Latent Functions in Sociology (with 10 Examples)

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Latent Functions in Sociology (with 10 Examples)Reviewed By Chris Drew (PhD)
latent function examples and definition, explained below

Latent functions, together with manifest functions, are two sociological concepts developed by US sociologists Robert K. Merton in his book ‘Social Theory and Social Structure’ published in 1949.

While manifest functions are the intended consequences of a social institution, latent functions are the unanticipated and unintentional outcomes. They are the outcomes that are not necessarily sought after and are often not visible immediately.

For example, schools serve the function of educating people to prepare them for the workforce. But they have several latent functions, such as passing on cultural values and increasing families’ social networks.

What is a Social Function in Sociology?

The concept of social functions was proposed by functionalist sociologist Talcott Parsons as a way to describe the core purpose of social institutions.

For example:

  • The social function of school is to educate the workforce
  • The social function of the family is to raise well-rounded children
  • The social function of the hospital is to maintain a healthy population
  • The social function of the military is to protect the nation
  • etc.

This view was consistent with the functionalist concept that our society is built up of institutions that served specific purposes and supported each other, much like how the organs in the body serve a purpose for keeping the whole body healthy.

Are Social Functions Always Positive?

Parsons believed that all social functions are positive and lead to social cohesion.

But Merton disagreed and thought that there were negative and neutral functions too.

So, in his theory, Merton talked about social functions, the glue of society, but also of social dysfunctions, which create conflict and disorder, and also non-functional functions, which have no consequences (Loyal and Malešević, 2021).

Manifest and Latent Functions

Building on Parsons’ work on social functions, Merton (1968: 78) pointed out that social functions can have unintended consequences.

This was based on his belief that social functions are not defined as the intended functions but rather the actual outcomes of a social institution:

“The concept of function involves the standpoint of the observer, not necessarily that of the participant. Social function refers to observable objective consequences, and not to subjective dispositions (aims, motives, purposes).”

This is an important point to understand Merton’s theory: function is not what people believe they to get out from acting in a particular way or from being part of a certain institution.

Rather, Merton is referring to those observable consequences that derive from people’s actions (although subjective dispositions and observable consequences sometimes coincide).

People are not always aware of the latent functions of their actions. So, when people decide to form a family they may do so out of a desire to have children and that conforms their subjective disposition.

However, when a family is formed a by-product is an increase in consumption, for example buying food, clothes or school supplies. A latent function of the family is helping the economy, which is a positive thing but it is not the manifest function of the family.

Based on his ideas, Morten proposed two functions: latent and manifest.

1. Latent Functions

Merton defined latent functions simply as “those which are neither intended nor recognized” (Merton, 1968: 105).

Although they are not intended, they are considered functions that a social institution or action does that are good and useful, however they are not the reason why the institution actually exists (Lowney, 2019).

Latent functions are important to functionalism because they expand the perspective of the theory. Up until then, the focus had been on the expected and intended consequences.

Why are latent functions so important?

Merton thought that because they do not openly manifest, latent functions can exert a greater influence on people’s behaviors: because individuals are unaware of them they are less likely to control or stop them.

And that is the reason why Merton believed that it is the job of sociology to discover and unveil the unintended consequences of social actions and institutions.

2. Manifest Functions

In plain language, manifest functions represent the reason why something is done, what people expect the outcome of an action to be (Loyal & Malešević, 2021:25).

Latent functions on the contrary are those consequences that are not foreseen and that are not easily recognizable by society at large.

What makes these two types of functions similar is that, unlike dysfunctions, they are both believed to be positive for society and to contribute to social cohesion and stability.

So for example, elderly people and pensioners may join a gym to increase their physical activity and better their overall health. This would be the manifest function of going to the gym.

However, regular attendance to the gym may derive in new friendships and a greater social life outside the sports facility, and thus greater cohesion in a neighborhood, which would be an example of a latent function.

