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Sociological Perspectives And The Functionalist Perspectives Sociology Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Sociology
Wordcount: 3067 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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The first sociological perspective that I will use to try to explain the Bertram family scenario is the functionalist perspective. The functionalist perspective evolved from the work of Emile Durkheim (1858-1917), though it was shaped by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons during the mid-20th century.   Functionalism can be summed up simply: ‘the world is a system of interrelated parts, and each part makes a necessary contribution to the vitality of the system’ (Bohm, 1997: 82). Functionalism examines society through a functional framework which stresses that everything, no matter how seemingly strange, out of place, or harmful, serves a purpose. A useful analogy to use would be all the different parts of the body and how they function to keep the human body alive. All organs in the human body depend on each other and each is vital, performing an overall ‘function’. Social systems work in much the same way as an organic system. Societies have established structures within which are established beliefs and practices. All members of society are expected to conform and behave acceptably. The institutional arrangements, for example, political or religious arrangements, exist in society not by choice of its citizens but because they perform a specific ‘function’ for the social structure as a whole. People within these social structures know and agree on how to behave, ‘living their lives in the right ways – from which society benefits’ (Jones 2003:39). Functionalism holds that everyone and everything in society, no matter how strange it may seem, serves a purpose.  Crime, for example, is viewed almost universally as a nuisance.  Functionalists, however, point out that crime serves several purposes.  Durkheim concluded that crime and deviance serve three major functions for society: deviance clarifies or reaffirms societal norms, it promotes social unity, and it challenges the status quo.  Deviance can bring into question the status quo, forcing society to rethink previously held norms.  For example, acts perceived as criminal or deviant were critical in shaping the rights movements for African Americans, women, and homosexuals in the United States.  Without questioning the traditional way of treating disadvantaged groups, the norms of discrimination and prejudice could not be broken. Criticisms of functionalism focus on its acceptance and rationalization of social inequality and societal evils.  Since functionalism holds that all aspects of society are necessary, human rights issues like poverty, hunger, slavery, and genocide must be accounted for.  Critics suggest that functionalism can be used as a rationalization of such issues.  The perspective is also criticized for its lack of testability, which is critical for upholding any social science theory.  Several questions stand against its reliability.  Still, it has its strong points, such as its ability to explain crime and deviance.  Functionalism essentially serves as the most traditionalist of the sociological schools of thought.

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As with all the other different parts of society family has a role to play in the functioning of society and each family member has a role to play. Mrs Bertram is no longer able to perform the social roles that society expects of her (for example, mother and wife). In the scenario of the Bertram family, Mrs Bertram could be seen to have taken on the ‘sick role’. The functionalist perspective of illness is that it disrupts society; it too is a form of ‘deviance’. A functionalist perspective would suggest that social services would need to control the deviance by either putting Mrs Bertram into residential care or by providing services for her at home, in order to bring her back in line with society’s expectation of her. Similarly the social worker would also expect Mr Bertram’s deviant behaviour to be dealt with. The fact that he is leaving his wife alone for extended periods of time and is generally not caring for her as would be expected of a husband could be viewed as deviant behaviour. The Bertrams are from a generation where gender roles were very specific and Mr Bertram is probably struggling with the role reversal, so would need support with this. Mr Bertram’s possible alcoholism could also be viewed as a form of deviance that would need to be brought under control by perhaps providing him with support to overcome it.

Feminist theory became established in the 1960s. What defines feminism is the view that ‘women’s relative subordination must be questioned and challenged’ (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005:16). The feministic view is that women are oppressed and their freedom to act and express themselves is limited by the relative power of men, as they tend to possess more economic, cultural and social resources than women. There is a wide range of feminist views due to the failure to agree on ways to explain subordination of women or how women can be liberated or what actually constitutes oppression (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005). As a result there are many varying feminist perspectives drawing on a wide range of disciplines. According to Abbott Wallace and Tyler (2005) early feminists have focussed on issues relating to questions of power, knowledge and subjectivity. Liberal feminism ‘sees gender prejudice as a matter of individual ignorance’ (Jones 2003:91). Liberal feminists believe inequalities can be eradicated by putting in place anti-discrimination laws and by promoting non-sexist attitudes. Marxist feminists believe that ‘women’s subordination serves the needs of capitalism’ (Jones 2003:92). Marxist feminists argue that subordination of women in capitalist societies is best explained by understanding the economic disadvantages that they face. Radical feminism sometimes referred to as gynocentrism affirms that ‘patriarchy is the key to understanding social structures and patriarchal relations are universal and elemental’ (Jones, 2003:94). The term patriarch is used widely to refer to ‘a society based on universal male supremacy and female subordination’ (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005:33). This perspective is concerned with women’s rights rather than gender equality and it emphasises the difference between men and women. Within radical feminism the family is seen as a key instrument of women’s oppression through sexual and maternal obligation. Feminists who adopt this perspective are concerned with the way women perpetuate men’s control when they become so oppressed by patriarchal ideologies. Feminist theories of social work have been criticised recently for treating women generically and displaying insufficient sensitivity to the complex ways in which other social divisions such as race, age, disability, etc impact on gender relations. (Dominelli 2002)

