Manifest and Latent Functions in Sociology: Definition & Examples

By Charlotte Nickerson, published July 13, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Manifest functions are the intended and recognized outcomes of a social phenomenon. Latent functions are the unintended, unrecognized consequences of a social phenomenon. Many social institutions have both manifest and latent functions.

Both manifest and latent functions can be positive or negative. Negative functions are considered to be "dysfunctional" to society as a whole, even if it benefits select groups.

Many, if not most, institutions have both latent and manifest functions. Consider the institution of slavery during the Atlantic Slave trade. On a larger and graver societal level, the manifest function of slavery was to increase the economic productivity of the Americas, but had the latent function of providing a vast underclass that served to increase the social status of southern whites, both rich and poor.

Social Structure and Social Functions

Social structures are the complex of relationships and systems that organize and regulate interpersonal phenomena in a group or society. The social structure of a group includes its norms and roles and the status, attraction, and communication relations that link one member to another.

The social structure of a society includes the complex of relations among its constituent individuals, groups, institutions, customs, mores, and so on.

Social functions describe the way that the behavior of individuals and groups relate to the larger institutions and constructs of a society. The functionalist school, led by sociologists such as Talcott Parsons, posited that there is a reciprocal relationship between social functions and institutions: institutions are inherently functional for society.

However, the first sociologist to unearth and differentiate between the exact functions that these institutions serve was Robert Merton. Merton defined two main categories of social functions: manifest and latent (Merton, 2016).

Robert Merton's Theory of Manifest & Latent Functions

American sociologist Robert K. Merton laid out his theory of manifest function (and latent function and dysfunction too) in his 1949 book Social Theory and Social Structure.

Merton was inspired by the work of Talcott Parsons, who argued that all social institutions serve essential functions in society. This is a view known as functionalism.

Functionalism is a sociological perspective that emphasizes the role of social institutions in promoting stability and order in society. According to functionalists, all actions and social structures serve some purpose, even if that purpose is not immediately apparent.

Manifest Functions

The term manifest function refers to the anticipated and intended goals of an action or social structure. More casually, this means the reason why something is done.

Manifest functions can apply to any object or institution, so long as they are officially codified or stated in some way.

For example, the manifest function of cell phones is to allow mobile communication between people, the manifest function of clothing is to protects the wearer from the elements, and the manifest function of a wedding is the public acknowledgement of union between two or more people which legitimates sexual activity and subsequent children.

Manifest functions are important because they help individuals and groups to achieve their goals. They tend to be consciously and deliberately intended to produce beneficial outcomes, and thus can be used as a way of justifying the continual existence of an institution (Merton, 2016).

Latent Functions

Merton expanded the functionalist perspective by considering the unanticipated consequences of functional institutions. Although most people are aware of the intended consequences of institutions, Merton believed that sociological analysis is required to uncover the unintended consequences of them.

Latent functions are just one type of unanticipated consequence, which are notable in that they are functional for the designated system. He specified that there can also be unintentional consequences that are dysfunctional, and those that act neither functionally nor dysfunctionally. Sociologists call the first of these latent dysfunctions (Merton, 2016).

The latent function of an action is the unanticipated consequence of that action. In contrast to manifest functions, latent functions are not publicly acknowledged or intended by participants.

For example, the latent function of cell phones may be to provide a distraction from boredom, the latent function of clothing may be to attract mates, and the latent function of a wedding may be to provide an opportunity for extended families to socialize.

Latent functions are important because they can often have more influence on behavior than manifest functions, as people are often unaware, and thus less likely to be able to stop or control them (Merton, 1949).

Examples of Manifest Functions

manifest functions of education

The first manifest function of education is socialization, which refers to the process of learning the norms and values of one's culture. This is done primarily through the family, but schools also play a role. Socialization prepares individuals to participate in society (Elster, 1990).

Social control refers to the ways in which education instills values that support the status quo and social order. Social control ensures that people conform to societal expectations and do not challenge the established power structure.

The third manifest function of education is social placement. This refers to the ways in which education sorts individuals into different roles.

Fourthly, education transmits  culture. Culture includes the values, beliefs, and norms of a group of people. Education teaches individuals about their own culture as well as the cultures of others.

The fifth manifest function of education is promoting social and political integration. Education brings people together and helps them to understand and appreciate diversity. It also teaches people how to participate in society.

