Functionalism, Exchange and Theoretical Strategy (RLE Social Theory)
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Functionalism, Exchange and Theoretical Strategy (RLE Social Theory)

Michael Mulkay

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eBook - ePub

Functionalism, Exchange and Theoretical Strategy (RLE Social Theory)

Michael Mulkay

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M.J. Mulkay traces the development of certain recent versions of functionalism and exchange theory in sociology, with special attention to 'theoretical strategy'. He uses this term to refer to the policies which theorists adopt to ensure that their work contributes to their long range theoretical objectives. Such strategies are important, he believes, because they place limits on the theories with which they are associated. He shows how each of the theorists he studies devised a new strategy to replace the unsuccessful policies of a prior theory in a process of 'strategical dialectic'. This often has unforeseen consequences for the direction of theoretical growth, and the author interprets changes in theoretical perspective largely as products of these strategical innovations.

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1    Introduction

This is a study of the development of certain sociological ideas. More specifically, it is an attempt to describe the recent growth of functional and exchange theory by interpreting the work of five important theorists, in chronological order, and by examining some of the intellectual connections between their theories. The study is undertaken from a definite perspective which both controls and limits the exposition of the theories and the account offered of their interrelations. For the sake of clarity, this perspective must be described briefly at the outset.
In the chapters to come a distinction is made between theoretical goal, theoretical strategy and theoretical content. By ‘theoretical goal’ is meant the long-term objective toward which a theorist is striving. The term ‘theoretical strategy’ refers to the general policies which a theorist adopts as a means of ensuring that his work makes a valuable contribution to his long-run theoretical goal. The substantive conceptions and propositions which are put forward to depict social phenomena, in accordance with a particular strategy and in pursuit of a long-term objective, constitute the content of a theory.
The theorists discussed here share a common goal. They all want to contribute to the construction of a comprehensive and scientific theory of social life. Their strategies, however, differ considerably. For example, where one theorist decides that a general sociological theory can be formulated only after extensive conceptual elaboration at a most abstract level, another approaches the problem by keeping his conceptual apparatus to a minimum, by reducing the level of abstraction, and by concentrating on explanation rather than conceptualization. Such divergent strategies, when implemented with reasonable consistency, produce theoretical schemes with quite different content. This tendency for theoretical content to be moulded by theoretical strategy provides the focus of the present study. Consequently, each theoretical opus is presented in three stages. First, the theorist’s long-term goal is specified, along with his theoretical strategy and the resultant short-run objectives. Secondly, the theoretical content is expounded as an attempt to contribute to the theoretical goal by means of the given strategy. Thirdly, the strengths and weaknesses of each body of theory and its associated strategy are assessed in relation to the ultimate theoretical objective.
It may be objected that this method of presentation oversimplifies the relationship between content and strategy in the development of theoretical schemes. For theoretical strategies are seldom worked out fully, in advance of all substantive notions. We must accept, therefore, that in many cases there is a reciprocal interplay between strategy and substantive theory. Nevertheless, we are justified in beginning the exposition of each theoretical scheme with an account of its accompanying strategy for several reasons: first, because all but the last of the theorists discussed below made an early strategical statement which guided their later work; secondly, because, whether or not strategy preceded content in time, many aspects of their work can best be understood as attempts to apply logically prior strategical decisions; and, thirdly, because many of the deficiencies of their schemes are due to the character of their theoretical strategies.
Theoretical strategies are regarded as important here, partly because they shape theoretical content and partly because they are a source of theoretical defects. A second, and related, reason for emphasizing theoretical strategy is that the five schemes to be studied are historically linked together through their strategies. Each theorist to be examined below is connected with prior theory and particularly with the work of his immediate predecessor, in a negative as well as a positive fashion. On the one hand, each theorist inevitably retains many of the substantive notions of previous theory. This is the positive link. On the other hand, each theorist uses these notions differently, owing to his choice of a strategy designed to avoid the faults of prior theory. This is the negative link. Because the method of exposition adopted here stresses the strategical component of each theory, more attention will be paid to the strategical differences between theories than to the more obvious substantive resemblances. Thus the guiding theme of subsequent chapters will be that, despite broad agreement about theoretical goals and despite considerable continuity in theoretical content, each theorist is forced to devise a new strategy as a direct response to the demonstrably unsuccessful strategies of his predecessors.
