Functional, Conflict, and Neofunctional Theories

Mark Abrahamson. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Between roughly the mid 1940s and the late 1960s, structural functionalism was the dominant theoretical perspective in sociology. Talcott Parsons was its major figure, and so great was his influence that even the sharpest critics among his contemporaries conceded that they had to define their own intellectual positions in relation to his (Alexander, 1983). The abstractness of Parsons’ theorizing and his grandiloquent writing style were, during his time of prominence, widely discussed and debated; but sociologists were generally less reflective about many of the distinctive suppositions of Parsons’ structural functionalism. Perhaps the distinguishing features of the perspective remained in the background due to the relative absence of competing paradigms (cf. Ritzer, 1980). In any case, Kingsley Davis’ presidential address to the American Sociological Association probably reflected the views of most of his contemporaries when he insisted that functional and sociological analyses were, in fact, virtually identical (Davis, 1959). Anyone who thought functionalism involved any special assumptions, Davis concluded, believed in a myth.

Current, multiple paradigm sociology has obviously changed very much in the latter decades of the twentieth century. The place of functionalism and neofunctionalism in the contemporary theoretical mix is one of the major topics to be assessed in this chapter. We will also examine the important historical interplays between structural functional and (non-Marxian) conflict theories. Before turning to the changes that occurred over the last one-third of the twentieth century, however, it will be instructive first to look back at how diverse conceptual contributions converged to become the structural functional paradigm in the middle of the twentieth century.

To state where any school of thought began necessarily requires arbitrary decisions, because no matter where one chooses to begin it would almost always be possible to find some still earlier, relevant statement. Therefore, let us simply say that one logical place to begin is with the writings of a group of eighteenth-century Scottish scholars—including Adam Smith and David Hume, in particular—who later came to be collectively referred to as the Scottish Moralists.

Scottish Moralists

Several theoretical notions shared by most of the Scots had particular impact upon the development of functional theory in sociology (and anthropology). To begin, they all tended to emphasize a conceptual distinction between levels of analysis in which collective units, such as the economy or society, were seen as possessing qualities that were separate from the individuals that comprised them. Further, the Scots claimed, a collectivity could not be entirely fashioned by the conscious volition of individual participants because they only partly understood it, at best. In Adam Smith’s view, genuine comprehension and explanation required that the analyst be distanced from the routine workings of a society or economy (cf. Copley, 1995).

However, neither Smith nor the other Scots regarded social organization as adversely affected by its separation from human agency. Smith’s discussion of how an ‘invisible hand’ anomolously promotes social ends, despite people’s selfish and hedonistic intents, may be the exemplar of this position. To illustrate, he explained how the vanity of large land and factory owners combined with the eager entre—preneurship of merchants to produce an industrial and commercial revolution that benefited everyone:

A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness was … brought about by two different orders of people, who had not the least intention to serve the public … To gratify the most childish vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants … acted merely from a … principle of turning a penny whenever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about. (Smith, [1863] 1967: 199)

The Scots’ separation of intent and consequence proved to have enormous analytical and methodological implications. It meant that social practices could not necessarily be judged according to any intrinsic or introspective standard that involved people’s motives. Instead, a social analyst had (metaphorically at least) to stand aside, and observe the actual collective consequences of individuals’ behavior. An interesting illustration is provided by David Hume’s analysis of courtship and marriage patterns. After observing differences among societies, he wondered what accounted for the variation in civil laws and moral sentiments.

Hume was able to answer this question, at least partially, by examining the consequences of particular matings. For example, among royalty, what harm would come from a widow marrying her deceased husband’s brother? In the circle of great princes, he reasoned, marriage is more ceremonial and commercial than sexual, so rules which prohibit such marriages among non-royalty need not apply to them. Furthermore, if the widow and her brother-in-law come from different nations, then their marriage may help to cement an alliance, even if it violates a conventional marital taboo. Therefore, Hume concluded, ‘there is less reason for extending toward them the full rigour of the rule …’ (Hume, 1879: 95).

In sum, the Scottish Moralists presented several inter-related points that were especially important with respect to the development of structural functional theory in sociology: an emphasis upon an outsider’s examination of the consequences of people’s behavior; a conceptual distinction between individuals and collectivities as units which act and are acted upon; and the assumption that the parts of societies or economies will generally be well integrated, despite their tendency to be removed from individual volition. All of the above notions were elaborated by the French theorist, Emile Durkheim, and they became the early cornerstones of his new science of sociology.

