“Assess the usefulness of consensus theories such as functionalism, to our understanding of contemporary society”.
Functionalism is a structural consensus theory; it explains society in its totality, and assumes that the social world exists in a state of harmony. For functionalists such as Durkheim, society is a living, external organism, and its existence precedes its members; “society makes man (or woman)” in other words. Such a view of society has been massively useful for understanding the world we live in on a macro scale, and the fundamental propositions of the likes of Durkheim and Parsons constitute a huge area of contemporary sociological thought, specifically for the political and sociological right. However, it is clear that functionalism is no longer “in vogue”, and many actually see it as outdated and out of fashion, as its utility has been limited by a number of damaging criticisms and challenges from other sociological theories. Nevertheless, it has paved the way for much sociological research and continues to provide a useful explanation of society.
In essence, functionalists see society as a “body”, which is composed of many different “organs” (institutions) which all functions together for the benefit of the whole. The social anthropologist Radcliffe-Brown for example, proposed that individuals are organised into society just as cells are organised into a body. Individual cells may die, but they are replaced and the body lives on, just as individual members of a society may die, but are replaces and the society continues to exist.
Durkheim advocates this position, and believes that the institutions of society, such as religion, the education system and the family, all work together to create social equilibrium. Durkheim has a “homo-duplex” view of human nature. That is, he sees humans as possessing a good, conforming side and a bad, impulsive side. If society is to exist without chaos, then this good side needs to be “brought out”, whilst...