Functionalism and Systemism

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Functionalism and systemism are two theoretical approaches in political science that attempt to understand the relationships, structures and processes within political systems.

  • Functionalism: This concept focuses on the roles and functions that various elements of the political system play in maintaining the stability and equilibrium of the system as a whole. It examines how each part contributes to the stability of the overall system. In political science, functionalism can be used to analyse how different institutions (such as the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, etc.) contribute to the stability and functioning of the political system as a whole.
  • Systemism: Systemism, or systems theory, is an approach that views political phenomena as part of a larger system. It focuses on the interactions between the different parts of the system and how these interactions influence the system as a whole. Systemism attempts to understand the political system as a whole rather than focusing solely on its individual parts.

Both theories can be used to understand power relationships, the interactions between different parts of a political system and how these contribute to stability or change in the political system.

Functionalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Just as each organ in the human body has a specific function and contributes to the proper functioning of the organism as a whole, each institution or structure within a society has a specific function. It contributes to the stability and well-being of society as a whole. Functionalism is based on the idea that society is a complex system whose different parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. In political science, this approach is used to analyse how different institutions or structures, such as government, the economy, education, the media, etc., contribute to the stability and functioning of society as a whole.

Society or politics is therefore interpreted as a living body. This anthropomorphic approach, which compares society to a living organism, helps us understand how society's different parts interact to create a functional whole. In this analogy, the different social and political institutions are compared to the organs of a body. For example, the government could be seen as the brain, providing directives and decisions for the rest of the body. The economy could be compared to the circulatory system, distributes resources (like blood and oxygen in a body) throughout society. Schools and universities could be seen as the nervous system, providing the education and information (analogous to nerve signals) that enable society to function. Just as the body needs all its organs to function properly, society needs all its institutions to maintain balance and stability. Moreover, just as the body's organs interact and depend on each other, social and political institutions are also interdependent and their interactions impact the overall functioning of society.

Functionalism became a dominant sociology and political science theory from the 1930s to the 1960s, particularly in the English-speaking world. Sociologists such as Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton played a crucial role in developing functionalist theory. Talcott Parsons, in particular, is often regarded as one of the main contributors to functionalist theory. His theory of social action, which emphasises the interdependence of the parts of a social system and the role of norms and values in social stability, had a major influence on functionalism. Robert K. Merton introduced the notion of manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions are the expected and intended effects of social actions, while latent functions are the unintended and often unrecognised effects.

In the 1960s, functionalism was criticised for its emphasis on stability and social order and for its failure to take account of social change and conflict. New theories such as structural conflict and symbolic interactions, emerged in response to these criticisms. However, functionalism remains an important approach in sociology and political science, and its concepts continue to influence how we think about societies and political systems.

From this perspective, each element of society, whether tangible or intangible, has a role to play in keeping the whole system in balance. The stability and smooth running of society are ensured by the interaction and interdependence of these various elements, each fulfilling its respective functions. For example, in a society, producing goods and services is an essential function that enables the material needs of society's members to be met. Family and social structures ensure the reproduction and socialisation of new members, thus contributing to the continuity of society. Political and legal institutions protect and maintain order, thereby contributing to the stability and security of society. Similarly, every belief, value and social norm plays a role. For example, religious beliefs can contribute to social cohesion by providing a shared meaning and values framework. Social norms regulate the behaviour of individuals and promote cooperation and harmony within society.

According to functionalist theory, although every society must fulfil certain universal functions (such as the production of goods and services, reproduction and the protection of its members), how these functions are fulfilled may vary from one society to another depending on its specific cultural and social institutions. This is where the concept of 'functional equivalents' comes in. Different cultural institutions or practices may fulfil the same function in different ways. For example, socialisation - the process by which individuals learn and integrate the norms and values of their society - can take place in different ways in different societies. In some societies, it may take place primarily through imitation, where individuals learn social norms by observing and imitating others. In other societies, it may be through fusion, where individuals are immersed in a social group and adopt its norms and values. In still other societies, socialisation can occur through transmission, where norms and values are explicitly taught and passed down from generation to generation. These different methods of socialisation are 'functional equivalents' in the sense that they all perform the same function - the socialisation of individuals - but in different ways. This illustrates the flexibility and variability of societies in the way they perform universal functions.

Functionalism originated in anthropology and has been influenced by several important thinkers:

  1. Bronisław Malinowski: A Polish-British anthropologist, Malinowski is often regarded as the founder of British social anthropology and one of the pioneers of functionalism. He introduced the idea that to understand a culture. We need to examine how its different parts work together to meet basic human needs. Malinowski also emphasised the importance of fieldwork and participant observation in studying societies.
  2. Alfred Radcliffe-Brown: Another British anthropologist, Radcliffe-Brown, developed what he called "structural-functionalism". He saw society as an organic system, where each part has a specific function that contributes to the system's survival as a whole. Radcliffe-Brown focused on the study of social relations as a structural system.
  3. Talcott Parsons: An American sociologist, Parsons developed a complex version of functionalism known as "social action theory". He saw society as an interconnected system of parts that work together to maintain a balance. Parsons emphasised the role of social norms and cultural values in maintaining social stability and argued that any social change must be gradual to preserve this balance.
  4. Robert K. Merton: Merton, also an American sociologist, made several important modifications to functionalist theory. Unlike Parsons, Merton did not believe that everything in society contributed to its stability and well-being. He introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions, distinguishing between the expected and the unexpected or unrecognised effects of social actions. Merton also recognised the existence of dysfunctions, or the negative effects of social structures on society.

Bronislaw Malinovski (1884 - 1942): Anthropological functionalism or absolute functionalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Bronisław Malinowski is one of the most important figures in twentieth-century anthropology. Born in Poland, Malinowski began his university studies at Kraków's Jagiellonian University, where he studied philosophy and physics. However, he soon became interested in anthropology and continued his studies in this field. He then moved to London and began studying at the London School of Economics (LSE). At the LSE, he worked under the anthropologist C.G. Seligman and obtained his doctorate in 1916. Based on his fieldwork in Melanesia, his thesis laid the foundations for his functionalist approach to anthropology. He embarked on extensive fieldwork in Melanesia, a region of the South Pacific that includes many islands, including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, New Caledonia and others. His fieldwork laid the foundations for the method of participant observation, which remains a central method in anthropology today. This approach involves living in the community being studied for an extended period of time, learning the local language and participating as much as possible in the daily life of the community.

