Neofunctionalism: New Addition in Functionalism or against it?

What is Neofunctionalism?

Neofunctionalism is a recent theoretical development that emerged in the mid-1980s, both in the United States and in Germany. In 1984, the American Sociological Association devoted two sessions to a conference on neofunctionalism at its annual meeting, where most of the papers presented were reappraisals and reconsiderations of the empirical implications of Parsonian theory.

These papers were subsequently edited by Jeffrey C. Alexander, the leading proponent of neofunctionalism in the United States. In the introduction to Neofunctionalism, he suggests three similarities between neofunctionalism and neo-Marxism. Both include a critique of some of the basic tenets of the original theory, the incorporation of elements from antagonistic theoretical traditions, and a variety of competing developments, rather than a single coherent form. Alexander then argues that neofunctionalism is a tendency rather than a developed theory, and he elaborates on the various tendencies of neofunctionalism:

(1) to create a form of functionalism that is multidimensional and includes micro as well as macro levels of analysis;

(2) to push functionalism to the left and reject Parsons’ optimism about modernity;

(3) to argue for an implicit democratic thrust in functional analysis;

(4) to incorporate a conflict orientation; and

(5) to emphasize contingency (uncertainty) and interactional creativity

What remains at issue among neofunctionalists, however, are the following kinds of interrelated problems: How may researchers best characterize the relationship between conflict or contingency and social order? To what extent must Parsons’ emphasis upon the relationship between social action and social order be reformulated in order to inform empirical research?

Alexander refuses to predict whether a “school” of neofunctionalism will actually emerge. Nonetheless, he views the movement to reappropriate Parsons as gaining momentum, and he is of the opinion that a critically revived Parsonian tradition should continue. Current contributors to neofunctionalism, in addition to Alexander, include Dean Gerstein, Mark Gould, Paul Colomy, Frank Lechner, and David Sciulli in the United States and Niklas Luhmann and Richard Munch in Germany. The American reconsideration of Parsons will stand or fall, however, on the quality and quantity of empirical research informed by neofunctionalism in the next decade.

Recently, Alexander proclaimed that the anti-Parsonian period is over, because the battle was won in 1980. Why did the anti-Parsonians win? He replies that the “challengers” (e.g., conflict, exchange, interaction, ethnomethodology, and Marxist theory) picked on significant issues, pointed up weaknesses in Parsons’ theory, and thus eclipsed functionalism.

Alexander’s view is that today we are in a new post-Parsonian phase of sociological theorizing-a synthesizing movement-which is attempting to make the link between macrosociological and microsociological theories. Alexander states that among the theorists of this new generation involved in the synthesizing movement, “some pay a great deal of attention to Parsons, others do not. Still, theirs is exactly the same course that long ago Parsons set for himself: to end the ‘warring schools’ by developing a synthetic theory which incorporates the partial theories of the day.”152 German theorists, on the other hand, tend to read Parsons through the eyes of Niklas Luhmann, who spent a year in the early 1960s at Harvard studying under Parsons. Luhmann views Parsons’ theory as a milestone because it “has been the only attempt to begin with a number of equally important functions and then to give a theoretical deduction to them. . . . No one else has dared to try this or even thought it was possible.” However, what Parsons’ theory is missing, according to Luhmann, are the concepts of self-reference and complexity. His own work is an attempt to formulate a universal or “grand” theory of social systems which incorporates these concepts. Luhmann argues that a social system exists “whenever the actions of several persons are meaningful, interrelated and are thus . . . marked off from an environment.” A social system thus emerges whenever any interaction takes place among individuals. According to Luhmann, there are three types of social systems: interaction systems (face-to-face interaction of human beings), organization systems (where membership is linked to specific conditions), and societal systems (the all-embracing social system, entire societies).

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