Functionalist Theory

The functionalist perspective draws its initial inspiration from the work of Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim. From Spencer comes the comparison of society to a living organism. Any organism has a structure – a number of distinct parts that are interrelated. Secondly, each part has an associated function that contributes to the health and well-being of the organism. Spencer conceived of society as being similar to this. That is, it is composed of distinguishable parts (such as the economy, polity, family). These parts operate together to maintain society and lead to a natural evolutionary process of positive society change: Progress.

Durkheim extended Spencer’s concepts of function and structure and stressed the importance of functional interdependence – parts making up the structure being mutually dependent. Durkheim argued that the cohesive force in society was the set of common values, norms and beliefs shared by all members of that society. He called this the collective conscience. The collective conscience, in turn, led to a particular feeling of belongingness to a society on the part of its members; social solidarity. Therefore, he spent a great lead of effort attempting to distinguish the different values and beliefs that characterized different societies and sub-societies (small distinct and cohesive groups that exist within the larger society, such as Jews in the 19th century Europe).

Durkheim saw social change in a different light than did Spencer. His perspective was that the collective conscience and the type of solidarity would change if the structure of society changed (e.g. if it became more complex). Therefore, he distinguished between primitive ancient societies characterized by a simple division of labor and what he termed mechanical solidarity (a feeling of belongingness based on commonalities and suppression of individuality). Modern society he characterized by its complex division of labor and organic solidarity (a feeling of belongingness based on differences and acceptance of individuality). The collective conscience of society could be seen in its body of law. Durkheim associated repressive law with simple division of labor and mechanical solidarity. He associated restitutive law with complex division of labor and organic solidarity. The shift raised for Durkheim the potential problems of social stability and disorganization. The growth in society’s structural complexity would create problems with maintaining balance and stability among multiple interdependent institutions. At the same time increased complexity and the rise of organic solidarity would mean a loosening of the ties that bind the individual to society. Since Durkheim saw society as providing necessary constraint and regulation on human needs, passions, desires, behaviors, this could be source of social disorganization and anomie.

Modern functionalism has taken the ideas of structure, function, and interdependence and applied them to contemporary social organization. Modern functionalism tends to view society as operating smoothly and without conflict because everybody was dependent upon everybody else. Also, modern societies tend to be stable because of the influence of the common beliefs and values contained in the collective conscience. According to Talcott Parsons all societies must fulfill four basic requirements in order to survive: Adaptation, Goal Attainment, Integration, and Latent Pattern Maintenance. In modern society these functions are performed by separate subsystems. The Economy performs adaptation functions; the Polity is involved in the social process of arriving at social goals and deciding on the best way to achieve them; Religious and Moral institutions supply the common values which achieve social integration; and the family and schools perform the socializing functions that maintain the basic pattern of society. When all the subsystems perform their functions, society tends to be an organized, stable, and well-integrated system in which members of society agree on basic values and orientations. For example, the family teaches the proper social values to children, regulate social behavior (e.g. sexual conduct), take care of the young and the aged who could not otherwise survive. In the functionalist view, a society has an underlying tendency to be in equilibrium (balance). Because changes in one part of the social system usually provokes changes in other subsystems, social change is likely to be disruptive unless it takes place relatively slowly.

When we analyze the consequence of some element of society we must be aware of the fact that the element may have consequences other than those that were originally intended. Robert Merton distinguished between manifest functions – those that are obvious and usually intended; and latent functions – those that are unintended and often unrecognized. For example, the schools have the manifest function of teaching literacy and other skills that are essential if modern industrial society is to survive. But they also have the latent functions of keeping children and young adults occupied in noneconomic activities while there is no room for them in the labor market. In the same way, the welfare system has the manifest function of preventing poor people from starving and going unsheltered, but also the latent function of averting civil strife and revolution that might occur if millions of people have no source of income and security. Merton also pointed out that not all elements in the social system have positive consequences at all times: on occasion some element may actually disrupt the social balance. He used the term dysfunction to refer to negative social consequences. Sometimes an element may be functional in one respect and dysfunctional in another (for instance, when a corporation produces a needed product but also pollutes the environment). In general, functionalism tends to emphasize consensus among the members of society on basic values, social order and stability in the social system. Therefore, functionalists often consider rapid revolutionary changes dysfunctional, even if those changes are necessary and have positive effects in the long run.