According to functionalism in sociology, society is interwoven like a complex web. It is comprised of different institutions. Each institution fulfills a specific role that keeps society as a whole functional.
In sociology, functionalism examines the means by which a multitude of social structures (e.g. economic conditions, family relationships, religious practices, media outlets, etc.) fulfill their purpose and how these operate in relation to other structures in equilibrium.
Key social institutions explored in functionalism in sociology include: the education system, hospitals, workplaces, factories, religion, and families. A key question is:
“What is the role of this institution in upholding society, the status quo, and social hierarchies?”
(Not to be confused with: Functionalism in Psychology)
Functionalism in Sociology: Overview
It is one of the most prevalent theoretical frameworks in sociology and other social sciences.
Many of its concepts come from biological theories and the analogy of the human body. In the way that the human body is studied in relation to the interoperability its different organs and how they all operate together, a similar rationale is applied to a society. It also consists of elements that are interrelated and interact to complete an entity.
Holmwood (2005) explains that despite its rising prominence in the 1950s, functionalist sociological theory can be traced back to the field of anthropology in the early 20th century.
Most notably, it is influenced by British anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown.
Emile Durkheim is also credited for his functionalist ideology and is seen as the most central historical figure in promoting the theory in sociology.
Cam & Irmak (2014) note that Durkheim:
“…approaches society as an organic unity with its sub-systems and a social fact to be observed with scientific methods … the social systems have vital functions in order to survive … any failure or breakdown of function within the system will result in problems such as social disorder, disintegration, and anomie“(p. 1304).
Functionalism in Sociology Examples
- The Role of Education in Society: Education systems, at all levels, instill in people not only values and norms of that society, but they create an overall shared sense of community. They are therefore a core social institution holding together other social institutions such as the workforce and economy.
- The Role of Religion in Society: Religion defines norms of behaviors and different belief systems among different groups in a society.
- The Role of Family in Society: Functionalists hold that the family is an important building block in a society. If we look at different societies around the world, we can compare types of family structures and examine how those different family structures affect societal differences as a whole.
- The Social Role of the Workplace: The varied occupations that form an economy serve a crucial role in society. Equilibrium between the working class and capitalist class may help achieve social balance and relative harmony.
- The Three Branches of Power: The law-making, judicial, and executive branches of power in democracies such as the USA share power and balance each other, helping to achieve a constrained but functioning democracy.
- The Role of Media in Society: Current events and vital information are provided by media outlets. Free press, with balance of views across the press landscape and fair moderation, helps to uphold a stable liberal democracy.
- The Role of Language in Society: Language maintains a shared identity between communities in a society, allowing them to share ideas and communicate.
- The Role of Technological Systems in Society: Many goods and services (e.g., the internet, online shopping, entertainment, etc.) are a result of technology systems.
- Davis and Moore’s “Theory of Social Stratification”: Certain tasks in society are more important than others, and therefore should have a higher reward (higher pay scale). Thus, they argue that social stratification is a natural and positive phenomenon.
- Robert Merton’s “Theory of Manifest and Latent Functions”: Merton argues that functionalism is not just about the surface benefits of an institution, but also the unintended benefits. He uses the example of religion, that doesn’t just promote moral values, but also has the unintended function (i.e. latent function) of creating social bonds and networks.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Functionalist View of Religion
Premise: Religion defines norms of behaviors and different belief systems among different groups in a society.
Religion has an extremely influential role in creating social standards, shared moral codes, and distinct belief systems for large groups of people.
Many functionalist sociologists view religion as an essential institution that underpins a functioning society.
Paulson (2021), a proponent of the functionalist perspective, explains the role of religion from a functionalist perspective:
“…religion depends on society for its existence, value, and significance, and vice versa. Inferring this perspective, religious functionalism serves several purposes, like: offering answers to spiritual mysteries, providing emotional comfort, and creating a place for social interaction, social control and adhesive groups formation”(p. 173).
In his 2021 study, Paulson sees religion as a driving force for social justice against corruption in Ghana; something that can break down barriers between groups and provide a true sense of unity against injustice.
Paulson (2021) voices agreement with Emile Durkheim’s beliefs:
“Religion offers the solidification and preservation of society through cohesive and unifying rituals or worship. One basic factor for this postulation is that, how can human societies of diverse people and cultures be held together? This is why he regards religion as one of the strongest forces capable of binding peoples, groups and societies together irrespective of their differences” (p. 174)
2. Functionalism and Social Stratification
Premise: Social stratification is a natural and required element of a functioning complex society.
Davis and Moore’s Theory of Social Stratification (1945) proposes that a certain level of stratification is required for the successful operation of society.
It claims that the numerous roles in society demand varied levels of education, proficiency, expertise, and training.
As a result, societies should provide a greater reward to people in these crucial positions as motivation to perform their job to the best of their ability.
The reward (e.g., higher pay scale) should also come with the expectation that a role is being filled by the most qualified, competent candidates. In theory, this reward system will form a hierarchy that helps society function more effectively.
