Understanding Functionalist Theory

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Feb 28, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Summary

  • The functionalism perspective is a paradigm influenced by American sociology from roughly the 1930s to the 1960s, although its origins lay in the work of the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, writing at the end of the 19th century. Functionalism is a structural theory and posits that the social institutions and organization of society influence the running of society and individuals' behaviors.
  • Talcott Parsons expanded upon Durkheim's idea of the society as a moral regulator to create a "grand" theory of sociology intended to explain all of human behavior in relation to institutions.
  • According to both Parsons and Durkheim, societies undergo an evolution, and large, formalized structures (such as the family or education) evolve to serve the purpose that small communities once had. People become more interdependent.
  • Functionalism has been heavily criticized by a number of schools of thought, but has been revised beginning in the 1970s by American Sociologists. Functionalist theories largely argue that social problems and phenomena are, rather than a symptom of a societal flaw, in some way beneficial to society.

What is a Functionalist Theory in Sociology?

Functionalism examines how the social institutions that make up society, such as the economy, education, family, religion, and media, all perform a useful purpose, and also influence members of society.

Functionalism is a theory that views society as a complex but orderly and stable system with interconnected structures and social patterns that operate to meet the needs of individuals in a society.

The main ideas of the Functionalist perspective are that:
  1. There is a social structure that exists independently from individuals. This social structure consists of norms and values passed on through institutions that shape the individual.
  2. Sociologists should study society scientifically in a way that looks for the general laws explaining human action on a macro level.
  3. Socialization is important because individuals need to be regulated for the benefit of everyone. Thus, the integration and regulation of individuals are good. 
  4. Sociologists should analyze society as a system by looking at each social phenomenon and the contribution it makes to the whole of society. Talcott Parsons believed that society acts in a similar way to the human body, as social institutions interact in the same way as human organs. Both are interconnected and inter-dependent parts which function for the good of the whole.
  5. Social institutions usually perform positive functions — such as creating value consensus, social integration, social regulation, preventing anomie, and so on. Functionalism is a consensus theory which assumes that the institutions of society are working together to maintain social cohesion and stability.
  6. Advanced industrial society is better than primitive society, and social order is important so that civilization does not go forward.

Functionalism originated in British anthropology. In particular, the Polish-British anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski (1943) proposed functional analysis as a solution for sociologists to interpret social situations through intuition rather than observation.

According to Malinowski, this functional analysis brings scientific attention to the study of cultures different from those of the ones observing it. Thus, before analyzing a social phenomenon typical of a given culture — say, an institution, material object, or idea — people first must think about what function that social phenomenon has within this culture.

The essential assumption of Malinowski's functionalism is that in every single civilization, every custom, material object, idea, and opinion fulfills some vital function, helping to both express and maintain it. This expressing and maintaining of culture through phenomena that take place within it is called integration.


Examples of Functionalism

The Family

An example of functionalism would be the family. According to functionalism, the family is a societal structure that provides for the reproduction and protection of children. Families serve as a primary agent of socialization, fostering an understanding of expected behaviors, norms, and values.

By meeting the emotional needs of its members, stable families underpin social order and economic stability. Social Problems Mid-twentieth century sociologists were often concerned with policy, and, correspondingly, social problems (Tumin, 1965).

Crime and Deviance

Crime serves a function in society to reinforce what is acceptable behavior, as the public nature of the punishments shows people what will happen for breaking the rules. Very serious crimes can also led to society coming together to condemn the perpetrators.

Deviance refers to actions which go against the norms and values of a society. These may not be against the law but are frowned upon by most in society.

The Education System

An example of functionalism would be the education system. Durkheim and Parsons argued that schools are a ‘society in miniature’ that teach universalistic values. For functionalists, education is central in passing on the mainstream norms and values that keep society together, through the process of secondary socialization. This is achieved hidden curriculum and PSHE lessons

The education system also allows young people to specialize and train for specific jobs based on their abilities. This allows students to move from the ascribed status and particularistic values of the home to an achieved status within society.

Disengagement Theory of Aging

Functionalism underlines perhaps the oldest theory of aging — disengagement theory. Disengagement theory suggests that withdrawal from society and social relationships is a natural part of becoming old. The theory, developed by Elaine Cumming and Warren Earl Henry in their 1961 book, "Growing Old," has largely been disproven.

