functionalism and social change

Strasser, Hermann (March 1977) functionalism and social change. Forschungsberichte / Research Memoranda 116


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summary (preface): it is a common experience that our everyday life organized as it is in some form is characterized by orderly persistence as much as by change. as man's biological life cycle (from childhood to old age) and various forms of conflict in political, economic, and social life (e.g., strikes, legal suits, demonstrations) and their implications for change suggest, small-scale changes may be considered as an important aspect of stability and persistence on a larger scale. thus, changing patterns of social life seem to provide as much predictable continuity to societal organization as fixed patterns do. and there are those events such as social and political revolutions, massive immigration, war, conquest, bad harvest, technological and medical inventions, etc., that bring about basic changes on all levels of society. one is tempted to say that life is change; and yet most people believe in the constancy of aspects of our lives, be that our occupation, the organization in which we work, values we cherish, or the intellectual subject matter we study scientifically. in a recent book, donald a. schon (beyond the stable state. harmondsworth: penguin books, 1971) has aptly shown that the belief in stability is a device to maintain stability, or at least the illusion of it, hence protecting us from apprehension of the various threats inherent in change. those who do not sustain belief in the stable state of one's affairs, inescapably face what alvin toffler (future shock. new york: random house, 1970) has termed "future shock", namely, a social desease inflicted upon people who are unable to cope with the strain of permanent novelty in times when traditional patterns of behavior are too often inappropriate or dysfunctional. every theory of society has a built-in stability-change dimension. some sociological theories take change in a social item (e.g., industrialization, authority relations) as the phenomenon to be explained. to other theories stability or the re-establishment of some stable state, of a social item (e.g., industrialism, structure of social inequality) is the phenomenon to be explained. in the latter case, change is simply taken as a transition from one state of a social item to another. still other theories do not stress either aspect. if all theories address themselves, in one way or another, to questions of stability and change, the crux of the matter is not which theoretical scheme deals with the change dimension, but rather which one explains more effectively social change, its origins, forms, and directions. in the study that follows change may encompass small-scale changes (e.g., development of a leadership role in some group), cyclical patterns of change (e.g., on a temporal and/or organizational basis), and fundamental changes (change of some aspect of the social system that is considered constitutive of that system such as the economic order, the parliamentary system, value pluralism, etc.). such definitions of change will refer to short-term as well as long-term changes (e.g., in the labor market and employment structures) and to continuous or discontinuous processes (e.g., bureaucratization vs. inventions). in the last analysis, all changes in the organization of social relations may be regarded as either the re-establishment of some state of equilibrium or the formation of a new system, to put it in functionalist terms. the functional approach to change phenomena which will be the topic of this study, holds that whether we deal with changes of systems or changes within systems, all that can be observed and verified is a change in the organization of social relations. given the reality of change in contemporary society, more people than ever before may, at a given point in time, be said to loose faith in the stable state and hence give up a bulwark against the threat of uncertainty and begin to suffer from the desease of change. this also means that these members of society are likely to regard the established institutions and norms of orientation as inadequate to the challenges they are confronted with. however, there are students of society whose efforts of describing and explaining change are based on such stability-oriented concepts as consensus, integration, differentiation, and equilibrium. moreover, the unit of analysis they mostly use, namely,the social system, is depicted as characterized by the property of resistance to change in the sense of operating with self-regulatory mechanisms that tend to keep it in some state of equilibrium. the vocabulary of explanation they employ is commonly identified with functional analysis or structural-functional theory. the question that arises immediately is whether such an approach to the study of social change is adequate under empirical, conceptual, and methodological premises. or to put it more pointedly: is functional analysis of change more than an academic substitute for engaging in change? the present study should therefore be considered to make an attempt to examine the explanatory power of the structural-functional theory of change. we assume that functional analysis differs from non-functional approaches in the kinds of research questions it raises. we will first offer a detailed account of the logic upon which functional analysis bases its assumptions, postulates, concepts, and hypotheses. such a map of the logic of functionalism should enable us to uncover its principles for the study social change. by demonstrating its merits and possible shortcomings, we should then arrive at conclusions concerning the heuristic import of a social theory based on the methodological and conceptual elements of functional analysis.;

Item Type: IHS Series
Status: Published
Date Deposited: 26 Sep 2014 10:34
Last Modified: 01 Apr 2016 14:07

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