Functionalist Theory

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Functionalism is one of the oldest theories, and is still used today. In functionalism society is made up of different parts, and these parts work together to keep the society stable. Functionalism relies very much on the scientific method. By relying on the scientific method, the study of sociology can be observed in the same way one would view the physical world. (McClelland)
Most of the ideas of functionalism came from Emile Durkheim. He was a French sociologist that wrote the basis for functionalist theory. Durkheim was one of the first sociologists to use the scientific method and statistical techniques in sociological research. Talcott Parson played a major part in the development of functionalism also. He was a sociologist from Harvard University. He saw that society worked as a whole, with a system of connected parts that made the whole stable. (McClelland)
In functionalism, change is said to happen when pressure is put on individuals by social structures. This is what is known as a macro theory. Macro theories work from the society downward, the society forces the people to change, not the people change society.

“In the period from the late 1930s to the late 1950s, functionalism came as near as any perspective to constituting sociological orthodoxy” (Downes & Rock, 2007 p69).

Functionalism attempts to explain how the relationships of societal participants’ practices fit together to sustain stability and subsequent social welfare. ‘The ‘function’ of a practice is just its role in sustaining the overall social structure….’ (Radcliffe-Brown 1957).

Functionalism is also known as ‘Order Theory’, as described by Sargent, because it attempts an answer to the problem of order within society, and assumes that society’s purpose is to maintain order and stability, and that all parts of society function in such a way as to maintain order.
Sargent 1997

In his analogy of society as a ‘social organism’, Spencer expressed his view that through a process of evolution, a society grows and maintains itself, within set natural boundaries.

“…..the business of social science is with science and scientific knowledge which are themselves held to be quite different from, indeed antithetical to, the common-sense knowledge of everyday life”. Durkheim

Functionalism in sociology, to expand on Spencer’s organic analogy, observes different classes of people as organs and tissues of the body. It’s just fine and dandy to have a quite rigid social hierarchy, because the collections of roles are interdependent, performing specific functions to maintain the homeostasis of the whole. The theory is, as you might expect, not readily able to cope with ideas such as social change, individual agency, and conflict between classes (defined in the broader sense: including gender, race, sexuality, disability as well as socioeconomic class.) It’s pretty much inherently amoral.

Labour/general welfare

Durkheim proposed that in a capitalist society, labour is allocated relative to merit. That is, those most capable or those prepared to make the greatest effort will, through a natural process of selection, to continue the organic analogy, be able to take up the most rewarding positions.

Functionalist theory views individuals as role players positioned in a hierarchy with their significance measurable only by virtue of their associations and status. Their individual contribution is to serve their own selfish ends with the resultant maximisation of general social welfare (Pierson 2001, p8).

People think that at the top there isn’t much room. They tend to think of it as an Everest. My message is that there is tons of room at the top.
Margaret Thatcher

Karl Marx, another sociological structuralist believed, however, that a free market, capitalist state was unable to assure proletariat welfare since its structure secured disproportionately high welfare to the capitalist masters of industry and that labour exchange was an inadequate contractual format for delivery of welfare to the workers.

‘From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’ was Marx maxim. He also stated that a

‘… commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties’. Marx believed that a labour contract was neither an effective form of welfare for the individual or society, nor did it recognise the need for a creative element in one’s work which differentiates a human being from a machine.

He also believed, however, as his ideological opposites the functionalists do, that State responsibility for welfare is inconsistent with social cohesion. Marx considered that an equitable, egalitarian society free of the state was an inevitable outcome of social evolution.

The revolution of the masses as proposed or envisaged by Marx as a direct result of the proletariat rising up and ousting the bourgeoisie in response to class repression has never occurred, and most likely will not occur in western society, as the masses are now subjected to the will of the ruling class and held in place with a vision of a bigger and better standard of life brought about by mass consumerism and the driving force of capitalism, the desire to keep up with the Jones’s.


