Understanding Functionalist Theory

One of the Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

The Careful Balance of Functionalist Theory
The Careful Balance of Functionalist Theory. Illustration by Hugo Lin. ThoughtCo. 

The functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It has its origins in the works of Emile Durkheim, who was especially interested in how social order is possible or how society remains relatively stable. As such, it is a theory that focuses on the macro-level of social structure, rather than the micro-level of everyday life. Notable theorists include Herbert Spencer, Talcott Parsons, and Robert K. Merton.

Emile Durkheim

"The totality of beliefs and sentiments common to the average members of a society forms a determinate system with a life of its own. It can be termed the collective or creative consciousness." The Division of Labour (1893)

Theory Overview

Functionalism posits that society is more than the sum of its parts; rather, each aspect of it works for the stability of the whole. Durkheim envisioned society as an organism since each component plays a necessary role but can't function alone. When one part experiences a crisis, others must adapt to fill the void in some way.

In functionalist theory, the different parts of society are primarily composed of social institutions, each designed to fill different needs. Family, government, economy, media, education, and religion are important to understanding this theory and the core institutions that define sociology. According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves a vital role in the functioning of society. If it no longer serves a role, an institution will die away. When new needs evolve or emerge, new institutions will be created to meet them.

In many societies, the government provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes the state depends on to keep running. The family relies on the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who support the state. From the functionalist perspective, if all goes well, the parts of society produce order, stability, and productivity. If all does not go well, the parts of society must adapt to produce new forms of order, stability, and productivity.

Functionalism emphasizes the consensus and order that exist in society, focusing on social stability and shared public values. From this perspective, disorganization in the system, such as deviant behavior, leads to change because societal components must adjust to achieve stability. When one part of the system is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates social problems, prompting social change.

Functionalist Perspective in American Sociology

The functionalist perspective achieved its greatest popularity among American sociologists in the 1940s and 50s. While European functionalists originally focused on explaining the inner workings of social order, American functionalists focused on discovering the purpose of human behavior. Among these American functionalist sociologists was Robert K. Merton, who divided human functions into two types: manifest functions, which are intentional and obvious, and latent functions, which are unintentional and not obvious.

The manifest function of attending a place of worship, for instance, is to practice one's faith as part of a religious community. However, its latent function may be to help followers learn to discern personal values from institutional ones. With common sense, manifest functions become easily apparent. Yet this is not necessarily the case for latent functions, which often demand a sociological approach to be revealed.

Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Critiques of the Theory

Many sociologists have critiqued functionalism because of its neglect of the often negative implications of social order. Some critics, like Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci, claim that the perspective justifies the status quo and the process of cultural hegemony that maintains it.

Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when doing so may benefit them. Instead, functionalism sees agitating for social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate in a seemingly organic way for any problems that may arise.