Latent Function Examples

  • Family and Political Beliefs: The manifest function of families is to raise well-rounded and healthy children. A latent function might be the shaping of political attitudes and beliefs.
  • Schools and Community Building: Educational institutions, such as schools, colleges or universities have one clear latent function: create a sense of community amongst its students, which often lasts beyond the schooling years.
  • Rain Dances: In ancient societies, the manifest function of the rain dance was to cause rain to fall (although it didn’t happen, so Merton may disagree) create cohesion amongst the group.
  • Police and Safety: The manifest function of having a police force roaming around the streets is to protect society. Its latent function might be to .
  • Religion and Social Control: Religious practice also exemplifies latent function. For example, religion can be a form of social control, by instilling in people what is right and wrong behaviors.
  • University and Social Capital: Going to university has several latent functions, such as making friends (i.e. gaining social capital) and taking up leisure and entertainment activities (dance or sport events), which are not in themselves the purpose of higher education.
  • Documentaries and Activism: Social or political documentaries broadcasted on TV or streaming platforms may have the latent function of making people become activist, rather than just being informed about something.
  • Social Media and Data Sharing: Social media also has latent functions. One of them is the big data derived from the use of social platforms, which gives companies tons of information about users for free (a key negative of social media).
  • Clothing and Status Signaling: While clothes were made to cover in public, to keep warm or cool, when expensive items of clothing are worn they have a latent function: to show socio-economic status.
  • Healthcare and Employment: The aim of healthcare is to keep people in good health. However, one of its latent functions is to provide employment to cleaners, nurses, doctors and many other professionals.

Latent Dysfunctions

While Parsons believed that all social actions lead to social integration, and thus his theory only considers social actions as being functional, Merton, made a distinction between those actions that are functional (whether manifest of latent) and those are dysfunctional or that simply have no function.

Social dysfunctions are those that are unanticipated and that have negative consequences and create tension and conflict. That is what differentiates them from functions, which are positive and create social unity.

Merton believed that these tensions, which create disorder, are part of social life, unlike Parsons that saw society as a big equilibrium of forces.

Functions that are irrelevant and unanticipated, in that they are neither functional nor dysfunctional, also exist.

An example of a latent dysfunction relates to the police practice of “stop and frisk” in New York City or “stop and search” in the UK. These policies, directed at keeping citizens safe by giving power to police to stop, questioning and search individuals, often result in racist harassment.

Case study: Latent Functions in Education

All the different educational institutions, including schools, high schools, colleges or universities when analyzed through a functionalist lens, have different latent functions.

Some of these latent functions are common to all educations outlets. For example, schools, colleges and universities reinforce group belonging. Another thing that these educational outlets do is create friendships and open social circles.

Schools, whether nursery or primary schools, contribute to neighborhood cohesion thorough the formation of relationships and friendships of families whose children are pupils.

Educational institutions, like families, have also the latent functions of helping the economy by purchasing school supplies, paying for school trips and extra-curricular activities.

Conclusion

Latent functions are those unanticipated but positive consequences of social actions and institutions that contribute to the cohesion of society.

They are an important part of social reality and analysis as they are often undetected by nature. This means that they can influence people’s behaviors without them realizing.

Unveiling latent functions is an important task for social scientists, not only because of how they can influence people, but also because they help us understand society beyond the obvious mechanisms. 

Bibliography

Feinberg, W., & Soltis, J. F. (2004). School and society. Teachers College Press.

Lawson, T. & Garrod, J. (1996) The complete A-Z Sociology. Hodder & Stoughton

Lowney, K. S. (2019) Understanding Theory in Odell Korgen, K. & Atkinson, M.P (eds) Sociology in Action. Sage

Loyal, S. and Malešević, S. (2021). Contemporary sociological theory. SAGE.

Merton, Robert K. (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.

Saxe, R. W. (1970). Manifest and Latent Functions in Educational Activities. NASSP Bulletin, 54(342), 41–50. doi:10.1177/019263657005434206

Wilson, B. R. (1988). The functions of religion: A reappraisal. Religion, 18(3), 199–216. doi:10.1016/s0048-721x(88)80025-3

Dr. Panades is a multifaceted sociologist with experience working in a variety of fields, from familiy relations, to teenage pregnancy, housing, women in science or social innvovation. She has worked in international, european and local projects, both in the UK and in Spain. She has an inquisitive and analytical mind and a passion for knowledge, cultural and social issues.

Rosa holds a PhD in Sociology on the topic of young fatherhood from the University of Greenwich, London.

This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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