Dysfunction in sociology refers to a situation when something does not contribute positively to the maintenance of society and instead causes disharmony.
For example, when a family becomes abusive (instead of providing love & care), then it is said to be dysfunctional. Social dysfunctions can have various causes, but they primarily arise because society is unable to fulfill the needs of all its members.
This may be because of a lack of resources, unequal distribution, and unawareness about members’ issues. Let us discuss the concept in more detail and look at some examples.
Definition of Dysfunction in Sociology
John Scott defines dysfunction as a term used to:
“deal with tensions in the social system. Something is dysfunctional if it inhibits or disrupts the working of the system as a whole or another part of the system.”
Scott gives the example of teenage anomie disrupting the labor and education markets. The concept of functions & dysfunctions was popularized by Robert K. Merton as part of his functional analysis.
As per Merton, each system in a society has a specific function and is associated with other systems—all of these rely upon each other. When these systems work together properly, it leads to social stability.
In contrast, dysfunction refers to a situation when one or more systems do not function properly, leading to social instability. Merton made a distinction between manifest and latent functions/dysfunctions, deriving the adjectives from Freud.
Manifest functions/dysfunctions are deliberate and known, that is, they have intended consequences. On the other hand, latent functions/dysfunctions are unintended and may go unnoticed by many.
For example, poor urban planning may lead to manifest dysfunction of overcrowding and sanitation problems. However, it can also lead to latent dysfunction, such as an increased crime rate due to higher population density (which gives more opportunities for crime).
Examples of Social Dysfunction
- Domestic Abuse: The family is the basic unit of society, but it can become dysfunctional due to various reasons such as domestic abuse, alcoholism, etc. Children from such families are more likely to face difficulties at school, engage in substance abuse, and suffer from mental health issues. They are also more prone to committing crimes (Bertrand, 1962). Such families not only impact their members but also the larger society by putting greater strain on other institutions (social welfare, law enforcement, etc.). So, it is crucial for a society to deal with family dysfunction.
- Inefficient Bureaucracy: Although bureaucracy helps to ensure accountability & fairness in decision-making, it often leads to inefficiency. Bureaucracy is an organization characterized by a well-defined hierarchy & procedures. The purpose of a government bureaucracy is to enable people to gain access to essential services. However, the strict formality of bureaucracy may make this process incredibly long and difficult, making it almost impossible for people to acquire the services (Fallding, 1963).
- Shortage of Jobs: A poor job market is a dysfunction that affects the entire society. People who are unable to find work will face financial difficulties, and their poverty will lead to other consequences like hunger, homelessness, etc. This also increases the crime rate, as unemployed people may also resort to criminal activities for making ends meet (Fallding). A poor job market also affects those who have jobs: they may be inadequately paid and overworked, which can lead to significant stress.
- Poor Urban Planning: Poor urban planning can lead to latent dysfunctions such as increased crime rates. Urban planning refers to the process of designing the physical and social aspects of cities. When done improperly, it can lead to several problems. For example, urban sprawl occurs when cities expand outward into semi-urban areas; this increases transportation costs & may make essential services unavailable for many. Poor urban planning can also lead to overcrowding, and denser populations are more prone to criminal activities.
- Closing of Small Businesses: The closing of small businesses is another example of a latent dysfunction. Suppose a major shopping mall opens in an area. Now, the surrounding small businesses may not be able to compete with the strong brands of the mall and may be driven out of business (Merton, 1968). This also demonstrates how, even though some dysfunctions may benefit a few (the shopping mall stores in this case), they are usually quite harmful to a large part of society (the numerous small businesses).
- Crime: Crime is a type of societal dysfunction, meaning that it affects the entire society. Victims of crime may face physical harm, trauma, or financial losses, which can have long-lasting impacts on their life. Moreover, crime makes people feel unsafe in their communities, and this fear can undermine social cohesion. It also leads to latent dysfunctions, such as higher pressure on social institutions (law enforcement, victim support services, etc.) and decreased property values. Besides crime, poverty, and substance abuse can also hurt communities on a large scale.
