FunctionalExplanation

It is Durkheim who clearly established the logic of thefunctional approach to the study of social phenomena, althoughfunctional explanations, it will be recalled, play a major partin Spencer's approach, and the lineaments of functional reasoningwere already discernible in the work of Comte. In particular,Durkheim set down a clear distinction between historical andfunctional types of inquiry and between functional consequencesand individual motivations.

When . . . . the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills. We use the word "function," in preference to "end" or "purpose," precisely because social phenomena do not generally exist for the useful results they produce. We must determine whether there is a correspondence between the fact under consideration and the general needs of the social organism, and in what this correspondence consists, without occupying ourselves with whether it has been intentional or not.25

"The determination of function is . . . necessary for thecomplete explanation of the phenomena. . . . To explain a socialfact it is not enough to show the cause on which it depends; wemust also, at least in most cases, show its function in theestablishment of social order."26

Durkheim separated functional analysis from two otheranalytical procedures, the quest for historical origins andcauses and the probing of individual purposes and motives. Thesecond seemed to him of only peripheral importance forsociological inquiry since men often engage in actions when theyare unable to anticipate the consequences. The quest for originsand historical causes, however, was to Durkheim as essential andlegitimate a part of the sociological enterprise as was theanalysis of functions. In fact, he was convinced that the fullexplanation of sociological phenomena would necessarily utilizeboth historical and functional analysis. The latter would revealhow a particular item under consideration had certainconsequences for the operation of the overall system or itscomponent parts. The former would enable the analyst to show whythis particular item, rather than some others, was historicallyavailable to subserve a particular function. Social investigatorsmust combine the search for efficient causes and thedetermination of the functions of a phenomenon.

The concept of function played a key part in all of Durkheim'swork from The Division of Labor, in which he sees hisprime objective in the determination of "the functions ofdivision of labor, that is to say, what social needs itsatisfies," to The Elementary Forms of Religious Life,which is devoted to a demonstration of the various functionsperformed in society through religious cults, rites, and beliefs.An additional illustration of Durkheim's functional approach ishis discussion of criminality.

In his discussion of deviance and criminality, Durkheimdeparted fundamentally from the conventional path. While mostcriminologists treated crime as a pathological phenomenon andsought psychological causes in the mind of the criminal, Durkheimsaw crime as normal in terms of its occurrence, and even ashaving positive social functions in terms of its consequences.Crime was normal in that no society could enforce totalconformity to its injunctions, and if society could, it would beso repressive as to leave no leeway for the social contributionsof individuals. Deviance from the norms of society is necessaryif society is to remain flexible and open to change and newadaptations. "Where crime exists, collective sentiments aresufficiently flexible to take on a new form, and crime sometimeshelps to determine the form they will take. How many times,indeed, it is only an anticipation of future morality--a steptoward what will be."27 But in addition to suchdirect consequences of crime, Durkheim identified indirectfunctions that are no less important. A criminal act, Durkheimreasoned, elicits negative sanctions in the community by arousingcollective sentiments against the infringement of the norm. Hencei has the unanticipated consequence of strengthening normativeconsensus in the common weal. "Crime brings together uprightconsciences and concentrates them."28

Whether he investigated religious phenomena or criminal acts,whether he desired to clarify the social impact of the divisionof labor or of changes in the authority structure of the family,Durkheim always shows himself a masterful functional analyst. Heis not content merely to trace the historical origins ofphenomena under investigation, although he tries to do this also,but he moves from the search for efficient causes to inquiriesinto the consequences of phenomena for the structures in whichthey are variously imbedded. Durkheim always thinks contextuallyrather than atomistically. As such he must be recognized as thedirect ancestor of that type of functional analysis which came todominate British anthropology under the impact of Radcliffe-Brownand Malinowski and which led. somewhat later, to Americanfunctionalism in sociology under Talcott Parsons and Robert K.Merton.

The sections that follow will provide more information onDurkheim the man, and on his activities as an applied scientistand engaged reformer. This section was limited to his theoreticalwork, but it could not possibly do justice to all the facets ofthe work of so complicated a social theorist as Emile Durkheim.Space did not permit a discussion of Durkheim's contributions tothe sociology of education, although they are considerable; norcould justice be done to Durkheim's fascinating if highlyspeculative work on the importance of professional associationsas intermediary links between individuals and theall-encompassing, and possibly suffocating, powers of the state.Even his important contributions to the sociology of law could bealluded to only in passing.

As a social theorist, Durkheim, to quote him directly, had ashis "principal objective . . . to extend scientificrationalism to human behavior."29 And although hemay have failed in many particulars, the fact that his work hasbecome part of the foundation for all modern sociology testifiesto his overall success.

From Lewis A. Coser, Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideasin Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth:Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977: 140-143.

ENDNOTES

 

  1. Rules, p. 95.
  2. Ibid., p. 97.
  3. Ibid., p. 71.
  4. Divisions of Labor, p. 103.
  5. Suicide, p. xxxix.


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