Functionalism (sociology)

Functionalism (sociology)

In the social sciences, specifically sociology and sociocultural anthropology, functionalism (also called functional analysis) is a sociological paradigm that originally attempted to explain social institutions as collective means to fill individual biological needs. Later, it came to focus on the ways in which social institutions fill social needs, especially social stability. Functionalism is a major sociological tradition, alongside other schools of thought, such as Conflict Theory and Interactionism. The theory is associated with Émile Durkheim and more recently with Talcott Parsons. It was developed by other sociologists in the 20th century and was a popular idea until the 1970s when it came under criticism from new ideas.

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, 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.

The theory is based around a number of key concepts. First, society is viewed as a system – a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a society for its survival (such as reproduction of the population). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function [Holmwood, 2005:87] .

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 functionalist (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" (2007).

The core of his theory is an evolutionary model that, unlike most nineteenth century evolutionary theorists, was cyclical. Beginning with the differentiation and increasing complexification of an organic or super-organic (Spencer's term for a social system) body, followed by a fluctuating state of equilibrium and disequilibrium (or a state of adjustment and adaptation), and finally, a stage of disintegration or dissolution. Thus, following Thomas Malthus' population principles, Spencer concluded that society was constantly facing selection pressures -- internal and external exigencies -- that forced a society to adapt by increasing the internal structure through differentiation. However, every solution to a problem caused a new set of selection pressures that threatened the society's viability. It should be noted that Spencer was not a determinist in the sense that he never said that a) selection pressures will be felt in time to change them, b) that they will be felt and reacted to, and c) the solutions will always work. In fact, he was a political sociologist in many ways (see Turner 1985), and recognized that the degree of centralized and consolidated authority in a given polity could make or break aability to adapt. In other words, he saw a general trend towards the centralization of power as leading to stagnation and ultimately, pressure to decentralize.

More specifically, 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.

Perhaps Spencer's biggest obstacle to being discussed in modern sociology is the fact that much of his social philosophy was rooted in the social and historical context of Victorian England. Thus, he coined the term "survival of the fittest" in discussing the simple fact that small tribes or societies tend to be defeated or conquered by larger societies. The sad irony is that many individuals who consider themselves scholars have failed to separate the man (who like many white males from the 19th century was racist and probably sexist from our contemporary point of view) from the work, and as a result, his nuanced discussions of political dynamics, power, and economic dynamics have gone unheralded. Of course, many sociologists use him either knowingly or unknowingly in their analyses; this is especially the case in the recent re-emergence of evolutionary theory.

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 [Craib, 1992:40] . 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 [Parsons, 1961:41] . These social norms are generally accepted and agreed upon [Gingrich, 1999] . As the behaviours are repeated in more interactions and these expectations are entrenched or institutionalized a role is created. Parsons defines a role as the “normatively regulated, participating of a person in a concrete process of social interaction with specific, concrete role-partners” [1961:43-44] . Although any individual (theoretically) can fulfill any role, they are expected to conform to the norms governing the nature of the role they fulfill [Cuff & Payne, 1984:44] . Furthermore, one person fulfills many different roles at the same time. In one sense an individual can be seen to be a “composition” [Parsons & Shills, 1976:190] of the roles in which they inhabit. Certainly today, when asked to describe themselves most people would answer with reference to their roles in society.

Parsons then developed the idea of roles into collectivities of roles that complemented each other in fulfilling functions for society [Parsons, 1961:41] . Some of the roles are bound up in institutions and social structures, such as economic, educational, legal, and even gender structures. These structures are functional in the sense they assist society to operate [Gingrich, 1999] , and fulfill its functional needs so that the society runs smoothly. A society where there is no conflict, where everyone knows what is expected of them, and where these expectations are constantly being met, is in a perfect state of equilibrium. The key processes for Parsons in attaining this equilibrium are socialization and social control. Socialization is important because it is the mechanism for transferring the accepted norms and values of a society to the individuals within the system. Perfect socialisation occurs when these norms and values are completely internalized, that is they become part of the individual’s personality [Ritzer, 1983:196] . Parsons states, “this point, it should be made clear, is independent of the sense in which individual is concretely autonomous or creative rather than ’passive’ or ‘conforming’, for individuality and creativity, are to a considerable extent, phenomena of the institutionalization of expectations” [1961:38] , that is they are culturally constructed characteristics. Socialization is supported by the positive and negative sanctioning of role behaviours which do or do not meet these expectations [Cuff & Payne, 1984:46] . A punishment could be informal, such as a snigger or gossip, or more formalized through institutions such as prisons and mental institutions. If these two processes were perfect then society would become static and unchanging, and in reality this is unlikely to occur for long.