- social dysfunction examples and definitionBullying and racism are examples of interpersonal dysfunctions, meaning that they are problems occurring in the relationships between people. It is quite a common phenomenon in schools, where it can range from social (say, spreading rumors) bullying to physical violence. Racism is another widespread evil, with about 80% of African students experiencing racism in school (NASP). Both bullying and racism are built on power imbalances, and schools can tackle them through policy interventions and awareness programs.
- Lack of Community Relationships: While crime and substance abuse are serious large-scale issues, even without them, communities may be dysfunctional. Many people who live in suburban areas that are sparsely populated have lower levels of interaction with their neighbors, which leads to a lack of belongingness. Robert Putnam argues that social capital (network of relationships with people) is necessary for a community, but it has slowly been decreasing. As such, Americans are disengaging from civic & political participation, which is making the nation’s democracy weaker.
- Corruption: Corruption is a type of organizational dysfunction, meaning that it occurs due to the malfunctioning of an organization. It can occur in both government institutions and business organizations, taking various forms like bribery, embezzlement, extortion, etc. Brazil’s “Operation Car Wash” (2014) is a good example of a corruption scandal; it was a major bribery scheme that involved many high-ranking officials and ultimately led to the impeachment of the president. Corruption diverts resources away from productive uses, harms marginalized communities (by denying them services), and erodes public trust in government institutions.
- Ineffective Education: Education is the most important part of children’s lives, but when it is ineffective, it can lead to many negative impacts. Underfunding, overcrowding, and lack of resources (both teachers & physical equipment) can lead to dysfunctional schools. These schools fail to properly educate children, who, in the future, will struggle to get good jobs. Moreover, students studying here are more likely to engage in criminal activities and face mental health issues. Dysfunctional schools also exacerbate social inequality, as students from wealthy families move to private schools and get a competitive advantage in the future.
Types of Dysfunction
Dysfunctions can exist within intimate relationships or cover entire societies; their evaluation also depends on one’s perspective.
H.M. Johnson identified four types of dysfunctions:
- Societal Dysfunction: These issues affect the entire society. For example, war, poverty, crime, etc.
- Organizational Dysfunction: It occurs when an organization does not function properly. Examples include government inefficiency and corrupt business practices.
- Maladaptive Dysfunction: This dysfunction stops individuals and groups from adapting to their environments. They include crime, poverty, poor health, etc.
- Interpersonal Dysfunction: These take place on a smaller scale, within the personal relationships of people. They include domestic abuse, bullying, racism, etc.
It is important to recognize that social functions/dysfunctions are relative, meaning that their evaluation may depend on one’s perspective (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Suppose a large mall opens in a neighborhood and drives out small businesses.
The retailers in the mall will enjoy more profits. However, this social dysfunction still harms more people than it benefits. By driving out small businesses, it leads to unemployment. Moreover, it also leads to homogenization, as customers now have fewer choices for shopping.
Conversely, social functions (which seem positive) may also hurt select groups. If the government decides to ban woodcutting, it may be beneficial for the environment. However, it may harm the poor inhabitants who depend on forest resources.
Social Dysfunction occurs when social institutions do not function properly and lead to the weakening of social stability.
Like functions, social dysfunctions can also be manifest (deliberate & known) or latent (hard to identify). An example of the former is an increased crime rate, which can cause physical harm and create fear. Latently, it will also lower property prices and pressurize social services.
Dysfunctions can be of various types, ranging from interpersonal to societal. Functions and dysfunctions can either be beneficial or harmful to specific groups.
Bertrand, A. L. (1962). “School attendance and attainment: Function and dysfunction of school and family social systems”. Social Forces. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fallding, H. (1963). Functional analysis in sociology. American Sociological Review. London: SAGE Publications.
Johnson, H. M. (2013). Sociology: a systematic introduction. New York: Routledge.
Merton, R. K., & Merton, R. C. (1957). Social theory and social structure. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Wilkinson, R. G., & Pickett, K. E. (2009). Income inequality and social dysfunction. Annual review of sociology. Annual Reviews.