His most famous book, "The Argonauts of the Western Pacific", is a detailed study of the Kula, a complex trade system between the various islands of Melanesia. In this work, Malinowski not only described the Kula system in detail, but also sought to understand how it functioned in the wider context of Melanesian society, including its role in politics, religion and social life. Malinowski's contribution to functionalist theory rests on his idea that every aspect of a culture - including its rituals, myths, economic and social systems - has a specific function that contributes to satisfying the basic needs of the people in that culture. This approach had a lasting influence on anthropology and contributed to functionalist theory's emergence in sociology and political science.

Bronisław Malinowski is famous for spending several years on the Trobriand Islands (now known as the Kiriwina Islands in Papua New Guinea) from 1915 to 1918. During this period, he lived among the local population and participated in their daily activities, a field study method known as participant observation. One of Malinowski's most important observations during his time on the Trobriand Islands was the trading system known as Kula. This complex trade system between different islands involved the exchange of red shell necklaces and white shell bracelets, which were traded in opposite directions around a circle of islands. Malinowski argued that the Kula system was not only a form of economic exchange, but also a means for individuals to establish and maintain social and political relationships.

Malinowski's approach was revolutionary at the time and greatly influenced the development of anthropology. He showed that a complete and accurate understanding of a culture can only be obtained by living within that culture and participating in its daily activities. This provided an insider's perspective on how the different parts of the culture - economy, politics, religion, etc. - work together to meet the population's needs.

Phénomène de la kula.png

The Kula system, observed by Bronisław Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands, is a system of ritual exchange in which precious objects are given without the expectation of immediate payment but with the implicit obligation that they will eventually be returned. There are two main types of object exchanged in the Kula: necklaces of red shells, called soulava, which circulate clockwise around a circle of trading partners, and bracelets of white shells, called wali, which circulate anti-clockwise. These objects have no utilitarian value in themselves but are precious because of their history and symbolic significance. Individuals taking part in the Kula sometimes travel long distances to exchange these objects. When an object is received, it is kept for a certain period of time and then given to another trading partner in a subsequent exchange. By participating in the Kula, individuals establish and strengthen social and political ties, acquire prestige and navigate complex relationships of reciprocity and obligation. Malinowski's work on the Kula has been highly influential and helped shape our understanding of economics, politics and culture in non-Western societies. He also played a key role in the development of functionalist theory in anthropology, which sees the different parts of culture as interconnected and working together to meet the needs of society.

The Kula is a ritual system of exchange that does not correspond to traditional Western economic models. The objects exchanged in the Kula - soulava shell necklaces and mwali shell bracelets - have no intrinsic value as material goods, but acquire great symbolic and social importance in the context of the Kula. What is particularly interesting about the Kula is that it is not a one-off exchange, but a continuous exchange system. An object received under the Kula is not kept permanently but must be given to another trading partner in a subsequent exchange. In this way, Kula objects are constantly on the move, circulating from one individual to another and from one island to another. Moreover, Kula exchanges are accompanied by complex rituals and ceremonies, and participation in the Kula confers prestige and social status. The Kula is, therefore, much more than a simple system of economic exchange: it is a complex social and cultural phenomenon that strengthens social ties, establishes reciprocal relationships and structures the political and social life of the Trobriand Islands. In studying the Kula, Malinowski demonstrated that to understand a social or cultural phenomenon truly, it is necessary to study it in context and understand how it fits into the overall functioning of society. This is one of the fundamental principles of anthropology and functionalist theory.

The Kula is a system of exchange which, although not involving financial elements in the traditional sense of the term, is of crucial importance for social cohesion and for maintaining links between the different communities on the islands. The objects exchanged in the Kula are symbolic goods that serve to strengthen relationships between people and maintain a certain form of stability and continuity in society. The Kula is also a highly ritualised and regulated process. There are specific rules about who can participate in the Kula, what objects can be exchanged and how they should be exchanged. Moreover, Kula exchanges are often accompanied by magical and religious rituals, further underlining their social and cultural significance.

Malinowski's approach of analysing cultural practices in terms of their functions within society is a key feature of functionalist theory. In the case of the Kula, Malinowski showed that what may appear to be a simple system for exchanging goods is in fact a crucial element in the social and political structure of the Trobriand Islands.

Bronisław Malinowski's functionalist view sees cultural practices and institutions not as isolated elements, but as integral parts of a wider social system that functions to meet the needs of society. In the case of the Kula, the function of this exchange system is not primarily economic, but rather social and political. The Kula serves to strengthen social ties between individuals and communities, to establish and maintain reciprocal relationships, and to structure social and political relations. By forcing people to meet and exchange ideas regularly, the Kula fosters peace and cooperation between the different communities of the Trobriand Islands.

This functionalist view has important implications for understanding and analysing political and social systems. It suggests that to understand a cultural institution or practice fully, we need to examine its function in the context of society. This approach can help us to understand how different institutions and practices contribute to social cohesion, political stability, and other aspects of the functioning of society.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown: 1881 - 1955[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown, a British anthropologist, played a fundamental role in the development of structuralism and functionalism in the field of anthropology. He is best known for his studies of Aboriginal societies in Australia.

Radcliffe-Brown proposed the idea that societies can be understood as structured systems of social interaction, where each part of the society has a specific function that contributes to the stability and survival of the whole. He compared society to a biological organism, where each organ has a specific function that contributes to the whole body's well-being. In his book Structure and Function in Primitive Society, Radcliffe-Brown explored these ideas in detail. He argued that primitive societies, such as those of the Australian Aborigines, have complex social, political and spatial structures that are largely invisible to the untrained eye, but can be revealed by careful analysis. Radcliffe-Brown also emphasised the importance of rituals and myths in these societies, which he saw as key tools for maintaining social order and ensuring group cohesion. For him, these cultural elements are not mere superstitions, but essential functional elements of society.