Emile Durkheim

The primary topic in Durkheim’s first classic provided him with a great opportunity to polemicize against earlier theories which viewed the collective division of labor as a product of individuals’ calculations (cf. Luhmann 1982). Correspondingly, Durkheim began The Division of Labor in Society ([1893] 196; hereafter cited as DoL) with an acknowledgement of Adam Smith’s influence, especially Smith’s insights into the advantages of the division of labor. By contrast, elsewhere in DoL Durkheim went to some lengths to stress the uniqueness of his own contributions, especially in relation to Comte and Spencer.

In a brief introductory passage, Durkheim states that the first problem is, ‘To determine the function of the division of labor, that is to say, what social need it satisfies’ (DoL: 45). Then in Chapter One he turns to a clarification of what the term ‘function’ implies, beginning with why some seemingly identical words can not be used as synonyms. An ‘aim,’ for example, would presuppose intent, and (like the Scots) he does not want to go in that direction. ‘Effect’ is not an acceptable substitute either because it does not necessarily indicate a correspondence between any particular result and the needs of the society; but function has this implication for Durkheim. At the end of the first chapter he offers the book’s major hypothesis: divisions of labor normally function to provide the ‘order, harmony, and social solidarity’ that society needs (DoL: 63).

The rest of DoL provides insightful analyses of change across diverse institutions. Many, if not most, of Durkheim’s arguments and interpretations are functional, and he seems to take special pleasure in pointing out what Merton ([1949a] 1968a) later termed latent functions; that is, how a social practice or activity contributed to social integration in ways which people neither intended nor recognized. For example, Durkheim argued that crime has the (latent) consequence of enhancing solidarity among the non-deviant, and that the punishment of a criminal paradoxically reinvigorates the norm that the offender violated. He completed this classical functional interpretation by arguing that crime and punishment meet such fundamental social needs that it is difficult to image a society in which they are absent.

Durkheim’s ([1895] 1964) most formal and elaborate presentation of functional methodology came later, in The Rules of Sociological Method (hereafter cited as The Rules). In this book he explicitly places individual needs and motives outside the proper realm of sociological enquiry and identifies the social order and the ‘things’ which comprise it—social facts—as the appropriate subject matters. Then he poses as the central question, How are these social facts to be explained? No personal characteristic could logically explain a religious belief, a rate of marriage, or the like because these social facts transcend individual lifetimes. Each generation encounters an institutional arrangement it did not make. Therefore, he concludes, the explanation of social facts must lie in previously established social facts.

In the first four chapters of The Rules, Durkheim presents canons for observing and classifying social facts, building toward Chapter Five in which he outlines the protocol by which they are to be explained. Unfortunately, this key chapter includes a number of statements that are, in my opinion, either confusing or untenable, and the similarities or differences that Durkheim envisioned between functional and causal analyses of social facts are at the heart of the problem.

Durkehim begins his description of the rules of explanation by offering the observation that some law or pattern of behavior might retain essentially the same form or content over hundreds of years, but serve different functions at different times. So, ‘the causes of its existence are, then, independent of the ends it serves’ (The Rules: 91). On the one hand this statement may mean just what it appears to mean, namely, that function and cause are two different things. On the other hand, he goes on to define ‘ends’ in this context as referring to individual utilities. Function, by contrast, is again defined as entailing practices that satisfy the general needs of the social organism. Thus, rather than being intended to separate function and cause, the quotation in question may really be nothing more than a restatement of his non-reducibility dictum.

In later pages of The Rules Durkheim appears to oscillate, sometimes clearly separating function and cause, sometimes fusing them. For example, to explain a social phenomenon, he states, ‘we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills.’ That seems clear, but then he adds, ‘the bond which united the cause to the effect is reciprocal … the … cause needs its effect’ (The Rules: 95.) To illustrate, Durkheim proposes that the punishment of a crime ‘is due to’ (that is, caused by) the collective sentiments that are offended by the crime. The punishment, he continues, is also functional for maintaining those sentiments because unless they are periodically activated and expressed through punishments, the sentiments, themselves, will diminish in intensity.