In this essay the recent growth of functionalism and exchange theory in sociology is viewed as a dialectical process. Theoretical development is regarded as being neither continuous nor, in any direct way, cumulative. Instead, it is seen as arising from a number of discrete and intermittent theoretical reorganizations, which centre upon new strategies devised as replacements for the unsuccessful policies adopted by prior theory. The main concern here is with the emergence of exchange theory as a reaction against the strategy and, consequently, much of the content of functionalism. At the same time, however, an attempt is made to show how a similar dialectical process is evident in the genesis of structural-functionalism itself and also how the dialectic operates within each ‘school’ of thought.
Although functionalism and exchange analysis can be identified as distinct sociological perspectives, neither constitutes a single coherent theoretical system. There are many varieties of functional analysis and several versions of exchange theory. In order to ensure, therefore, that the discussion is as concrete as possible I have chosen to concentrate on a small number of particular theorists, instead of trying to deal in general terms with the entire range of functional and exchange theory. Parsons is taken as the major exponent of structural-functionalism, with Merton’s work being viewed as an attempt to combine functional analysis with a strategy designed to avoid the worst defects of Parsons’ approach. Homans is treated as the main exponent of exchange theory, which he adopts in the course of a reaction against the strategies of Parsons, Merton and other functionalists. Blau’s exchange framework is regarded as an attempt to develop further Homans’ theoretical content while abandoning the confines of the latter’s strategy. These theorists have been selected because they are widely recognized as important and influential, because they exemplify a variety of theoretical strategies, and because it is among these theorists that the strategical dialectic is most evident.
The kernel of the analysis presented below consists of an examination of the development and theoretical logic of certain recent variants of functional and exchange theory, with special reference to theoretical strategy. The study begins, however, with an appraisal of the work of Pareto, who not only produced his general theory of society some fifty years ago and can hardly, therefore, be called ‘recent’, but who in addition was neither a functionalist nor a proponent of exchange theory. Nevertheless, this opening is appropriate for several reasons. To begin with, Pareto’s major treatise, although first published in 1916, made its greatest impact upon the main line of theoretical development during the 1930s—that is, just before the flowering of sociological functionalism. Pareto’s work was in fact an important factor contributing to the intellectual ferment which eventually gave structural-functionalism a central position in sociological theory. Thus any study of functionalism could justify the inclusion of Pareto’s scheme on the grounds that it introduced into sociology such concepts as ‘social system’ and ‘social equilibrium’ which became integral parts of functional analysis. In this study, however, much greater emphasis is placed upon what could be called Pareto’s negative contribution to the development of functionalism. Paretian theory is included here because functional analysis was adopted by certain influential theorists as a means of avoiding the kind of theoretical strategy used by Pareto. Because functionalism became prominent in sociology as an alternative to the type of strategy advocated by Pareto, we will understand the strategy of functional analysis better if we examine the main characteristics and deficiencies of Paretian theory. Of course, several theories other than that of Pareto could have been used in this fashion. But Pareto is the only theorist whose work has strong links, in relation to both strategy and content, with our second major concern in this study—namely, exchange theory. An examination of Pareto’s general theory of society provides, therefore, a suitable introduction to this study of the theoretical logic and development of functionalism and exchange.
