Power and Protest - Social Movement THEORY
Imagining Other Index page: Ian Pirie's Web Pages Index Page
Summary of this page:
1. Theory of (new) social movements:
NB These notes go into some theoretical depth…
Less academically-inclined readers might want to go straight to the notes on each movement (via Contents Page).
2. Definitions and General Issues:
(a) General definition.
(b) When did “social movements” arrive on the scene?
(c) The self-production of society.
3. Typologies and classifications:
(a) Aberle: transformative, reformative, redemptive, alterative
(b) Della Porta - general points, classifications:
(i) collective behaviour
(ii) resource mobilisation
(iii) Political Process
(iv) New social movements
4. Relation of social movements to politics
5. Other theories and issues
(i) Salomon & opposition to social movements
(ii) Carl Boggs
Footnote on Marxism and structural-functionalism.
2. Theory of (new) social movements - Definitions and General Issues:
(a) General definition:
The study of politics has many aspects and covers, for example, the study of institutions (governments, parliaments etc), concepts (democracy, totalitarianism etc), philosophy (what is a “just” regime? why should we obey the law? etc), and behaviour (how/why do people vote the way they do, what determines the behaviour of political representatives, etc).
When we study political behaviour, or action, we could focus on individuals, or on groups. With Social Movements we are dealing with political action by groups or collectives (rather than with individuals).
A social movement is a "collective endeavour to promote or resist change in the society of which it forms part"
However, it is clear that there are many ways in which groups act to get political change: people may protest, or riot, or carry out a rebellion or a revolution; they may form a pressure-group or a political party, and this definition does not distinguish a social movement from, say, a political party.
On the other hand, Heywood (1997) defines a social movement as: “A collective body distinguished by a high level
of commitment and political activism, but often lacking a clear organisation”.
The key difference is that social movements are not organised in the way that parties or pressure groups are: they do not (usually) have “membership”, central staff, offices and suchlike. They act in a more diffuse, perhaps episodic, way than organised political formations – as Bottomore puts it. On the other hand, I would say that their actions are more deliberate than riots or mobs, since they usually have goals and carefully chose methods of action. Some social movements may be revolutionary – others want less radical change.
Giddens (1989 ch 19) makes an important point when he says that they are "a collective attempt to further a
common interest, or secure a common goal, through collective action outside the sphere of established
institutions" (my emphasis).
Bottomore makes another significant point: social movements, if successful, "establish preconditions for changes of
policy or regime, by bringing into question the legitimacy of the existing political system (in part or in whole),
creating a different climate of opinion, and proposing alternatives."
This last point seems to me to be crucial, and may be the most important distinguishing feature of social movements, since most political action (apart from that taken by revolutionary parties) is within the constraints of the existing system. [See the notes on social movements in the twentieth century].
Social movements are usually broad, and may contain, or lead to the creation of, “organised political formations.” For example, the labour movement most clearly led to the creation of (socialist) political parties, and it “contains” organisations such as trade unions as well as political parties.
(b) When did “social movements” arrive on the scene?
If we distinguish social movements from e.g. peasant rebellions, as suggested above (since such rebellions lacked clear political objectives) then social movements seem to be a fairly “modern” phenomenon, arising in an age when people held democratic expectations.
Thus the English Civil War (during which period there were movements such as the Levellers and the Diggers) and the French Revolution of 1789 (which led to a flourishing of democratic organisations, as well as “mobs” – see below) are key historical events that brought about the kind of society where social movements could exist. Before then, social restrictions were such as to make collective consciousness and action highly unlikely (though one might include, as does Aberle [see below] millenarian movements, that is, movements waiting for the end of the world at the arrival of the first millennium, as social movements…).
Bottomore (1979) notes that probably the
earliest reference to social movements is in the book by Lorenz von Stein:
History of the Social Movement in
As can be seen from what has just been said,
one of the earliest social movements was the labour movement. However,
Alexis de Tocqueville argued that, especially in 19th century
(c) The self-production of society.
For some modern sociologists, especially Alain
3. Typologies and classifications of social movements:
(a) An early attempt to classify social movements, mainly by differentiating between their aims, was that of Aberle (1966):
(i) Transformative – setting out to transform society, or seeking far-reaching changes. Examples of such movements are revolutionary movements, radical religious movements e.g. millenarian movements already mentioned.
(ii) Reformative: having more limited objectives, aiming to right specific "injustices" e.g. anti-abortion movement.