Parsons recognizes this, stating that he treats “the structure of the system as problematic and subject to change” [1961:37] and that his concept of the tendency towards equilibrium “does not imply the empirical dominance of stability over change” [1961:39] . He does however believe that these changes occur in a relatively smooth way. Individuals in interaction with changing situations adapt through a process of “role bargaining” [Gingrich, 1991] . Once the roles are established, they create norms that guide further action and are thus institutionalized, creating stability across social interactions. Where the adaptation process cannot adjust, due to sharp shocks or immediate radical change, structural dissolution occurs and either new structures (and therefore a new system) are formed, or the society dies. This model of social change has been described as a “moving equilibrium” [Gingrich, 1991] , and does emphasize a desire for social order.

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 [Holmwood, 2005:100] . 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 [Ritzer in Gingrich, 1999] . He also developed the concept of deviance and made the distinction between manifest and latent functions.

Merton criticised functional unity, saying that not all parts of a modern, complex society work for the functional unity of society. Some institutions and structures may have other functions, and some may even be generally dysfunctional, or be functional for some while being dysfunctional for others. This is because not all structures are functional for society as a whole. Some practices are only functional for a dominant individual or a group [Holmwood, 2005:91] . Here Merton introduces the concepts of power and coercion into functionalism and identifies the sites of tension which may lead to struggle or conflict. Merton states that by recognising and examining the dysfunctional aspects of society we can explain the development and persistence of alternatives. Thus, as Holmwood states, “Merton explicitly made power and conflict central issues for research within a functionalist paradigm” [2005:91] .

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.

Merton’s theory of deviance is derived from Durkheim’s idea of anomie. It is central in explaining how internal changes can occur in a system. For Merton, anomie means a discontinuity between cultural goals and the accepted methods available for reaching them.

Merton believes that there are 5 situations facing an actor.
*Conformity occurs when an individual has the means and desire to achieve the cultural goals socialised into him.
*Innovation occurs when an individual strives to attain the accepted cultural goals but chooses to do so in novel or unaccepted method.
*Ritualism occurs when an individual continues to do things as proscribed by society but forfeits the achievement of the goals.
*Retreatism is the rejection of both the means and the goals of society.
*Rebellion is a combination of the rejection of societal goals and means and a substitution of other goals and means.Thus it can be seen that change can occur internally in society through either innovation or rebellion. It is true that society will attempt to control these individuals and negate the changes, but as the innovation or rebellion builds momentum, society will eventually adapt or face dissolution.

The last of Merton’s important contributions to functionalism was his distinction between manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions refer to the conscious intentions of actors; latent functions are the objective consequences of their actions, which are often unintended [Holmwood, 2005:90] . Merton used the example of the Hopi rain dance to show that sometimes an individual’s understanding of their motive for an action may not fully explain why that action continues to be performed. Sometimes actions fulfill a function of which the actor is unaware, and this is the latent function of an action.


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.

Furthermore, Durkheim used a radical form of guild socialism along with functionalist explanations. Also, Marxism, while acknowledging social contradictions, still uses functionalist explanations. Parsons' evolutionary theory describes the differentiation and reintegration systems and subsystems and thus at least temporary conflict before reintegration (ibid). "The fact that functional analysis can be seen by some as inherently conservative and by others as inherently radical suggests that it may be "inherently" neither one nor the other." (Merton 1957: 39)

Stronger criticisms include the epistemological argument that functionalism is teleological, that is it attempts to describe social institutions solely through their effects and thereby does not explain the cause of those effects. However, Parsons drew directly on many of Durkheim’s concepts in creating his theory. Certainly Durkheim was one of the first theorists to explain a phenomenon with reference to the function it served for society. He said, “the determination of function is…necessary for the complete explanation of the phenomena” [cited in Coser, 1977:140] . However Durkheim made a clear distinction between historical and functional analysis, saying, “when…the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills” [cited in Coser, 1977:140] . If Durkheim made this distinction, then it is unlikely that Parsons did not. However Merton does explicitly state that functional analysis does not seek to explain why the action happened in the first instance, but why it continues or is reproduced. He says that “latent functions …go far towards explaining the continuance of the pattern” [cited in Elster, 1990:130, emphasis added] . Therefore it can be argued that functionalism does not explain the original cause of a phenomenon with reference to its effect, and is therefore, not teleological.

