Functionalist (Theory)

Brief summary of the functionalist theory for A2 unit 4.

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  • Created by: Stephanie
  • Created on: 10-09-12 18:56

The basics.

The key ideas of functionalism are...

Functionalism is a consensus theory, in other words an agreement among the members of society. It's also a macro structural approach so it focuses on the needs of the social system as a whole and how they shape the main features. It's one of the modernist theories.

Theorists to remember:

  • Parsons
  • Durkheim
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Organic Analogy.

What is the organic analogy?

"Society needs the institutions to work effectively just like a human body needs organs to work together to ensure it functions."

Each part has a role in maintaining the whole:

  • A change in one part would cause a change in another part of society, e.g. change in media causes change in religion.
  • They have certain basic needs which have to be met to survive - FUNCTIONAL PREREQUISITES.
  • Each institution has to meet these prerequisites, e.g. family providing socialisation.
  • Believe that society exists in harmony due to shared norms and values - VALUE CONSENSUS.


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Society as a system.

Parsons found 3 similarities between society and a biological organism....

1. System: They are both 'self-regulating systems of interrelated, independent parts' that fit in fixed ways. Body = organs, cells etc. Society = institutions, individual roles etc.

2. System needs: Organisms and the social system have certain basic needs that have to be met to survive e.g. individuals have to be socialised to society to continue.

3. Functions: The contribution it makes to meeting the systems needs and ensuring its survival. E.g. the economy helps maintain the social system by meeting the need for food and shelter.

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Value consensus, social order and integration of i

Social order is possible and achieved through the existence of a shared culture aka central value system. The meaning of culture is: "All things that are learnt and shared by a society/group and transmitted from one generation to the next through socialisation, including norms, values, knowledge, beliefs and skills."

Value consensus means when society agrees on norms and values - glues society together, making social order possible by integrating them into the social system and directing them towards meeting the system's needs.

To achieve this there needs to be a specific set of conducts/norms e.g.punctuality and how to obtain jobs. Two mechanisms so people conform are:

  • Socialisation - Needs are met by teaching people to do what it requires, people internalise the systems needs/values so society becomes part of their personality.
  • Social control - Sanctions either positive (offers rewards e.g. qualifications through education) or negative (punishment e.g. prison breaking the law).
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Parts of the social system.

Starting from the bottom we have...

  • Individual actors - Each action is governed by specific rules. Then...
  • Status roles - These norms are governed by clusters called status roles; statuses are positions that exist in a given social system e.g. teacher.  tell us how they carry out their duty e.g teachers don't show favouritism. Then...
  • Institutions - Status roles also come in clusters called institutions e.g. education. Then...
  • Sub system - Institutions are grouped together into sub systems e.g. superstructure, and finally...
  • Society - These sub systems group together to form the social system.
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The system's needs.

Parsons identifies the AGIL schema, each is met by a seperate sub system of institutions.

1. Adaptation - Social system meets its members materials needs. Met by the economic sub system.

2. Goal Attainment - Set goals and allocate resources to achieve them through institutions

3. Integration - The different parts must be integrated together  in order to pursue shared goals.

4. Latency - The processes that maintain society overtime. It provides pattern maintenance (individuals perform their roles society requires) and tension management.

* 1 and 2 are instrumental needs whereas 3 and 4 are expressive needs*

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Types of societies and social change.

Parsons identifies 2 types of societies  - traditional and modern. Each has its own typical norms in which the varibles 'fit' together. E.g. in a traditional society status is based on fixed characteristics where as in modern society status is based on performance. GLOBALISATION CAUSED THIS CHANGE!

How do societies change from one to the other?

Parsons believes it's a slow gradual evolution process which increases in complexity. Relating this to the organic analogy:

  • Organisms have evolved from simple structures for example the amoeba, the single cells perform all the essential functions to change to the complex organisms. Traditional to complex.
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Merton criticises 3 assumptions of Parsons...