Durkheim’s writings on causality and function leave more questions unanswered than we could hope to address here. However, a few of the issues need to be at least noted. To begin, did Durkheim mean to say that whenever a causal relationship is shown, one should expect to find that the dependent variable ‘needs’ the independent variable? To answer this question one would first have to clarify what Durkheim meant by cause, and sometimes he confused causal inference with simple correlation. Other times he may be using causal to mean that some behavior seems patterned, hence amenable to law-like descriptions in which the causal connections among terms might remain implicit (Turner, 1990; see also Faia, 1986).

Perhaps the most consistent interpretation is that Durkheim conceptualized a highly integrated social system in which simple correlations among social facts reflected both functional and causal interconnections. Function and cause were to be kept conceptually separate, even if one could not readily tell them apart in the analysis. Certainly he did regard society, in its normal state, as an organic whole in which the parts were harmoniously integrated. He most clearly presented this view in his analysis of ‘survivals’: practices which once served a function, do not seem to do so now, but persist anyway. (Inferring survivals creates a quandary for functionalists because an alternative interpretation is always possible, namely, that a latent function will later surface.) In reflecting upon the prevalence of survivals, Durkheim states that to maintain non-functioning social facts still cost effort. Because they do not benefit the society, though, such survivals are ‘parasitic’ to the budget of the social organism. No society could afford to carry very many of them. Thus, Durkheim concludes, it will typically be possible to show that social facts, ‘combine in such a way as to put society in harmony with itself and with the environment external to it’ (The Rules: 97).

Durkheim had previously argued that it was normal for the parts of a society to fit together and to function to maintain solidarity. For example, he identified the first abnormal, or pathological, type of division of labor as ‘anomic.’ He defined it as overly fragmented, entailing differentiation in which specialization does not lead to solidarity because, ‘social functions are not adjusted to one another’ (DoL: 354). To illustrate, Durkheim described the serious labor conflicts that can occur in large-scale industry when workers and employers become too separate from each other. However, such instances were exceptional and temporary, in his view, and tended to be self-correcting by a ‘spontaneous consensus of parts.’ Further, if the parts of a society did not fit, there was typically little anyone could do about the resultant problems until, in effect, the social system re-equilibrated itself. ‘We cannot adjust these functions to one another and make them concur harmoniously if they do not concur of themselves’ (DoL:360).

In sum, note that all the major parts of Durkheim’s theory and method were in close accord with the main assumptions of the Scottish Moralists. Specifically, they shared:

  • A preference for outsiders’ inferences to insiders’ understandings, or introspection. (They viewed participants as likely to be overwhelmed by a multitude of detail.)
  • A strong conceptual distinction between the attributes of individuals and of collectivities. They also insisted that variables related to individuals cannot be causal with regard to larger social units, but characteristics of collectivities were often assigned causal status with regard to individual behavior.
  • An assumption of social integration, in which the parts of a society (that is, the social facts) fit with each other and fulfill the needs of the collectivity, without the tinkering of would-be social engineers.

Talcott Parsons

Parsons consistently acknowledged that he was strongly indebted to four theorists: Durkheim, Pareto, Weber and Freud. He not only fused their insights, but his early book (Parsons, 1937) also brought their work to the attention of many American sociologists. We have discussed Durkheim at length because of his continued importance as a social theorist, quite apart from Parsons. Following that logic, our treatment of Pareto will be brief because, although he greatly influenced Parsons, he is no longer among the more widely read theorists in sociology. Weber and Freud will not be examined at all due to their limited contributions to structural functionalism. Although Freud’s incipient system perspective influenced Parsons, his primary interest in Freud and Weber was probably more substantive, for their insights into the role of the non-rational. Sciulli (1991: 281) claims that all of Parsons’ work can be summarized by saying, ‘he was a theorist preoccupied with non-rational social action.’

Pareto’s influence upon Parsons’ structural functionalism was great primarily because of the former’s efforts to view society in system terms. (And a system conception, or its equivalent, is probably essential for any analysis that focuses upon the patterned consequences of action in an integrated structure.) Like Durkheim, Pareto ([1916] 1963) emphasized the distinction between function and cause, but he had less interest in causal inference than Durkheim because he felt that, for sociologists, it required erroneous assumptions. Many social variables tend to be so strongly interrelated, in Pareto’s view, that it is not fruitful to try to isolate specific relationships and explain them in causal terms. He proposed instead that sociologists examine the interrelated parts of government, religion and the like in order to deduce their common functions.