Finally, education is an agent of change. It can challenge existing beliefs and promote new ideas.


manifest functions of religion 

The manifest  function of religion is to provide a set of beliefs and practices that give meaning to life. This includes providing a sense of purpose, teaching morality, and offering comfort in times of trouble.

Religion also serves as a social institution. It brings people together and provides a way for them to interact with each other. Religion can also promote social cohesion by teaching people to cooperate and work together for the common good.

Another manifest function of religion is promoting order and stability. Religion does this by teaching people to follow rules and behave in ways that are considered socially acceptable. Religion can also help reduce crime by instilling values that discourage criminal behavior.

Finally, religion can be used as a tool for political control, by legitimizing the authority of monarchs and rulers, who are often considered to hold a privileged status in the state's religion (Elster, 1990).


manifest functions of family

There are several  manifest functions of the family. The first is procreation, which is the biological process of reproduction. The family is responsible for producing and raising children.

The second manifest function of the family is socialization. This refers to the process of learning the norms and values of one's culture. The family is primarily responsible for socializing children, but schools and other institutions also play a role. Socialization prepares individuals to participate in society.

The third manifest function of the family is providing economic security. The family does this by pooling resources and sharing expenses. The family also provides emotional support through giving love, care, and affection to their members. They also offer assistance during difficult times.

Finally, the family serves as a  unit of consumption. Families often purchase goods and services together, which helps to support the economy (Elster, 1990).


manifest functions of media

The media has  several manifest functions. The first is to provide information. The media gathers and disseminates information about current events, trends, and issues.

The second manifest function of the media is to entertain. The media provides entertainment through television, movies, music, and other forms of art.

The third manifest function of the media is to provide a public forum. The media provides a platform for discussion and debate on various topics. It also allows people to share their opinions and ideas with a wider audience.

Fourthly, the media can act as a check on government power. The media can investigate and report on government actions, which helps to ensure accountability.

Finally, the media can promote cultural cohesion by providing a common set of experiences and values that people can share, as they reference TV shows, movies, and news stories in their everyday interactions (Elster, 1990).


manifest functions of healthcare

Healthcare and health clubs have  several manifest functions. The first is to promote physical health. Healthcare provides services and facilities that help people to maintain their physical health.

This includes preventive care, such as immunizations, as well as treatment for illnesses and injuries. Health clubs provide opportunities for people to exercise and stay fit.

The second manifest function of healthcare is to promote mental health. Healthcare provides services that help people to maintain their mental health. This includes counseling, therapy, and medication. Health clubs also provide opportunities for people to relax and destress.

The third manifest function of healthcare is to extend life expectancy. Healthcare does this by providing access to medical care and treatment. Health clubs also promote healthy lifestyles that can lead to longer life expectancy.

Finally, healthcare can provide social support through the  provision of services, such as home health care and hospice care. This can help people to feel connected and supported during difficult times (Elster, 1990).


manifest functions of government

Governments  have several manifest functions that have justified their existence for millenia. The first is to maintain order. Governments do this by enacting laws and enforcing them.

The second manifest function of government is to protect citizens. Governments do this by providing security, both through the military and through law enforcement. The third manifest function of government is to provide public goods and services. These include things like roads, bridges, parks, and schools.

Governments also provide social welfare programs, such as healthcare and retirement benefits. Finally, governments represent the interests of their citizens. They do this by making decisions about how to best use resources and by negotiating with other countries.

In addition, governments  also provide a voice for citizens on the international stage. They do this by participating in international organizations and treaties.

Finally,  governments also play a role in promoting economic development. They do this by creating favorable conditions for businesses, such as by providing infrastructure and by enacting business-friendly regulations (Elster, 1990).

Examples of Latent Functions

latent function for family

In addition to a number of manifest functions, the family promotes adherence to social norms and the selection of one's role in society as well as shaping one's political beliefs and attitudes toward those from outside the family.

For example, those in a one-parent family may develop a more tolerant and diverse view of family structures, and become more accepting of non-nuclear family structures such as those created by blended families and through extended ties.

Historically, the family has also served as a unit of labor. Children may work at a family's business, providing economic benefit (Elster, 1990).


latent function for school

The first latent function of education is creating a common language. People from different backgrounds communicate with each other when they are taught in the same language. The second latent function of education is providing a sense of community.

Education brings people together and helps them to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves. Thirdly,  education develops critical thinking skills. This is important because it allows people to question the status quo and to think for themselves (Elster, 1990).

Finally, education promotes social mobility, allowing people who have obtained it to achieve greater social status (Javier et al, 2002). However, education can also promote social inequality.  This is because some people have access to better education than others.