Nonetheless, disengagement theory has several key postulates, each of which suggesting that the process of losing social ties as one ages is normal, and even beneficial to society. These are (Cumming & Henry, 1961):

  1. Everyone expects death, and one's abilities deteriorate over time. Thus, people will lose ties to those they cannot benefit from.
  2. Individuals will become more freed from the norms imposed by interaction with others in society.
  3. Because of men and women's different roles in society, they will disengage differently.
  4. Aging causes knowledge and skill to deteriorate. However, success in industrialized society demands knowledge and skill. Aging is functional in that it ensures that the young possess sufficient knowledge and skill to assume authority while the old retire before they lose skills.
  5. Complete disengagement results when both the individual and society are ready for disengagement.
  6. The loss of one's functional role in society will cause crisis and demoralization until they assume the role of disengagement.
  7. individuals become ready to disengage when they become aware of their mortality. Each level of society grants aging individuals permission to disengage based on their dwindling contribution to societal institutions.
  8. Disengagement leads to relationships in one's remaining roles changing.
  9. Disengagement theory is independent of culture.

Durkheim and Functionalism

Emile Durkheim is widely considered to be the father of sociology. Durkheim believed that individuals are inherently selfish and social structure and social order are important in that they constrain their selfishness.

However, Durkheim also believed that, as societies evolved in a way that made people more individualistic, maintaining social order became an increasingly difficult problem for society (Pope, 1975).

Durkheim's Key Ideas

Durkheim believed that there is a social structure made up of norms and values. He believed that this structure existed above individuals because individuals are born into a society with norms and values.

People's behaviors, according to Durkheim, were shaped by a social structure, consisting of social facts, such as norms and values, and institutions, which exist external to the individual and constrain the individuals' behavior.

Secondly, Durkheim emphasized that sociologists should use scientific methods to uncover the basic laws that govern human behavior. Durkheim's work was largely aimed at demonstrating the importance of organic solidarity as well as trying to find out what societies must do in order to achieve this organic solidarity (Pope, 1975).

Thirdly, Durkheim believed that individuals have an inborn tendency to be selfish and that it was the goal of society to regulate these selfish desires. This means that Durkheim considered too much freedom to be bad for both the individual and society.

He thought that greater levels of human happiness and "progress" could be achieved if people cooperated together, rather than competing in a war of all against all for scarce resources.

Durkheim and Social Solidarity

Social solidarity and cohesion is achieved and maintained through socialization process and learning of norms and values of society.

To restrain naturally selfish tendencies, Durheim believed that societies need to create a sense of social solidarity — making individuals feel as if they are part of something bigger and teaching them the standards of acceptable behavior.

This is what Durkheim called moral regulation. Both social solidarity and moral regulation rely on effectively socializing individuals into wider society (Pope, 1975). While Durkheim believed that solidarity and moral regulation were achieved in different ways in primitive and advanced industrial societies, these goals were far harder to achieve in industrialized ones.

For example, in "primitive" societies such as Feudal Europe, social regulation worked on a small scale and was locally based, and people lived in the same area their entire lives. There was very little role differentiation and no complex division of labor.

That is to say, people generally had the shared experiences of living in the same village, carrying out the same activities, and living with the same people their entire lives.

Durkheim believed that, because the people in societies such as Feudal Britain shared the same reality, the same goals, and even the same religion, they are closely reliant on one another, meaning that moral regulation and social solidarity are easily achieved. Durkheim called this situation mechanical solidarity: solidarity based on similarity (Pope, 1975).

Meanwhile, during the industrial revolution, the number of specialized tasks increased. The division of labor, as a result, also became more complex. Individuals, despite shifting more toward individualism, became more interdependent — trading self-sufficiency for dependence on a large number of people that they did not know.

As a result, the ability of large social institutions — like religion — to provide universal morals declined. As people within a society ceased to live the same lives, a need to find solidarity grounded in something other than similarity arose. Durkheim called this organic solidarity, a social cohesion that results from the interdependence of people in a society.

Durkheim and Anomie

Without a sense of social solidarity society can fall into anomie, a normlessness where a person doesn’t know what it means to be normal within society.