Radcliffe-Brown's contribution to anthropology and functionalist theory has been hugely influential. His work laid the foundations for many subsequent studies of social structure and political systems in a variety of cultural contexts.

Radcliffe-Brown merged the ideas of structuralism and functionalism to create structural-functional theory.

From this perspective, a society is seen as a system of interconnected structures, each with a specific function that contributes to the stability and integrity of the system as a whole. These structures result from social practices and interactions, not biological or arbitrary factors. They are the product of human activity, but they exist outside individuals and influence them. Structuralism stresses the need to examine societies and understand how the different parts fit together to form a coherent whole. Functionalism, however, focuses on analysing the specific functions that each part of a society fulfils in the context of the wider social system.

Structural-functionalism combines these two approaches by focusing on how specific social functions create social structures and how these structures contribute to the stability and cohesion of society as a whole. This approach has been widely used in anthropology and sociology to analyse various societies and cultures.

In structural-functionalism, the structures of society are seen not simply as rigid, immutable entities, but as dynamic, interactive elements that play an active role in the organisation of social life. These structures can take many forms, such as social institutions, cultural norms, belief systems, rituals and even forms of communication. Each structure fulfils a specific function that contributes to the stability and order of society. For example, an institution such as marriage may have the function of regulating sexual relations, providing a framework for the upbringing of children, and defining the roles and responsibilities of men and women in society. These structures also function as regulatory mechanisms that help maintain social balance and prevent chaos or disorder. They promote cooperation and harmony between individuals and groups by establishing rules and common standards of behaviour. In short, in the structural-functionalist perspective, the structures of society are seen as essential elements that enable people to live together in an orderly and functional way.

Structural-functionalism recognises that societies are not static, but dynamic and capable of adapting and evolving in response to various factors. This adaptability can manifest itself at several levels:

  1. Ecological: Societies can adapt to their physical and ecological environment by changing their livelihoods, technologies or environmental practices in response to environmental changes.
  2. Institutional: Social, political and economic institutions can change and adapt in response to internal or external factors. For example, a society may reform its political institutions in response to social pressure for greater democracy or social justice.
  3. Cultural: A society's values, norms and beliefs can also evolve and adapt over time. For example, a society may change its attitudes towards certain behaviours or social groups in response to wider cultural or ideological changes.

These different levels of adaptability can interact and reinforce each other, leading to profound transformations in the structure and function of society. However, even in the context of these changes, structural-functionalism suggests that societies will maintain a certain coherence and stability because the new structures and functions that emerge will serve to maintain social order and cohesion.

With the concept of social system in the structural-functionalist perspective. Society is seen as a complex organism made up of interdependent elements - individuals, groups, and institutions - which are all connected by social relationships. None of these elements exists in isolation; they are all part of a larger whole and contribute to its functionality and stability. In this sense, the 'social system' is not simply a collection of individuals but an organised entity with its own structures and functions. These structures are not only shaped by the interaction of individuals but also influence the behaviour and attitudes of individuals. They create a framework of norms, values and rules that guide individuals' behaviour and help maintain social order and cohesion. In this sense, collective values are central to the social system. They provide a common basis of understanding and identification that binds individuals together and facilitates cooperation and social harmony. These values can be incorporated into the institutions and cultural practices of a society, helping to shape the way individuals interact and behave with each other.

he notion of a social system is central to sociology and political science, particularly from structuralist and functionalist perspectives. A social system is an organised social interaction structure around shared norms, values and institutions. It is a framework that organises and regulates the behaviour of individuals and groups within society. In a social system, institutions play a crucial role. Institutions are durable structures that establish rules and procedures for social interaction. They include formal organisations such as government, schools and businesses, as well as informal cultural norms and values. Institutions help to structure social behaviour, create predictability and order, and facilitate cooperation and coordination between individuals and groups. By adhering to the norms and values of a social system, individuals contribute to the stability and continuity of that system. However, social systems are also dynamic and can change and evolve in response to internal and external factors. As a discipline, sociology is concerned with studying these social systems - how they are structured, function, and change and develop over time.

In his structural-functionalist approach, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown emphasised the concept of adaptability, the capacity of a social system to adjust and change in response to internal and external constraints. According to Radcliffe-Brown, society is an integrated system of institutions, each with a specific function to fulfil to maintain the whole. This idea, borrowed from biology, postulates that a society, like an organism, is a system of interdependent elements that work together for the survival and equilibrium of the overall system. Each institution or social structure has a function to fulfil in this system - it must contribute to the stability and cohesion of society. Regarding the link between structure and function, Radcliffe-Brown saw structure as an arrangement of interdependent parts, each with a specific function to perform. He argued that the function of an institution or social practice should be understood in terms of its role in maintaining the overall social structure. As for adaptability, Radcliffe-Brown argued that societies can adapt and modify themselves in response to environmental and social change. This may involve changes to social institutions, norms, values, etc., to maintain the balance and stability of the social system as a whole. This is how Radcliffe-Brown conceived the dynamic between a society's structure, function and adaptability.

Talcott Parsons: 1902 - 1979[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Talcott Parsons.

Talcott Parsons is one of the most influential twentieth-century sociology and social theory theorists. Talcott Parsons began his studies in biology at Amherst College before turning to sociology and economics. He then studied at the London School of Economics, where he was influenced by the work of several leading figures in sociology and economics, including Harold Laski, R.H. Tawney, Bronislaw Malinowski and Leonard Trelawny Hobhouse. He subsequently completed a doctorate in sociology and economics at the University of Heidelberg in Germany.

Parsons significantly contributed to functionalist theory, focusing on how different parts of society contribute to its integration and stability. His work greatly influenced the development of structural functionalism, which views society as a system of interdependent interactions.

In Politics and Social Structure, Parsons explored how social and political structure affects individual and collective actions. He suggested that actions are governed by shared norms and values within society, which are in turn influenced by social and political structure. In 'Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory', Parsons developed his theory of action, which centres on the idea that human action is directed and regulated by cultural norms and values. He argued that individual actions are linked to wider social systems and that these systems evolve and change over time. Finally, in 'Action Theory and the Human Condition', Parsons further developed his theory of action, focusing on how human conditions, such as physiological and psychological needs, cognitive abilities and social relationships influence actions.