Another criticism describes the ontological argument that society can not have "needs" as a human being does, and even if society does have needs they need not be met. Anthony Giddens argues that functionalist explanations may all be rewritten as historical accounts of individual human actions and consequences (see Structuration theory).

A further criticism directed at functionalism is that it contains no sense of agency, that individuals are seen as puppets, acting as their role requires. Yet Holmwood states that the most sophisticated forms of functionalism are based on “a highly developed concept of action” [2005:107] , and as was explained above, Parsons took as his starting point the individual and their actions. His theory did not however articulate how these actors exercise their agency in opposition to the socialisation and inculcation of accepted norms. As has been shown above, Merton addressed this limitation through his concept of deviance, and so it can be seen that functionalism allows for agency. It cannot, however, explain why individuals choose to accept or reject the accepted norms, why and in what circumstances they choose to exercise their agency, and this does remain a considerable limitation of the theory.

Further criticisms have been levelled at functionalism by proponents of other social theories, particularly conflict theorists, marxists, feminists and postmodernists. Conflict theorists criticised functionalism’s concept of systems as giving far too much weight to integration and consensus, and neglecting independence and conflict [Holmwood, 2005:100] . Lockwood [in Holmwood, 2005:101] , in line with conflict theory, suggested that Parsons’ theory missed the concept of system contradiction. He did not account for those parts of the system that might have tendencies to mal-integration. According to Lockwood, it was these tendencies that come to the surface as opposition and conflict among actors. However Parsons’ thought that the issues of conflict and cooperation were very much intertwined and sought to account for both in his model [Holmwood, 2005:103] . In this however he was limited by his analysis of an ‘ideal type’ of society which was characterised by consensus. Merton, through his critique of functional unity, introduced into functionalism an explicit analysis of tension and conflict.

Marxism which was revived soon after the emergence of conflict theory, criticised professional sociology (functionalism and conflict theory alike) for being partisan to advanced welfare capitalism [Holmwood, 2005:103] . Gouldner [in Holmwood, 2005:103] thought that Parsons’ theory specifically was an expression of the dominant interests of welfare capitalism, that it justified institutions with reference to the function they fulfill for society. It may be that Parsons’ work implied or articulated that certain institutions were necessary to fulfill the functional prerequisites of society, but whether or not this is the case, Merton explicitly states that institutions are not indispensable and that there are functional alternatives. That he does not identify any alternatives to the current institutions does reflect a conservative bias, which as has been stated before is a product of the specific time that he was writing in. As functionalism’s prominence was ending, feminism was on the rise, and it attempted a radical criticism of functionalism. It believed that functionalism neglected the suppression of women within the family structure. Holmwood [2005:103] shows, however, that Parsons did in fact describe the situations where tensions and conflict existed or were about to take place, even if he didn’t articulate those conflicts. Some feminists agree, suggesting that Parsons’ provided accurate descriptions of these situations. [Johnson in Holmwood, 2005:103] . On the other hand, Parsons recognised that he had oversimplified his functional analysis of women in relation to work and the family, and focused on the positive functions of the family for society and not on its dysfunctions for women. Merton, too, although addressing situations where function and dysfunction occurred simultaneously, lacked a “feminist sensibility” [Holmwood, 2005:103] , although I repeat this was likely a product of the desire for social order.

Postmodernism, as a theory, is critical of claims of truth. Therefore the idea of grand theory that can explain society in all its forms is treated with skepticism at the least. This critique is important because it exposes the danger that grand theory can pose, when not seen as a limited perspective, as one way of understanding society.

Jeffrey Alexander (1985) sees functionalism as a broad school rather than a specific method or system, such as Parson's, which is capable of taking equilibrium (stability) as a reference-point rather than assumption and treats structural differentiation as a major form of social change. "The name 'functionalism' implies a difference of method or interpretation that does not exist." (Davis 1967: 401) This removes the determinism criticized above. Cohen argues that rather than needs a society has dispositional facts: features of the social environment that support the existence of particular social institutions but do not cause them. (ibid)

Other theories

Structural functionalism, a theoretical concept developed by other anthropologists like Claude Lévi-Strauss and Edmund Leach as well as Samuel P. Huntington, takes the view that society consists of parts (e.g. police, hospitals, schools, and farms), each of which have their own functions and work together to promote social stability. Structural-functionalism was the dominant perspective of cultural anthropologists and rural sociologists between World War II and the Vietnam War.