In the Preface to The Social System, Parsons (1951: vii) wrote that his book’s title was the most indebted to ‘Pareto’s great work.’ As sociologists, Parsons stated, we are primarily interested in the social system, but cultural and personality systems were seen as impinging so directly on the social system that their influences could be partitioned out only in arbitrary conceptualizations. Furthermore, the way these three systems (or subsystems) interpenetrated was the key to Parsons’ theory of social integration—and he saw integration as the foremost function of the social system. Specifically, he conceptualized an ideal type society in which cultural values were institutionalized in the social system and norms were, in turn, internalized in the personality system. Individuals will then comply with social expectations, in this view, because they regard the rules as legitimate (given their source) and because the rules are consistent with their own internalized values. In addition, because norms are derived from common value orientations, they possess a ‘harmonious character,’ so competing expectations will not often lead people to face internal conflicts.

While Parsons did not expect the ideal type condition of perfect congruence among the three systems to be attained by any actual society, a substantial degree of accord was considered both necessary and inevitable—or the society could not persist. Correspondingly, Parsons and several of his contemporaries (cf. Aberle et al., [1950 1967; Parsons and Smelser, 1956) deduced functional prerequisites, or necessary conditions, of society. Included at the top of everyone’s list were social control mechanisms designed to safeguard the socialization process in order to ensure that each cohort of youngsters internalized the norms and was motivated to play conventional roles.

The ‘danger’ to the stable equilibrium among the three subsystems in the ideal type society that Parsons conceptualized early in his career was social change. In the final chapter of The Social System, Parsons (1951) claims to have deliberately exaggerated system stability in order to devise a base line from which to examine transformations. However, he assumed that each subsystem normally had the means to resist alterations, and most of his core theoretical writings regarded change as worrisome because it could compromise system imperatives. Further, Parsons (like Durkheim and the Scottish Moralists) was concerned that the consequences of even a seemingly minor change might be more far reaching (and worse) than anyone reckoned.

When, later in his career, Parsons (1966) explicitly analysed change, it was from an orderly, evolutionary perspective. Societal complexity, in this view, entailed the greater differentiation of subsystems, and transformations occurred as a result of system tensions which increased because of malintegration among the components. Thus, societies were described as moving through stages of temporary equilibrium, but change followed an orderly sequence and continued to be patterned in accordance with self-regulating system needs.

Viewing change apprehensively, especially if it was deliberately enacted, was one quality that gave structural functionalism a conservative tilt. A second involved a tendency not to consider the possibility that traditional practices differentially benefit some parts of a society. For Durkheim, it will be recalled, the ‘beneficiary’ of functional practices was the society, which he conceptualized as a thing apart (and which therefore could not be equated with any specific segment or group). In Parsons’ view, internalization of a common value system led to a situation in which virtually everyone in a society shared a strong affectual commitment to seeing institutionalized practices continue. Robert K. Merton, a student and colleague of Parsons, suggested that sociologists explicitly consider the possibility that what is functional for some segments of a society might not be functional for others. However, Merton’s own case studies usually wound up showing how diverse groups, in fact, benefited from the same practice (Abrahamson, 1978; Merton, [1949a] 1968a).

The third pillar on which the conservativeness of Parsons’ structural functionalism rested was a disinclination to accord an important place to conflict, opposition or power. The closest Durkheim came to dealing with these phenomena was in his description of how society behaved coercively, prodding people to a moral way of life. However, when he saw a clash between the wishes of individuals and the needs of the collectivity, he did not consider the differential interests of divergent groups, so power remained a neglected variable (cf. Giddens, 1993). Even this limited type of power and opposition was largely absent from Parsons’ conceptions, though. Despite his abiding interest in Freud, Parsons regarded internalization as likely to correct any potential individual ‘versus’ society antagonism.

In addition, because of the interpénétration of the subsystems, people in Parsons’ theory did not have to force each other to comply with legitimate expectations. They wanted to obey. Even the tendency of most of the functionalists not to allow much room for survivals was part of their blindness to conflict, in Gouldner’s (1970) view. Had they really examined survivals, he wrote, they would have had to confront the existence of unequal exchanges, and then they could not have avoided the role of force and opposition in maintaining exploitative relationships.

