Functionalism In Sociology: Meaning, Assumptions, and Contributors

What Is Functionalism Theory?

Although this perspective emerged in the 19th century, it became dominant during the 1940s and 1950s. Functionalism is a macro-level theoretical perspective in social science/sociology.

Functionalism theory has been also referred to as Structural Functionalism or Structural-Functional Theory or Functionalist Perspective or Functionalist Theory. It is one of the important theories or perspectives in sociology.

Functionalism views society as a system (or structure) of interconnected parts such as groups, institutions such as family, religion, economy, etc. which work (function) together to maintain social equilibrium, social solidarity, and stability. It states that our social lives and behavior are guided by social structure, which are stable patterns of social behavior.

It suggests that each interconnected, interdependent parts of the structure contribute to the functioning of the whole system (whole system here means the ‘society‘) which is just like the human body where every part, such as the brain, heart, kidney, lungs, etc. work together to keep the whole body system functioning.

E.g. each of the social institutions contributes important functions for society; the family provides an environment for reproducing, nurturing, and socializing children. Education offers a way to transfer society’s skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth. Politics provides a means of governing the members of society. Economics provides for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services and religion provides moral guidance to members of society. All these parts (such as institutions) function to keep society stable. So, functionalism theory focuses on consensus, social order, and social stability than on change and on the structure and mandatory function of the parts that make up the whole.

For Structural functionalists, its parts, such as groups are the basic unit of analysis i.e. they focus on the study of groups rather than the individual. A group could be a crowd of people in a movie theater, or the members of a family, corporations, factories, university systems, communities, etc. Structural Functionalist also considers economy, religion, polity, education, marriage family, kinship as groups. Groups here mean institutions.

Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus upon which members of the society agree and they should work together to achieve (stability, order, and state of equilibrium) what is best for the society as a whole. Functionalism explains social change occurs as a result of population growth, increased technology, and contact with external society. They also explain that rapid and sudden change can disturb the equilibrium of the society to which the social institutions restore the state of equilibrium.

As the functionalist perspective stresses that each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society’s stability and functioning as a whole. It means that to functionalist, each aspect of the society, either those defined as good or bad (such as deviance, crime, etc.), are essential for the society to continue. Therefore, all these aspects have a role in keeping society stable and maintain its social order.

Later, R.K. Merton added concepts such as manifest and latent functions to functionalism theory. Merton suggested that human behavior has both manifest and latent functions. E.g., a manifest function of education includes preparing for a career by getting good grades, graduating, and finding a good job, etc. whereas the latent function includes meeting new people or maybe finding a mate or spouse.

Functionalists use the terms ‘functional’ and ‘dysfunctional’ to describe the effects of social elements on society.

  • Elements of society are ‘functional’ if they contribute to social stability.
  • They are ‘dysfunctional’ if they disrupt social stability.

Basic Assumptions of Functionalism Theory

or Tenets or Premises or Propositions or Bases or Notion or Key Aspects of Functionalism Theory:

Parts, Whole, and Structures

Society is made up of various parts, sub-parts as well as individual units. These parts or units are grouped to form a structure of society. Thus society is just like a human body made up of different interconnected parts (organs) that function to keep the society (system) functioning.

High Emphasis on Consensus (i.e. value agreement and harmony) and de-emphasis on conflict

This perspective views society as static and focuses on integration rather than conflict and separation. Even if a conflict occurs they are meant to contribute to social order and stability. The functions of a social system depend on the consensus of its members on common goals and values.

Functional Pre-requisites and Imperatives

Functional pre-requisites are defined as the general condition necessary for the maintenance of a system. Some functional pre-requisites are; a shared, articulated set of goals, role differentiation and assignment; socialization; effective control of disruptive forms of behavior; integration and inter-dependence of parts.

Functional Unity

When elements/parts of the society (system) function together to meet the goals of the society, there arises unity among them in terms of their function.

Functional Universality

The functional perspective assumes that in any society in the universe, the functions of the elements (parts) are always positive.

Functional Indispensability

The functional perspective assumes that elements (parts) cannot be separated from the whole i.e. society which means that society with its parts functioning is indispensable to keep the system (society) functioning.

Manifest, Latent Functions, and Dysfunctions

Manifest functions are intended and recognized result of people’s actions to keep the social system stable (i.e. society) stable, and they are supposed to contribute adjustment and adaptation to the system whereas latent functions are those unintended and unrecognized (hidden) results of an action that disturbs the stability of society. Dysfunctions are undesirable consequences (negative results) action and dysfunction lessen the adjustment and adaptation to the system.

Weaknesses or Criticism of Functionalism

  • Functionalism emphasizes social stability and order while neglecting conflict and changes which are so vital in any society. So, it failed to explain rapid social changes taking place in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • As a macro-level theory, functionalism neglects to neglect micro-level social realities i.e. social processes such as the social change that occurred due to cooperation, conflict, westernization, etc. So, it is a useless theory.
  • Functionalism is also accused of explaining the social world based on and ignoring the past. For e.g. in religion, functionalists speak of the current contribution of religion neglecting the fact that religion was introduced long back in the past and has been contributing to the survival of society till now.

