Consensus Theory: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published March 25, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • A consensus theory is one which believes that the institutions of society are working together to maintain social cohesion and stability. Value consensus assumes that the norms and values of society are generally agreed and that social life is based on co-operation rather than conflict.
  • Consensus theories have a philosophical tradition dating back to Plato and Rousseau, who argued for structures that maintain the consensus of society. The first formal sociological consensus theory, however, is Emille Durkheim's Functionalism, which argues that all institutions within a society serve an essential purpose.
  • Others, such as Merton, elaborated on Durkheim's functionalist theory, adding that institutions can also be dysfunctional. Nonetheless, these theories are still consensus theories.
  • More recently, consensus theories have been extended into pluralism and the "new right." Pluralism argues that different groups, or subcultures, within society can have differing norms and values, but there are at least some overriding, shared societal norms.
  • Meanwhile, the new right emphasizes how the breakdown of social institutions can harm society through the dismantling of value consensus. Criminologists also commonly use consensus theories. One notable example of a criminological consensus theory is strain theory.

Definition

The term consensus means agreement. It is used in sociology to describe theories which stress the essential cohesion and solidarity of society, where the core principle of social life is agreement, or the mutual cooperation of the members of a society. 

These theories see common experiences, interests, and values as the defining characteristic of a population or a society. For example, a consensus theorist may study sports as a source of binding people together in a shared experience, or the role that education plays in instilling shared norms and values.

There is usually a legitimate authority involves in policing the consensus, which also guarantees that societies tend to persist.

Consensus theory is often contrasted with conflict theory. This perspective was first developed and popularized by the Harvard University sociologist Talcott Parsons (1939, 1951) who believed that the equilibrium of social systems and the integration of various elements within them were the foundations of social systems.

Consensus theories often serve as a sociological argument for the furtherance and preservation of the status quo. In the view of consensus theories, rules are set and inherently functional; whoever does not respect them is by default deviant. 

Examples of Consensus Theories

A consensus approach refers to sociological theories that argue that some overriding consensus as to the norms and values of a society is essential for its function.

According to consensus theories, these agreed-upon norms and values are inherently functional and beneficial This means that, when someone in society counters these norms and values, they are behaving delinquently.

Consensus-like theories have a philosophical tradition dating back to Plato and Rousseau, who argued for structures that maintain the consensus of society. The first formal sociological consensus theory, however, is Emille Durkheim's Functionalism, which argues that all institutions within a society serve an essential purpose.

Others, such as Merton (1957), elaborated on Durkheim's functionalist theory, adding that institutions can also be dysfunctional. Nonetheless, these theories are still consensus theories. 

More recently, consensus theories have been extended into pluralism and the "new right." Pluralism argues that different groups, or subcultures, within society can have different norms and values, but there are at least some overriding, shared societal norms.

Meanwhile, the new right emphasizes how the breakdown of social institutions can harm society through the dismantling of value consensus

Criminologists also commonly use consensus theories. One notable example of a criminological consensus theory is strain theory

Durkheim’s Functionalism

Durkheim (1893, 1897) was a functionalist. This means that Durkheim saw each part and institution in society as functional, or essential for the survival of the society. A common metaphor for how Durkheim thought of society is that of an organism.

Each, or at least most, of the organs within the organism serves some vital function. Durkheim's functionalism shares a lineage with philosophers such as Auguste Comte, who decided to apply the logic and methods of science to the study of human societies. 

For functionalists like Durkheim, social order is maintained by cooperation and unity amongst the individual members of a society (Milton, 2007). Durkheim called this consensus the "collective consciousness" — a collective way of thinking and acting.

Parsons (1939, 1951) would later elaborate on this collective consciousness, coining the term "value consensus" to describe the need for societies to have a common set of beliefs and principles to work with and towards. This view is why Functionalism is considered to be a consensus theory.

Durkheim believed that behavior is constrained by a system of structures and so-called "social facts." These social facts are things within society that have an existence outside of any one individual, thus exerting power over the individual and compelling them to act according to the social expectations of society.

These social facts can include institutions, belief structures, customs, conventions, morals, rules, norms, values, and so on. These social facts may exist outside of the individual, but they become internalized through the process of socialization (Milton, 2007). 

At the core of the concept of social facts is the idea of value consensus that underwrites consensus theories. 

The term value consensus refers to the extent to which individuals within some social structure share the same values (Schwartz & Sagie, 2000). In Durkheim's view, a society functions well when there is an agreement among the people within it about the structure of beliefs in a society. 

Functionalists argue that the consensus of values within society is made possible due to socialization. Here, socialization is the process by which individuals learn the norms and values of their own, or a given, culture. A family, for example, is a socializing unit. 

The Family, in the functionalist view, is vital for socializing individual family members as well as society as a whole. 

Merton, Pluralism, and the "New Right"

Robert Merton, another functionalist sociologist, disagreed with some of the arguments made by Durkheim, and later Parsons. In short, Merton (1958, 1957) believed that institutions, in addition to providing positive influences on society, can yield harm. 

For example, while a prison could rehabilitate an offender back to the "value consensus,"  they could also carry a stigma that prevents an offender from rehabilitating and thus contribute to them committing further crimes. 

Merton's active critique of Durkheim and Parsons' consensus theories allowed him to examine whether existing institutions could be replaced by more functional ones that could perform the same functions more efficiently (Milton, 2007). 

Merton's ideas are vital to consensus theory because they influenced two new perspectives within sociology — Pluralism and the so-called "New Right." 

