The Antidote to Critical Theory: Consensus Theory and Empiricism
Today, I want to talk about the conflict problem critical theory is creating, and the natural antidote to that problem. As you would probably have heard of by now, various social justice movements that draw heavily on various critical theories, including most famously critical race theory and gender critical theory, have caused a heightened sense of conflict across Western society in recent years, leading to an increase in zero-sum us vs them thinking. Many of us believe this is a negative development, and are trying to counter it. However, as I have described in the past, many people are essentially taking a ‘fight negativity with negativity’ approach, criticizing criticalism without offering much of an alternative positive solution, and that doesn’t appear to be working.
To see what works, I think we should look at, what could be the opposite of criticalism. The various critical theories are grouped under the umbrella of ‘conflict theory’ in Western academic sociology. The opposite of ‘conflict theory’ is called ‘consensus theory’. So there you have it: consensus theory is literally the opposite of criticalism. While conflict theory has dominated Western academic sociology in the past few decades, consensus theory was in fact the more dominant force before the 1960s. I think it’s time we revived the practice of consensus theory. I don’t mean to say that conflict theory has nothing to offer us. But what we have in Western sociology right now is a heavy imbalance, a very heavy tilt towards conflict theory, and this is making society sick. To cure society, we need to restore the balance. Conflict theory criticizes the current state of society, while consensus theory examines why things work when they work well, and what makes them work well. Conflict theory is good at finding fault, while consensus theory is good at appreciation. I certainly think the 21st century West could do well with a bit less finding fault and a bit more appreciation.
There are many forms of consensus theory, but the most famous and influential school of consensus theory has to be Talcott Parsons’s functionalism. Indeed, back in the post-war era, sociology and Parsonian functionalism were almost synonymous. Parsonian functionalism examines society using a functional lens. It is based on the idea that society needs to fulfill certain functions, namely adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and pattern maintenance. Parsons showed how institutions like families were important systems that allow society to fulfill these functions. Although Parson’s analysis of the family was criticized for being too focused on the typical middle class nuclear family, I think we can apply a similar analysis to the diverse family types we have today, and still come away with a similar conclusion about the importance of the family to society. The thing I like most about functionalism is how it understands that every society needs to fulfill certain functions, how complex systems are required to make it all work, and how important it is to appreciate things when they work well.
So why did functionalism cease to be influential? Part of it was a deliberate attempt by those with certain political agenda to discredit it. Part of it was that Parsons’s ideas were perhaps too America-centric, and also too centered on 1950s middle class America. This needs to be addressed, and can certainly be addressed. However, perhaps the most important criticism was that it was not empirical enough. That is, it was not evidence-based enough, it was not rooted enough in the reality of society, and the real lived experiences of people. As someone with a science-related background, I certainly believe that everything has to be evidence-based to be valid. As I’ve said before, just like how we expect doctors to practice evidence-based medicine, we should demand that those in disciplines that aim to influence our social sphere, disciplines like sociology and philosophy, be as evidence-based as possible. And I believe we can certainly fix functionalism and update it for our current context with a good dose of empiricism.
There has also been a movement called neofunctionalism that aims to revive the framework of functionalism whilst fixing its faults. However, I have mixed feelings about neofunctionalism because it aims too far to incorporate other schools of thought, including conflict theory, which ultimately helps the tilt towards conflict theory. Instead, I believe we should keep functionalism firmly rooted in consensus theory, so that it can provide a contrast to conflict theory. I believe that conflict is certainly not the only way to change our society to be more just and humane. Having a good appreciation of how things work when they work well, also gives an insight as to what is needed to build good families and societies, and we can demand that these ingredients be available to everyone, regardless of their race or socio-economic class.
TaraElla is a singer-songwriter and author, who recently published her autobiography The TaraElla Story, in which she described the events that inspired her writing.
She is also the author of the Moral Libertarian Horizon books, which argue that liberalism is still the most moral and effective value system for Western democracies in the 21st century.