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Week 11 - Structural Functionalism

1.  Talcott Parsons + Emile Durkheim

Right around the time Sexuality of the Human Male was published, a sociologist working at Harvard named Talcott Parsons was conducting his own research on the modern nuclear family.  In his research, Parsons showed how this very specific forms of family emerged alongside capitalism in the early 20th century and argued that it was essential for keeping a capitalist economy strong and working.  He also thought that society as a whole couldn't function well without a strong economy and that the modern nuclear family couldn't function well without maintaining traditional gender roles - i.e., a male father who earned a wage in the public sphere (sometimes called a family wage) and a female mother who earned no wages for maintaining the household and raising the children.

Parsons developed his ideas about the modern nuclear family by following the tenets of a sociological theory developed a generation before, in France, by a sociologist named Emile Durkheim.  He gathered no data to support his ideas about the family.  He simply followed the tenets of this theory.  This theory is called structural functionalism or just functionalism.

This is pretty much your first example of an American sociologist not combining a theory with applied research and the only other sociologists we have discussed who approached sociology in this way were the ones in German who trained W.E.B. Du Bois.  Remember them?  If you had to give a name to Parson's method (i.e., how he came up with his ideas about the family), you could call it the comparative historical method.  But usually, in assessing his work, scholars would be more concerned with how he developed his ideas about the family based upon the theory he used, structural functionalism.

Here is a nice basic definition of structural functionalism

> Structural functionalists sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability ...  Got that?  The emphasis is on the society's stability

> This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shape society as a whole + believes that society has evolved like organisms

> This approach looks at both social structure and social functions

> Structural functionalists address society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely normscustomstraditions + institutions

> A common analogy presents these parts of society as "organs" that work toward the proper functioning of the "body" as a whole

> This part is key: Structural functionalists address society as a whole in terms of the function of its constituent elements; namely normscustomstraditions + institutions - All things are equal to a structural functionalist like Parsons - This is different from every other sociologists we have looked at so far.

As I mentioned, Parsons didn't come up with the theory structural functionalism.  Emile Durkheim did.  Durkheim was coming up with his ideas about how society worked around the same time as W.E.B. Du Bois - as well as those German scholars Du Bois studied under.

He developed the basic tenets of structural functionalism by conducting a deductive, non-obtrusive study on the topic of suicide.  Basically, he gathered up all the statistics hospitals were keeping and then analyzed them to figure out which European countries had the highest rates of suicide, what kinds of social demographics seemed to contribute to people committing suicide.  Here is a quick summary of his findings.

Important to Durkheim's theory of structural functionalism is the concept of anomie.  Check you class notes for what I said about this and I included a good definition of anomie below.  Make sure you understand how this concept would work if you were studying the topic of suicide - like Durkheim did - or the family - like Parsons did.

> Anomie is the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and the community

> Durkheim himself never actually used the word normlessness to describe what he meant but sociologists in later years would

> In the simplest of terms - Anomie is when things go wrong or are seeming to go wrong

> Remember:  Whether or not something is going wrong depends upon who is making the assertion!

Let's pause for a minute to think about suicide and how it is a social thing.

> TAL 473 - Loopholes, "Prologue" (2012) - 9 minutes

TAL 407 - The Bridge, "Bridge Over ..." (2010) - 15 minutes

Durkheim deliberately chose this topic as a way to make the case for creating the academic discipline of sociology in the first place

> In class I told you the story of Anne Parsons - a little biography - to remember the work of both Parson + Durkheim and also to remind yourself that sociological analysis are always only partial depictions of the world.

2.  Learn all about the work of Talcott Parson's student Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his famous study - The Negro Family, The Case For National Action (1965)

This page will lay out for you Moynihan's ideas and how he came up with them

> Earlier work on the African-American family > Chicago School sociologist E. Franklin Fraizer

Pay close attention to the story that follows > A small detail from it will be on your next Quiz - Distributed at the top of class on Tuesday, 4/27 and due via email by 2 PM on Thursday, 4/29

> Listen to this story - TAL 142, Barbara (1999) - 50 minutes - there is a transcript here - as a real life story, a little biography, to see just how right and how wrong not only Moynihan, but Parsons was about the modern nuclear family

3.  Here are a couple of other real life stories about real life families and the ways that official ideas about the family, like the ones Parsons and Moynihan came up with, got some things right and some things very wrong.

First a couple of stories from right around right now


Pay close attention to the story that follows > A small detail from it will be on your next Quiz - Distributed at the top of class on Tuesday, 4/27 and due via email by 2 PM on Thursday, 4/29

Zach Wahls Speak About Family (2011) - 3 minutes

> TAL 293, Act 2, "And Daddy Makes Three" (2005) - 12 minutes

And now some stories from back then

Pay close attention to the story that follows > A small detail from it will be on your next Quiz - Distributed at the top of class on Tuesday, 4/27 and due via email by 2 PM on Thursday, 4/29

> The story of Gene Cheek - TAL 313, Parental Guidance Suggested, Act 1 (2006) - 29 minutes

Pay close attention to the story that follows > A small detail from it will be on your next Quiz - Distributed at the top of class on Tuesday, 4/27 and due via email by 2 PM on Thursday, 4/29

> Watch below: The story of Richard and Mildred Loving



> After Loving Vs Virginia - The story of Rich Robinson's parents - TAL 105, Take A ...(1998), Act 1 - 32 minutes