Mrs Bertram could be seen by feminists to be suffering at the hands of a patriarchal society. She has been lured into dependency by Mr Bertram’s ‘charming’ ways. It could be argued that Mrs Bertram found the prospect of marrying into a higher social class rather appealing. Radical feminists argue that ‘all relationships between men and women are institutionalised relationships of power’ (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005:35). Mrs Bertram does not appear to be an equal in the marriage and her illness has further exacerbated her powerlessness. Mr Bertram has all control of the finances and probably all major decisions affecting Mrs Bertram, especially as she now lacks capacity, further reinforcing her subordination. It is unclear whether Mrs Bertram has ever worked, if she has not Marxist feminists would argue that this was to the benefit of a capitalist society as she provided, when she was able, free domestic services to sustain her husband. Mrs Bertram’s reasons for wanting to stay with her husband may be due to her ideological view of marriage. Feminists argue that married women do not have an identity separate to their husbands (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005) and she may be trying to hold on to what little she has left of her identity as she is slowly losing her faculties due to the Alzheimer’s. Her ideological view masks the real subordination she faces at the hands of her husband. This is further reinforced by his neglect of her needs and failure to care for his wife as a husband would be expected to.

The psychodynamic theory was pioneered by Freud and later developed by a number of writers. Freud argued that there were various levels of conscious and unconscious thought. The ‘id’ which is the source of basic urges and the drive to survive. The superego is the conscious, ‘public’ expression that seeks to convey that we are doing what is acceptable to society. The ego is the part of the unconscious that attempts to mediate between the id and superego. Individuals may not be aware of the interactions within themselves and engage in behaviours that are expressions of their deep unconscious, seeking to rationalise them through the ego and superego. ‘The psychodynamic approach includes all the theories in psychology that see human functioning as based upon the interaction of drives and forces within the person, particularly unconscious conflict between the different structures of the personality’ (Baker, 2003:39). The psychodynamic approach attempts to explain the motivation of behaviour. The basic assumptions of the psychodynamic theory are that behaviour is motivated by conscious and unconscious mental processes, and that behaviour reflects current motivation and past experience (Glassman and Hadad, 2009). The approach claims that early negative experiences may become buried in the unconscious and manifest themselves in how an individual behaves in relationships with people later in life. Bion (1962) cited in Maclean and Harrison (2009) believes that the quality of childhood relationships in early life shapes the development of personality and character. According to Freud various defence mechanisms are developed by people to cope with difficult emotional situations. These defences include denial, repression, projection and displacement. Freud was of the opinion that people could overcome their problems by making conscious those thoughts and motivations hidden in the unconscious. He used several methods to gain access to the unconscious, such as free association which involved allowing the individual to say whatever came into their mind and if the client became ‘blocked’ talking about something this signified something deeper was occurring in their unconscious. Freud also use dream analysis as he believed that unconscious thoughts were revealed in dreams and could be interpreted. Transference was another method used as clients projected and displaced their own thoughts and feelings onto their therapist. The psychodynamic approach is criticised for its subjectivity and gender, cultural and historical bias (Barker, 2003).

