The essay will critically analyse theoretical accounts of society, in particular how useful they are in understanding how death is viewed socially in the West. It will be argued that all different theoretical models of society can be useful, but that the model ‘society as an organism’, which emphasises symbolic interactionism, is often more useful than structural functionalism on its own. My analysis will start with a look a critique of structural functionalism, using Durkheim’s analysis of suicide (1953) as an example. I then look at ‘society as an organism’ in the thought of Rousseau (1913), before turning to consider these models specifically in relation to the problem of death. I discuss our Western fear of death, and suggest, drawing on Eagleton (2003), that any solution must involve facing this fear on a social level.
There are sociological theories in which society is conceived of as a total structure made of functioning parts: this is structural functionalism. Rigney (2001: 17) describes structural functionalism as follows: “society is a system of independent parts working together to produce a vital functioning whole”. For example, as there are many roles played in society, good and bad, it can be likened to a theatre, in which our life is one big stage with many different parts being and acted out (Goffman, 1969). Yet it could be argued that this approach is too simplistic because it does not take into account when people and events go outside the norms and values of society, for example in crime and disorder. In short, we might say structural functionalism cannot explain where structure is ‘dysfunctional’. It may highlight dysfunction and disorder, but it does not easily account for them. To make an example of this, we can look at Durkheim’s structural functionalist analysis of the problem of suicide, where he describes suicide in rational, structural and functional terms, but not the irrational which must also be a factor in at least many if not most suicides.
First, Durkheim emphasises the rationality within suicide (1952 : xlii):
“The common quality of all these possible forms of supreme renunciation is that the determining act is performed advisedly; that at the moment of acting the victim knows the certain result of his conduct, no matter what reason may have led him to act thus.”
Second, Durkheim recognizes, through statistics, how the rise of suicide correlated with changes in social structure: “statistics……prove that the structural characteristics of society have simultaneously suffered profound changes. It is interesting to note that they do not take place with the extreme slowness that quite a large number of observers has attributed to them, but are both abrupt and progressive” (1952: xlv). In other words, sudden social structural changes cause a change in rationality, which is functional – the subject decides rationality that suicide is preferable. However, as stated in our earlier criticism, while Durkheim offers...