Pareto believed that sociology’s immediate theoretical goal should be the construction of a rigorous ‘logico-deductive system’ capable of predicting and explaining a wide range of social events. The leading functionalists included in this essay, although sharing Pareto’s ideal, decided that it was unsuitable as a short-term theoretical objective. Early in their theoretical writings both Parsons and Merton argued, in view of the manifest inadequacies of speculations, like those of Pareto himself and of other European theorists, that sociology was clearly not yet ready for the direct formulation of general theoretical systems. They agreed that some kind of preparatory work was required. However, Parsons’ departure from the Paretian theoretical strategy was more a compromise than a total repudiation. It did involve him in a limited retreat from the ambitious attempt to construct directly an operational and large-scale explanatory system. But Parsons’ self-appointed task of preparing the way for a general theory of society by building up a comprehensive conceptual scheme was scarcely less demanding. He maintained, however, that much of the required material was already available and needed only to be combined in a systematic fashion. Furthermore, in his view completion of this task was a necessary preliminary to the successful formulation of a general sociological theory on the lines of the advanced sciences. Merton’s rejection of speculative general theory was more definite than that of Parsons, though still far from total, and led him to advocate that sociological analysis should operate primarily at the level of middle-range rather than general theory. But despite their adoption of radically different strategies in response to the failure of prior theory, both these theorists had one requirement in common—they needed a framework of ideas which would guide their theoretical preparations and which gave some promise of generating in due course a satisfactory theory of society. They both found this framework in functional analysis, which, during the 1930s, was proving highly effective in the study of biological organisms and which had been applied with some success by anthropologists to the study of simple societies. The basic assumption of functional analysis is that the systems to which it is applied have defined structures with built-in tendencies to self-maintenance; and that relationships between items within such structures can be elucidated by examining how they operate either to perpetuate the structure or to bring about its development in a predictable direction. Although both Parsons and Merton were guided by this functional principle, they used it, in accordance with their theoretical strategies, in quite distinct ways. Nevertheless, both theorists saw functionalism as the only framework capable of simplifying complex sociological data to the point where satisfactory theoretical analysis could be undertaken. Thus Pareto’s attempt to formulate a system of explanatory propositions about human society in general was replaced by a more modest concern with preparing the ground for such a theoretical system by the use of functional analysis.
During the 1940s and 1950s sociological theory, particularly in the United States, became increasingly committed to one variety or another of structural-functionalism. But in the same way that Paretian theory had been subjected to critical appraisal during the 1930s, so functionalism, after its widespread acceptance, underwent continuous scrutiny both by sociologists and by philosophers of science;1 and just as functionalism had been introduced as a way of avoiding the defects of prior work, so exchange theory emerged, in turn, as an attempt to remedy the perceived deficiencies of functionalism. Use of the notion of exchange had not been confined to critics of functionalism, but had been shared even by those most committed to the functional framework. For example, where the functional conceptual scheme was elaborated most comprehensively, as in Parsons’ work, an increasingly important role had been assigned to the concept of exchange; and, as can be seen in Merton’s analyses, where functionalism was more concerned with accounting for concrete phenomena the notion of social exchange had often been implied. But, despite this tendency for the idea of social exchange to recur in functional analyses, it necessarily remained a supplementary rather than a central concept. Functional analysis was so intricately organized around the concept of social function that its adherents necessarily failed to develop all the theoretical implications of the idea of social exchange. As a consequence, explicit exchange theory—that is, the theoretical framework which uses the notion of exchange as its central organizing principle—was eventually formulated only by those openly critical of functionalism.
Exchange theory, as seen in the work of Homans and Blau, did not, of course, involve a rejection of the whole functional framework, any more than functionalism required the total rejection of Pareto’s approach. It was, none the less, an important change of emphasis within the functional tradition and a change which reintroduced certain central features of the Paretian strategy. Homans began by challenging the basic functionalist assumption that sociology must for the time being concentrate on various kinds of theoretical preparation. Like Pareto, Homans maintained that the fundamental purpose of theoretical construction must be to provide explanations and that theories must be formulated with this goal constantly in mind. He claimed that the functionalists, having recognized certain valid difficulties facing any attempt