In order to show the ways and degrees to which Parsons’ writing continued in a functionalist tradition, let us examine his positions on the three main assumptions previously used to summarize the continuity between Durkheim and the Scottish Moralists.

  • The preference for outsider’s inferences. Because Parsons contended that individuals internalized the same core values, their reflections might provide valid social indicators. Hence, participants’ views might be taken more seriously by Parsons than Durkheim or Adam Smith; but the terms in Parsons’ scheme were so abstract that the potential relevance of insiders’ observations was extremely limited.
  • A distinction between individuals and collectivities. Parsons certainly emphasized their separation, and the irreducibility of the social system, and he also saw the social system impinging upon, or penetrating, the personality system.
  • Social integration, without ‘tinkering,’ was a very central supposition in Parsons’ scheme. The parts fit, in his view, and once equilibrium was attained, its continuation did not require the stipulation of any special mechanisms.

The previously described criticisms—from Merton and others working within structural functionalism—did not lead to any substantial changes in structural functionalism. The perspective retained Parsons’ imprint well into the 1960s, and then it was slowly ‘overwhelmed’ by the criticisms of theorists working within other paradigms that were then evolving. Functionalism left center stage, and nearly left the stage entirely. Nearly two decades later, however, neofunctionalism appeared, and Parsons was again viewed as its major spokesperson. Before examining these more recent changes, however, it is important to note most of the paradigms whose insights were utilized to criticize structural functionalism were developed in large part as polemics against Parsonian structural functionalism. Among the most important of these paradigms were:

  • Exchange: George Homans (1958), who had been part of the Pareto Circle with Parsons, made seminal contributions to this perspective, largely because he thought the macro-Durkheimian emphasis in Parsons paid insufficient attention to the psychological underpinnings of social structures.
  • Ethnomethodology: Harold Garfinkel (1964), a former student of Parsons,’ made significant contributions to this paradigm in part to rectify what he regarded as Parsons’ view of people as oversocialized dopes.
  • Feminist-gender: The functionalists’ very traditional views of women and women’s roles was an important impetus to new theories about gender differences and the sexual division of labor (cf. Johnson, 1989).

Still other sociologists polemicized against the tendency—shared by most functionalists from Durkheim to Parsons—to downplay the role of conflict in society. They developed a conflict school that probably depended more upon a polemic against structural functionalism for its inception than any of the other theoretical paradigms. Before Parsons’ emphasis upon order and stability, Alexander (1998: 95) comments, ‘there was no such beast as “conflict theory”.’

Conflict Theory

To keep the record straight, we should note that some conflict theories pre-dated Parsons. Marx, discussed elsewhere in this volume, is the obvious example. Simmel may also be a good example, depending upon how his writings are interpreted. His essays (1908; in Levine, 1971) examined such issues as superordination and subordination, conflicts and contradictions. However, Simmel was interested in the form of solidarity, friendship and other forms of relationship in addition to conflict; hence, Simmel can be interpreted as having offered a theory of conflict rather than a conflict theory (Collins, 1990).

It is also important to note that the major structural functionalists did not entirely ignore power and conflict (cf. Lockwood, 1992). For example, Durkheim ([1893] 1964) described class conflicts in modern society, with a reference to Marx no less! And Parsons’ (1951) analysis of need dispositions included a discussion of dominance and submission. However, their attention to such matters was generally brief and they de-emphasized conflict and differential power by placing them into ‘special’ (i.e. out-of-the-ordinary) categories. Thus, Durkheim discussed class conflict under the heading, ‘abnormal forms’ of the division of labor, and Parsons discussed domination under the rubric, ‘deviant orientation.’ In reaction, some mid-twentieth-century theorists urged a more prominent treatment of conflict, and one that regarded it as a more normal part of any society.