Durkheim (1897) believed that the vast differences between individuals in industrialized societies created a crisis of moral regulation. Durkheim calls this condition anomie.

He argued that the question of how modern societies could achieve moral regulation and keep individuals compliant was the primary problem of contemporary civilization.

He called this moral regulation organic solidarity: social solidarity based on difference (Pope, 1975).

Durkheim believed that labor organizations and education would provide society with necessary moral regulation because education could simultaneously teach people the diverse skills required for an advanced specialization of labor and provide them with shared norms and values through the teaching of subjects such as history.


Talcott Parsons’ Functionalism

While functionalism before Parsons attempted to produce explanations of everything that exists and happens in a particular time, Parsons aimed to use functionalism to create a general theory of how all social systems work. 

Parsons melded together the theories and key issues of several other sociologists — Durkheim, Marshall and Pereto, and Weber — to create his grand theory.

The Organic Analogy

Talcott Parsons believed that society acts in a similar way to the human body, as social institutions interact in the same way as human organs. Both are interconnected and inter-dependent parts which function for the good of the whole. This is called the organic analogy.

The Body Social Institutions
Each Organ has a unique function Institutions have a unique function
All the bits essentially work together harmoniously All institutions work together harmoniously
Organs are interdependent Institutions are interdependent
The sum is greater than its parts The sum is greater than its parts

Organisms like the human body have needs that need to be met and so does society. Social institutions have evolved to meet society’s needs, such as value consensus and social order.

Parsons believed that one of the most important functions of social institutions is the creation of value consensus: an agreement around shared values. This commitment to common values was, for Parsons, the basis for order in society.

Value Consensus

Value consensus means that a majority of society agree with the goals that society sets to show success. These included values such as a belief in work ethic and meritocracy.

Parsons argued that work ethic ensures that people value working rather than leisure. This helps creates more goods that can help society function, and a belief in meritocracy, that people believe that hard work should be rewarded, thus incentivizing people to work harder.

Value consensus and social order are maintained through institutions of formal social control, such as the police, and informal social groups such as family and schools, who socialize children into social values and norms that are shared by the majority of the society.

Parsons believed that the family is responsible for passing on the basic norms and values of society by providing early socialization, the stabilization of adult personalities, and somewhere for people to escape from the pressures of modern life. -

Education integrates individuals into wider society, promoting a sense of belonging and identity. Parsons believed that education does this through teaching students a shared history and language.

Finally, other institutions can regulate individual behavior through social sanctions. This can prevent crime and deviance from becoming unmanageable.

Functional Prerequisites

Parsons also believed that societies have certain functional prerequisites — things that societies need in order to survive. For example, a society must produce and distribute food and shelter, organize and resolve conflicts, and socialize young people.

Parsons believed that social systems have four needs which must be met for continued survival: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency.

The Four Basic needs of society

  1. Goal Attainment (Political Function): Parsons believed that a society is only possible when there are common standards: the society must have a collective goal, and acceptable means for achieving it. 
  2. Adaption (Economic Function) – Every society has to provide for the needs of its members in order for the society to survive.
  3. Integration (Social Harmony) – Specialist institutions develop to reduce conflict in society. For example education and media create a sense of belonging.
  4. Latency: The unstated consequences of actions – there are 2 types of latency: Pattern Maintenance: Maintaining value consensus through socialization and Tension Management. Opportunities to release tension in a safe way.

Parsons also viewed social change as a process of social evolution. That is to say, he thought that human societies underwent a progression from hunter-gatherers to complex industrial ones and that more complex societies were inherently better because they are more adaptive — able to respond to changes in the environment, more innovative, and more capable of utilizing the talents of a wider range of people.

As a result, in a conclusion echoing Darwinism, these advanced societies are better able to survive.

Parsons believed that several factors bolster societal progress. While economic and technological changes lead to societies evolving, he argued that values increasingly become the driver of social progress in advanced societies.

To Parsons, the values of advanced industrialized societies are superior to those of traditional societies because modern values allow society to be more adaptive. Parsons believed that the collapse of major social institutions — family, education, and so forth, could cause regression into a more primitive form of social organization.

