Social Media from a Functionalist Perspective
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Published: Mon, 20 Aug 2018
Late modern society is a network society (Castells, 1997). Devices such as smart phones are portable connect individuals in a complex system of interaction via emails, Facebook, Linkedin, Mumsnet, BlackBerry Messenger which support the functionalist vision. Social media sites are social platforms such as Twitter and Facebook that function for the purpose of enabling the interaction between millions of individuals whenever, wherever and about whatever given subject they wish to communicate. By the end of 2013 Facebook had 1.23 billion subscribers (Sedghi, 2014). This growth amounted to 170 million new subscribers in 2013 alone (Sedghi, 2014). The main use of Facebook is to maintain socially cohesive contact with friends and family which supports the functionalist vision of society (Ofcom, 2011). It is argued by C. Wright Mills (1956) that society is manipulated into a social order by the one-directional rhetoric of the mass media. In contrast, social media sites are capable of bi-directional interaction with others which is socially cohesive and supports the functionalist vision of society. However, this is not always the case. This paper provides a critical evaluation of the function of social media sites firstly by providing an overview of functionalism and secondly by illustrating how social media both supports and contradicts the functionalist vision of society.
The positivist approach of structural functionalists involves analysing society from a macro-sociological perspective. They view society as a set of interrelated institutions which form a whole (Abercrombie et al., 2000:145). Such institutions include the family, education, politics, law, the media, organisations, economics and religion (Abercrombie et al., 2000:145). These form the agents of socialization which the shape behaviours that form a public consensus among which they do through constant institutional interaction (Durkheim, 1893:50). Durkheim focused on the consequences of social change between two eras; pre-modern [mechanical] society and industrial [organic] society (Durkheim, 1893). Pre-modern agrarian society was cohesive, tied by kinship with a collective consciousness of norms, which were constantly reinforced through socialisation and interaction (Durkheim, 1893). The shift from the simplicity of the mechanical society to the complexities of organic society impacted negatively on kinship and collective values as individuals undertook multiple forms of work in this new mode of production; capitalism (Durkheim, 1893).
Durkheim’s (1893) analysis of organic society extends an analogy originally devised by Spencer (1820–1903) whereby he likens society to the human body insofar as both have interdependent parts that must function for survival (Coser, 1893 : xvi). If any organ [institution] malfunctions, the body social [society] becomes unstable (Durkheim, 1893). As such, each organism [individual] has a specialist role within these institutions which it performs for the social good; not least because their own survival depends on it (Durkheim, 1893). Appropriating active social change is not advised because the institutions and the body social will be destabilised causing anomie (Durkheim, 1893). Anomie is a causal factor of social instability as a result of the inequalities in the division of labour as a result of some organisms outperforming others (Durkheim, 1893). This differentiation exacerbated the stratification that formed hierarchies in the new industrial workforce which polarised rich and poor (Durkheim, 1893).
In a modern context, anomie also descended on the British inner cities for similar reasons in August 2011 when the dysfunction of the political, legal and educational institutions failed to meet the needs of the body social (Durkheim, 1893). Merton argues that institutional dysfunction which can be the ‘unintentional consequences’ of ‘latent functions’ (Merton, 1968:105). In contrast, adaptations to society by institutions are ‘manifest functions’ which are deliberately applied (Merton, 1968:105). The manifest functions involved (Merton, 1968: 105). As Merton asserts, such functions are targeted towards ‘individuals in diverse statuses, subgroups the larger social system and culture systems’ such as limiting opportunities to education through welfare reforms for British working class youths (Merton, 1968:106).
The response by disaffected youths was the riots that ensued across the UK in 2011 which was orchestrated using the free service BlackBerry Messenger [BBM] (Lewis et al., 2012). BBM is a free service in which one message can be disseminated to hundreds of recipients instantly who then forward the message to the hundreds more (Lewis et al., 2012). The social cohesion resulting from BBM extended to a temporary truce between otherwise rival gangs which is a positive function of interaction (Lewis et al., 2012). The riots came to an abrupt end when BlackBerry disconnected the service thus illustrating how solidarity depends on interaction (Lewis et al., 2012). Twitter was also accused of inciting the riots but it was later proven that the 2.5 million riot-related tweets showed solidarity against the rioters whilst also recruiting individuals to help with the clean-up process which serve the functionalist vision of society (BBC News 2011: [Online]). Similarly, the anomie in Egypt and Tunisia was corrected by implementing the overthrow of their relative dictators which was mobilised via Facebook (Bouteflika, 2011).
