‘How do social media sites support or contradict a functionalist vision of society?’

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Introduction

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.

Functionalism

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 [1997]: 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,

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