A social function is "the contribution made by any phenomenon to a larger system of which the phenomenon is a part." (Hoult 1969: 139) This technical usage is not the same as the popular idea of a function as an "event/occasion" or a duty, responsibility, or occupation. A distinction, first made by Robert K. Merton, is made between manifest and latent functions (Marshall 1994: 190-1) and also between functions with positive (functional or positively functional) and negative (dysfunctional) effects (Hoult 1969: 139). "Any statement explaining an institution as being 'functional or 'dysfunctional' for men [sic] could readily be translated with no loss of meaning into one that said it was 'rewarding' or 'punishing.'" (Homans 1962:33-4)

Functional alternative (also functional equivalent or functional substitute) indicates that, "just as the same item may have multiple functions, so may the same function be diversely fulfilled by alternative items." (Merton 1957: 33-4) The concept may serve as an antidote to "the gratuitous assumption of the functional indispensability of particular social structures." (ibid: 52)

Famous functionalists

Famous functionalists include:

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

ee also

* Structural functionalism
* Functional structuralism
* Neofunctionalism (sociology)
* Systems theory
* Cultural anthropology
* Sociology


*Coser, L., (1977) Masters of Sociological Thought: Ideas in Historical and Social Context, 2nd Ed., Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., pp.140-143, accessed:
*Craib, I., (1992) Modern Social Theory: From Parsons to Habermas, Harvester Wheatsheaf, London
*Cuff, E. & Payne, G.,(eds) (1984) Perspectives in Sociology, Allen & Unwin, London
*Davis, K (1959). "The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology", American Sociological Review, 24(6), 757-772.
*Elster, J., (1990), “Merton's Functionalism and the Unintended Consequences of Action”, in Clark, J., Modgil, C. & Modgil, S., (eds) Robert Merton: Consensus and Controversy, Falmer Press, London, pp.129-35
*Gingrich , P., (1999) “Functionalism and Parsons” in Sociology 250 Subject Notes, University of Regina, accessed, 24/5/06, url:
*Holmwood, J., (2005) “Functionalism and its Critics” in Harrington, A., (ed) Modern Social Theory: an introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford, pp. 87-109
*Homans, George Casper (1962). "Sentiments and Activities". New York: The Free Press of Glencoe.
*Hoult, Thomas Ford (1969). "Dictionary of Modern Sociology".
*Lenski, Gerhard (1966). "Power and Privilege: A Theory of Social Stratification." New York: McGraw-Hill.
*Lenski, Gerhard (2005). "Evolutionary-Ecological Theory." Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
*Maryanski, Alexandra (1998). "Evolutionary Sociology." Advances in Human Ecology. 7:1-56.
*Maryanski, Alexandra and Jonathan Turner (1992). "The Social Cage: Human Nature and the Evolution of Society." Stanford: Stanford University Press.
*Marshall, Gordon (1994). "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Sociology". ISBN 019285237X
*Merton, Robert (1957). "Social Theory and Social Structure", revised and enlarged. London: The Free Press of Glencoe.
*Nolan, Patrick and Gerhard Lenski (2004). Human Societies: An Introduction to Macrosociology." Boulder, CO: Paradigm.
*Parsons, Talcott (1951) The Social System, Routledge, London
*Parsons, T., & Shils, A., (eds) (1976) Toward a General Theory of Action, Harvard University Press, Cambridge
*Parsons, T., (1961) Theories of Society: foundations of modern sociological theory, Free Press, New York
*Perey, Arnold (2005) [ "Malinowski, His Diary, and Men Today] (with a note on the nature of Malinowskian functionalism)
*Ritzer, G., (1983) Sociological Theory, Knopf Inc, New York
*Sanderson, Stephen K. (1999). "Social Transformations: A General Theory of Historical Development." Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
*Turner, Jonathan (1985). "Herbert Spencer: A Renewed Appreciation." Beverly Hills: Sage.
*Turner, Jonathan (1995). "Macrodynamics: Toward a Theory on the Organization of Human Populations." New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
*Turner, Jonathan and Jan Stets (2005). "The Sociology of Emotions." Cambridge. Cambridge University Press.

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