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Functionalism (Structural Functional Theory) – Founded by Hebert Spencer (1820-1903) | Sociology


Known as structural-functional theory, functionalism sees society as an interdependent structure that caters to both biological and social needs of its members. The term functionalism originated with the writings of English philosopher and biologist Hebert Spencer (1820-1903), who saw similarities between society and the human body; he argued that just as the various organs of the human body work together (Spencer 1898) to keep society functioning. A part of society Spencer refers to is the social institutions, or patterns of beliefs and behaviors that address social needs, such as government, education, family, healthcare, religion, and the economy.

Émile Durkheim, another early sociologist, applied Spencer’s theory to explain how societies change and survive. According to Durkheim, society consists of interrelated and interdependent parts that work together to maintain stability (Durkheim 1893), and shared values, languages, and symbols are what bind it together. He argued that in order to study society, sociologists must look beyond individuals to social facts such as laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, and rituals, all of which are employed to govern social life. According to Alfred Radcliff-Brown (1881–1955), the function of any recurrent activity is what role it plays in social life in general, and the contribution it makes to social stability and continuity. All the parts of a healthy society work together to maintain stability, a condition called dynamic equilibrium by later sociologists like Parsons.
Sociologists can study society by going beyond individuals to look at social facts, according to Durkheim. Laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and all other aspects of social life are social facts (Durkheim 1895). All of these social facts serve a particular function in society. Laws may serve various purposes, such as protecting society from violence, punishing criminal behavior, or maintaining public health.Robert Merton (1910-2003), another noted structural functionalist, noted that social processes often fulfill many functions. Latent functions are the unintended consequences of social processes, as opposed to manifest ones. Among the functions of college education, for example, are to gain knowledge, prepare for a career, and find a good job. You will meet new people during your college years, participate in extracurricular activities, or even find a spouse or partner. A second latent function of education is to create a hierarchy of employment based on the level of education attained. These latent functions can be beneficial, neutral, or harmful. Dysfunctional social processes negatively impact the functioning of society. Dysfunction in education includes poor grades, truancy, dropping out, and not achieving a degree.

Criticism of Functionalism

Criticism of Functionalism

  • The structural-functional theory has been criticized for failing to adequately explain social change.
  • This theory is also problematic because repetitive behavior patterns are assumed to have a purpose, yet we know that they have a purpose only because they are repeated.
  • Dysfunction may continue even if it doesn’t serve a purpose, which appears to be contrary to the basic premise of the theory. In some mid-level analyses, functionalism still is useful, even if it is no longer useful as a macro-level theory.
  • It was criticized in the 1960s for not accounting for social change or for structural contradictions and conflict (and was often referred to as “consensus theory”). Furthermore, it ignores the tensions and conflicts caused by racial, class, and gender inequalities. Having refuted the second criticism of functionalism, that it is static and has no concept of change, I conclude that while Parsons’ theory enables change, it is an orderly process of change. Accordingly, it is inaccurate to refer to Parsons’ theory of society as static.The emphasis on equilibrium and maintaining or restoring social order is indeed a product of the time in which Parsons wrote (post-World War II and the start of the cold war). Society was in turmoil and fear was widespread. Parsons promoted equilibrium and social order rather than social change because social order was crucial at the time.
  • Also, Durkheim advocated a radical form of guild socialism and functionalist explanations. Furthermore, Marxism is still based on functionalist explanations despite acknowledging social contradictions. Parsons’ evolutionary theory describes differentiation and reintegration of subsystems and systems, and thus at least temporary conflict prior to reintegration. “The fact that some understand functional analysis as inherently conservative, while others see it as inherently radical suggests that it may be neither conservative nor radical inherently.”
  • Some critics argue that functionalism is tautologous, since it attempts to explain the development of social institutions only by recourse to the effects that are attributed to them and thus explains them in a circular manner. However, Parsons used many of Durkheim’s concepts to create his theory.
  • Another criticism is based on the ontological argument that society does not have the same needs that human beings do, and even if society does have needs, they need not be met. The functionalist explanations of Anthony Giddens can all be rewritten as historical accounts of individuals and their actions.
  • Another criticism of functionalism is that individuals are treated as puppets, acting in accordance with their roles. In spite of this, Holmwood asserts that the most sophisticated forms of functionalism are based on “a highly developed concept of action,” and as previously explained, Parsons viewed individuals and their actions as the basic unit of analysis. However, he did not articulate how these agents exercise their agency in opposition to socialization and enculturation.

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