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Herbert Spencer’s functionalism Perrin, Robert George

Abstract

The aim of the study is to make a contribution to the empirical history of sociology by supplementing and revising the current critical literature on Herbert Spencer. It is contended that Spencer's sociology can be interpreted as a thoroughgoing functionalism. It is shown that this is not generally recognised, and, where recognised at all, not systematically demonstrated. The essay, then, provides an original and systematic analysis of Spencer's sociology as functionalism and, in so doing, corrects much of the current critical literature on Spencer. The main argument, which is developed throughout the study, is that Spencer's sociology can be characterised by the following elements: (1) a holistic orientation; (2) an assumption of multiple and reciprocal causation; (3) an application of an equilibrium model in respect of the problems of social order and social change; (4) an assumption and identification of functional requirements common to all societies; (5) an hypothesis that total societies tend to differentiate into subsystems corresponding to these requirements; (6) an identification of types of societies and a corresponding structural- functional requisite analysis; (7) an interpretation of sociocultural traits in their contexts and by their functions; (8) the use of the functionalist explanatory form, where consequences are part of the causal elements; and (9) a view that, at bottom, societies hold together by common beliefs, traditions, and values. These general tenets or ideas, it is pointed out, can be found as important elements in the current functionalist literature, and an important future study would be one which provides a genetic history of functionalism, from Spencer to modern exponents. In the main body, it is initially argued that Spencer's basic approach to social phenomena consists in a synthesis of social structuralism and culture-and-personality, and of a methodological individualism and collectivism (in respect of the essential focus of determinacy in social origins). It is next argued that Spencer's cardinal interests lay in determining what is common to all societies, and what is common to societies of a type or species (e.g. militant oroindustrial; simple or complex). A detailed analysis is provided of Spencer's view of the most fundamental structure of all societies (regulative, sustaining, distributive subsystems); how the component parts correspond to functional requirements (procreation, production, distribution, communication, control, socialisation); and how societies are thought to differentiate into functional subsystems. Spencer's principal social types are also scrutinised from the point of view of functional requirements, structures, and functions. In all cases, Spencer is shown to have practised functional analysis. It is next demonstrated that an equilibrium model is basic to Spencer's view of social order and change. Societies tend towards equilibrium; both internally, and with respect to the external environment. Major social changes entail external or upsetting forces. Social evolution, as a type of change, is discussed from an equilibrium perspective. Throughout the general argument of the main body, current critical opinion is noted and generally rejected or modified. Finally, an analysis of the teleological implications of Spencer's sociology is provided. It is concluded that, for Spencer, ends-in-view often accidentally or unintentionally produce phenomena with important social functions (as with the division of labour in complex societies, which latently aids social cohesion), but, in other cases, the sheer fact of pluralistic existence itself underlies the unconscious or unplanned nascence of social beliefs and practices which, as ends-of-action, latently help to maintain social cohesion. The general conclusion is that Spencer was in fact a thoroughgoing functionalist. Any critical understanding of him or his potential relevancy for to-day, presupposes a corrected account of his sociology. The study hopes to supply that account.

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