Talcott Parsons is one of the most important sociologists of the 20th century, not least because of his systemic approach to social action. For him, action is not just an individual act, but is embedded in a system of action. This action system is an interdependent set of behaviours to achieve a certain objective. We, therefore, need to understand not only individual action, but also how that action fits into a wider set of social relations and institutions. In this context, government, public policy and institutions are not just the result of the actions of isolated individuals but form part of a complex system of social interactions. This emphasises the importance of social structure in determining the behaviour of individuals and how individual actions help to reproduce or transform that structure. For example, government policy can be understood as the product of a system of action comprising politicians, bureaucrats, interest groups and citizens, each acting according to their own motivations, but all contributing to policy implementation within the framework of specific social structures. This systemic approach to social action has had a major influence on sociology and political science, particularly in analysing institutions, public policy and power.

In Talcott Parsons' thinking, a system of action is a set of interdependent action units. Each action unit is guided by norms and values that direct its behaviour towards specific objectives. These action units may be individuals, groups, organisations or entire societies. In this system, the actions of the various units are linked together to form a coherent whole. In this way, individual choices are influenced by the system of actions as a whole, and in turn help to shape that system. For example, in an organisation such as a company, the actions of individual employees are coordinated to achieve the company's objectives. Each employee acts according to their specific role in the organisation, but their actions also contribute to achieving the company's overall objectives.

What is important in this perspective is that individual actions are not simply determined by the personal preferences of individuals but are also influenced by the norms, values and objectives of the action system as a whole. In this way, individual choices are both influenced by and influence the overall system of action.

Talcott Parsons conceptualised what he called "action system theory" (or the "AGIL scheme" - Adaptation, Goal attainment, Integration, Latency) to explain how societies (or any social system) attempt to maintain social balance and order. Each of the four functions in this diagram is essential for the survival of a social system. They all work together, and if one of them fails, the system may be in danger.

  1. Adaptation: This concerns the ability of a social system to gather and use resources from its environment to survive and prosper. It is fundamentally the system's relationship with its environment and how it adapts to it.
  2. Goal attainment refers to the system's ability to define and pursue goals. In society, this could be seen as the role of government, which sets policy goals and implements policies to achieve them.
  3. Integration: This function relates to managing relationships between different parts of the social system to maintain order and avoid conflict. This is the aspect of social cohesion, how the different parts of a system work together to maintain unity.
  4. Latency: This function concerns the maintenance and renewal of the motivations, values and norms that underpin the system. The cultural 'glue' binds people together and keeps the system running.

These four functions interact with each other and are all necessary for the survival of a social system.

In reality, perfect respect for these four functions is rarely achieved. Social systems are complex and dynamic, subject to many internal and external pressures that can disrupt their functioning.

  1. Adaptation: Social systems can fail to adapt appropriately to environmental changes. For example, a company may not be able to adapt quickly to a new technology, which could lead to its bankruptcy. Similarly, a company may find it difficult to adapt to rapid changes, such as those brought about by globalisation or climate change.
  2. Pursuit of goals: Social systems can also fail to define and achieve their goals. For example, a government may fail to achieve its objectives regarding poverty reduction, unemployment, education, health, etc.
  3. Integration: Tensions and conflicts can arise within a social system, threatening its integrity. For example, social, ethnic, religious or political divisions can threaten the stability of a society.
  4. Latency: Finally, social systems may experience difficulties in maintaining and renewing the values, norms and motivations that sustain their existence. For example, a crisis of values can occur when traditional norms are challenged or when people feel disconnected from the dominant values of society.

These problems are often interconnected and can reinforce each other, creating significant challenges for the stability and sustainability of social systems. Therefore, understanding these functions and how they can be supported and strengthened is crucial to managing and resolving social problems.

Parson moyen but.png

Parsons' functional paradigm of the action system is circular and dynamic. Each function, or phase, of the cycle - Adaptation, Goal Pursuit, Integration, Latency - is not only the consequence of the previous phase, but also the condition for the next.

In other words, each function must be performed not only to meet the system's immediate needs, but also to prepare the system to perform the next function. For example, Adaptation (the ability of the system to use the environment's resources to meet its needs) is necessary not only for the immediate survival of the system, but also to enable it to define and pursue its Goals. Similarly, achieving Goals is a prerequisite for Integration (the coordination and cohesion of the system), which in turn prepares the system for the Latency phase (the generation and conservation of energy or motivation for action).

In this way, the action system is always in motion, moving from one phase to another in a continuous loop. This dynamic cycle model reflects the complexity and interdependence of social processes in action systems.

Robert King Merton (1910 - 2003): mid-range functionalism[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Robert King Merton.

Robert King Merton was a renowned and influential American sociologist. Born on 4 July 1910 and died on 23 February 2003, Merton is best known for developing fundamental concepts in sociology, such as the theory of manifest and latent functions, anomie, self-fulfilling prophecy, the role model and the Matthew effect. Merton also contributed significantly to the sociology of science by analysing the phenomenon of 'priority' in scientific discovery. He also studied the impact of certain social structures on the conduct of science. His work on manifest and latent functions has been particularly influential. Manifest functions are the intended and recognised consequences of a social phenomenon or action, while latent functions are the unintended and often unrecognised consequences. For example, in the case of education, a manifest function would be the acquisition of knowledge and skills. In contrast, a latent function might be the socialisation of individuals into certain societal norms and values. His work has profoundly influenced sociology and continues to be widely cited and used in contemporary sociological research.

Robert Merton brought a more nuanced perspective to functionalist theory, recognising that individuals play an active role in society and that social dysfunction is an inherent reality of any social organisation.

  1. The role of individuals: Merton emphasised that, although social structures strongly influence individuals' behaviour, the latter are not simply passive in the face of these structures. On the contrary, they can interpret their social environment and act creatively and often unpredictably. In other words, Merton recognised that individuals are both influenced by the social system and capable of influencing it in return.
  2. Anomie and social dysfunction: Merton also pointed out that not all parts of a social system always work harmoniously together. He introduced the concept of anomie to describe a state of confusion, disorder or lack of clear rules, which can occur when social structures change rapidly or when cultural expectations conflict. In addition, Merton pointed out that social dysfunction, such as deviance and crime, is often a response to anomie.