The advocates of conflict theory quickly found themselves caught between theoretical behemoths. On one side was structural functionalism, with Parsons’ emphasis upon normative and value consensus, and a harmonious relationship among the parts. There was, of course, a readily available rendition of conflict theory: Marxian. However, it entailed a number of suppositions these proponents found little better than the structural functionalism they were criticizing. Specifically, all the versions of Marxian theory tended to emphasize intense struggles that had a material basis and could not be resolved without fundamentally changing the society that engendered them. The conflict theorists were not comfortable embracing Marxism because they contended that: the roots of social conflicts were as often normative as material, the intensity and tractability of these conflicts were explicitly variable, and the competing interests of different groups might be reconciled without necessarily altering fundamental properties of the society.

Two of the most influential early advocates of conflict theory were Ralf Dahrendorf and Lewis Coser. The degree of convergence between their views declined over time, however, and their positions essentially came largely to define the two poles within which conflict theories developed. Dahrendorf initially tried to present an outline of a theory of social conflict that examined the intensity of conflict as variable, influenced by such considerations as: the number of dimensions on which people were deprived, how organized they were, the relations between a group’s leaders and followers, and so on (Dahrendorf, 1959). Although he was very critical of Parsons’ emphasis upon consensus, he was primarily interested in trying to strike a balance that would equalize the treatment of consensus and conflict. Coser (1956) professed a similar objective, namely, balancing consensus and stability, on the one hand, with conflict and change, on the other. Correspondingly, he argued that some of Marx’s ideas should be incorporated into structural functionalism in order to compensate for that paradigm’s neglect of power and conflict.

Claiming to steer a middle ground, Coser criticized both Marx and Durkheim; but the latter fared a lot better than the former in Coser’s hands. For example, he claimed that Marx was ‘historically obsolete,’ but Coser thought it appropriate to forgive him because it was not Marx’s fault he was born in the wrong century (Coser, 1967: 150). He also wrote that while Marx’s analysis was analytically powerful, it was too narrow in its focus upon the economic realm, and that it could and should be recast in functionalist terms. Coser’s criticisms of Durkheim were much milder; for example, he claimed that Durkheim’s theories were too conservative. However, even these gentle rebukes were usually offset by what followed, in which Coser either stated that he really meant only to praise Durkheim or that Durkheim’s influence upon his thinking remained unsurpassed.

In the end, Coser tried to add just a little conflict to a functionalist perspective more than he tried to add a little consensus to a conflict theory. Thus, his analyses focused upon functions of social conflict and tried to show its positive consequences; for example, reducing tension which thereby permitted systems to continue. Perhaps in response, Dahrendorf’s (1968) later writing became more critical of functionalism, Parsons in particular, and described society as more characterized by conflict than consensus.

There continues to be some sociological writing that one can identify as falling within a non-Marxian conflict perspective. One of the distinguishing features of much of this work is that, at least implicitly, Parsons’ ghost seems to hover in its background. For example, James Hunter’s (1991, 1996) influential writing on America’s cultural wars sees conflict as endemic, and based upon competing values and beliefs that are explicitly not class-based, in a Marxian sense. The only resolution Hunter sees will require the development of a new normative consensus. To illustrate further, Beteille’s analysis of contemporary India makes explicit use of Parsons’ paradigm, and shows how the tension between consensus and conflict has continued to characterize conflict theory. After reviewing the ways in which institutionalized values in India seem incompatible with each other, he concluded that a society’s normative structure ‘is designed to regulate conflicts of interest between … its constituent parts. But what is to regulate the conflicts that inhere in the normative structure itself?’ (Beteille, 1998: 286).

In recent years, conflict theory has been nibbled at from two sides by the convergence of neo-Marxian and neofunctional theories. Its always tenuous boundaries, between Marx and Parsons, have become still more vague and its attempt to provide a balanced picture of conflict and order—the distinctive thrust of mid-century conflict theory—has lost much of its distinctiveness. Within the larger discipline it may continue to inform efforts at micro-macro synthesis, and provide a framework for empirical research (cf. Collins, 1990). However, the more neofunctional and neo-Marxian paradigms converge, the more difficult it is for me to envision the conflict perspective occupying an important place in sociological theory.

Collins (1990) presents a very different prognosis, however. He contends that after conflict theory’s mid-century theoretical debates with functionalism, conflict theory developed in relation to empirical, macro-historical research, and such major substantive areas as social movements, organizations and stratification. The theory’s emphasis upon domination, power and change has, in Collins’ view, permeated enquiry, though not in a theoretically self-conscious manner. Thus, as research in these diverse areas continues to accumulate, the development of conflict theory may quietly and simultaneously proceed.


