Manifest Functions in Sociology (10 Examples)

manifest functions examples and definition, explained below

Manifest functions are the anticipated, recognized, and positive outcomes of social phenomena, actions or institutions.

As such, the outcomes of manifest functions are those that people expect social institutions to fulfill.

The concept was developed by Robert K. Merton, who argued that social functions can be both intended (manifest) and unintended (known as latent functions).

What are Social Functions?

The term ‘social functions’ was coined by Talcott Parsons to refer to the purpose and value that a social institution serves for society.

For example, the social function of education is to create a productive workforce. It may also have other social functions, such as to pass-on cultural values and social norms to the next generation.

This concept comes from functionalism, a sociological theory that sees social institutions (like schools, hospitals, and the family) as playing important and interconnected roles in maintaining a functional society. Each social institution is like an organ in the body: they all have a purpose and support the overall healthy functioning of the society.

Manifest Functions vs Latent Functions

Robert K. Merton bifurcated Parson’s concept of social functions into two different types: manifest and latent.

He created this distinction because he believed that social institutions have not only primary intended consequences, but secondary or unintended consequences.

In his formulation, social functions are defined by what they are intended to do, but what they actually achieve.

For example, if you ask someone why they want to start a family, they may talk about their desire to have children or that they believe that having children will give meaning to their lives.

However, Merton would say that the observable objective function of family is socialization of children and the passing on of societal norms and values, to ultimately create social cohesion and the continuation of society.

In order to analyze society, social scientists must look not simply at people’s motives, but to the objective functions of institutions and how this helps keep society together.

1. Manifest Functions

Manifest functions were defined by Merton as “those objective consequence contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system which are intended and recognized by participants in the system” (Merton, 1968: 105).

In plain language, manifest functions are outcomes that people expect actions and institutions having and that are recognized by society at large.

For example, people recognize that joining a higher education institution and studying a postgraduate course is likely to increase their employment opportunities, which is one of the manifest functions of these types of institutions.

2. Latent Functions

Latent functions, on the other hand, are the functions of social institutions that were unintended but nonetheless exist.

As Loyal and Malesevic (2021) argue,

“…latent functions stand for actions that were not intended and often not even perceived to have taken place”( Loyal and Malesevic, 2021:25).

So, while manifest functions represent the primary reason why something is done, latent functions are those consequences that are not foreseen and sometimes not even immediately noticed.

In a sense, it could be said that latent functions are by-products of manifest functions, as they derive from them.

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

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.

Manifest Functions Examples

  • Purpose of School: The purpose of schools is to educate children. Education is the manifest function of schools. But it has latent functions, too, like spreading culture.
  • Purpose of Courts: Courts also have a clear manifest function: to provide justice to individuals and punish those who have broken the law.
  • Purpose of Rain Dance: In ancient societies, the manifest function of the rain dance was to provoke rain. It also had a latent function of bringing the community together.
  • Purpose of Police: The manifest function of having a police force is to enforce the law and prevent crime. It may has latent functions, too, like making people feel more secure when they see police on patrol.
  • Purpose of Religion: Religious practice has the manifest function of worshiping a God. Going to church, the synagogue, the mosque or a temple has the function of worshiping a God or religious figure. Secondarily, it creates community.
  • Going to College: Going to college has several manifest functions, such as getting a degree and increase one’s employment opportunities. Secondarily, it may broaden your mind and increase your social network.
  • Media’s Manifest Function: Traditional media outlets, such as TV, radio or newspapers have at least two manifest functions: keeping society informed and also entertained. A latent dysfunction may be that it causes addiction.
  • Social Media: Social media also has a number of manifest functions: from connecting people globally to sharing one’s life publicly. A downside of social media (and key latent function) might be the increasing political polarization of society.
  • Voting: The manifest function of voting in democracies is to select leaders and decision-makers, while the latent function is that it creates an informed citizenry with sense of civic duty.
  • Sports: The manifest function of sports is entertainment, but its latent function is health and healthy habits.

Case Studies of Manifest Functions

1. Educational institutions

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

Some of these manifest functions are common to all educations outlets. For example, the intelectual purpose and the passing on of knowledge and skills goes from schools right through universities.

Another common manifest function of educational institutions is socialization, that is, learning the social practices required to fit into society.

However, there are some manifest functions that may be particular and that reflect the life stage of its pupils. Universities, for example, have as one of their manifest function broadening employment opportunities, through acquiring knowledge and creating connexions.

2. The family

Families, in all their contemporary varieties, convey a number of manifest functions, being the first one procreation, that is, making and raising children.

These children will be partly socialized by their families, who will pass on the values and norms of the culture they live in. This in turn, contributes to the cohesion and stability of society, as those who have not been rightly socialized are more likely to demonstrate deviant behaviors.

Another function of the family is to offer different kinds of support: economic, physical, emotional and psychological.

Manifest dysfunctions and non-functions

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.


In his theory of social functions, Merton made the distinction between those functions that were anticipated, which he called manifest, and those that were unexpected which the called latent.

Manifest functions are those that are expected and recognized consequences of social actions and institutions. In short, they are the outcomes that certain institutions (like the family, religion or education) are expected to fulfill.

Manifest functions are positive, they act like the glue of society, helping keep cohesion and balance.


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

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

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

Loyal, S. and Malesevic, S. (2021). Contemporary sociological theory. New York: SAGE.

Merton, R. 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 

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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.

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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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