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Homelessness: A Functionalists Perspective

This essay will be considering homelessness in Australia as a social

problem from the sociological perspective of a functionalist.

In order to

successfully explore homelessness from a functionalists perspective there are

several understandings that must be reached: firstly, what constitutes a social
problem; secondly, how homelessness is defined and recorded in Australia;
thirdly, how the functionalists sociological perspective works, and; finally, how
the functionalists perspective is appropriate by applying it in explaining
homelessness as a social problem.
A social problem, as explained by Mooney, Knox and Schacht (2014), is a
condition in a particular society at a particular time that affects a large enough
segment of society that it is perceived to be harmful to that society and is in
need of a solution. In order to understand what is and is not a social problem in
a society, both the social structure and the culture of the society must be
understood. The structure and culture of a society are unique to the particular
society being referred to, and whilst there are similarities between societies, no
two societies are identical.

Social problems refer to a particular society at a

particular time due to the structure and culture of society changing as time
passes and each society is different in their societal norms, values and morals so
what may be a social problem in Germany, for example, might not be a problem
in Australia. Not only does the era affect what does and does not constitute a
social problem, but geographic location also plays a role in what is and is not the
norm or socially acceptable within a society for example, in Japanese society it
is the norm to wear a surgical mask when ill, whereas that is not the norm in
Australia. Homelessness is an example of a social problem within the Australian
Chamberlain and MacKenzie (1992) provided the definition currently
accepted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) which is used in its studies
and research. The definition by Chamberlain and MacKenzie (1992) is historically
and culturally derived from the meaning of home; a person living in a substandard or borderline substandard arrangement for the societal norms, is living
with no sense of security in the length of their tenure in one room without a
bathroom and kitchen of their own, or is moving between various temporary
spaces (e.g. hostels, friends houses) or is without living arrangements that are
normal for the society (e.g. street living, under a bridge) is termed homeless.
In Australia, the norm is living in self-contained units or suburban houses

(Chamberlain and MacKenzie, 1992). Using this definition, the ABS completed its
most recent census in 2011. The ABS 2011 census recorded 105,237 people
Australia wide as homeless which equates to a rate of 49 per 10,000; this
demonstrates an 8% increase since 2006 (45 per 10,000) which suggests that
the problem is growing. Homelessness presents a number of implications which
make it harmful to the individual and society; one significant implication for the
individual is their increased susceptibility to chronically ill health whilst one
significant social implication is that over $27,000 per annum is spent on those
rough sleeping by the community (Homelessness Australia, 2013). The most
prevalent causes are domestic violence (25%) and financial difficulties (15%)
(Homelessness Australia, 2013).

The Australian government, by carrying out

censuses on population and housing, demonstrates that homelessness is

perceived to be a social problem and the Council of Australian Governments
(COAG) housing and homelessness webpage states that homelessness is a
pressing issue; a targeted initiative by COAG was to create over 600 new
dwellings for the homeless between 2009 and 2013 (COAG, nd). These factors
clearly demonstrate that homelessness is perceived as a social problem in
Australia as it affects a significant segment of society negatively; has been
recognised as a social problem by the Australian government, and; the Australian
government is seeking viable solutions.
One of the three fundamental sociological schools of thought is
functionalism, otherwise known as structural functionalism or the functionalist
perspective and works on the basis of consensus and cohesion within a society.
It is this theory that will be applied to homelessness in the course of this essay.
The works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert
Merton are the crux of this school of thought. Mooney, Knox and Schacht (2015)
explain that this theory provides a macro (big picture) view of a society which is
seen as a system built on interrelated, co-dependant systems (referred to as
institutions) that influence one another and, in turn, are influenced to maintain a
steady social equilibrium based on consensus within a society. These institutions
are considered to be not dissimilar to puzzle pieces that fit together to create a
bigger picture which, in this case, is society. It is often compared to the human
body with all of its systems working effectively and concurrently to ensure the
smooth functioning of the body in order to maintain homeostasis.

Some parts

that positively affect and contribute to this social equilibrium are known as
functional elements, whilst others that negatively affect and disrupt the balance

are known as dysfunctional elements; some of these elements can be both

functional and dysfunctional. Crime is an example of how an element is both
functional and dysfunctional it is dysfunctional because criminal behaviour is
counter to socially accepted behaviours but is functional due to its reinforcement
of societal norms, values and morals which increases social cohesion and

The functions can be subdivided further into manifest and latent

functions intended and unintended outcomes, respectively. For example, within

the family institution, reproduction and learning to cohabitate are manifest and
latent functions, respectively; within the institution of education the main
manifest function is to obtain an education with one of its latent functions being
to learn socially acceptable behaviours.