Robert Merton was influenced by Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of modern sociology. Durkheim developed functionalist theory, which focuses on how the different elements of a society work together to maintain order and stability. Durkheim's influence on Merton is particularly evident in the concepts of anomie and social dysfunction. Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie to describe a state of social disintegration where individuals no longer feel guided by shared norms and values. He argued that anomie results from a lack of social regulation and can lead to problems such as suicide and crime. Merton developed this concept by analysing the causes and consequences of anomie in the context of American society. He also integrated Durkheim's ideas on social functions and dysfunctions into his own functionalist theory. In short, Merton helped to extend and deepen functionalist theory by building on Durkheim's work and adapting it to new social contexts and problems. Merton's contributions to functionalist theory made the approach more dynamic and better able to account for the complexity of social life.

In Merton's theory of anomie, anomie is seen as a state of disequilibrium caused by the mismatch between cultural goals and the institutionalised means of achieving them. In other words, when a society imposes expectations or aspirations on its members that they cannot achieve by legitimate means, this can lead to anomie or a sense of alienation and disorientation. From this perspective, Anomie can manifest itself in several ways, for example, through deviant behaviour, such as crime or rebellion against established social norms. It can also lead to social disorganisation, conflict and tension within society. It is important to emphasise that for Merton, and anomie is not simply an absence of norms but rather a breakdown or inconsistency in the normative system of society. This may result from rapid and profound changes in society or social institutions' inability to adapt or respond to new conditions or demands. In all cases, anomie represents a form of social dysfunction where society's normal structures and processes are disrupted or undermined.

The concept of anomie reflects a situation in which the social norms that govern the behaviour of individuals are weakened or confused. This can occur when society is undergoing rapid and profound change or when there is a significant mismatch between the cultural aspirations of a society and the legitimate means available to achieve those aspirations. In this context, anomie can be seen as a kind of 'grey zone' between an old social order and a new order that has not yet been clearly defined or accepted. It is a potentially problematic period of transition, during which individuals may feel lost, disorientated or uncertain about how to behave. Anomie is described not only as a social structure that no longer functions but also as individuals who are waiting for a lost meaning and who, in the expectation of this lost meaning, may redefine specific behaviours, particularly violent or deviant behaviours. Deviance is behaviour that no longer corresponds to the behaviour and aspirations of society. Deviance occurs when there is a disproportion between the cultural flows considered valid and the legitimate means to which individuals can have access to achieve these goals. It should also be noted that Merton uses the concept of anomie to explain deviance and crime in society. According to him, when individuals cannot achieve their goals by legitimate means (for example, because of poverty or discrimination), they may be tempted to resort to illegitimate means, leading to deviant or criminal behaviour.

According to Merton, deviance is a symptom of dysfunction or disorganisation within a social system. When there is a gap between the culturally valued goals of a society and the socially accepted means of achieving those goals, it creates a tension or pressure that can lead to deviance. In the context of the mafia, if a society values wealth and economic success, but the legitimate means of achieving these goals (e.g. education, hard work, entrepreneurship) are inaccessible to certain groups of people (due to poverty, discrimination, etc.), then these people may be tempted to resort to illegitimate means (such as organised crime) to achieve these goals. In this sense, deviance can be seen not only as a symptom of social dysfunction, but also as a creative or adaptive response to that dysfunction. However, this response can itself create new problems and challenges, such as crime, violence and social instability.

In "Contemporary Social Problems: An Introduction to the Sociology of Deviant Behavior and Social Disorganization", Merton and Nisbet analyse how social and cultural structures can produce both compliant and deviant behaviour. Merton developed a theory called 'structural deviance theory', which analyses how a society's social and cultural structure can lead to deviance. According to this theory, when the social structure of a society establishes cultural goals but does not provide all its members with the legitimate means to achieve these goals, some individuals may resort to deviance to achieve these goals. In addition, Merton also introduced the concept of 'social disorganisation' to describe a situation where social norms and rules of behaviour are weak or non-existent, which can lead to a high level of deviant behaviour. Merton's theory has considerably influenced the sociology of deviance and remains a major reference in the field.

In their analysis of social disorganisation, Merton and Nisbet identified several key factors that can contribute to the disorganisation of a social system:

  1. Institutional conflicts: These occur when the institutions of society come into conflict with each other. For example, in a society where economic values take precedence over family values, an individual may be torn between the need to work long hours to achieve economic success and the desire to spend time with his or her family. These types of conflicts can create stress, confusion and disorganisation within society.
  2. Social mobility: Excessive or insufficient social mobility can also contribute to social disorganisation. For example, in a society with low social mobility, individuals can feel trapped and frustrated, leading to deviance and social disorganisation. Conversely, in a society with high social mobility, individuals may feel disconnected from their community and roots, leading to social disorganisation.
  3. Anomie: Anomie, a concept Merton borrowed from Durkheim, refers to a situation in which social norms are weak or confused, which can lead to deviance and social disorganisation. In an anomic society, individuals can feel lost and disorientated, not knowing how to behave or what goals they should be pursuing.

Functionalism is an approach that examines the functions of social phenomena and how they contribute to the stability and continuity of society as a whole. Functionalism focuses on the interdependence of different parts of society and how they fit together to form a coherent whole. The Kula is an excellent example of this kind of phenomenon. The Kula is a complex system of ritual exchanges practised by the inhabitants of the Trobriand Islands in Papua New Guinea. Although these exchanges involve objects of value, their true function, according to anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski, is not economic but social. The Kula system creates community links, fosters cooperation, reinforces social status and prevents conflict. In this way, it contributes to the stability and order of society as a whole. So while individual exchanges may seem irrational or inefficient from an economic point of view, they are in fact functional for society as a system. This aspect of functionalism - the idea that social institutions and practices can have important social functions, even if they are not immediately obvious - has been particularly influential in sociology and anthropology.