Those of higher social class can send their children to private schools that groom children to conform to the social behaviors of the elites, while those in underfunded school systems can be trapped in a cycle of poverty and crime.


latent function of religion

Latent functions of religion include instilling values, providing community, and promoting social cohesion (Durkheim, 2005).

The first latent function of religion is social control. This means that religion helps to keep people in line by teaching them about right and wrong.  Religion also provides a sense of community, which can help to prevent crime.

The second latent function of religion is providing meaning in life. This is important because it helps people to make sense of the world and their place in it. Religion also helps people to deal with difficult life events, such as death and loss.

Finally, religion can promote social cohesion . This is important because it helps to keep society together by teaching people about common values and beliefs (Elster, 1990).


latent functions of the media

The media can serve many unintentional  or latent functions. One is providing a distraction from everyday problems. This can help people to forget their troubles and to focus on something else.

The media can also serve as a source of entertainment. This can help people to relax and to enjoy themselves. Additionally, the media can provide information about new products and services. This can help people to make informed choices about what they buy.

Finally, the media can act as a watchdog, exposing corruption and wrongdoing. This can help to keep people safe and to hold those in power accountable. Alternatively, however, they can promote confirmation bias  by only presenting one side of an issue.

This can lead to people making ill-informed decisions and lead to, for example, political polarization in the public (Elster, 1990).


latent functions of healthcare 

Besides  the manifest function of keeping people healthy, healthcare also has several latent functions. These include providing employment, promoting social cohesion, and acting as a safety net.

Healthcare provides employment for doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. It also promotes social cohesion by bringing people together to work towards a common goal.

Finally, healthcare acts as a safety net by providing care for those who cannot afford it. This helps to reduce inequality and to ensure that everyone has access to basic medical care (Elster, 1990).

On the flip side, these latent functions can have negative consequences. Healthcare  can be a strain on the economy, and it can promote dependency.

Additionally, healthcare can be used as a tool for perpetuating inequality. Expensive and inaccessible healthcare, for example, can create divides in life expectancy and quality of life along the lines of social class (Elster, 1990).


latent functions of government

Government also has several latent functions, which are often more difficult to see. One latent function of government is social control. This means that the government helps to keep people in line by making laws and enforcing them.

Another latent function of government is promoting social cohesion. This means that the government brings people together and helps them to feel like they belong to something larger than themselves. One example of a government creating social cohesion is through patriotism.

Finally, the government can act as a safety net. This means that it provides help for those who need it, such as the unemployed or the sick. Governments can step in during natural disasters and economic recessions, providing support for areas and people who do not have resources.

While these functions can have positive effects, they can also have negative consequences. For example, social control can lead to oppression, and the safety net can promote dependency (Elster, 1990).

Dysfunction: When Latent Functions Do Harm

Latent functions are inherently unintentional, and these unintentional consequences can be either beneficial (functional) for a system as a whole or detrimental (dysfunctional) to it. These effects are often not immediately apparent, which can make it difficult to tell whether a latent function is actually functional or dysfunctional.

One example of a latent dysfunction is when the media only presents one side of an issue. This can lead to people making ill-informed decisions and lead to, for example, violent actions in response to a biased presentation of an issue. This can be dysfunctional for both the media outlet itself — which may garner a harmed reputation — as well as the target of the backlash and the media industry as a whole.

An unscrupulous government, for example, may use reports of bias in the media as justification for taking over or heavily influencing all media outlets, leading to a reduced ability for people to scrutinize the government and express themselves through media (Elster, 1990).

Merton pointed out that a structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole yet may continue to exist. For example, many sociologists argue that while discrimination against black people, females, and other minority groups is dysfunctional for society, it continues to exist because it is functional for a part of the social system.

For example, wage discrimination against females is generally functional and beneficial for males, who tend to earn higher wages as a result (Elster, 1990).

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 13). Manifest and Latent Functions in Sociology: Definition & Examples. Simply Sociology. https://simplysociology.com/manifest-latent-function.html

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Helm, P. (1971). Manifest and latent functions. The Philosophical Quarterly (1950-), 21(82), 51-60.

Javier, G. (2017). Putting social rights at risk: Assessing the impact of education market reforms in Chile. In Privatization and the education of marginalized children (pp. 143-160). Routledge.

Merton, R. K., & Merton, R. C. (1968). Social theory and social structure. Simon and Schuster.