The Social System

Parsons was influenced by many European scholars, such as Malinowski and Weber. Some have argued that Parson's sociology addresses American society in particular, and that it is, rather than an ideological justification of the state of America contemporary to him, an attempt to identify the minimum requirements of integration in a society composed of different ethnic groups with different traditions and cultures.

This means that an action is only a social action when social purposes and standards are identified in the context of interactions that consider their finalities and rules an integral part of the social situation.

Parsons (1951) introduced the idea of a system to address the problem of integration. Parsons said that since people perform actions according to defined principles, rather than in a random way, they have a "personality system."

Here, a system is the set of symbols that make the interaction possible and the network of relationships between people that do not act in an uncoordinated way but according to the positions assigned to them in this network of relations.

Parsons believed that the cultural, personality, and society systems all had to be the same as each other. The culture helps people to create their personality through internalizing the rules and values of a society (Parsons, 1951).

Meanwhile, the internalization of these cultural models gives order and stability to society because all of the people in a society tend to behave in a way that conforms to society's expectations.

There are three parts of every action, according to Parsons:

  • the finality — the goal to reach and negative consequences to avoid (the "cathetic" element);
  • the knowledge of a situation necessary to complete an action — the knowledge element; and, finally, the ability to pick out among many possible choices —
  • the "evaluation" element.

Parson believed that personality can only arise in the context of social relations, which can create a system of common signs and symbols for navigating symbols.

These social relations take place in mutual relations among people who act according to their status and roles. While status defines the position that a person occupies in a system of relations considered to be a structure regardless of personality, roles relate to what someone does in relation to others, and what is typical of a certain status.


Criticisms of Functionalism

Although Parson's first attempts at creating a grand theory of sociology was well-regarded in the 1950s, Neo-Marxists, conflict theorists, and symbolic interactionists criticized him heavily. Eventually, American sociologists attempted to revive the grand theory.

There are a number of criticisms of the functionalist perspective (Holmwood, 2005). Among the most notable include:

  1. Criticism of whether there is really a societal "structure" that exists outside of individuals.
  2. The difficulty in assessing the effects of institutions: To establish whether an institution has positive functions, sociologists need to accurately measure all of the effects an institution had on individuals and all other institutions.

    Because institutions cannot be isolated in controlled experiments, this task is extremely difficult, if not impossible.

  3. Functionalism exaggerates value consensus and social order: scholars have criticized persons for assuming that value consensus exists in societies rather than proving it. Micheal Mann (1970), for instance, argued that social stability might occur because of a lack of consensus rather than because of it.

    If everyone, for example, believed in the value of achievement in meritocracy, then disorder might result because not everyone can reach the highest levels of achievement.

    Thus, Mann believed (1970), social stability is more likely if those at the bottom of society do not follow the society's principle values, which they are less likely to achieve.

  4. Criticism of Functionalism being a deterministic theory: some have criticized functionalism for portraying human behavior as if it is programmable in a precise way by social institutions.
  5. Functionalism ignores class conflict and coercion: Marxists argue that mainstream social values are actually the values of elite groups, and that conflict arises from a small group of elite actors imposing social order on the majority.
  6. Criticism that functionalism is ideological: In arguing that certain institutions are necessary, some have argued that functionalism justifies the existence of the social order as it is. Micheal Mann (1970), for instance, argued that social stability might occur because of a lack of consensus rather than because of it.

    Not all social institutions are functionally indispensable and that there are functional alternatives. For example, the family are not the only institution that can perform primary socialization.

  7. 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.
  8. Generally, functionalism views societal problems as arising from society's natural evolution, when a social problem does happen, it could threaten a society's stability: nonetheless, this does not mean that fundamental flaws in the society exist.

    For that reason, gradual social reform should be all that is needed to address a social problem. Functionalism even suggests that social problems are functional in some ways for society because, otherwise, these problems would not continue.

    For example, while crime is a major social problem, it creates hundreds of thousands of jobs in law enforcement, courts and corrections, home security, and the informal economy, where people engage or deal with crime.

    Similarly, poverty, while a major social problem, coerces poor people to do jobs that people would otherwise not want to do (Gans, 1972). Poverty also provides employment, such as for those who work in social services that help the poor.

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, Feb 28). Understanding Functionalist Theory. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/functionalist-perspective.html

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