Social function of religion in Krakow II: Function

Posted on October 15, 2014


Talk of the social function of religion obviously harks back to the work of functionalist sociologists. Given that I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert in sociology, I have sought to learn a little about structuralist functionalism in order to understand the basic position advanced by that group of scientists and the problems that led to the approach being largely rejected in the 1960s. Even so, my paper on the Social function of religion in the light of contemporary evolutionary theory will have relatively little to directly say about the history of sociology. I am far more interested in the tools modern approaches can bring to bear upon attempts to understand religion. So, the basic idea is to discuss what evolutionary theory can do for functionalist sociological explanations, with a focus on examples from religion. The points I raise here are, in fitting with the nature of blogs, preliminary in nature.

The first aspect I wish to discuss in the paper is the basic notion of functionality. The traditional functionalist picture, in so far as I understand it, is that various social institutions have the function of maintaining the stability and cohesiveness of the society. The basic idea of a social function comes from this picture. Also, out of this picture come two of the main problems that traditional structuralist functionalism bumped up against. The first problem was whether all social institutions had this function and, if not, how to talk and think about the other social institutions. While I get the impression that functionalists were in general willing to acknowledge that not all social institutions contributed to social cohesion, most of them seemed to lack the language to talk about institutions that failed to do so. Robert Merton tried to deal with this issue by considering disfunction but the examples I have seen discussed suggest that he lacked clarity regarding the level of phenomenon this analysis should be applied to. The second problem was that the concept of function that the functionalists worked with was ahistorical – something was functional if it helped to maintain society at this point in time. This, along with other considerations, meant that the functionalist were not well placed to understand the historical development of societies – a major issue for structuralist functionalism.

Current work connected to evolutionary theory provides conceptual tools that help to deal with both these problems. The guide here for me is Marcin Milkowski‘s excellent article “Function and causal relevance of content”, which is forthcoming in an issue of New Ideas in Psychology that Marcin and I are co-editing. While Marcin’s analysis deals with the functionality of mental states, much of it carries across to other kinds of functionality, in particular to social function. So, I will make use of it! Marcin starts from the distinction between systemic and etiological accounts of function, a distinction which is most relevant to our discussion.

Systemic function, in its simplest version, is basically whatever a particular system or its parts is capable of. As such it is a very broad notion that includes many things that we would not normally deem functional. For example, a function of coffee is to leave stains on white business shirts. Of course, it is possible to invent a scenario in which that becomes functional but normally we would not consider that property of coffee to be a function. Functions are normally considered to be a subset of the set of capabilities rather than being deemed identical to it. A modification of the systemic account that largely avoids this problem has been put forward by Mark Bickhard among others. Concentrating upon biological function, Bickhard states that something serves a particular function in so far as it contributes to maintaining the ongoing cohesion of a living system, which Bickhard considers as a far-from-equilibrium stable dynamical system. Thus, the heart serves the function of pumping blood as that helps to keep the cells in the body oxygenated but does not serve the function of making a beating sound, since getting oxygen to the cells is vital to staying alive, while the noise is coincidental. This concept of function is usefully close to the one that was used by structural functionalists, i.e. that the function of a social institution is whatever it does to contribute to the ongoing stability of a social system. The important difference lies in the rich context of biological theory that Bickhard’s account draws upon and which, by proxy, it makes available to social function – theory that will make it possible to deal with the problems structuralist functionalism ran into.

The other kind of function Milkowski discusses is etiological function, put forward by Ruth Millikan and others. Simplifying somewhat and only considering biological systems, function on this account is whatever a particular organ did in previous generations that made it possible for the current generation with that organ to exist. So, if we consider the heart on this account, it still turns out to have the function of pumping blood because it is due to this capacity that previous generations could stay alive to have descendants. We should note that the etiological account is clearly historical. In the context of our discussion this is particularly significant given that the lack of a historical aspect was one of the problems outlined above.

Importantly, the two accounts of function do come apart in certain circumstances. On the etiological account, in the case of the first generation that has a particular organ, that organ can not be functional even if it is vital to that generation’s survival. Without the history, the heart has no function on the etiological account. Analogously, the heart loses functionality on Bickhard’s account when it is removed from the body. While that difference could be seen as a shortcoming of each of the accounts, Milkowski does something much more interesting with it by arguing that it is not a matter of either/or. Reaching back to Mayr’s distinction between proximate and ultimate causes as well as Tinbergen’s list of four kinds of questions (re: causation, ontogeny, adaptive value and phylogeny) that can be asked about biological traits, Milkowski argues that the different kinds of account of function are actually mutually complementary and, depending upon the actual circumstances, one or the other can be more relevant in a particular instance.

We can now turn back to the two problems for talking about social function that we raised earlier. Obviously, the etiological account of function provides us with the conceptual tools to consider the history of the functionality of any particular social institution. Taking the example of religion, the kinds of answers to Tinbergen-style questions that one can offer in that case will determine what aspects of functionality will be the most relevant. In my book, I argued that in modern western societies religion has become an ancestral trait. So, on the systemic function account, religion is not functional in these societies. However, the reason why it is present in those societies has much to do with the functional role it did play till secular social welfare institutions rendered it unnecessary. In other words, on the etiological account, religion has indeed played the kind of social function the structuralist functionalists typically thought it did. And, in the case of societies which lack a means of ensuring the security of their members, it still does. In effect, both the problems are dealt with simultaneously by reconsidering the issues in a rich enough theoretical context. Institutions that are not socially functional can be ancestral traits, they can be by-products, they can be the result of cultural drift or indeed a whole range of other possibilities, each of which lead to specific empirical and theoretical consequences. Social function can also be considered not merely in terms of what an institution achieves currently but also in terms of what it has historically done that lead to it being present now.

A final important point needs to be raised. The version of the etiological account I have considered talks about the function of social institutions in terms of (cultural) adaptive function. However, it is also possible to consider social function as an example of the function of artefacts – the relevant account of function having been developed by Ulrich Krohs. Which of the two approaches is the more useful is an interesting question that, I suspect, will have a similarly case-by-case answer to the question Milkowski considers.

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