Functionalism Essay

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Functionalism is a theoretical perspective emphasizing the contributions made by social arrangements (e.g. institutions, cultural values, norms, rites) to the maintenance and reproduction of society and culture. It often rests on an analogy between societies and biological organisms (e.g. in early functionalists like Herbert Spencer and Emile Durkheim), although later functionalist social anthropologists (e.g. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Bronislaw Malinowski) often jettisoned the organic analogy. Functionalists frequently emphasize the scientific nature of their work and adopt a positivist philosophical standpoint.

Durkheim’s functionalist method appeared first in The Division of Labor in Society (1893). He argued that the complex division of labor in modern society normally promoted organic solidarity through the mutual dependence of differing forms of labor. This discussion had a strong influence on Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functional analysis. Durkheim also thought deviant behavior provided opportunities for the expression of the collective consciousness of society through the execution of rituals of punishment. In the Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), Durkheim argued religion was a unified system of beliefs and practices concerning the sacred and its primary function was to integrate individuals into a moral community.

After World War II, these earlier functionalist perspectives were adapted and modified by Parsons and Robert K. Merton. They both created schools of thought, Parsons at Harvard and Merton at Columbia, where each trained a new generation of sociologists. Functionalism became the dominant theoretical perspective in the post-war period through their work and that of their students. In The Social System (1951), Parsons developed a systematic theory of society focused on the four functional problems of social systems: adaptation to their environment, goal attainment, integration, and cultural pattern maintenance. Parsons emphasized the exchanges and equilibrium among institutions fulfilling these functions (e.g. the economy, government, law, education, religion, the family). Disequilibria among these various institutions helped explain social change. Parsons emphasized the relations between culture and society and the integrative role of common values in creating social consensus. He developed a theory of social evolution focused on increasing social differentiation and the development of universalistic cultural values. Parsons’s macro-functionalism was adopted in various ways by Marion Levy, Robert N. Bellah, and Neil Smelser, who applied its framework to the comparative study of societies such as England, China, Japan, and others. Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore used functionalist methods for the study of social stratification and argued that functionalism was largely identical with sociological analysis.

By contrast, in Social Theory and Social Structure (1949), Merton forged a more flexible ”paradigm” of functional analysis with empirical applications. He rejected the functional necessity of particular social arrangements and argued for the idea of functional equivalence, in which differing concrete social arrangements could satisfy particular social functions. Merton emphasized negative dysfunctions along with positive functions and argued that social institutions have both positive and negative consequences for a society or some segment of it. He especially emphasized the ”latent” character of social functions and dysfunctions, their largely unrecognized and unintended quality. Merton promoted ”middle range” analysis, linking focused theorizing with empirical research on bureaucracy, deviance, reference groups, public opinion, propaganda, and others topics, thus avoiding the pitfalls of both of Parsons’ ”grand theory” and theoretically ungrounded empiricism.

Functionalism, particularly its Parsonian variety, came under increasing criticism by conflict theorists, symbolic interactionists, and others unpersuaded by functionalists’ claims. Ralf Dahrendorf, C. Wright Mills, Barrington Moore, and others drew on Marx and Weber to emphasize the problems of political power, class conflict and bureaucratic organization. In their view, functionalism not only avoided such realities, but also had conservative political implications. In the 1960s, movements of national liberation, intergenerational revolt, civil rights, black nationalism, women’s rights, and the anti-Vietnam war movement placed power, inequality, and conflict on the sociological agenda. Functionalism seemed out of touch with these explosive social changes. In response, Parsons addressed the problem of power by treating it (along with money) as a generalized medium of communication in society. In related efforts to address the issues of conflict and change, Parsons’ collaborator, Neil Smelser, wrote his Theory of Collective Behavior (1962), while Merton’s student, Lewis Coser wrote The Social Functions of Conflict (1956), drawing ideas from Georg Simmel’s work.

Herbert Blumer’s symbolic interactionism, Erving Goffman’s sociology of everyday life, and various forms of social constructionism offered other critiques of functionalism. In their view, the functionalist emphasis on macro structures, institutions, and culture reified complex processes of social interaction among individuals whose mutually oriented actions created ”society” and ”culture”. Another influential critic, George Homans, in his 1964 Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association, made a plea for ”bringing men back in” and in Social Behavior: Its Elementary Forms (1961) developed an individualistic social theory rooted in social behaviorism and focused on exchange. In a different vein, Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in The Social Construction of Reality (1966), merged ideas from Marx, Durkheim, Weber, phenomenology, and symbolic interactionism to attack functionalism on its own ground by offering an alternative theory of society and culture at both micro and micro levels.

In recent decades, functionalism was revived by a new wave of ”neo-functionalists” such as Jeffrey Alexander, Niklas Luhmann, Jiirgen Habermas, and others who have linked functionalism to conflict theory, systems theory, social evolutionism, and political theorizing. Despite their innovations, these neo-functionalist theoretical amalgams draw heavily on one or another element of Parsons’ structural functional theory and his efforts to forge a ”grand theory” of society and culture has provided them with a decisive impetus, despite their considerable modification of his ideas.


  • Alexander,    (1998)   Neo-functionalism   and After. Blackwell, Malden, MA.

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