The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology: Functionalist Co-optation

“In the United States the sociological study of gender originated in functionalist family sociology and has been deeply shaped by the concepts developed by Talcott Parsons. […] Early on, contemporary feminists recognized the influence and limitations of functionalism as a framework for understanding gender. Several of the founding works of the contemporary women’s movement criticized Parsons for what Betty Friedan (1963) called “the functionalist freeze,” which tacitly legitimized women’s subordination and their encapsulation within the family. Feminist sociologists have cleared away many of Parsons’ blind spots by attending to gender in work and politics, as well as in families, and by emphasizing gender hierarchies. Yet functionalism has continued to exert a significant and, we believe, inhibiting effect on the development of feminist sociology.

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)

Much of feminist sociology is cast in the language of roles (“sex roles,” “the male role,” “the female role”) and emphasizes the process of “sex role socialization.” This approach to the analysis of gender retains its functionalist roots, emphasizing consensus, stability, and continuity (Thome, 1978). The notion of “role” focuses attention more on individuals than on social structure, and implies that “the female role” and “the male role” are complementary (i.e., separate or different but equal). The terms are depoliticizing; they strip experience from its historical and political context and neglect questions of power and conflict. It is significant that sociologists do not speak of “class roles” or “race roles.” Functionalist assumptions linger more deeply in sociological conceptualizations of gender than of other forms of inequality. These functionalist assumptions have posed significant obstacles to feminist rethinking of basic orienting assumptions within sociology.”

Excerpt from Stacey, Judith and Barrie Thorne. 1985. “The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology. Social Problems 32(4): 301–316. From the section “Functionalist Co-optation,” p. 307. Emphasis added. References in original (see below).

Friedan, Betty. 1963. The Feminine Mystique. New York: Norton.

Thorne, Barrie. 1978. “Gender.. how is it best conceptualized?” Unpublished paper given at annual meetings of the American Sociological Association.

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