The next two categories deal more with changes in individuals:
(iii) Redemptive: to rescue people from wrong ways of life, from sin etc, e.g. Pentecostal sects.
(iv) Alterative: to bring about (partial) change in individuals e.g. Alcoholics Anonymous.
This does not seem an ideal way of distinguishing between different movements, for several reasons:
(i) the heading “transformative” is too broad, bringing together very different kinds of organisation (though some might argue that revolutionary political groups are not dissimilar to religious groups! Nevertheless I believe there are important differences);
(ii) “redemptive” seems appropriate for religions rather than for social movements;
(iii) and I am not sure why the last two categories, including organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous, are put in the same overall category as social movements at all!
(iv) Other movements, such as anti-colonial movements, women, youth, don’t seem to fit into these headings.
(b) A more recent, and thorough, study is that of Della Porta (1999):
(i) Marxist and non-Marxist theories:
First she makes the general point that the
dominant social theories in the latter part of the 20th century
were, firstly: Marxism and neo-Marxism (especially in
However, the (“new”) social movements that occurred in the 1960s took most social theorists (Marxist and non- Marxist) by surprise, as they didn’t seem to fit existing theories: they were not proletarian-based (as Marxists would have expected) and as far as functionalists were concerned they didn’t have a “function” i.e. they didn’t contribute to the maintenance or updating of the system. (For some functionalists they were almost “pathological”!).
The two broad types of theory then came up with
different analyses of social movements. In the
Of course, it has to be borne in mind that in
each part of the world the movements themselves were rather different, and this
may go part of the way to explain the dominance of the different theories. For
example, in the
When structural functionalists analysed social movements more closely they came up with the following classification (it is worth noting that all these accounts are mainly concerned with the question of "how" social movements act, rather than “why” they arise):
(ii) “collective behaviour” approach:
Ever since the 19th century, and the French Revolution, people have tried to understand the seemingly odd behaviour of crowds and mobs. Gustave Le Bon was one of the first writers to describe “crowd behaviour”, and it is often the case that writers dealing with “collective behaviour” will regard it as irrational, or easily getting out of control. Even Marx, whilst advocating revolutionary uprising, made a distinction (to be refined by Lenin) between a “lumpen” proletariat which was liable to riot without clear goals, and the disciplined and organised working class.
This approach emphasises the reaction by people at large to conditions in which there is a “strain” on the social system. For example, Smelser (1962) suggests that over-rapid social transformation (e.g. economic change, or changes in social status, or fragmentation of family ties because of mass society) will have side-effects in terms of collective behaviour. In particular, people will become uncertain of the “meaning” of the social order, as social and cultural change takes place. For example, it was once seen as valuable to be “in service” – then gradually some of the tasks carried out by the servant class were taken over by machines, other tasks simply disappeared, and a whole class and social outlook had changed; similarly, we used to talk of the “dignity of labour” – but not many manual workers are seen in this way now. There is here a strong emphasis on the spread of beliefs, and on the potential for change arising from cultural aspects of a society. (As opposed to hard-line Marxists who believe that culture is secondary to the social structure and the conditions of production).
So these strains on the social system, this questioning and uncertainty, create tensions which the society’s "homeostatic rebalancing mechanisms cannot, temporarily, absorb" and this can lead to "crisis behaviour". Note that no judgement is being made about the desirability of the changes in question: these are simply noted, and what is important is how people react to them. To illustrate the way that this “collective behaviour” is modelled on individuals’ psychology, and tends to make judgements about “rational” and “irrational” behaviour, we might note that Smelser talks of how, in times of crisis, isolated and less intellectual individuals become susceptible to appeals of the extreme political left or right. But note also the way that Smelser seems to dismiss certain attitudes as “extreme”, and assumes the “far left” or “far right” to be appealing only to people who are not thinking properly!
Della Porta (1999) points to the limitations of this approach, as she says that it “reduces collective phenomena to sum of individual behaviours”. She would argue that collective behaviour is more than the sum of individual behaviours, and that it is not always irrational. Surely sometimes feelings of frustration, deprivation aggression etc. are fully justified if people are being forced to accept change they don’t want. Giddens (1989) also questions whether it is true that social movements occur only as reactions or responses to other events or crises.
On the other hand there is some value in Smelser’s theory, in that, as Giddens (1989, p 626) summarises it, there is an attempt to work out a methodical analysis of social processes that might lead to social movements. According to Smelser there are six conditions that need to be in place before a situation arises which will lead to mass action:
1. Structural conduciveness: the social structure must leave room for change – e.g. in the United States, there is no or little state regulation in some areas (e.g. religion), thus leaving room for groups to propose changes. On the other hand, presumably a rigid, totalitarian social order that is not open to protest or change, is not likely to allow social movements to arise.