Contributors of Functionalism

The founding sociologist such as Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Herbert Spencer, and American sociologists such as Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton contributed to functionalism.

Functionalism of David Emile Durkheim

The French sociologist Emile Durkheim is considered the creator of the functionalist perspective within sociology.

His major contribution was his study about what binds society (us) together i.e. how social solidarity (unity) and order were maintained. As a functionalist, he argued that society is a system made up of different inter-related and inter-dependent parts, and these parts function to keep the system alive or stable. He believed that individuals may make up society but to study society, sociologists have to look beyond individuals i.e. look at social facts as individual behavior is influenced by factors external to the individual.

He added that it is the collective conscience (shared experiences, values, beliefs, and behaviors) that allow people to feel that they are a part of a group (i.e. society) and so they work together to maintain group solidarity. Durkheim argued that for a society to function well, the value consensus (having shared norms and values) among its members is necessary. He also stated that this value consensus or agreement can be achieved through socialization i.e. education.

Functionalism of Talcott Parsons

The American sociologist Talcott Parsons who was influenced by functionalist Bronislaw Malinoski (an anthropologist), was best known for his ‘structural functionalism’ and ‘social action theory. As a functionalist, he was concerned with how society’s parts work (i.e. function) together to maintain social order.

It means, he focused on how elements/parts of society were functional to keep the social system alive. He generally focused on ‘social action’ and ‘systems’ and believed that morality in social action is the main element to help preserve social order.

Structural Functionalism by Parsons

Just like functionalist Durkheim, Parsons believed that all societies needed a ‘value consensus’ which is a shared agreement between society members to conform to certain norms and values and this results in social solidarity and stability. Societies develop rules and norms about how people should behave based upon this value consensus. To achieve the common goal of social equilibrium and stability, individuals are socialized to accept the values and norms, and society’s members learn to accept social norms and values through education. To support his structural functionalism theory, he developed ‘social system theory’ and the ‘AGIL model’ and they are discussed below:

Talcott Parsons Concept of ‘Social System’ (According to Parsons, how do social systems survive?)

The American sociologist, Talcott Parsons laid the foundation of ‘social system theory’ from his book, “The Structure of Social Action-1947“. According to Parsons, a social system is a system of action. Parsons considered “a social system consists of a plurality of individuals, actors in interaction with others in a situation”. Unlike the Marxists, who focused on the occurrence of radical change in society, Parsons focused on why societies are stable and keep functioning. For example, education is a kind of social system because it tries to unify people by providing standard education, which will allow them to participate in and contribute to the economy, thus strengthening the society, and hence, society exists.

Functional Pre-requisites or Imperatives

Parsons gave the model AGIL, which represents the functional pre-requisites (i.e. four basic functions) that all social systems must achieve to survive:

  • Adaptation: Involves securing sufficient resources from the environment and then distributing these throughout the system to maintain equilibrium which is the goal of the social system
  • Goal Attainment: Refers to setting priorities among system goals and mobilizing resources for their attainment.
  • Integration: Refers to maintaining solidarity or coordination among the parts of the system.
  • Latency: Refers to ensuring that actors in the social system display the appropriate characteristics i.e. pattern maintenance and tension management in the social system.

Spencer’s Theory of Organic Analogy

Herbert Spencer came to sociology via biology after he drew an analogy between society and the biological organism. According to Spencer’s theory of “organic analogy”, ‘society is like a biological organism because just like an organism, society is also made up of different parts (organs) that function in coordination to maintain the life of the social system.

The similarities that Spencer observed between biological and social organisms were:

  • Both society and the organism are subject to growth. For e.g. A child grows up to be a man; a tiny community becomes a metropolitan area.
  • There is an increase in the complexity of structure with time. For e.g. simple organism amoeba into mammals, primitive (simple) society into a modern industrial society which is highly complex.
  • There is the differentiation of structure leading to differentiation functions. For e.g, unicellular amoeba increased into multi-cellular that resulted in the differentiation of organs and so is the complex society that has different organizations that carry out different functions.
  • Whether organism or society, when there is a change in structure, from simple to complex organism or society, then the function becomes more and more specialized.
  • It is common to both that a loss of an organ does not necessarily result in the death of an organism. For e.g. if an individual loses his leg he does not necessarily meet with his death. Similarly, in society, if some association vanishes, it does not lead to the decay of the society.

Social Darwinism

The term “Social Darwinism” was first used by Joseph Fisher in his 1887 article “The History of Landholding in Ireland.” It has its root in the “theory of natural selection” developed by Charles Darwin. Among various scholars who advocated for Social Darwinism was Herbert Spencer from England. The central ideology of Social Darwinism was that those perceived to be weak in the human societies were diminished and their culture delimited, but the strong developed resulting in the survival of the fittest.

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