During the 1970s, the criticism and defense of Parsons and of structural functionalism declined. The burial of the man (in 1979) could easily have been viewed as symbolizing the end of his influence as well. It turned out to be only a brief hiatus, however, because during the 1980s there was a revival of interest in Parsons’ writing. Some of the renewed attention had little to do with structural functionalism. Rather, it was the result of sociologists again recognizing his importance in synthesizing the work of classical theorists and using it to advance such disparate areas as family sociology (cf. Smith, 1993) and economy and society (cf. Holton and Turner, 1986). Of more direct relevance to the concerns of this chapter, there was also a resurgence of interest in Parsonian structural functionalism, first in Germany and then in the United States (Alexander, 1983). Almost all of the efforts, on both sides of the Atlantic, sought to merge aspects of structural functionalism with other paradigms that had better developed critical and behavioral perspectives. The objective was to create a ‘hybrid’ that built upon the conceptual strengths of each of the merged perspectives in order to provide more balanced treatments of such (potentially) disparate tendencies as: equilibrium and change, cohesion and conflict, social structure and agency (Alexander and Colomy, 1990).

Two of the leading figures in the German revival were Niklas Luhmann and Jiirgen Habermas. The two collaborated in 1971 on a theory of social engineering in modern society, then subsequently worked separately, though along some parallel tracks, and with frequent reference to each other’s work. Luhmann had been formally trained in law, but read sociology and spent a year studying with Parsons at Harvard (in 1960). At the time of his collaboration with Habermas, much of Luhmann’s work followed a framework that was sympathetic to Parsonian structural functionalism. In marked contrast, Habermas was a major figure in the Frankfurt School, dominated by critical theorists for whom Marx’s writings were central and for whom Parsons was an anathema.

Luhmannn moved from Parsons: the title of one of his major theoretical books—Social Systems—clearly reflects Parsons’ influence; so did Luhmann’s self-conscious use of ego and alter as referents. However, Luhmann’s book incorporated perspectives on systems from such diverse sources as linguistics and cognitive sciences. He contended that relationships between systems and their environments were more complex than Parsons’ description implied, and he conceived of subsystems more as differentiated problem-solving units (Luhmann, [1984] 1995). Perhaps his most explicit disagreement with Parsons concerned the options normally available to ego and alter as concrete human beings. Parsons’ emphases upon value consensus and the social system’s penetration of the personality system, according to Luhmann, limited the kinds of social relationships and human behavior that a theorist could analyse outside of a deviant category. To open more alternatives, he conceptually moved people out of the social system and into a ‘societal environment’ that he described both as more complex and less restrictive than the social system. It accords people more freedom, Luhmann ([1984] 1995: 213) wrote, ‘especially freedom for irrational and immoral behavior.’

Habermas, on the other hand, moved toward Parsons. His early writings, like those of most critical theorists, treated Parsons disparagingly. He was especially sharp in his criticisms of Parsons’ proclivity for objectifying and elevating system imperatives. In juxtaposition, he emphasized action and the ‘lifeworld.’ However, without attributing dominance to system properties or adopting Durkheimian notions about system integration, Habermas did initially accord a place in his critical theory to cultural, social and personality systems; and his conceptualization of their interrelationships was consistent with Parsons’ view (Habermas, 1975). Corresponding with these three systems, Habermas described the lifeworld as a parallel, intersubjective realm for experiencing and communicating about culture, society and personality.

As societies become more complex, he later wrote, lifeworld and structural systems become increasingly separated from each other because people find it more difficult to predict the consequences of their actions. Therefore, Habermas (1987) concluded, to explain most contemporary societies may require the Parsonian inference of self-regulating systems, though requirements of the lifeworld continue to set parameters within which systems evolve. It is this assumption of (at least partly) self-regulating systems that is probably the most unambiguously neofunctional feature in Habermas’ intentionally eclectic theory. However, some critics have been reluctant to let him hedge on this issue, and contend that any assumption of self-regulation is fundamentally incompatible with Habermas’ view that systems are dependent upon the conceptions and actions of individual participants (cf. Schwinn, 1998).