2. Structural strain: some tensions, conflicts of interest, must exist which test the limits of the system.
3. Generalized beliefs: as noted, what people believe and expect is fundamental to social stability or instability, and when social movements arise they are accompanied by widespread new ideas or ideologies.
4. Precipitating factors: something – an immediate cause or event, as distinct from an underlying cause - that will “tip the balance”. Giddens gives the instance of Rosa Parks (a black woman) refusing to move from a “white” area of a bus, which led to the growth of the civil rights movement in the USA.
5. Co-ordinated group: to turn the above into a movement, as distinct from uncoordinated protests, rioting etc, there must be organisation i.e. leadership, resources, regular communication between individuals etc.
6. How a social movement develops is influenced by the operation of social control: how governing authorities respond. It would be natural for the power-holders to try to prevent “trouble” from the discontented masses, so there will be attempts to impose social order from above – these imposed constraints are bound to lead to a reaction by the people affected “below”.
It is possible to suggest (as does Della Porta) that this theory can be refined (and might be able better to address the question of how individual behaviours become collective action) by drawing on what sociologists call “symbolic interactionism”. As noted above, Bottomore comes close to this when he talks of the “self-production” of modern societies. There are further notes on this idea below (Section 3 iv). However, Smelser’s particular point is that movements may arise where there is a co-existence of groups with contrasting value-systems.
Finally, the main weaknesses in the “collective behaviour” approach are:
- that it tends put together crowds, movements, panic, manias and fashions etc, as well as revolutions, which are surely
different from each other?
- it stresses reactive behaviour, when some social movements are proactive,
- it also tends to focus on unexpected and irrational behaviour, when those participating would see their action as rational,
- nor, as noted, does it adequately explain the causes of the growth of some social movements and not others.
(iii) “resource mobilisation”:
This approach, typified by Charles Tilly (e.g. 1978), runs counter to the idea that collective movements are irrational, and a product of malfunctions of the social system. For Tilly and others, collective movements are simply an extension of conventional political behaviour. Hence it is stressed that social movements act in a more or less organised way to mobilise resources; it is also possible to identify individuals with expertise and organising or campaigning skills – what some call “movement entrepreneurs” who play a key role in social movements. (Today the example of Jonathan Porritt might come most readily to mind!)
This is a useful approach, as it then entails looking at such things as the obstacles and incentives to collective action; what links are formed with which allies; the costs and benefits of participation in social movements; and of course the way that established political institutions react to the challenges of social movements.
Here a central question is to go beyond identifying discontent etc, to explaining how this gets transformed into mobilisation. It will be found then that this depends on a variety of material and other resources: work, money, benefits, services, and individuals’ authority, moral engagement, faith, friendship etc. Moreover, in a social movement, these will be distributed in a rational way across different activities and objectives – we might even be able to apply cost/benefit analysis to the activities of the movement! Such an approach also highlights the need for ways of networking, sharing incentives, reducing costs of action etc.
Whilst recognising the value of this approach, it can also be said that it does not deal with the structural sources of conflict. There is also bound to be more emphasis on process, and less on the specific stakes and goals for which action has been mobilised. Some would criticise the notion of movement entrepreneurs, and stress the popular self-activity that is characteristic of social movements. (Doesn’t a movement become institutionalised when its leaders/organisers are household names?)
Finally, this approach is subject to the opposite criticism to that made of the collective behaviour approach: i.e. is it not the case that not all collective action is rational, or only rational - what is the part played by the emotions in collective behaviour?
(iv) “political process”:
This approach sees social movements as not very different from other activities within the realm of “politics”: social movements form because there exist interests that lack other means of representation. Such movements can therefore cause conflict within the system.
This approach then focuses on the political and institutional environment in which movements occur, & examines the relationship between this environment and the protesting movement. One particularly useful concept that has been formulated by this approach is that of the “political opportunity structure” (Della Porta cites Peter Eisinger 1973) – that is, the local political system can be “open” to new claims, creating opportunities for change, or it can be closed, in which case there will be a greater degree of conflict.
