In studying Weber, we have already encountered an ingredient of functionalist reasoning. This is
the idea of unanticipated consequences.
The Calvinists’ ‘otherworldy’ concerns ensured their economic success. Their economic
success was thus an unanticipated consequence, because they were not actually
concerned with gaining monetary wealth.
An example of functionalist analysis: the political machine (Robert K. Merton 1910-2003)
Merton was an American sociologist
Political machine: He referred to political organizations at the city level in the US from
the late 1800-1900s that used a system in which politicians exchange favors for votes.
Merton is thinking of places like New York City, Boston, and Chicago, which are all full of
polish, Italian, and Irish immigrants. They migrated to America and had low ethnic
status. Thus, a politician would go to a polish neighborhood, for example, and do favors
for them (i.e. language help, housing permits, provide jobs) in exchange for votes at
Merton argues that this system had 2 unanticipated consequences:
It allowed these immigrants, who were poor, to get welfare without humiliating
themselves. The local politician helped them to get by, while saving their
This occurred because the language used between a politician and his
client is the language of friendship. That is, there was a human bond,
which prevents them from becoming crassly calculated and promotes a
standard of equality.
It provided a mechanism for social mobility for outsiders.
The local politician who was from a ethnically subordinate group was
enabled to move up in society
We might see this relationship as corrupt, but Merton is not passing moral judgement.
He is solely looking at its positive outcome for society.
The nature of functionalist reasoning (Talcott Parsons, 1902-1979)
What does it mean to explain – one way is to make something unfamiliar to a person
familiar by drawing on an analogy. Another is a causal explanation.
The logic of functionalist explanation is to explain phenomena in terms of their
consequences. Merton explains the political machine by its consequences for society.
Functionalist thinking is inspired by biology – in the study of organisms, the function of
an organ and its contribution to one’s overall wellbeing explains its function. The same
is true for social phenomena.
Functionalist reasoning in the sociology of religion (structural functionalism) Society binds its members together.
Religion must be understood in terms of its contribution to the overall wellbeing of
Religion binds people in society together
It provides shared values
This enables society to function
Assumes society is unified by religion
Functionalism holds that society holds people together, but historically, religion
has led to conflict. (i.e. bloody wars of religion in the 15 and 1600s)
Assumes different (or no) religious beliefs undermine social unity
In fact, it may be that people of different religions are just as integrated in
society and hold similar beliefs. We cannot make the assumption that they do
not share the values of society.
Assumes a close fit between religious beliefs and those of society
In fact, religious beliefs can be out of step with those of the rest of society (i.e.
catholic church’s ideas on birth control and abortion, Christian beliefs that
attack genetic research, Quakers are against military service)
What Happened to the Protestant Ethic: Answers from Two American Scholars
Weber makes a very limited contextual argument. He is not saying that wherever Protestants
live there will be capitalism. His argument is focused to a certain time period and context and
that afterwards the relationship between capitalism and religion loosened.
Daniel Bell, The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976)
He says that the protestant ethic lived on to rural and small-town America
There was a very heavy emphasis placed on morals and social respectability – to
work hard makes one morally superior, sobriety and frugality was valued