Functionalist perspective/theory also known as functionalism was the dominant theoretical perspective in sociology during the 1940s and 1950s.
The functionalist perspective draws its original inspiration from the work of Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim. In the view of functionalists, society is like a living organism in which, each part of the organism contributes to its survival. Therefore the functionalist perspective emphasizes the way that parts of a society are structured to maintain their stability.
Spencer compared societies to living organisms. Any organism has structure, i.e., it consists of a number of interrelated parts such as a head, limbs, heart, blood veins, nervous system, and so on. Each of these parts has a function to play in the life of the total organism. Spencer further argued that in the same way that society has a structure. It also consists of interrelated parts, such as family, religion, state, education, economy, and so on. Each of these components also has a function that contributes to the overall stability of the social system.
Emile Durkheim focused on the role of religion in reinforcing feelings of solidarity and unity within group life. Talcott Parsons advocated functionalism. He saw society as a network of connected parts, each of which contributes to the maintenance of the system as a whole.
From the functionalist perspective, society is regarded as a system. A system is an entity made up of interconnected and interrelated parts. From this point of view, it follows that each part will in the same way affect every other part and system as a whole.
Assumptions of Functionalist Perspective
- Functional unity.
- Functional indispensability.
- Functional universality.
- Structural relationship.
- Society is a stable rather than a dynamic system.
- Focuses on social consensus rather than conflict.
- Concept of function, dysfunction, latent function, and manifest function.
- The interrelationship between parts, systems, sub-systems, and structure.
- Based on macro-level theoretical orientation.
Strengths of Functionalism
- It explains how social life is possible.
- It concerned with the origin-gin and maintenance of order and stability in society.
- It concerned with the integration of various parts of society.
- It forms the basis of social unity and solidarity.
- Functionalists give more emphasis to the process of socialization whereby values are transmitted from one generation to the next.
- Functionalists talk about value consensus which provides the foundation for cooperation since common values produce a common goal.
Weakness of Functionalism
- It tends to be inherently conservative.
- It failed to pay sufficient importance to the changes that take place in the system.
- It ignores the element of conflict and its role in the social system.
- The idea that society has needs as humans do is not a tenable position because society is only alive in the sense that it is made up of living individuals. Thus society cannot have wants and needs like humans do.
- The methodology of functionalism tends to be weak as it based on intuition and the ability of the observer.
- Social consensus is not always found in society.