as reinforcing one another as well as the system, when each part fits well with the other parts, then it is difficult to explain how these parts can contribute to change (Cohen 1968). Or, why should the parts change or contribute to change when they are all in a state of harmony? The second opinion is that there is nothing in functionalism which prevents it from dealing with the issues of history and change. For instance, Parsons’s 1966 book titled Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives reflects the ability of structural-functionalism to handle the dimensions of change. So does Smelser’s work of 1959 on industrial revolution. The theory of neo-functionalism The problem lies, according to some, not with the theory of functionalism, but its practitioners, who rarely address the issues of change and even when they do, it is in developmental and adaptive terms than in revolutionary (Turner and Maryanski 1979). Whether the problem of functionalism has to do with the theory or its practitioners, ‘the fact remains that the main contributions of structural functionalists lie with the study of static, not changing, social structures’.

The theory of neo-functionalism: Another criticism of functionalism is that it is unable to deal effectively with conflict. Functionalists have overemphasized harmonious relationships. They tend to exaggerate consensus, stability, equilibrium, and integration, disregarding the forces of conflict and disorder, and changes emerging from them. For them, conflict is necessarily destructive and occurs outside the framework of society. One may remember here Durkheim who regarded ‘anomie’ (the state of normlessness) as a ‘social sickness’. Both Comte and later, Durkheim were staunchly critical of the Marxist and socialist thoughts, for they believed that the need of that time (when they were writing) was social reconstruction and order. Society had already become quite disintegrated, Comte said, because of the French Revolution and any support rendered to the idea of revolution would further accentuate disorder.

In the words of Robert Redfield (1955), these societies were ‘past-oriented’ in comparison to modern societies which were ‘future-oriented’. The ‘pastoriented’ societies were proud of their tradition, which for them was sacrosanct; they wanted to keep it intact and therefore, any attempt to assail it was strongly dealt with. The theory of neo-functionalism The ‘future-oriented’ societies were not satisfied with their lot; they looked forward to changing their lifestyles, technology, and norms and values. Since the substantiation of anthropological functionalism came from the empirical study of ‘past-oriented’, technologically simpler, pre-literate, and non-civilized societies, it was obvious that the characteristics of these societies would find their conspicuous presence in the theory. Because functionalism does not deal with the issues of conflict, disorder, and change, many critics note that it has a conservative bias. In his critical assessment of functionalism, Gouldner (1970) says that for Parsons, one of the leading functionalists, a ‘partly filled glass’ is ‘half full’ rather than ‘half empty’. The point here is that for those the ‘glass is half full’ are emphasising the positive aspects of a situation in comparison to those who lay emphasis on the negative side, seeing the ‘glass as half empty’. The theory of neo-functionalism The conservative bias in functionalism is not only because of what it ignores (history, change, conflict, disorder) but also what it emphasises (society ‘here and now’, norms and values, consensus, order). Functionalists are overwhelmingly preoccupied with the normative order of society. 

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