Saturday, April 25, 2009

Functionalist In Sociology

Structural Functionalist Prospective

What is Functionalist Prospective?

“Society as a set of interrelated parts that work together to produce a stable social system”.

“Society as made up of inter-dependent sections which work together to fulfill the functions necessary for the survival of society as a whole. People are socialized into roles and behaviors which fulfill the needs of society"

Theoretical background

Structural-functionalism drew its inspiration primarily from the ideas of Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Functionalism emphasizes the central role that agreement (consensus) between members of a society on morals plays in maintaining social order. This moral consensus creates an equilibrium, the normal state of society. Durkheim was concerned with the question of how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or, as his nephew Mauss held, systems of exchanges. In modern, complex societies members perform very different tasks, meaning that a strong interdependence develops between them. Based on the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole, Durkheim argued that complex societies are held together by organic solidarity. He espoused a strong sociological perspective of society which was continued by Radcliffe-Brown, who, following Auguste Comte, believed that the social constituted a separate "level" of reality distinct from both the biological and from inorganic matter. Explanations of social phenomena therefore had to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively stable social roles.

Famous functionalists

Famous functionalists include:

  • Herbert Spencer
  • Émile Durkheim
  • Talcott Parsons
  • Robert K. Merton
  • Bronisław Malinowski
  • Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown
  • Niklas Luhmann

Explanation by functionalists:

Functionalism focuses on the structure and workings of society. Functionalists see society as made up of inter-dependent sections which work together to fulfill the functions necessary for the survival of society as a whole. People are socialized into roles and behaviors which fulfill the needs of society. Functionalists believe that behavior in society is structural. They believe that rules and regulations help organize relationships between members of society. Values provide general guidelines for behavior in terms of roles and norms. These institutions of society such as the family, religion, the economy, the educational and political systems, are major aspects of the social structure. Institutions are made up of interconnected roles or inter-related norms. For example, inter-connected roles in the institution of the family are of wife, mother, husband, father, son and daughter.

Functionalists believe that one can compare society to a living organism, in that both a society and an organism are made up of interdependent working parts (organs) and systems that must function together in order for the greater body to function. An example of this can be found in the theory of Emergence. Functionalist sociologists say that the different parts of society e.g. the family, education, religion, law and order, media etc. have to be seen in terms of the contribution that they make to the functioning of the whole of society. This ‘organic analogy’ sees the different parts of society working together to form a social system in the same way that the different parts of an organism form a cohesive functioning entity.

Prominent Theorists

Herbert Spencer:

Herbert Spencer, a British sociologist, was in many ways the first true sociological interactionalist (Turner, 1985). In fact, while Durkheim is widely considered the most important functionalist of the positivist theorists, it is well-known that much of his analysis was culled from reading Spencer's work, especially his Principles of Sociology (1874-96). While many avoid the tedious task of reading Spencer's massive volumes -- filled with long passages explicating the organismic analogy with reference to cells, simple organisms, animals, humans, and society -- there are some important insights that have implicitly influenced many contemporary theorists, including Parsons who once asked "Who now reads Spencer?" in his early work "The Structure of Social Action" (1937).

Spencer recognized three functional needs or requisites that produced selection pressures: regulatory, operative (production), and distributive. He argued that all societies needed to solve problems of control and coordination, production of goods, services, and ideas, and finally, find ways to distribute these resources. Initially, in tribal societies, all three of these needs are inseparable, and the kinship system is the dominant structure satisfying them. As many scholars have noted, all institutions were subsumed under kinship organization (Nolan and Lenski, 2004; Maryanski and Turner 1992). However, with increasing population -- both in terms of sheer numbers and density -- problems emerged in regards to feeding individuals, creating new forms of organization (i.e., the emergent division of labor), coordinating and controlling various differentiated social units, and developing systems of resource distribution. The solution, as Spencer sees it, would be to differentiate structures to fulfill more specialized functions. Thus, a chief or "big man" emerges, followed soon by a group of lieutenants, and later kings and administrators.

Talcott Parsons:

Talcott Parsons was heavily influenced by Durkheim and Max Weber, synthesising much of their work into his theory. Parsons’ wanted to develop a grand theory of society, but he began by examining the individual and their actions. He stated that “the social system is made up of the actions of individuals” [Parsons & Shills, 1976:190]. His starting point was the interaction between two individuals [Parsons, 1961:41]. Those individuals were faced with a variety of choices about how they might act. However, those choices are influenced and constrained by a number of physical and social factors. Parsons determined that each individual has expectations of the other’s action and reaction to their own behaviour, and that these expectations are derived from the accepted norms and values of the society which they inhabit. These social norms are generally accepted and agreed upon. Parsons defines a role as the “normatively regulated, participating of a person in a concrete process of social interaction with specific, concrete role-partners”. Although any individual (theoretically) can fulfill any role, they are expected to conform to the norms governing the nature of the role they fulfill

Robert Merton:

Robert Merton was a functionalist and he fundamentally agreed with Parsons’ theory. However, he acknowledged that it was problematic, believing that it was too generalised. Merton tended to emphasise middle-range theory rather than a grand theory, meaning that he was able to deal specifically with some of the limitations in Parsons’ theory. He identified 3 main limitations: functional unity, universal functionalism and indispensability. He also developed the concept of deviance and made the distinction between manifest and latent functions.

Merton also noted that there may be functional alternatives to the institutions and structures currently fulfilling the functions of society. This means that the institutions that currently exist are not indispensable to society. Merton states that “just as the same item may have multiple functions, so may the same function be diversely fulfilled by alternative items” [cited in Holmwood, 2005:91]. This notion of functional alternatives is important because it reduces the tendency of functionalism to imply approval of the status quo.


In the 1960s, functionalism was criticized for being unable to account for social change, or for structural contradictions and conflict (and thus was often called "consensus theory"). The refutation of the second criticism of functionalism, that it is static and has no concept of change, has already been articulated above, concluding that while Parsons’ theory allows for change, it is an orderly process of change [Parsons, 1961:38], a moving equilibrium. Therefore referring to Parsons’ theory of society as static is inaccurate. It is true that it does place emphasis on equilibrium and the maintenance or quick return to social order, but this is a product of the time in which Parsons was writing (post-World War II, and the start of the cold war). Society was in upheaval and fear abounded. At the time social order was crucial, and this is reflected in Parsons' tendency to promote equilibrium and social order rather than social change.


Structural-functionalism is a consensus theory; a theory that sees society as built upon order, interrelation, and balance among parts as a means of maintaining the smooth functioning of the whole. Structural-Functionalism views shared norms and values as the basis of society, focuses on social order based on tacit agreements between groups and organizations, and views social change as occurring in a slow and orderly fashion. Functionalists acknowledge that change is sometimes necessary to correct social dysfunctions (the opposite of functions), but that it must occur slowly so that people and institutions can adapt without rapid disorder.

No comments:

Post a Comment