The Social System
It is also argued that crime is necessary, inevitable and functional because it elicits the solidarity of the law-abiding public whose anger culminates in the public shaming and punishment of the offender (Durkheim, 1893). Crime therefore serves to redefine the moral boundaries which supports the functionalist vision of society (Durkheim, 1893). Unlike the riots, social stability occurs when all of the component parts are fully functioning producing a system of ‘equilibrium’ (Parsons, 1951which is contingent upon the strength or weaknesses of the interactive relationships between the institutions (Parsons, 1951: [1999: 84). In this context, Parsons (1951) claims that actors are ‘goal-achieving’ and have alternate ways of achieving goals such as through education which is universal and equal (1951:130). In contrast, Merton argues that society sets the cultural goals but fails to provide the institutional means to achieve them (1938:100).
While Durkheim’s functionalist vision is positivist in its assumptions that organisms are homogenous, Talcott Parson’s theory of The Social System recognised that society comprised of a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other (1951 : 3). Parsons (1951) argued that the social system is contingent upon a set of four prerequisites which include: adaptation in times of social change due to one of the institutions malfunctioning; goals involves achieving certain goals in society; integration is the reliance that actors will identify with their social group; and latency involves maintaining the foundations of the social system such as through solid family socialisation.
This would never be tolerated by the UKs top parenting site Mumsnet which is an interactive forum run by ‘parents for parents’ (Mumsnet, 2015: [Online]). Mumsnet offers advice to parents on ‘pregnancy, education, money, and work (Mumsnet, 2015: [Online]). Within these discourses advice ranging from breastfeeding to university education is all designed to educate and optimise how parents raise their utmost for their children (Mumsnet, 2015 [Online]). In this context, Mumsnet clearly supports the functional vision of society as it interacts with most of the institutional organs of the body social most all of the institutions (Mumsnet, 2015).
According to Maxwell and Aggleton, (2013:139) Mumsnet contains symbolic and ritualistic undercurrents that allow the class disparities to surface. For example, Mumsnet has a strict netiquette whereby husbands and children are identified within the posts by individuals as DH [dear husband] DS [dear son] and DD [dear daughter] which denotes ritual whilst imposing middle class values on working class families.
Parsons argues that ‘the primary problems and strains centre on the role of the wife and mother … The “easy” solution is for her to be completely excluded from the occupational system by confining herself to the role of housewife (1951:128). However, Mumsnet mothers consider themselves professional mothers who can juggle their work-life balance with ease (2013:139). For example, class disparities are evident in an exchange on Mumsnet between several mothers on children watching TV. For example,
- We can’t all be Mother Earth
- I wouldn’t listen to some of the militant mums on here
- Being pregnant is no reason to be lazy parent to your toddler
- How judgey some people can be about a little TV
- At least the child isn’t strapped in a buggy with a packet of crisps and a bottle of coke
- Nowt wrong with crisps and a bottle of coke
- Exactly, as long as they’re organic
(Maxwell and Aggleton, 2013:138)
Such class differentiations are glaringly evident on Mumsnet who sell themselves as professional mothers who are well versed in child rearing (Maxwell and Agglegate, 2013). While functionalists overlook class in their macrosociological analysis, Mumsnet is class led and intimidating it is a site for those mothers who do not fear ‘militant’ mothers or those labelled as ‘Mother Earth’ (Maxwell and Agglegate, 2013:139). While in principle the mother and homemaker serves the functionalist vision of society, through rituals and cultural practices, the fact that many Mumsnet mothers are working or unmarried will contradict this vision as being negative to children (Maxwell and Aggleton, 2013).