  • Indispensability: Assumes everything in society is functionally indispensable (can't live without). Merton argues that this is an untested assumption and points to the possibilty of functional alternatives, e.g. nuclear family is best for socialisation but lone parent may just be as good or even better.
  • Functional Unity: Assumes society is tightly interrelated into a 'unity' and each part is functional for all the rest. Change in one part will have a knock on effect to other parts. These are not necessarily true as complex modern societies have many parts, instead of functional unity some may have functional independence from others. E.g. connections between banking and netball are hard to see.
  • Universal Functionalism: Assumes everything performs a positive function for society as a whole. Some things can be functional for some groups but dysfunctional for others. Conflicts of interest may arise along with power at the expense of others.

We can't simply assume that society is a smooth running, well integrated system. Basically Parsons is 'too deterministic' according to Merton. 

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Manifest and latent functions.

Merton also contributes a distinction between 'manifest' and 'latent' functions.

  • Manifest = The intended function.
  • Latent = The unintended function.

An example would be the Hopi Indians who perform a rain-dance with the intention of magically producing rain; this is the manifest function. However the ritual may have the latent function of bringing peopel together as a unity/social solidarity.

With this we can see any hidden connections between social phenomena, which people themselves are not aware of.

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Teleology is the idea that things exist because of their effect or function. For example the family exist because children need socialising. This explains the existence of the family in terms of its effect.

A real explanation is something that identifies its cause - logically 'cause-and-effect'. Functionalism explains the existence of one thing in terms of something that can only be its effect - socialisation can only come after we have families.


Only scientific if it's falsifiable by testing (falsifiction). Yet not in functionalism for example functionalists see deviance as functional & dysfunctional, if they're both the theory can't be disproved meaning it's unscientific.

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CRITICISMS - Conflict perspective.

Conflict theorists such as Marxist criticise functionalism for their inability to explain conflict or change. This partly comes from the organic analogy: organisms are relatively stable and harmonious systems in which all parts work together for the common good.

Marxists argue that society isn't harmonious they believe...

  • Conflict in society due to class differences
  • Bourgeoisie rule, proletariat working class
  • Only hold values of the dominant group

They see functionalism as a conservative ideology legitimating the status quo. Its focus on harmony and stability instead of conflict, indispensibility etc help justify the existing social order as inevitable/desirable.

They also argue it legitimates the privileged position of powerful groups who have the most to lose from ay fundamental changes in society.

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CRITICISMS - Action Perspective (Interactionist)

Wrong criticises functionalism for taking a too deterministic view of the individual. He says the social system uses socialisation to shape people's behaviour so that they'll meet the system's needs by performing their prescribed roles.

Individuals have no free will or choice - merely puppets whos strings are pulled by the social system - this is fundamentally mistaken. Whilst they see humans shaped by society this approach says humans create society by their interactions.

Functionalism reifies society (treating something as unique) - treats it as a distinct thing over and above individuals with its own needs. Action argues society isn't a thing out there with its own independent existence. The only social reality is the one individuals construct with meanings.

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CRITICISMS - Postmodernist

They argue that functionalism assumes that society is stable and orderly however this doesn't account for diversity ad instability that exists in today's postmodern society.

It's an example of a meta-narrative/grand theory which attempts to create a model of the workings of societ as a whole - such an overall theory is no longer posssible as today's society is increasingly fragmented.

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Overall strengths and weaknesses

It's a structuralist perspective that sees social order based on value consensus. Parsons sees the system independently (organic analogy) e.g. subsystems. The function of each part helps meet the needs of the system. People are integrated through socialisation into a shared culture and social control, making sure they perform as they should. Merton introduces manifest and latent functions.


Part of society can work at 2 different levels both fulfilling the needs of each individual and society. Provides a positive view. Shows how each part of society are interdependent each contributing to the well-being of the whole. Allows us to examine the possible functions of rituals which may appear purposeless. Useful focus on the social structure & harmony.


Overemphasises the positive nature. Ignores conflict and change. Fails to recognise the importance of power and dominance. Takes a conservative position. Effects can't explain a cause (teleological). Too deterministic seeing people as controlled with little choice.

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This is absolutely great, thank you ever so much :)

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