Latent functions are unintended and unrecognized consequences of intended, recognized manifest functions. Robert K. Merton contributed the original sociological explication of latent functions in his Social Theory and Social Structure of 1957. Merton, who borrowed the terms manifest and latent from Freud’s theory of dreams, explained that latent functions can be functional, dysfunctional, or irrelevant for a social system. According to Freud, dreams use the images of everyday life as manifest content representing the true latent content of repressed desires. As Merton described, several social scientists—such as Marx, Durkheim, and Veblen—implicitly referred to latent consequences in their writings.
Merton’s explication of latent functions relegates these outcomes mainly to the realm of social systems. For instance, an ethnic family may organize festivals to celebrate the achievements of its children (graduations, marriages, etc.) and invite other neighborhood members to the celebrations. The festivals serve the manifest function of observing the achievements of the children and the latent function of reinforcing the solidarity of the neighborhood members.
The condition that latent functions must be unrecognized by social actors is important in order to distinguish between manifest dysfunctions and true latent functions, since the former are unintended outcomes visible to social actors. For example, a local government may develop a large tract of public housing for poor people only to see the housing projects become poverty concentrations ripe with dangerous activities that threaten tenants.
Yet, it is not clear that all latent functions must remain unrecognized forever. Some latent functions may be eventually recognizable, but when they are, they are not necessarily consciously connected to the manifest functions from which they sprang. An example of such a latent case is a university campus that has become a marketplace for locating marital partners. The students may be aware that the campus provides access to potential marital partners but may not make a strong connection between this function and the manifest function of the university providing higher-level education.
The condition that latent functions are unrecognized illustrates the difference between the perspectives of social systems and human agency. Merton seems to restrict the knowledgeability of human agents, while Anthony Giddens credits them with being skilled and knowledgeable practitioners of social action. But, according to Giddens, unrecognized conditions and unintended consequences of social action still bound the knowledgeability of human actors. That is, human agents cannot have complete knowledge of the outcomes of their actions, especially regarding unintended consequences.
Another question is that of the time span for latent functions to develop. At the level of social systems or human agency, nothing can prevent manifest functions from having delayed latent outcomes. One could argue that it is precisely the continuity of some manifest functions that produces certain kinds of latent functions. For example, long-term European colonization fragmented African regions and created artificial, multicultural states that, after decolonialization, lapsed into interethnic conflict.
- Giddens, Anthony. 1995. A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism. 2nd ed. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
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