The collective consciousness that perform rituals and totemic symbolisation provides a ‘cauldron of collective effervescence’ for the religious (Durkheim, 1915: 469). Religion which is the most socially cohesive element of the institutions ‘collective life awakens religious thought’ (Durkheim, 1915: 469). (Coser, 1915: xx). Evidence of such ‘effervescence’ surrounds Christmas, weddings Bar Mitzvahs and funerals is displayed on social media sites because religion is ‘an eminently collective thing’ (Durkheim, 1954: 47). Death is also a ritual and a commodity as people flock to mourn the departed; this collective mourning is replicated via social media (Durkheim, 1954; Bell, 1992). Durkheim argued that all societies were divided by the ‘sacred’ and the profane; the sacred are the totemic objects that are reserved for religious rituals which are emblematic of the clan or tribe, community or society; this is the case across the globe as all primitive religions adopt the sacred/profane dichotomy (Durkheim 1915: xx). Sacred totems evoke emotional attachment whereas the ‘profane’ represents everyday objects that are used routinely (such as social media devices) (Durkheim, 1915: xx). However, such totems are only sacred because individuals deemed them as such (Durkheim, 1915). To this end, Durkheim dismisses the centrality of a God in religion; it is the society itself that is God (19).
It could be argued that the online community also worships itself as social media sites are central to society (Preston, 2011: [Online]). For example, in the previous week to the time of writing, the Facebook page ‘Jesus Daily’ received 26.6m ‘Likes’ and 3.2m interactions (Facebook, 2015: [Online]). Similarly, In a Facebook post by a Jesuit priest supporting the Supreme Court decision to legalise gay marriage Rev. James Martin asserted that:
“No issue brings out so much hatred from so many Catholics as homosexuality. Even after over 25 years as a Jesuit, the level of hatred around homosexuality is … unbelievable to me, especially when I think of all of the wonderful LGBT friends I have” (cited in Gibson, 2015: [Online]).
The Reverend’s message went viral receiving 18,000 posts,140,000 ‘shares’ and 400,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook (Gibson, 2015:[Online]).However, Pope Benedict warned Catholics that human interaction in physical terms was crucial (Preston, 2011: [Online]). Similarly, a Presbyterian reverend urged individuals to ‘experience the physical sensation of water in Baptism [and] hold hands in a service of worship’ (Preston, 2011: [Online]). This illustrates how religion is mediated in terms of ‘a system of culturally structured and shared symbols’ (Parsons, 1979:6). Durkheim argues that ‘forbidden, beliefs and practises’ assists the solidarity to ‘one moral community called a church’ (Durkheim, 1995:44). A Church is not simply a priestly brotherhood; it is a moral community (Durkheim, 1995: xxii-xxxii). The anomaly lies in the founder of Jesus Daily, Aaron Tabor who is actually doctor and finds time to update Jesus Daily with Biblical texts (Preston, 2011: [Online]; Drescher, 2011 ). Similarly, the retweeting of Pope Francis’ tweets comes second only to Barak Obama (1954: 47).
This is evidence of a shift towards maintaining a less secular online identity which supports the functionalist vision of society for its cohesive qualities. In contrast however, radical religiosity contradicts the functionalist vision. ISIS uses YouTube to showcase its killing; Twitter to increase its presence and Facebook to radicalise and recruit young British Muslims from a distance because criminals ‘are often the result of instinctive, irresistible feelings that they often spread to the innocent object’ (Durkheim, 1893:47; Engel, 2015). While Twitter is constantly deleting ISIS accounts, ISIS is more intelligent than terrorists of the past which most definitely contradicts the functionalist vision (Engel, 2015).
In conclusion it is evident following a critical evaluation of the debates above that social media on the whole supports the functionalist view of society in maintaining to high degree the social stability of the body social. It is evident that rituals are performed constantly and values are reinforced where needed. However, other sites are more philanthropic and patronising of their working class subscribers which contradicts the functionalist vision. Social media has been beneficial to parts of the Arab world by overthrowing oppressive dictators while the social action of British youths served to redraw the moral boundaries. ISIS contradicts the functionalist vision in its aim to eradicated Christians from Iraq and Syria. Nevertheless, the social cohesion of interacting with family and friends while the rituals that religious beliefs behold do support the functionalist vision of society.
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