Griffiths et al. (2017) summarize the theory by saying:
“According to Davis and Moore, a firefighter’s job is more important than, for instance, a grocery store cashier’s. The cashier position does not require the same skill and training level as firefighting. Without the incentive of higher pay and better benefits, why would someone be willing to rush into burning buildings? If pay levels were the same, the firefighter might as well work as a grocery store cashier. Davis and Moore believed that rewarding more important work with higher levels of income, prestige, and power encourages people to work harder and longer”(para 3).
However, this brings in the question of other occupations in our society, and the immense reward these jobs generate in comparison to others.
For example, is the salary of a baseball player or an actor or actress appropriate, when being compared to a doctor that saves people’s lives?
Many of the teachers who teach in society are often underpaid; do they not need incentives to inspire young people to succeed in society?
It is worth noting that Melvin M. Tumin (1919-1994) proposed that it was impossible to evaluate the functional value of any role in society objectively.
According to Tumin (1953),
“…to assert that engineers in a factory are more important than the unskilled laborer necessitates the acceptance of the unimportance of the latter” (p. 387).
He believed that in an assembly production line, each position is interrelated and thus of functional significance.
Moreover, Tumin contends that rigidly held systems of stratification drastically impede the discovery of new talent, instead of encouraging people to succeed.
He points out that this is particularly true in the fields of training and education (Tumin, 1953, p. 387).
3. Robert Merton’s “Theory of Manifest and Latent Functions”
American sociologist Robert Merton (1910-2003) posited a theory that recognized that social action has multiple outcomes, including:
- Manifest functions: anticipated positive functions of social actions and institutions, as well as
- Latent functions: unanticipated positive functions of social actions and institutions.
A clear example is higher education. When a student attends college, they enroll to learn and gain a certain skill set. However, the latent outcome is that they also create networking opportunities and valuable social skills they will use in society once they graduate.
Merton also highlights unanticipated negative consequences as well, which he calls dysfunctions, or what economists might call negative externalities.
Merton (1968) presents potential unanticipated positive consequences of religious ceremonies that might, on the outside, seem absurd:
“Ceremonials may fulfill the latent function of reinforcing the group identity […] as Durkheim among others long since indicated, such ceremonials are a means by which collective expression is afforded the sentiments which, in a further analysis, are found to be a basic source of group unity. Through the systematic application of the concept of latent function, therefore, apparently irrational behavior may at times be found to be positively functional for the group” (p. 4)
While the manifest function of a religious group conducting a ceremony is to worship a God, or celebrate a custom, the latent function is bringing the religion members closer together, thereby solidifying the religious bond.
Criticisms of Functionalism
Today, functionalism comes under fierce criticism from critical theorists and postmodernists who believe that it fails to acknowledge the harmful effects of social institutions that, in their attempts to achieve stability, cause social inequality.
The following are a few key criticisms:
- Overemphasis on stability and order: The theory overemphasizes the importance of social stability for achieving social harmony. It fails to acknowledge that social institutions – designed to achieve stability – are established at the expense of individual agency and often force individuals into adhering to predetermined social roles. For example, it fails to critique the negative psychological effects of ascribed statuses in society.
- Ignoring social inequality: Far from sufficiently examining social inequality, functionalism’s focus on social order often leads to the endorsement of social inequality and injustice. Ironically, social inequality caused by the social institutions endorsed by functionalism may undermine the stability of society and therefore be counterproductive to functionalism’s thesis.
- Limited focus on social change: Functionalism tends to focus on maintenance of stability and order rather than the ways society can change – both subtly and radially – through the agency of individuals. Nevertheless, in this article, we explore a functionalist view of social change that embraces the role of social movements in effecting incremental change.
- Simplistic view of social systems: Functionalism may have an overly simplistic view of social systems. For example, it may not fully account for the ways in which social structures are shaped by factors like culture, the struggle for change, history, and politics.
- Lack of attention to individual experiences: A key criticism of the postmodernists is that functionalism does not adequately account for the subjective experiences of individuals in society. From a postmodern perspective, the ‘metanarratives’ that many functionalists embrace can be undermined and deflected by individuals who exercise agency to subvert the imposition of social order on their lives. See: postmodernism in sociology.
Despite its flaws, functionalism continues to play a fundamentally important role in sociological analysis. It is a theory that has underpinned many key theories of how societies function and can be applied to the analysis of society’s various institutions. Nevertheless, it is definitely worth looking at its flaws – namely, the ease with which the theory can be used to justify social injustice and unfair modes of social stratification.
Cam, T., & Irmak, F. (2014). An overview of Durkheim and Merton’s social anomie. International Journal of Human Sciences, 11(2), 1297. https://doi.org/10.14687/ijhs.v11i2.3083
Griffiths, H., Strayer, E., & Cody-Rydzewski, S. (2017). Introduction to Sociology 2e.
Holmwood, J. (2005). Functionalism and its critics. Oxford University Press EBooks. https://www.eolss.net/Sample-Chapters/C04/E6-99A-26.pdf
Merton, R. K., & Merton, R. C. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Paulson, U. (2021). Religious Functionalism: An Influential Tool for Harnessing Corruption in Ghana. E-Journal of Humanities, Art and Social Sciences, 170-178. Doi: https://doi.org/10.38159/ehass.20212111
Tumin, M. M. (1953). Some Principles of Stratification: A Critical Analysis. American Sociological Review, 18(4), 387. Doi: https://doi.org/10.2307/2087551