The approach is also fruitful if it leads to an examination of the electoral system (does it represent all interests?). Other aspects of social movements which come to light using this approach include: Does the movement have any influential allies? How much tolerance for protest is there among the political elite? Are there conflicts within the elites? What are the institutional conditions which regulate agenda-setting? What is the nature of decision-making processes in the political system? (Della Porta cites Sidney Tarrow 1989).
The main difficulty with this approach is that it could amount to "political reductionism" – explaining everything in terms of politics. Yet, as has been suggested, social movements often occur when large-scale social and cultural change is taking place, and the field of politics is too narrow to encompass such broad social phenomena.
(iv) “new social movements”:
Marxism has always tried to view whole societies, (e.g. for Althusser, the “mode of production”) and to take into account historical change. Marxists are concerned with the way that economic and technological change (the “means of production”) underpin changes in social structures (especially deriving from the “relations of production”). Their account of what was happening in the mid-twentieth century therefore revolved around ideas of ways in which industrial society was being transformed.
Marxism has also always tried to demonstrate that there is bound to be conflict in any non-socialist society, and to give reasons for conflict in terms of there being contradictions in the system. Thus, when “new” social movements arose, (i.e. other than the working-class-based movements that Marxism had predicted – e.g. youth movements, feminism, black power), then many theorists who were influenced by Marxism looked for new sources of conflict, new explanations of conflict as having its origins in social structure, but based on the changing nature of modern capitalist society. Questions posed for Marxists at this time included the question as to whether the conflict between labour and capital was still central. It was evident that there were new bases for social tension and conflict (e.g. gender, sexuality) that were not entirely explainable in terms of control of the means of production.
Some theorists on the left (not least Castoriadis, see Recommencing Revolution) questioned whether Marxism was still useful. In particular, the question arose as to whether the Marxist “model” of society, in which technological and economic features seemed to determine the character of the society, was still acceptable. Others (e.g. E.P. Thompson, 1963) remained Marxists and tried to develop a more subtle way of explaining class and conflict and the role of culture, without arguing that culture was determined by class.
Various of these writers described modern society as “post-industrial”, “post-Fordist”, “technocratic”, etc. and attempted to identify a “central conflict” other than the traditional Marxist view that it revolved around (the contradiction between the means and the relations of) production. It is beyond the scope of these notes to go into these ideas, since they are not necessarily of relevance to the idea of social movements.
In relation to theories of social movements, Alain Touraine was especially influential (e.g. 1977) in looking again at the notion of “class”, and rejecting the idea of "homogeneous social actors". He developed the notion of “historicity” – i.e. at any point in time a given society has a definition of itself which it is striving to maintain, and this is changing through history. However he also saw modern capitalist society as increasingly “programmed” (incidentally in contrast to Castoriadis who argued that society was becoming more meaningless and fragmented). Thus Touraine came to see social movements as "not a marginal rejection of order, they are the central forces fighting one against the other to control the production of society by itself… for the shaping of historicity" (1981 p 29 cited in Della Porta).
For Claus Offe (1985) also, social movements are of great significance in modern society, since they challenge the whole existing political order: "movements develop a meta-political critique of the social order and of representative democracy, challenging institutional assumptions regarding conventional ways of doing politics, in the name of radical democracy."
It has often been stressed that “new social movements”, as they came to be called, differed from the “old” or traditional movements (epitomised by the labour movement) in various ways:
- the new movements were critical of modernism and progress, (whilst the labour movement wanted material and economic
progress in order to develop socialism)
- they focussed attacks on bureaucracy (unlike the workers’ movement, which especially in the USSR had allowed – maybe
even caused? - bureaucracy to flourish)
- they emphasised interpersonal solidarity (not class solidarity)
- they wanted to reclaim autonomous spaces (rather than seeking material advantage)
- their structures were open, fluid organic (unlike the often highly disciplined labour movement)
- they were often non-ideological, encouraging inclusive participation
- they put more emphasis on social or cultural aspects than on the economic.
As an example of how writers tried to trace these features of new social movements back to broad features of society as a whole, Melucci: (1982, pp. 89, 96) argues that contemporary society is highly differentiated, with much individual autonomy for action (deriving from the influence of the market), but at the same time, those in power want closer integration and control over individuals. New social movements then are seen as opposing the intrusion of both the state and the market in social life, and attempting to reclaim the “identity” of the individual, against the encroaching "system".
These approaches seem to be useful in a number of ways: they analyse conflict in such a way as to examine structural determinants, whilst not forgetting that the actor (not just the structure – in contrast to Althusser) is important. However, from my own point of view, it has to be said that this point was also made by writers (e.g. Thompson) who were part of mainstream Marxism, or of the New Left…. There is a tendency for some of the more recent theorists to forget their antecedents!
