TM2 - Functionalism


Functionalism emerged primarily from the works of Emile Durkheim and Comte. This perspective offers a viewpoint suggesting society functions as a unified whole.

  1. Structural Consensus Approach: Functionalism operates on this approach, observing how structures like education, crime, media, and religion interact harmoniously to ensure societal continuity. Central to this is the concept of Social Facts. These are norms, values, or structures that exist outside the individual but exert significant influence over their behaviour, decisions, and interactions.
  2. The Top-down Theory: Functionalism adopts a macro perspective, emphasizing that larger societal structures dictate individual actions. This perspective suggests that individual autonomy and choice are largely influenced, if not determined, by overarching societal structures.

Emile Durkheim – Father of Functionalism

Émile Durkheim, one of the founding fathers of sociology, played a pivotal role in developing the theory of functionalism. His approach, often referred to as Durkheimian functionalism, is cantered on the belief that various parts of society have functions, or roles, that contribute to the society's stability and continuity. Here's an overview of Durkheim's theory of functionalism:

Social Facts: Central to Durkheim's functionalism is the concept of "social facts." These are collective ways of thinking, feeling, and acting that exist outside any one individual but exert social control over each person. Social facts encompass societal norms, values, and structures.

Collective Conscience: Durkheim proposed that societies have a collective conscience or a shared set of beliefs and values. This collective conscience binds individuals together and fosters social cohesion.

Functional Necessity: Durkheim believed that every part of society, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a purpose or function. Even phenomena viewed as negative or pathological, like crime, serve a function. For example, crime can lead to social change by highlighting what's unacceptable and prompting societies to adjust laws or norms.

Dynamics of Modern Society: In his work, Durkheim delineated between two types of solidarity: mechanical and organic. Mechanical solidarity is typical of traditional and smaller societies where people often share similar tasks and have shared values. Organic solidarity is typical of modern, complex societies where individuals have more specialized roles yet depend on each other for the society to function.

Anomie: One of Durkheim's most renowned concepts is "anomie," a state of normlessness, where individuals feel disconnected due to rapidly shifting social conditions, often seen in highly industrialized societies. Anomie can lead to feelings of purposelessness, depression, and higher rates of suicide, a topic Durkheim extensively studied.

Talcott Parsons and His Contributions

Talcott Parsons, an influential American sociologist, built upon Durkheim's functionalist theories and introduced the "organic analogy." Through this analogy, Parsons compared the workings of society to that of a living organism, like the human body. He emphasized that just as various organs in the body have specific functions to ensure the organism's survival, different institutions in society play roles to maintain societal balance and harmony. Here's an outline of Talcott Parsons' organic analogy, highlighting the three ways that society is like the human body:


Just as organs in the human body perform specific functions vital to the organism's overall health and survival (e.g., the heart pumps blood, lungs provide oxygen), different institutions in society have distinct roles or functions.

Each institution, whether it's family, education, or the economy, contributes to the stability and equilibrium of society. For instance, the family is responsible for socializing young members, while the economic system ensures material needs are met.


The human body is made up of interconnected systems (e.g., circulatory, respiratory, digestive). Each of these systems is composed of parts that work in tandem to support the overall organism.

Similarly, society is structured into various systems (e.g., legal, educational, familial), with each system having interconnected institutions or components. These components cooperate and interact to maintain the stability and functioning of the larger societal system.

System Needs (Functional Prerequisites):

For the human body to survive and thrive, it has basic needs, such as oxygen, nutrition, and water.

In the same vein, Parsons argued that for society to function smoothly, it has specific system needs or "functional prerequisites." These are foundational requirements that society must meet to ensure its continuous existence.

Parsons famously utilized the GAIL schema to identify these needs:

  • Goal Attainment: The society must set and achieve objectives.
  • Adaptation: The society must cope with external challenges and provide for its members' basic resources.
  • Integration: The society must manage the interrelationship of its parts, ensuring they work together harmoniously.
  • Latency: The society must maintain shared values and pass them on to future generations.

Merton’s Internal Criticisms

Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist, offered an "internal critique" of functionalism. While he generally agreed with functionalist perspectives, he identified certain shortcomings and proposed refinements to the theory. His critiques and contributions are foundational to understanding modern functionalist thought.

Here's an outline of Merton's internal critique of functionalism:

Latent and Manifest Functions:

  • Manifest Functions: These are the intended and overtly recognized by the members of society consequences of specific actions or institutions. They are explicit and are the obvious reasons for certain actions or institutions to exist.
  • Latent Functions: These are the unintended and often hidden consequences of actions or institutions. While they are not immediately apparent, latent functions can be equally significant and influential as manifest functions.

By introducing this distinction, Merton argued that not all functions of a social activity are immediately apparent. An institution might have both intentional, recognized outcomes and hidden, unintentional outcomes.

Functional Alternatives:

Merton challenged the notion of functional indispensability, which suggested that certain societal functions are fixed to specific structures. He proposed that several structures could fulfil the same function within society, making it non-essential for any structure to exist for a function to be carried out.

Functional Unity:

Contrary to the traditional functionalist assertion that all parts of society are interconnected and work harmoniously for the maintenance of societal equilibrium, Merton argued that not all structures and functions are necessarily tightly linked. Some structures in society might operate relatively independently of others.

Universal Functionalism:

Merton criticized the assumption that every structure has a positive function. He introduced the idea of "dysfunctions," indicating that some societal structures could have negative impacts or might not serve beneficial purposes for the society at large.

Net Balance of Functional Effects:

Merton highlighted that one must consider the balance between functional and dysfunctional aspects of any social structure. He proposed that for a comprehensive understanding, sociologists should evaluate the net balance of positive (functional) and negative (dysfunctional) effects that any structure or process brings to society.


Functionalism, while influential, is not without its critics:

  1. Logical Inconsistencies:

Teleological Assumption: Functionalism can sometimes work backward, attributing the existence of structures to their outcomes. This causal relationship is not always accurate.

Scientific Validation: Durkheim's assertion that functionalism is a scientific discipline is controversial. For a theory to be scientific, it should be verifiable or falsifiable – a criterion functionalism doesn't strictly meet.

  1. Conflict Theories (Marxism and Feminism):

Overly Optimistic: Critics argue functionalism paints an unrealistically harmonious picture of society, glossing over conflicts, power imbalances, and systemic inequalities.

Conservatism: By focusing on societal stability and consensus, functionalism may inadvertently perpetuate the status quo, potentially reinforcing existing power structures.

  1. Action and Interactionist Perspectives:

Determinism: By suggesting societal structures dominate individual actions, functionalism downplays individual agency, a critique underscored by action theorists.

  1. Postmodernist Critique:

Postmodernists argue that the meta-narrative of functionalism is outdated in the face of modern society's diversity. They believe functionalism simplifies a complex, multi-faceted modern world.