The psychodynamic approach could be used to better understand Mr Bertram. Problems that are identifiable in the case scenario are his poor management of money, his neglect of his wife and his suspected alcoholism. His behaviour could possibly be a result of what is happening in his unconscious mind due to a negative experience in early childhood. The amount of time he spends at the golf club away from his wife could be explained as him using denial as a defence mechanism against painful emotions. He may have experienced painful losses in the past and this may have affected his unconscious mind. It is possibly too painful for him to accept his wife’s illness and his coping strategy is to refuse to accept what is happening. His suspected alcoholism may be due to him regressing to an earlier stage of development where he felt safe or comfortable, possibly the oral stage when developing children focus on oral pleasures such as feeding. It is possible that the stress of his wife’s illness has triggered the regression and he may not even be aware of how his unconscious is leading him to use alcohol to cope. His use of alcoholism could also be explained as fixated behaviour, if Mr Bertram experienced trauma when he was at the oral stage (stage where according to Freud child gains satisfaction from sucking, eating, etc) in his development it is possible that he then became confined to this particular stage. His conscious choice to drink alcohol ‘has its origins in the repressed depths of the unconscious mind’ (Ingleby 2006:8). His use of alcohol as a way of managing a difficult situation is inappropriate behaviour and generating its own set of problems as he is neglecting his wife and the home is in an awful state. A social worker using this approach would have to proceed with caution as behaviours may not be the result of unconscious assumptions.

Behaviourism rose in prominence in the early 20th century through the ideas of thinkers such as Pavlov and Watson. The behaviourist approach lays emphasis on the role of environmental stimuli in determining the way that we act. A key idea in behaviourism is that all individuals enter the world as a ‘clean slate’ (Ingleby, 2006:5). Social factors are then responsible for shaping the individual. The basic assumption is that humans learn behaviour by learned relationships between stimulus (excites the sense organs) and a response (reaction to stimulus). The main behaviourist theories of learning are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. ‘Classical conditioning occurs when we make an association between a neutral stimulus that reliably produces a response, so that the neutral stimulus comes to produce the same response’ (Baker, 2003:43). It is most well known through Pavlov’s experiment where dogs were given food at the same time as a bell was rung. The result was that the dogs would salivate when the bell was rung even if no food was presented. Pairing of an unconditioned stimulus led to an unconditioned response and when the unconditioned response was paired with another stimulus, the stimulus eventually produced a response on its own. Operant conditioning has had a considerable influence on psychology and is used regularly in social care (Maclean and Harrison, 2009). Operant conditioning recognises that the environment effects behaviour. Much behaviour occurs randomly and whether we repeat it or not depends on the response we get. For example, if a person says they want to kill themselves, they may not know how or fully understand what they are saying but whether or not they say it again may depend on the response of those around them. The behaviourist approach is criticised for be oversimplified as it ignores mental processes and limited as not everything can be accounted for by simple learning (Barker, 2003).

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It is possible that Mr Bertram has learned behaviours over the years due to the responses he has received. As he is from a white upper class background he has led a fairly privileged life. Even though his financial status is now in question he has learned over the years that his ‘exceedingly charming manners’ are able to get him what he wants. He was able to use his ‘charm to sweep Mrs Bertram off her feet and so far has managed to use this same charm offensive to keep the landlord and social services at bay. If we apply the principle of operant conditioning to the situation we can see that Mr Bertram’s behaviour has been shaped by the way that those he has come into contact with have responded by conceding to his charming ways. The consequence has been that he continually uses this behaviour to mask the problems he and his wife are experiencing.

I was born and raised in Zimbabwe just before independence and I am the second child of a nurse and a self-made business man. Education was very important in my family and although it went unsaid there was always an expectation that we would be successful in life. The culture I was raised in had a very patriarchal framework and this extended to state policies and procedures. For example, in order for me to obtain a passport or national identity card I had to either go to government offices with my father or a male relative with the same surname or produce my father’s identification documents. My mother’s presence or her documents would not have been acceptable. If I view this from a feminist perspective, women in my culture were placed in a position of subordination because of economic dependency and because generally they were ‘constructed as socially inferior’ (Abbott, Wallace and Tyler, 2005: 28). Despite the fact that my mother worked all financial decisions were made by my father. Marxist feminist would argue that subordination of women in Zimbabwe served and continues to serve to enhance capitalist interests. My mother tended to my father’s every need so that he could go out and be productive at work. Education was a very important part of my life. Emphasis was always placed on the fact that I needed a good education in order to succeed in life. I remember getting very good reports at school while my sister got the opposite. My parents would sit her down every time her report card came home. If I apply the behaviourist principle of operant conditioning to my situation I learned that if I came home with a good report card my parents’ response would be a positive one. I therefore endeavoured to always have a good report so that that positive response from my parents would be repeated.

My background will provide me with insight on how women can feel oppressed even in environments that they are supposed to feel safe, so that I can effectively challenge oppressive practices. My background also helps me understand how responses I may have as a social worker will shape future behaviours of service users to other social workers or professionals. It is clearly important to have an understanding of sociological and psychological perspectives in social work as both make a significant contribution to understanding different service user needs.


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