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English Literature
ENL 4338
Andy Ashcroft

I.What is a Theoretical Perspective? Perspectives might best be viewed as models.  Each perspective makes assumptions about society.  Each one attempts to integrate various kinds of information about society.  Models give meaning to what we see and experience.  Each perspective focuses on different aspects of society.  Certain consequences result from using a particular model. No one perspective is best in all circumstances. The perspective one uses may depend upon the question being asked. If one is exploring bureaucratic organization, then one might like to use a perspective that is concerned with social order. On the other hand, if one is concerned with social inequality, then perhaps the conflict perspective is more useful. Perhaps the best perspective is one which combines many perspectives. II. The Functionalist Perspective  The origins of the functionalist perspective can be traced to the work of Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim.  The problem of maintaining social order is a central problem for understanding society.  Understanding society from a functionalist perspective is to visualize society as a system of interrelated parts. All the parts act together even though each part may be doing different things.  Institutions, such as family, education, and religion are the parts of the social system and they act to bring about order in society.  Integration of the various parts is important. When all the "parts" of the system work together, balance is maintained and the over all order of the system is achieved.  Social structures in society promote integration, stability, consensus, and balance. A. A System With Parts The parts of society, while performing different functions, work together to maintain the stability of the whole social system. In order to understand the idea of "social system," it may be helpful to visualize a different kind of system. For example, biological organisms are systems. In fact, many sociologists use biological models to explain human society. The biological metaphor is successful in that it calls attention to how a social "organism" consists of various unique parts. Those parts, in turn, function together to support and maintain the whole system. B. What's the Purpose? Functionalists, like Emile Durkheim, Vilfredo Pareto, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton, are interested in how the parts of the social system contribute to the continuation of the social system. When functionalists encounter the various aspects of society, they may ask "What is its purpose?" A primary purpose of all parts (institutions like police, newspapers, religion) is to encourage consensus. Merton (see Robertson, 1989:12) distinguishes between manifest functions, latent functions, and dysfunctions. 1. Manifest Functions Manifest functions refer to functions that are obvious. Examples: The manifest function of schools is to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic. The manifest function of the military is to defend the nation. The manifest function of criminal justice is to keep the streets safe for a society's citizens. 2. Latent Functions Latent functions are functions that are unrecognized. They may even be important functions, but their consequence is not obvious. Example:  College students, in the course of pursuing their education, may make good friends.  Merton described college as a "mate selection market" where students meet prospective marriage partners. 3. Dysfunctions A perspective that is highly concerned about order is by definition concerned about what happens when social order breaks down. Merton uses the term dysfunction, which refers to a negative consequence that may disrupt the system. Dysfunction also conjures up the notion that a social phenomenon can be functional in one setting and dysfunctional in another. Examples: Over Population Pollution C. Critique of Functionalism 1. Functionalism Resists Change Invoking a biological model has certain built-in assumptions connected to it. Biological organisms do not perform very well when they encounter great change in their environment. Society, however, is not biological. It is social. Social systems can tolerate much greater change than can biological systems. 2. Functionalism is Inherently Conservative Change tends to be viewed as a negative consequence. All the parts of society act as a part of a unified system. Altering one part of the system has impact on all the other parts. There fore, there is a tendency is to protect existing institutions out of a fear that change in one area of society will adversely influence other parts of society. Fear of creating disorder in society is often used as a justification for avoiding change. III. The Conflict Perspective Conflict theorists see society less as a cohesive system and more as an arena of conflict and power struggles. Instead of people working together to further the goals of the "social system,"  People are seen achieving their will at the expense of others.  People compete against each other for scarce resources.  Basic inequalities between various groups is a constant theme of conflict theory.  Power, or the lack of it, is also a basic theme of conflict theory.  Since some people benefit at the expense of others, those who benefit use ideology to justify their unequal advantage in social relationships. Marx is a conflict
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