From a functionalist perspective, individuals are considered integral parts of a larger social system. Their behaviour, values and norms are expected to support that system's overall functioning and stability. This is often referred to as social integration - the process by which individuals are led to accept and adhere to the norms and values of the social system in which they live. However, there can be variations in the degree to which individuals integrate. Some may adhere closely to the dominant norms and values, while others may deviate from them. These deviations from the norm are often referred to as 'deviations'. Deviance is not necessarily negative or destructive to the social system. Sometimes it can be a driving force for change and evolution. For example, deviant behaviour may challenge existing norms and values, leading to their re-evaluation and change. In other cases, deviance can reinforce norms and values by providing an example of what not to do. However, excessive or destructive deviance can threaten the stability of the social system. This is where social control mechanisms come in, designed to discourage deviance and encourage conformity to the norms and values of the system. These mechanisms can take many forms, from formal sanctions (such as legal punishment) to informal sanctions (such as social disapproval). In short, from a functionalist perspective, individuals are both products and producers of the social system. Their behaviour can support or challenge the system, and the system, in turn, seeks to regulate their behaviour to maintain its equilibrium and stability.

Systemic theory[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Systems theory is a way of looking at social or human action that considers different levels or systems of interaction. These systems can be understood as follows:

  • Biological system: This is the most basic level of human action, and includes an individual's basic physical needs and motivations, such as hunger, thirst, sleep and pain avoidance. The individual's genetics and biology generally influence this system.
  • Personality system: This system refers to the psychological structure of the individual, including personality traits, attitudes, values and more complex motivations. The individual's experiences, including learning, socialisation and life experiences, influence this system.
  • Social system: This system encompasses the individual's interactions and relationships with others and social institutions. It includes social structures such as the family, school, workplace, communities and society as a whole.
  • Cultural system: This system comprises all the values, norms, beliefs and symbols shared by a group or society. Culture influences the way individuals perceive and interpret the world around them, and provides a framework for understanding and giving meaning to their behaviour.

From this perspective, human action is seen as the product of a complex interaction between these different systems. Each system influences and is influenced by the others, creating a dynamic and interdependent network of influences that shape human behaviour.

What is the difference between a traditional policy approach and a systems approach?

The systems approach to policy analysis differs from the traditional approach in several important ways.

In the traditional approach, the focus is often on individual actors and their decisions. Politicians, political parties, bureaucrats, voters, interest groups, etc., are analysed as separate entities that decide according to their interests, ideologies or motivations.

In contrast, the systems approach focuses on the interactions between these actors and how the wider structures of the political system influence them. Actors are seen not as isolated entities but as parts of an interconnected system that act according to the constraints and opportunities offered by the system. From this perspective, resources, power and social benefits are not simply possessed by individual actors but are distributed and negotiated across the system. Actors acquire their power and advantages not only through their own actions but also through their relationships with other actors and their position in the system. In addition, the systems approach takes account of conflicts and competitions between players. Rather than assuming that all actors share the same interests or objectives, this approach recognises that actors may have divergent interests and may conflict with each other for resources or power.

In short, systems analysis offers a more holistic and dynamic perspective on politics, focusing on interconnections, power relations and change processes.

In systems analysis, the system is seen as coherent, even if it comprises many sub-systems and individual actors. Each system element is considered about the others and not in isolation. The emphasis is on the system's coherence as a whole, rather than on the actions or characteristics of its individual components. The notion of feedback is also essential in systems analysis. Systems are seen as dynamic entities that are constantly changing and adjusting in response to various internal and external forces. This adjustment process involves feedback, where the results of past actions influence future actions.

In this context, decision-making is not seen as a linear process but rather as a cyclical and recursive one. Decisions are made, implemented, evaluated and then revised according to their effectiveness. This can lead to changes in objectives, strategies, policies and so on. This is often referred to as 'non-linear causality', where effects are not simply proportional to causes, but can be influenced by various interdependent factors. This makes systems analysis particularly useful for studying complex and dynamic situations with many variables at play.

David Easton (1917 - 2014): systems theory in political science[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

David Easton is a Canadian political scientist renowned for contributing to political theory and research methodology in political science. Born in 1917 and deceased in 2014, Easton was one of the pioneers of the systems approach in political science.

In his work "A Framework for Political Analysis" (1965), Easton proposed a model of the political system that became fundamental to political theory. His systems approach defined the political system as a complex entity that receives inputs from the surrounding society, transforms them through a "process of political conversion" and produces outputs in the form of public policies. According to Easton, inputs into the political system include demands and support from citizens and other societal actors. The policy system transforms these inputs through several processes, including policy formulation, decision-making, policy implementation and evaluation. The outputs of the policy system are public policies and the resulting actions. These outputs have an impact on society and can in turn generate new demands and support, creating a feedback loop. Easton's political systems theory has been widely influential in the field of political science. It has provided a conceptual framework for studying politics as a complex system of interactions between diverse actors and processes.

David Easton is best known for applying systems theory to the study of politics. From this perspective, he conceptualised the political system as a process of inputs, conversions and outputs. Inputs include demands and supports. Demands come from individuals, groups and institutions in society who want the political system to act in a certain way. Supports are the resources that individuals, groups and institutions are prepared to give to the political system to make it work. Conversions represent the political process itself - how the political system deals with demands and supports, makes decisions and creates policies. Outputs are the decisions and actions of the political system that affect society. According to Easton, there are also feedback loops in this system. The outputs of the political system affect the inputs, because the actions of the political system can change the demands and supports. This creates a continuous cycle of inputs, conversions and outputs. This systems approach allowed Easton to view policy as an interconnected set of activities rather than a series of isolated events. This led to a more complex and nuanced analysis of how politics works.

In his 1953 book The Political System, David Easton adopted a universal perspective in his approach to politics. In his view, all political systems, whether democratic, authoritarian, totalitarian or other, share common characteristics that allow them to be studied comparatively. Easton's approach differs from anthropology's, which often emphasises the diversity and singularity of cultures and political systems. Anthropology tends to adopt a relativistic perspective, asserting that there are no universal standards by which to evaluate cultures and political systems, but that each culture or system must be understood in its own context. However, Easton saw his systems approach as providing a basis for comparative analysis. He argued that, although political systems may differ on the surface, they all share similar fundamental entry, conversion and exit processes. Easton believed it was possible to draw general conclusions about how politics works by focusing on these common processes. This is not to say Easton's approach overlooked the differences between political systems. On the contrary, he recognised that how these processes occur can vary considerably from one system to another. However, he believed these variations could be understood through the prism of his systems theory.

