Outline of Theory
Functionalism is a structural theory that was created by Durkheim (1858 - 1917) that studies sociology as a whole. It sees
contemporary society as a system with all parts inter-related and working together to meet the needs of society. In other words,
society operates like a living organism (the body) with interdependent structures of society such as medicine, families, education
and religion (the heart and lungs etc). Every society is made up of four sub-systems: economic, political, family, and cultural
systems such as education, religion and the media. Each sub-system functions to maintain a healthy society.
Merton’s Strain Theory
Indispensibility – Merton says Parsons is wrong to say everything in society is indispensible in it’s existing form.
Merton suggests alternatives e.g. Parsons assumes primary socialisation is best performed by the nuclear family,
but it may be that one-parent families or communes do it just as well if not better.
Cultural systems socialise individuals to conform to society’s norms and values. This creates a value consensus, which is a shared
agreement of norms and values by all individuals in society.
Value consensus and social order
Parsons argues that social order is achieved through the existence of a shared culture or a central value system
A culture is a set of norms, values, beliefs and goals shared by members of a society. It provides a framework that
allows individuals to co-operate by laying down rules about how they should behave and what others may expect
of them, defining the goals they should pursue
Social order is only possible so long as members of society agree on these norms and values
Parsons calls this agreement value consensus. This is the glue that holds society together.
Functional Unity – Complex modern society may have many parts, some of which may only be distantly ‘related’
to one another. Instead of functional unity, some may have ‘functional autonomy’ (independence) from others.
It is hard to see the connections between, say, the structure of banking and the rules of netball
The System’s Needs according to Parsons
Adaptation (the economic function) – Every society has to provide an adequate standard of life for the survival of its
members. Human societies vary from fairly basic hunter-gatherer societies to complex industrial societies.
Goal Attainment (the political function) – Societies must develop ways of making decisions. Human societies vary
from dictatorships to democracies.
Integration (social harmony) – Each institution in society develops in response to particular functions. However,
there is no guarantee that the different institutions will not develop elements that may conflict. For example, in
capitalism, economic inequalities may lead to possible resentment between groups. Specialist institutions, which
seek to limit the potential conflict, therefore develop. These could include religions as well as charities and
Latency (individuals beliefs and values) – The previous three functional prerequisites all deal with the structure of
society. This final prerequisite deals instead with individuals and how they cope. Parsons divides latency into two
Pattern maintenance: This refers to the problems faced by people when conflicting demands are made
of them, such as being a member of a minority religious group and a member of a largely Christianbased society. In contemporary sociological terms, this would be called the issue of identity.
Tension management: If a society is going to continue to exist, then it needs to motivate people to
continue to belong to society and not to leave or oppose it.
Parsons identifies two types of society: traditional and modern. As one changes to the other, Parsons argues that this change is a
gradual, evolutionary process of increasing complexity and structural differentiation. This change is seen to occur through
moving equilibrium. This means where one part of the system changes, it produces compensatory changes in another part.
Thus, the rise of industry brings a change in the family from extended to nuclear. In this way society gradually changes from one
type to another.
If one part of the system does break down and becomes dysfunctional then this can affect all other aspects of society. For
example dysfunctional families have been connected to crime, mental illness and low levels of educational achievement, in this
way social order and stability are threatened (in the same way heart disease will cause the whole body to become weak). Where
socialisation is inadequate, or aspects of society become dysfunctional, or where social change is rapid anomie can occur.
According to Durkheim this means a state of normlessness, which is when society is unsure of what social norms are.
Functionalists maintain that social inequality in society is both inevitable and functional, so acts as a motivator for people to
strive for high social class positions.
Universal functionalism – some things may be functional for some groups, yet dysfunctional for others.
Merton also suggested a useful distinction between manifest and latent functions: a manifest is the intended
function, and the latent is the unintended function e.g. working in a hospital the manifest function is to provide
healthcare to people, but the latent function might be that you meet a partner there and go on to begin a family.
Durkheim developed a number of concepts to help him to explain and research society. ‘Social Fact’
was one of them. In order to discover ‘Social Fact’ scientific research methods are preferable.
Functionalists therefore see sociology as a science and therefore favour the quantitative, positivist
approach. They like questionnaires, structured interviews and official statistics.
Durkheim’s Suicide study is a classic example of using official Statistics to research societal causes of
suicide. Functionalists also accept official Crime Statistics.
Functionalism has wider theoretical appeal. Its underlying ideas have been taken up by other structural
perspectives and has generated new theories and research from the New Right e.g. like functionalists, the New
Right believe that the family is the ‘heart’ of society.
Functionalism recognises the structural nature of society. It demonstrates the links between major social
institutions for e.g education, religion and the economy.
Durkheim’s and Parson’s work has provided insights that have helped modern sociologists to understand
contemporary societies and many of its basic assumptions still guide much sociological research. For example,
the idea that society should be seen as a whole, society is structured and that social structure directs human
Neo-Functionalism - There are still followers of functionalism today e.g. Mouzelis (1995) and Alexander (1985).
They both argue strongly for Parson’s systematic approach. They dispute arguments that Parson’s is not
interested in how people act, and argue that Parsonian theory can allow people to be ‘reflexive’ (making
Application of Functionalism
decisions for themselves). These modifications also help explain social change.
Educational systems socialise individuals into norms and values through the formal and hidden curriculum e.g.
Educational systems provide a vital role in allocating individuals into a class based society through meritocratic
Criticism of neo-functionalism support - New Right/neoliberal perspectives are still much more influential
today due to our economic and political advancement
The family is at the heart of society. Murdock (1949) claimed that the family is so useful to society that it is
inevitable and universal.
One of the main functions of the family is primary socialisation, through which children learn to accept and value the
norms and values of society.
Functionalism tends to over-emphasise the harmonious nature of society and fails to see that some groups are
disadvantaged by society. Marxists, for example, criticise functionalism for its inability to explain conflict e.g.
between the working and ruling class and change. It could be argued that they look at the world through ‘rose
Religion plays a functional and positive role in society. It integrates people and provides support and guidance. In
‘The Elementary Forms of Religious Life’ Durkheim described religion as the primary force for social regulation.
Neo-functionalists such as Bellah (1970) believe that religion still performs essential social functions, but on a more
They offer a structural causal explanation of crime & deviance. The causes are said to lie within the social structure
of society and subcultures.
Durkheim believed that a certain amount of crime and deviance could be seen as positive for society, helping to
clarify boundaries of acceptable behaviour and generate change.
Teleology is the idea that things exist because of their effect or function. For example, the functionalist claim
that the family exists because children need to be socialised is teleological – it explains the existence of the
family in terms of its effect. However, critics argue that a real explanation of something is one that identifies a
cause – and logically, a cause must come before its effect.
Functionalism provides an inadequate explanation of social change. It simply states that if change does occur it
will be due to evolutionary factors rather than anything else.
Dennis Wrong (an action theorist) criticises functionalism’s deterministic view of the individual. Individuals
have no freewill or choice – they are mere puppets whose strings are pulled by the social system. The action
approach takes the opposite view – that individuals create society by their interactions.
Finally, postmodernists argue that functionalism assumes that society is stable and orderly. As such, it cannot
account for the diversity and instability that exist in today’s post-modern society.
Although functionalists provide a useful insight into the workings of society the theory is ideologically driven. Therefore, the theory is reductionist as it fails to take into account competing theoretical ideas.
Postmodernists are critical of the functional meta-narrative as they claim to have a ‘totalising’ (all encompassing) theory of society. Postmodernists maintain that rival narratives should be considered for a full account
of social life.