Two other questions remain, which these approaches may not deal with adequately:
- what are the mechanisms that lead from conflict to action? (Why, and how, does discontent get translated into the formation of a movement?)
- is there not a danger, with the emphasis on “new social movements” of over-emphasising novel aspects of a movement, or traits that are purely coincidental, or contingent, rather than having deep significance?
4. Other points:
(i) social movements and politics:
My own view would be that the study of social movements has brought about – or could bring about – a broadening of the study of politics, which too often is concerned with institutions and structures that are remote from ordinary people’s concerns.
One way that this has happened is a re-examination of the concept of “civil society” (areas of life usually seen as “outside” politics). It is often argued that a strong civil society is essential for democracy: recently this point has been used by, e.g. John Gray (1995) as an argument against the new right, and their belief that the basis of democracy is the “free market”. Others (e.g. Young in ed. Goodin and Pettit 1997 p 256) have argued that it was as a result of social movements in the nineteenth century that there was an extension of citizenship and other civil rights. Another aspect of this is the suggestion that new social movements (especially but not only the green movement) are associated with the idea of a strong civil society, and with opposition to state direction of, or involvement in, every aspect of life. This idea is mainly associated with the political right, but the picture is more complicated than that, as (a) the New Left also saw the state - even the welfare state - as a tool for normalisation and control (see Charles Taylor in ed. Goodin and Pettit op cit), and (b) the new right, and “Thatcherism” had an ambivalent position, being willing to use the state to enforce conservative social values.
Thus, new social movements can be seen as essentially libertarian, not simply confronting the state, but bypassing it in stressing the need for free, voluntary, autonomous associations.
5. A useful overview of other theories and issues is in Stanford Lyman (ed) 1995. These authors raise the following further questions:
(i) a perspective which is critical of social movements is that of Salomon, who suggests that social movements since
industrialisation have been marked by a "religion of progress", typified by Saint-Simon, Marx, Proudhon and Comte. All of these attacked established religion in the name of "progress", and all believed in man's power to control nature. At the same time they believed that the human forces being unleashed could not (should not?) be controlled. The archetypal illustrative case is Marx: the onward march of the proletariat to “socialism” cannot be halted, nor should it, unless we want “barbarism”. On the other hand the romantic movement demonstrated a similar attitude to blind social forces, which it either worshipped or – more often - feared. All these thinkers agreed that we could produce a perfect world. But, Salomon argues, this "religion of progress", this faith in "intellectual and moral perfectibility", being based on a "trans-historical horizon of normative reason", is doomed to fail, or even to be replaced by a new "religion".
(ii) On the other hand, Carl Boggs (in ed. Lyman 1995) argues for the continuity of social movements from the “New Left” of the 1960s, (despite an apparent “gap” which many writers comment on, in the early 1980s). There were, he suggests, demands for: participatory democracy, community, cultural renewal, collective consumption and the restoration of nature – which “have typically been carried forward into the modern ecology, feminist, peace and urban protest movements that have proliferated since the early 1970s”. As implied already, I find it hard to disagree that new social movements have many of the characteristics of the New Left. I might go further and say that I cannot see how anyone believes there was a “gap”...
(iii) Perhaps we can (and should) link 3 (i) and (ii) above, by agreeing that social movements are concerned with the "self-
production of society" (Touraine) but stressing that society is constantly generating its "meanings"? For Park, for example, (in ed. Lyman 1995) societies have a "general will", which changes at certain times, so that social movements mark the beginnings of a desire for a shift in the "general will". He then suggests a correspondence between the individual's psychological construction and "society" - both are based on self- and socially-defined "meanings", and both appear to be complex wholes (in the case of the individual we call this a "personality").
However, Park’s approach seems to me to be negative, since he goes on to argue that a social movement first manifests
itself when "crowds" begin to emerge, which are based on new social relationships; next, these "crowds" develop new social "norms" and form a new "public". Crowds are mainly based on instinctive or psychological needs and links between people, but the "public" is formed on the basis of rational public opinion.