to construct extensive explanatory schemes, had reacted unjustifiably by retreating altogether from the basic task of explaining the social world. Homans was convinced that, although functional analysis might be able to provide simplified descriptions, it could not produce those explanations which are the final justification for any theory. According to this view, functionalism had become a hindrance to the proper development of sociological theory and an alternative was required which would restore concern with the construction of an explanatory theoretical system. Once Homans had repudiated the idea that sociological analysis must at present concentrate on preparatory work within a functional framework, he found it possible to turn to that principle of exchange which had been developed extensively in psychology and which already underlay, in practice, so much sociological thinking. Using this principle, he attempted to construct a deductive system along lines broadly similar to those envisaged by Pareto.
Blau has so far made two contributions to the development of exchange theory. In the first place, he has brought together much disparate research capable of formulation in terms of social exchange. He has also attempted to extend the framework so that it covers not only such areas as social control and social differentiation, which have always been examined intensively by functionalists, but also such phenomena as power and radical social change which both Homans and the functionalists have tended to avoid. In the course of extending the conceptual scope of exchange analysis, Blau, unlike Homans, has come to include much that is indistinguishable from functionalism. Nevertheless, basic differences in theoretical perspective remain. For instance, in its concern with ‘causal explanation’ rather than ‘functional analysis’ exchange theory more closely resembles the approach adopted by Pareto. Similarly, where functionalism tends to assume the existence of complex social systems and to study how units within the system influence its stability or development, exchange analysis is concerned to show, in a way reminiscent of Pareto, how such complex structures emerge out of networks of simple transactions. Furthermore, both Pareto and the exchange theorists differ from the proponents of functional analysis in regarding psychological factors as the true ‘sociological universals’. Exchange theory, having explicitly adopted social exchange as its organizing principle in order to remedy the deficiencies of functionalism without resurrecting those of Paretian theory, has developed a distinct type of analysis which, however, combines selected facets of both its predecessors.
Perhaps the most important resemblance between Blau’s version of exchange theory and functional analysis is its theoretical strategy. For Blau abandons Homans’ attempt to construct a systematic deductive system and reverts to the Parsonian strategy of preparing the way for a genuine theory of society. But Blau’s use of this strategy is no more successful than that of Parsons. Indeed, I shall argue that none of the strategies examined in this study give clear evidence of theoretical improvement and that, consequently, the search for the correct strategy continues. In the last chapter, therefore, I shall examine the various approaches used by the theorists included in this study as the basis for a discussion of the proper strategy for sociological theory.
Before proceeding with the analysis, certain of its limitations should be mentioned. In the first place, although the theories to be discussed are presented in temporal sequence, my main concern is to show how each strategy produces a particular theoretical scheme with specific defects and also how each scheme and its defects provide a point of departure for subsequent theoretical development. Consequently, no attempt is made to specify all the intellectual sources from which the theorists under study have drawn their ideas. Secondly, although the approach adopted is necessarily critical, viewing as it does each theory as a response to the deficiencies of prior theory, no attempt is made to offer ‘complete’ assessments. Instead, attention is focused on those inadequacies closely associated with each theorist’s strategy and directly relevant to the reaction of his successors. Finally, it is not argued that all theoretical development in sociology takes a dialectical form. No attempt is made to investigate the wider relevance of the thesis put forward here solely in relation to the development of specific theories of functionalism and exchange.

2 A general theory of society: Pareto


Human societies are studied by a wide variety of disciplines, most of which attend in detail to a limited range of social phenomena. In Pareto’s view, sociology differs from these specialized disciplines in being concerned with all societies in their entirety. Thus the central task of sociology is to compile a broad synthesis of knowledge about human society. Pareto does not expect all sociologists to be directly and continuously involved in constructing this synthesis. But his own predilection lies in this direction and, as a result, he takes as his goal the formulation of a comprehensive or general theory of socie...

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