Dysfunction in Sociology

By Charlotte Nickerson, published July 14, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD

Not all the institutions of society perform a positive function for society, instead for some people they are dysfunctional, for example domestic abuse makes the family dysfunctional for its members.

Dysfunction occurs when social institutions do not positively contribute to the maintenance of society but cause disharmony and conflict rather than coherence and integration. The term was used by Merton to produce a more flexible functionalism, by doing away with the necessity for everything which existed in society to have a positive function for the maintenance of society.

Social dysfunctions are the undesirable consequences that result when the structure of a social system is maladapted to the functions it is intended to perform.

Manifest dysfunctions are negative consequences that are anticipated. For example, the building of a shopping mall may cause authorities to anticipate increased traffic jams in the area where it is built.

Latent dysfunctions, meanwhile, are unintended and unrecognized negative consequences of a structure. An example of a latent dysfunction in the previous instance may be the closing of small businesses in the surrounding area due to competition from the chain stores serving the shopping mall (Merton, 1957).

Latent dysfunctions may become manifest over time as the underlying causes come to light. For example, poor urban planning may lead to increased crime rates as populations grow and denser living conditions provide more opportunities for criminal activity.

Similarly, a lack of investment in public education may lead to higher rates of unemployment and poverty later on as the illiterate population is less able to compete for jobs.

Merton believed society could develop alternatives to current institutions by analyzing their dysfunctions.

What causes social dysfunction?

The root causes of social dysfunctions can be manifold, but they often stem from a failure to properly address the needs of all members of society.

This can be due to a lack of resources, unequal distribution of resources, or simply a lack of understanding of the issue at hand. Whatever the cause, social dysfunctions can have a profound and negative impact on the individuals affected as well as on society as a whole (Fallding, 1963).

There are a number of different sociological theories that attempt to explain the root causes of social dysfunction. One such theory is functionalism, which posits that all parts of society work together to contribute to the stability and functioning of that society.

However, if one part of society does not work properly, it can throw off the entire system. For example, a government's bureaucracy may be designed to enable people to gain access to essential services in a society.

However, the latent dysfunction of slowness may make the process of receiving these services long and arduous, lowering the efficacy of the departments where the bureaucracy acts as gatekeeper (Fallding, 1963).

Another theory, conflict theory, suggests that social dysfunctions are caused by the unequal distribution of resources in society. This inequality can lead to tension and conflict between different groups, which can in turn lead to social dysfunction.

For example, if there is a shortage of jobs, those who do have jobs may be overworked, leading to increased stress and conflict.

Alternatively, those who are unemployed may become desperate and turn to criminal activity in order to make ends meet, leading to an increase in crime rates (Fallding, 1963).

There are four main types of social dysfunctions (Johnson, 2013):

  1. Maladaptive dysfunctions are those that prevent individuals or groups from adapting to their environment. Examples include poverty, crime and poor health.
  2. Interpersonal dysfunctions refer to problems within relationships between people. Examples include domestic violence, bullying and racism.
  3. Organizational dysfunctions occur when the structure or functioning of an organization is negatively impacted. Examples include corrupt business practices and inefficient government.
  4. Societal dysfunctions are those that affect the whole of society. Examples include war, poverty and crime.

What is the difference between function and dysfunction in sociology?

According to sociologist Robert K. Merton, social dysfunction is an undesirable consequence that results when the structure of a social system is maladapted to the functions it is intended to perform.

Social dysfunctions may be manifest, latent, or both. Social functions, meanwhile, are the positive consequences,intended or not, that result when a social system is properly adapted to the needs of its members (Merton, 1957).

Social dysfunctions may benefit select groups. Nonetheless, this comes at the cost of the well-being of greater society. To consider the previous example, while the closing of small businesses may benefit larger conglomerates, it comes at the cost of homogenization, decreased choice for those who choose to buy goods, and greater unemployment.

Similarly, social functions can be to the disadvantage to some people, even if they benefit society as a whole. For example, leveraging taxes on coal may help to reduce emissions and fight climate change, but it may also disproportionately hurt poor people who rely on coal to heat their homes.

In this way, social functions and dysfunctions are often relative to the perspective from which they are observed (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). While all social systems have both functions and dysfunctions, the balance between the two can vary greatly.

A society that is largely functional with only a few dysfunctions is generally preferable to one that is rife with dysfunction and only marginally functional.

However, it is important to remember that social systems are always in flux, and what may be a dysfunction today may become a function tomorrow, and vice versa (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

Examples of Social Dysfunction

social dysfunction of family

A family is a social unit consisting of parents and their children. The family is the basic unit of society and plays a vital role in the socialization of children.

However, not all families are functional. Some families may be considered dysfunctional due to a variety of factors such as alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, physical abuse, or simply a lack of love and communication.

When a family is dysfunctional, it can have a negative impact on the individuals involved as well as on society as a whole. Children from dysfunctional families are more likely to experience problems in school, mental health issues, and substance abuse problems. They may also be more likely to engage in criminal activity (Bertrand, 1962).

In addition, dysfunctional families often place a strain on social services such as welfare, healthcare, and law enforcement. This can have spill-over effects that in turn lead to higher dysfunction in larger institutions. As a result, addressing family dysfunction is critical to the health of any society.

social dysfunction of community

A community is a group of people who live in the same area and share a common culture. The community is an important unit of society, as it provides individuals with a sense of belonging and identity.

However, not all communities are functional. Some communities may be considered dysfunctional due to a variety of factors such as poverty, crime, violence, substance abuse, or simply a lack of social cohesion.

Communities that are not necessarily impacted by poverty, crime, violence, and substance abuse can also be dysfunctional. For example, many people living in spaced-out suburban developments report lower levels of interaction and belonging with neighbors and consequently higher levels of loneliness.

Sociologists, such as Robert D. Putnam, have argued that the development of social capital, which refers to the networks of relationships between people, is essential for a functional community but has been diminishing and has consequently caused Americans to disengage from political and civic involvement, leading possibly to the undermining of democracy and trust of the government (Putnam, 2000).

social dysfunction of education

Education is a social function that is intended to prepare children for adulthood by teaching them the skills they need to be successful.

However, not all educational systems are functional. Some may be considered dysfunctional due to a variety of factors such as underfunding, overcrowding, poor teacher quality, or a lack of resources.

When an educational system is dysfunctional, it can have a negative impact on the children who are educated within it. They may have difficulty getting jobs, earn lower wages, and be more likely to experience mental health problems.

In addition, they may be more likely to engage in criminal activity. A dysfunctional educational system can also lead to increased social inequality. This is because children from wealthy families are more likely to attend private schools or have access to other resources that give them an advantage. As a result, they are less likely to experience the negative effects of a dysfunctional education system (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009).

In order to address the problems associated with a dysfunctional education system, school systems and local governments often invest in resources such as teachers, books, and technology.

In addition, sociologists often recommend improving communication between parents, teachers, and administrators. Finally, school systems have created incentives for students to succeed.

The Cincinnati school district in the United States, for example, paid each student a set amount of money for attending school, decreasing absenteeism (The Week, 2015).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archaeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, July 14). Dysfunction in Sociology. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/dysfunction.html


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