Pluralism accepts the argument that not everyone abides by the same norms and values within society as a whole. Pluralists argue that there are many different groups, or subcultures, within society that have their own norms and values. Working-class teenage boys, for example, may have an entirely different set of values than their highly-educated adult teachers.

Although Pluralism does concede that the values and norms of subcultures can be radically different from one societal sector to the next, pluralism is nonetheless a consensus theory. 

Pluralism can be considered to be a consensus theory because it is argued that there are, despite subcultural differences, overriding essential moral frameworks and boundaries that encompass all of the groups within society. 

For example, a pluralist may argue that the American Dream — the belief that hard work and individual merit will pay off in the long term in the form of heightened socioeconomic status — overrides and is shared in-common by all American subcultures. 

These consensus beliefs can be less abstract — all – or all but the fringe groups within a society — may swear allegiance to or accept the power of a president or prime minister (Milton, 2007).

Pluralism is a view that is very influential in the "New Left'' school of political and sociological theorists, who may want to portray every culture in society as part of the larger whole of a functional nation. This makes pluralism quite similar to functionalism, which sees societal institutions and subcultures contributing positively to society in consensus. 

In contrast, another political theory that has emerged is that of the "New Right," which tends to concentrate on the negative dysfunctions of institutions.

Although those in the "New Right'' believe in individual responsibility in the degradation of these institutions, they believe, like functionalists, that a strong community where there is consensus regarding norms and values can help build a functional society.

All in all, despite differences in who exactly employs "New Left" and "New Right" political and sociological theories, both schools fall under consensus theories, as they all agree on some basic need for value consensus within society for it to function properly (Milton, 2007). 

Consensus vs. Conflict Theory

Conflict theory, first developed by Karl Marx, poses that society is in a perpetual struggle between those competing for limited resources. Notably, Marx drew a distinction between the proletariat — those with few resources — and the bourgeoisie — those who exploited the proletariat for resources and wealth.

Consensus theory is often contrasted with conflict theory. Historically, the predecessors to consensus theorists like Durkheim — such as Plato and Rousseau — stressed that functional societies should avoid conflict by creating the ingredients for consensus. 

Conflict theories, in contrast, emerged in the mid-19th century from Marxist theories. According to these conflict theories, consensus is impossible within a society unless the differences in wealth and power within it are addressed and eliminated. 

Consensus theory stresses that all social groups within society have some overriding shared set of norms and values. Conflict theory, however, stresses that different groups have disparate access to the means of obtaining the goals that are forged from the norms and values of society. 

Consensus theorists stress that the reality of the consensus as a holding power must predate the articulation of the consensus. That is to say, consensus is both a social reality and a means of understanding reality. 

Meanwhile, conflict theory seeks to determine who has power and why these people have power, and how people with power can impose specific aspects of culture on society. 

Consensus Theories in Criminology

Consensus theories have spilled-over into fields such as criminology. Criminological consensus theory sees crime as being the result of social institutions losing control over individuals. This view is influenced by Durkheim's functionalist perspective. 

In Durkheim's view, when social institutions such as the family, education, and work lose control over people, they deprive these people of socialization. A state of normlessness called anomie results, which can lead to criminal and deviant behavior.

Durkheim's landmark study into anomie is called Suicide (1897, 1951), where he attempted to explain the relatively higher suicide rates of Protestant communities to Catholic ones as the result of the break-down of the hold and influence of the church over individuals' lives and behavior. 

Hirschi, a 20th-century criminologist, developed Durkheim's ideas around anomie further. Hirschi argued that when an individual's attachment to institutions weakens — or they are shut out from them altogether — they are more likely to commit crime (Kempf, 1993). 

The commonality between both Durkheim and Hirschi's (1969) views is the belief that the cause of crime lies within weak institutions. Exactly which institutions have been seen as degraded is variable.

For example, a politician wielding consensus theory may blame rising crime rates on the breakdown of the two-parent nuclear family, saying that single parent families lack control over their children, and are too unstable to properly socialize their members.

Others may say, for example, that children with loose ties to school — such as those with a history of truancy and exclusion from their peer groups — may be more likely to turn to crime. 

Merton, who is notable in the context of consensus theory for pointing out how institutions can be dysfunctional, created another consensus theory of crime, strain theory.

In essence, Merton's (1957) strain theory argues that much economic crime is the result of strain between the success goals of material wealth and the lack of opportunities for many in the lower classes to obtain that wealth legally.

Merton believed that the institutions that these lower-class people encountered effectively socialized success goals, but, when others provide a lack of opportunity to achieve them, people result in crime. Many sociologists have conducted qualitative research with gangs that have provided evidence for strain theory.

Evidence

There is a wide swath of evidence for consensus theories. One major focus of consensus theory research today is in criminology. For example, Farington (1991) conducted a longitudinal cohort study of 411 working-class males born in 1953 until their late 30s. 

The researchers found that those who were more likely to become offenders tended to come from poorer, single parent families with poor parenting and parents who were, in themselves, offenders. 

The findings of this study suggest that socialization within the family — an institution that functionalists and other consensus theorists see as instilling the primary values of a society — is essential in preventing crime. 

The criminologist Martin Glyn, who works with young delinquents, has noticed that many offenders have a "parental deficit." He argues that children need both discipline and love to undergo socialization — two things often both absent when parents are.

There have been a large number of studies that either review existing literature or conduct in-depth case studies and find that those with absent parents are more likely to join gangs and commit crimes. Many of these studies, again, have attributed a lack of socialization by parents to be the cause of this crime.

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, March 25). Consensus Theory: Definition & Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/consensus-theory.html

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