David Easton proposed a systems approach to studying politics, suggesting that political phenomena could be better understood if analysed as interconnected systems. He believed that contemporary society, though complex, could be organised and understood in terms of systems. According to Easton, a political system comprises a set of interactions that convert inputs (demands and support from citizens) into outputs (political decisions and actions). These outputs then affect society, producing new inputs, creating a continuous cycle. Easton also emphasised the importance of the environment of a political system, which includes other social systems, such as the economy, culture, the legal system, and so on. He recognised that these systems can influence and be influenced by the political system. Thus, Easton's approach sought to provide a holistic view of politics, which considers both the internal processes of political systems and their interactions with other social systems. This systems perspective has been influential in political science and continues to be used by many researchers today.

David Easton has emphasised the importance of these functions in developing political theory. Let's explain in a little more detail:

  1. Propose criteria for identifying the variables to be analysed: this means determining which elements or features of a political system are most important to study. This could include things like governance structures, decision-making processes, public policies, etc.
  2. Establish relationships between these variables: once the relevant variables have been identified, the next step is to understand how they relate to each other. For example, how do governance structures influence decision-making processes? How do decision-making processes influence public policy?
  3. Explain these relationships: having identified the relationships between the variables, the next step is to explain why these relationships exist. What underlying mechanisms or factors explain these relationships?
  4. Develop a generalisation network: this involves drawing general conclusions from the specific data and analyses. For example, if a certain relationship between variables has been observed in several different political systems, it may be possible to generalise this relationship to all political systems.
  5. Discovering new phenomena: Developing a political theory may also involve discovering new phenomena or trends within political systems. This could result from an in-depth analysis of the data, or it could result from applying the theory to new contexts or situations.

Together, these functions form a framework for developing robust and useful political theories. Easton argued that applying this framework could help organise and clarify our understanding of political systems.

Systems theory, as presented by David Easton, proposes a global approach to analysing political systems. It does not limit itself to the study of political institutions or individual behaviour, but rather seeks to understand political systems as interconnected sets of structures, processes and relationships. The various components of a political system - such as government, interest groups, citizens, etc. - are considered part of the same overall system. These components are interdependent and interact with each other in complex ways. Systems theory can also be used to compare and classify different types of political regime. For example, this approach could be used to distinguish between liberal democracies, authoritarian regimes, constitutional monarchies, etc., according to how their different sub-systems are organised and interact. Systems theory offers a powerful analytical framework for studying political systems. It provides a more nuanced and integrated understanding of the complexity and dynamics of political systems.

Jean-William Lapierre (1921 - 2007)[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Jean-William Lapierre was a French sociologist and political scientist. He is known for his work on political theory and the sociology of power. He also held several academic posts during his career, notably at the Université Paris 8 and the Institut d'études politiques de Paris.

Lapierre developed a unique approach to political theory, which he called 'strategic analysis'. According to this approach, power is seen as a relational and strategic phenomenon involving complex interactions between different social actors. This perspective departs from certain more traditional approaches to political theory, which tend to conceive of power as a property or resource held by certain actors. Lapierre's work has also emphasised the importance of social conflict and struggles for power in forming and functioning political societies. He emphasised the role of domination, resistance and negotiation in these processes. Lapierre has had a considerable influence on the field of political and social science, and his ideas continue to be discussed and debated today.

Jean-William Lapierre argued that all political systems, regardless of their culture or historical context, can be analysed using a systems approach. In his view, all political systems share certain fundamental characteristics and operate according to common principles, despite their apparent differences. Lapierre's systems approach involves observing and analysing the relationships and interactions between the different parts of a political system and how these parts contribute to the overall function of the system. He insisted that systemic analysis must consider not only political structures and processes but also the behaviour and attitudes of the actors within the system. In his book "L'analyse des systèmes politiques", Lapierre developed this approach in detail, explaining how it can be used to understand various political phenomena, including power, resistance, domination, and negotiation. He also stressed the importance of considering the conflicts and tensions within political systems, which play a key role in their dynamics and evolution.

Jean-William Lapierre saw political systems as systems of information transformation, a central idea in the systems approach. This transformation of information takes place in two main stages: input and output.

  • Input: This stage involves gathering and processing information and requests from society. This may include public opinions, citizens' demands, social problems, economic challenges, etc. This information is gathered by various means, such as opinion polls, public consultations, protests, pressure groups, etc.
  • Output: This stage concerns the political system's response to the information and demands gathered during the input stage. This may include the development of new policies, the implementation of programmes, the amendment of laws, the taking of legal decisions, etc. Output is the visible result of the operation of the political system.

From this perspective, the effectiveness of a political system can be measured by its ability to transform inputs effectively into appropriate outputs. In other words, its ability to respond effectively to the demands and needs of society. It should also be noted that the outputs of the policy system can, in turn, influence the inputs, creating a feedback loop. For example, a new policy (output) can provoke reactions from the public (input), which can influence future policies' development.

Systems analysis, as developed by researchers such as Jean-William Lapierre, can help us to understand historical events such as the French Revolution. In this case, the political system of the absolute monarchy was unable to deal effectively with the inputs from French society, particularly the signals of growing discontent and economic crisis.

Louis XIV built Versailles for a political purpose: to centralise his power and assert his control over the nobility. By inviting the nobility to reside at Versailles, he kept them under his watch, minimising their ability to plot or rebel against him. However, by establishing the court at Versailles, Louis XIV also moved away from Paris, France's political, economic and cultural centre. This may have limited his ability to understand and respond effectively to the problems of the Parisian population and, more broadly, the French people. Versailles as extraterritoriality is one possible interpretation of the concept of input and output in the context of systems analysis. The input could be seen as the information or signals coming from society, while output is the response or action of the political system in response to these signals. King Louis XVI, like his predecessors, distanced himself from the realities of life for his subjects, particularly those in Paris. By withdrawing to Versailles, he lost some of his ability to receive and understand the inputs from Parisian society. He failed to understand and respond to the signals of growing social unrest and the economic problems caused by crop failures and epidemics. When the crisis reached its climax, the monarchy's political system could not produce the outputs needed to resolve the crisis. The king's inadequate response to the crisis, particularly his resistance to reform, led to even greater discontent and, eventually, revolution. We might note this brief exchange between Louis XVI and La Rochefoucauld: "-Monsieur le roi, il est passé quelque chose. [1]. This analysis highlights the importance of a political system to process society's inputs efficiently and produce appropriate outputs. If a political system cannot do this, it may face instability and upheaval, as was the case during the French Revolution.