Within the United States, most of the major contributions to neofunctionalism came from theorists who were sympathetic to Parsonian structural functionalism. Especially notable was the writing of Jeffrey Alexander whose volume on Parsons helped again to focus the attention of sociologists upon Parsons’ framework (Alexander, 1983; see also Camic, 1987). In that volume Alexander praised Parsons as a synthesizer of grand theory without equal, and claimed that his influence continued to be enormous. At the same time, Alexander was critical of Parsons’ theory on several grounds, agreeing that it posed an overly deterministic stance and lacked sufficient attention to conflict and strain. In his subsequent essays on neofunctionalism, however, Alexander (1985; Alexander and Colomy, 1990) contended that the theory’s deficiencies were not irreversible. In other words, conflict and subjective meaning could be introduced; and system integration and the interpénétration of subsystems could be regarded as tendencies, open to enquiry rather than assumed, as givens.

The response to the efforts of Alexander and others to revive functionalist notions in the guise of neofunctionalism has been markedly varied. Echoing the disapproval of Habermas’ consolidations, some critics felt there were limits to how far any theoretical perspective could go in accommodating incompatible notions, and still retain its name and lineage. Noefunctionalism, to these critics, was eviscerated from its heritage (Turner and Maryanski, 1988); but others saw clear continuity (Colomy, 1990). Coming from an opposite direction, still other antagonists felt the recent changes were more cosmetic than real because neofunctionalism remained imbued with the features that distinguished functionalism, from the Scottish Moralists to Durkheim. Specifically, the ‘objective’ view of outsiders continued to predominate, people were still regarded as reactors to systems more than actors, and conflict remained secondary. Blasi (1987: 187) claimed the supporters of neofunctionalism failed to realize that they had not made substantive alterations to functionalism because, ‘orthodoxies rest on presuppositions which are invisible to the orthodox adherents themselves.’

An Empirical Referent?

If Alexander’s predictions about the future of social theory are correct, the criticisms of neofunctionalism (or functionalism) are merely final gasps from the past. In his most recent book (Alexander, 1998), he tried to describe what the sociological landscape might look like ‘after neofunctionalism.’ He concluded that the polemics have run their course. There will be grand theory in the future, he foresees, it will be important and it will be truly multidimensional with respect to macro-micro, conflict-order and the other polarities which divided theorists in the past. Neofunctionalism, after further ‘hybridization,’ will necessarily be a still less distinctive paradigm if Alexander is correct.

If neofunctionalism, or some other descendent of functionalism, persists, will it be developed in relation to empirical research? In other words, will theory and research be expected to bear upon each other in the future? These questions introduce another potentially important polarity, namely, how much the referent for any theory ought to be other theory rather than empirical research. These particular poles may have been moved further apart even as other polarities were presumably diminishing.

The current emphasis upon synthesis accentuates the importance of conceptual analyses of how paradigms and suppositions previously thought to be at variance with each other can now be combined. There may also be some empirical referent in these efforts to construct or deconstruct theories, but it is of trivial importance except insofar as one wants to include the theoretical writings of others as though they represented empirical observations (cf. Parsons, 1949). When the culture of social theorists stresses synthesis it is likely to be better for the advancement of metatheory than for extending the links between theory and research. As Ritzer (1991) notes, there are diverse types of metatheory, different from each other in their ambitions. None of them takes enhancement of the interplay between theory and research as a major objective, though.

Another major reason for the neofunctionalists’ relative neglect of empirical linkages lies in the predilections of its most influential figure, Jeffrey Alexander, and those who have worked most closely with him. While not anti-empirical, Alexander (1998) is explicitly suspicious of empirically based inferences, arguing that social science is fundamentally different from natural science because theoretical traditions always permeate everything social scientists see and do. He further states, and this is the nub of the matter, that given the differences in the nature of the two types of science, sociological theory can be scientifically significant independently of its capacity to explain empirical observations (Alexander, 1998).

Minimizing the importance of the interplay between theory and empirical research sounds, to me, more like the past than the future. It will put the discipline at risk of experiencing what worried Merton ([1949b] 1968b) half of a century ago, namely, that one group of theorists will absurdly contemplate each other’s abstractions while a totally separate group of researchers carry out mindless modeling and abstracted empiricism. Would it not be ironic to characterize the division of labor in sociology as anomic?