There are two major models used to

apply functionalism to social problems; the social disorganisation model and the
social pathology model. The former, conceptualised by Shaw and McKay in 1929
and furthered in the 1980s by Byrne and Sampson, states that rapid societal
changes lead to weakened or conflicting norms and as a result there is a state of
normlessness (anomie) as society reorganises and restructures itself based on
the reconfigured norms (Bursik, 1988).

The latter, conceptualised by Auguste

Comte in the late 19 th century, sees society as analogous to the human body
with social problems occurring as a result of illness in one or more of the
systems due to an institutional break-down (Levine, 1995). In addition to these
models, there is an extension of the social pathology model involving a person
being inadequately socialised, thus unable to contribute to the functioning of the
institutions to which they are related.
To explain homelessness as a social problem, the social pathology model









Homelessness Australia (2013) identified domestic abuse as the leading cause of

homelessness, accounting for 25% of homelessness, so this is the example that
will be used to illustrate that dysfunction in one or more institutions causes
homelessness for some.

Domestic abuse is symptomatic of a dysfunctional

family institution wherein the roles of the individuals in the institution are not
being fulfilled, for example, adult males in the family institution have the role of
protector and adult females have the role of caregivers.

As the result of an

individual not performing their role within the institution, the institution itself
becomes dysfunctional and will likely suffer a breakdown. This breakdown leads
to the abused party living in a precarious arrangement that is in agreement with
Chamberlain and MacKenzies (1992) definition of homelessness under the

clauses that there is no guarantee of how long the abused party can stay and
that they may be living in temporary accommodations; in the worst case
scenario wherein the abuser has alienated the abused party from their support
networks, the abused party may live on the streets or enter an emergency

Domestic abuse itself is indicative of dysfunctions in the education

institution within the manifest function of educating children and the latent
function of children learning how to interact in a socially acceptable manner.
This can be attributed to governmental dysfunction, in poor policy making
regarding what is included in the national education standards and curricula, and
the subsequent failure of the education institution to implement curricula that
acts as a strong guiding hand for the students under that curriculum. All of this
can also link to inadequate socialisation during the childhood years, again with a
dysfunctional family institution which the child perceives as normal that leads
the child to behave in a socially unacceptable manner whilst in the education
institution, resulting in social isolation and exclusion.

As a result of this

exclusion, the child will not learn how to function as a productive member of
society once their tenure in the education institution has culminated. They will
be unable to obtain work or will not be able to maintain a job over a period of
time which leads them into a state of homelessness due to their inability to earn
a wage thereby causing them to rely on temporary accommodations or live in
circumstances counter to Australian societal housing norms, such as taking up
residence under a bridge or in an abandoned building.
As evidenced, a social problem affects a particular society at a particular
time and must be perceived as a problem that affects a large enough sample of
the population that needs to be resolved.

These criteria are met by

homelessness in Australia in its rate of 49 per 10,000 living in a state of

homelessness which is defined using the culturally and historically built meaning
of the word home by Chamberlain and MacKay (1992). Homelessness has been
acknowledged as a social problem by the government, evidenced by their
implementation of initiatives to alleviate the condition and the ABS censuses
and research into it. It can also be viewed accurately through the functionalists
social pathology model as being caused by dysfunctions within one or more
institution and inadequate socialisation.

Australian Bureau of Statistics. (2012, November 12). Census of Population and
Housing: Estimating Homelessness, 2011. Retrieved from Australian
Bureau of Statistics: http://www.abs.gov.au/
Bursik, R. (1988). Social Disorganization and Theories of Crime and Delinquency:
Problems and Prospects. Criminology, 26 (4) pp. 519-551.
Chamberlain, C., MacKay D. (1992). Understanding Contemporary Homelessness:
Issues fo Definition and Meaning. Australian Journal of Social Issues, 27 (4)
pp. 274-297.
Council of Australian Governments. (nd). Housing and Homelessness Reform
Agenda. Retrieved from Council of Australian Governments:
Homelessness Australia. (2013, April). Factsheet: Homelessness in Australia.
Retrieved from Homelessness Australia:
Levine, D. (1995). The organism metaphor in sociology. Social Research, 62 (2)
pp. 293.
Mooney, L., Knox, D., & Schacht, C. (2015). Understanding Social Problems.
Connecticut, USA: Cengage Learning. pp. 2-4; 8-9.