But if we believe social movements are not based on reason, as Park (and Salomon) suggest, yet we want to stress the importance of the “meanings” that social actors hold on to, what then? Perhaps Castoriadis has a useful contribution:
For Castoriadis there is a clear an indissoluble link between the individual and society. This is due to the fact that the individual’s world of meanings (identity) is created by their subconscious, when it has taken in the “meanings” provided by others. In other words, language itself is a social phenomenon, as therefore is “meaning” itself. For Castoriadis the “imagination” – in a special sense of the word – plays the essential role of constructing meaning. But anything created by the imagination is not simply an individual creation (because, as stated, the symbols and meanings used in the process of imagining are socially derived), hence Castoriadis talks of the "social imaginary” and of “social imaginary significations". The individual either accepts these “significations” uncritically and unconsciously (which for Castoriadis is living “heteronomously” – allowing others to control us – and causing the “alienation” of the individual), or the individual, using their autonomy, “processes” the meanings/significations in order to decide whether to accept them or not.
Castoriadis goes on to argue that in saying this it is clear, almost by definition, that the individual’s autonomy has to be limited (by its being based on the meanings of others). That is, it is rational to aim for a self-limiting form of autonomy. It is only undere the all-pervasive influence of capitalism (and its “imaginary significations”) that we have believed in the possibility of the unlimited (unlimitable) powers of the individual, and the unlimited domination of nature – both of which ideas are irrational.
Moreover, it is in capitalism that one group of people (bureaucrats, capitalists, rulers of all sorts) believe they can go on dominating and controlling others (in politics and in production, as well as in the realm of ideas and beliefs). Since the individual has an innate need for autonomy (no-one, except a confused child, wants either to be told what to do all the time, or to tell others what to do all the time!), then it is inevitable that people will reject this condition of alienation, and demand (self-limited, social) autonomy.
This need for autonomy has manifested itself in many ways, and most clearly does so in social movements.
(*) Footnote: Marxism and structural-functionalism.
Marxism sees society as divided into social classes – a class is a layer of society that has a particular economic role (a particular “relationship to the means of production”), especially to either work and sell their labour-power (the proletariat or working class) or to own the means of production and to buy the labour of others (the bourgeoisie or capitalist class). Marx recognised there were other social groupings, but thought that since production is central to all aspects of society, then class is also central. Given the way that capitalist society works, the two classes are inevitably and always in conflict (e.g. the capitalist wants to make more profit, the worker more wages). Eventually, given the impossibility of the capitalists’ always making more profit (Marx thought he had described precise economic laws at work here), there would have to be revolutionary change to destroy capitalism and replace it with a more logical system i.e. socialism, where there was not the class division of capitalism.
The crucial point as far as social movements go is Marx’s view that class conflict underlies everything else: for thorough-going Marxists any event, any set of ideas, can be “explained” in terms of the ongoing class struggle. Also, the class that will change society for the better socialist future is the proletariat.
For non-Marxists all this creates problems: for example, Marxism reduces everything to the economy and production – with (another problem) the consequence that individuals become less important than broad structural features of society. Moreover many would argue that Marxism is “deterministic”- that is, it places individuals and classes at the mercy of economic and historical forces that can only be dealt with in the way that Marxism prescribes i.e. by class-based political action to build socialism. Such a view suggests that social movements are destined to fail unless they tie themselves to the working class…
Structural functionalism put itself up as - or at least was seen by many as - a correction of Marxism: the appeal of the latter was in its ability to see society as a whole, which previous social theorists had not done. Structural functionalism then tried to address the question: how do whole societies work? They argued that societies (when functioning properly) seem to be self-regulating (the influence of systems theory can be seen here). Of course, crises may occur, but these are signs of breakdown (not, as Marxists would claim, signs of the beginning of a change for the better). It follows also that, if societies are “systems”, every part of society must have a function in relation to the regulation and maintenance of society as a whole. Since functionalists argued that most of what occurs in society helps it to work properly, one consequence was that crime and deviant behaviour were seen as threatening to the social order. Functionalism can be therefore be seen as a conservative approach to social science, since crime becomes not just a nuisance but a threat to the whole social order. Those who emphasised the key role of the “structure” also fell into the same trap as hard-line Marxists: the individual is merely a pawn in a game being played by some impersonal structure: society.
On the other hand, one strength of the theory is its lack of prescription: to say that a society is self-maintaining, is not to say how it is structured. The theory tends to be “pluralist” or even relativist (there are many different kinds of society). However, if one sees society as simply an “individual (person) writ large”, this can lead - paradoxically - to stressing the importance of the individual. This is clearly a positive feature of the theory for those (liberals especially) who place a high value on individual freedom. But it is a weakness if you believe the collective is more significant, and it is a weakness in terms of not explaining the way that society is built up: how can it be just the sum of many individuals?
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