From a systems perspective, policy management is seen as a dynamic balance between inputs (incoming information or resources) and outputs (policy actions or decisions). Inputs are the information, demands or resources the policy system receives from the social, economic and cultural environment. They can include public opinion, social expectations, economic resources, etc. Outputs, on the other hand, are the responses or actions of the policy system to these inputs. They may include such things as public policies, laws, regulations, judicial decisions, etc. The aim is to create outputs that respond to inputs effectively and appropriately. However, if the political system does not receive adequate input or is misinterpreted, the outputs may not correspond to society's needs or expectations. For example, if a government does not receive accurate information about the needs of its population, it may take irrelevant or inappropriate decisions. This is why effective management of inputs and outputs is crucial to the smooth running of a political system.

Jean-William Lapierre has highlighted the decision-making nature of the political system in his systems approach. He sees the political system as a complex system that must constantly make decisions and act on the information and resources it receives from its environment (the inputs). Lapierre also points out that although particular ideologies or political principles may guide a political system, it must always consider the situation's reality and adapt its decisions accordingly. In other words, a political system cannot afford to ignore the social, economic and cultural reality in which it operates. This means the political system must constantly evaluate and reassess its actions and decisions (the outputs) in light of the information and resources it receives (the inputs). This process of evaluation and reassessment enables the policy system to remain adapted to its environment and respond effectively to society's needs and expectations.

The notion of a decision-making system is central: a political system must make decisions based on the information available to it, however incomplete or uncertain that information may be. This decision-making process gives rise to outputs, i.e., actions, policies or rules. But a political system is not simply an automaton following a predefined programme. It must constantly adapt and evolve in response to its environment. Inputs (information, resources, demands from society, etc.) are constantly in flux, and the political system must be able to adjust its outputs accordingly. It is also important to note that this theory puts forward the idea that politics is an activity that cannot be reduced to decision-making alone. It also involves managing tensions and conflicts, arbitrating between different interests, building consensus, etc. In this sense, the systemic theory of politics offers a highly dynamic and complex vision of political activity.

Lapierre's vision of the political system is that of a system of action that operates in an uncertain environment and with incomplete information. The emphasis is on managing these uncertainties and making decisions despite them. Within this framework, a political system must constantly evaluate and reassess the resources available (which may be material, human, informational, etc.) and the constraints (which may be rules, norms, social expectations, etc.) that apply to it. It must also be able to anticipate the potential consequences of its actions, although it can never be absolutely certain of this. This implies an ability to be flexible and adaptable, to learn from experience and to adjust actions in response to feedback constantly. It is a vision of politics that is both realistic and dynamic, and which emphasises the importance of managing uncertainty and information in political action.

The essence of political management can often be reduced to the search for the 'least bad' possible. Political decision-makers must constantly juggle limited resources, conflicting demands, uncertainties about the future, and other constraints and challenges. They therefore often have to make compromises, sometimes difficult ones, and choose between options that are all far from perfect. Their objective is to minimise the disadvantages and costs of these compromises, while maximising the potential benefits for society. In this sense, we might say that they seek to manage the 'least bad' possible. This realist perspective on political management highlights the complexity and difficulty of making political decisions in an uncertain and ever-changing world.

The limits of these two approaches[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

Limits of the functionalist approach[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

The functionalist approach has been widely criticised for a variety of reasons. Here are some of its main limitations:

  1. Reductionism: Functionalism can be accused of reductionism because it tends to see society as a well-oiled machine where each part has a specific function. This view can ignore the complexity and interdependence of social phenomena and the possibility of conflict or tension within society.
  2. Inability to explain social change: Functionalism is often criticised for its inability to explain social change. It often focuses on the equilibrium and stability of society and has difficulty explaining why and how society changes.
  3. Neglects individual agentivity: The functionalist approach tends to favour a macroscopic view of society, often neglecting the agentivity of individuals. It can therefore be difficult to explain how individuals can influence society and how their actions can lead to social change.
  4. Conservatism: Functionalism has been criticised for its implicit conservatism. By focusing on maintaining balance and stability, it can appear to justify the existing social order and resist the idea of social change. This can sometimes lead to an implicit justification of social inequalities.

Despite these limitations, functionalism has played an essential role in sociology and has made valuable contributions to our understanding of society. However, it is important to consider these criticisms when using the functionalist approach to analyse society.

Limits of the systems approach[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

While the systems approach offers many advantages for understanding political organisations and interactions, it also has certain limitations. These include

  1. Oversimplification: The systems approach can sometimes oversimplify social and political phenomena by breaking them down into systems and sub-systems. Reality is often much more complex and messy than systems models suggest.
  2. Lack of consideration for context: Political systems are deeply rooted in specific social, cultural and historical contexts. The systems approach can sometimes overlook these contexts by concentrating on analysing the inputs and outputs of the system.
  3. Comparability: The systems approach can give the impression that all political systems are comparable. This can lead to misleading generalisations and inappropriate value judgements.
  4. Neglect of power dynamics: By focusing on systemic processes, this approach can neglect the dynamics of power, inequality and conflict that are often at the heart of political systems.
  5. Difficulty in managing change: The systems approach may be difficult to explain how political systems change and evolve over time. It is generally more effective at analysing political systems' current state than predicting or explaining change.

These limitations do not mean that the systems approach is without value. Still, they suggest that researchers use it with care and other approaches to gain a more complete understanding of political phenomena.

Annexes[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

References[modifier | modifier le wikicode]

  1. Guy Chaussinand-Nogaret, La Bastille est prise, Paris, Éditions Complexe, 1988, p. 102.