Economists such as Adam Smith also assert that one’s opportunity to sell one’s labor within the free market structure should serve to ensure one’s welfare. He believed social welfare was an aggregate of the total society’s welfare and saw no reason for state intervention in assisting in individual welfare.

‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest’.

Functionalist welfare economics, as proposed by the sterile rationale of Vilfredo Pareto, asserts that by the improvement of an individual’s situation, with no other individual being worse off, social welfare has improved. Complex compensation formulas designed to offset negative impacts on individuals are, as indicated by Arrow’s (1963) ‘impossibility theorem’, extremely problematic to effectively employ.

Politics & Crime, Codes & Behaviours

Structural-functionalism took on Malinowski’s argument that the basic building block of society is the nuclear family, and that clans are therefore an outgrowth of families, not vice versa. Families are the great socialising instruments of functionalist societies.
In the 1970s political scientists Gabriel Almond and Bingham Powell introduced a structural functionalist approach to comparing political systems. Almond and Bingham showed that a political system consisted of functions, such as political socialization, recruitment, and communication. Socialization referred to the way in which societies pass along their values and beliefs to succeeding generations. In political terms, it described the process by which a society inculcates civic virtues, or the habits of effective citizenship, moral codes foremost amongst them.

Durkheim also proposed that “the division of labour had outstripped the capacity of existing institutions (such as the Churches) to promote moral regulation” and would therefore, itself “ultimately promote moral regulation on the basis of newly emergent ‘occupational associations’”. (Downes & Rock, 2007). He believed that a functionalist theory of consensus structuralism required both moral and economic regulation for the maintenance of social order. Functionalist social theory asserts that this regulation is assured by the maintenance of cultural norms and beliefs enacted by the majority or by influential minorities. Disregard of these cultural norms and beliefs by so-called deviants, brings social and/or institutional sanction. Deviants are considered dysfunctional.
Deviant behaviours are actions outside socially and/or structurally recognised norms and they “multiply the perils of ordinary existence” (Downes & Rock 2007, p21).

“ ….what is functional for one group may well be dysfunctional for another….functionalists recognise this problem, but hope to overcome it by a complicated cost benefit analysis in which the functions and dysfunctions for various groups are somehow totted up to produce a sociological balance sheet……it is quite proper for a minority to suffer, in principle, for the social cohesion of the majority”. Gouldner
Functionalists believe that a society that has unequal rewards will operate more smoothly and make people want to strive to do better things with their lives. A person who washes cars for a living compared to a lawyer, says that one worked harder to get where they are, and the lawyer receives more pats on the back than the car washer ever will. We live in a society in which you must work for everything you get. Some have more ambition than others, which makes our world run the way it does.

Those of the dominant culture or of higher status are referred to as normal, norms. Obviously, in a patriarchal society like Australia, they are men. Further, they are white, educated and conservative. They typically protect a conservative cultural perspective because it best suits their personal agendas including the accumulation of assets, power and influence, and the capacity to pass on these same characteristics to their offspring.

John Howard presents as a dominant rich white guy utilitarian functionalist (DRWGUF). He’s down with the ideas of functionalism, with the proviso that he and his cronies get to be the brain. This is a supreme and unquestioned primacy, the ultimate in unexamined self-centredness. In his mind, it’s Just The Way Things Are, and the Way Things Are is the Way Things Should Be. Every other organ in the body exists only to be of use to the brain, their only functions to maintain cerebral viability. And, arguably, to the reproductive organs, but whether John Howard is best compared to a cerebrum or a scrotum is left as an exercise for the reader.

As an example of functionalist theory as applied in modern Australia,
DRWGUFs think of Aboriginal people as vestiges hanging around here and there on the fringes of our real society, the conqueror’s society. To them, Aboriginal people and Aboriginal society are relics; degenerate, obsolete. They might sometimes be seen as useful, irrelevant, annoying, or downright harmful; but they are always viewed solely in terms of their relationship to the rich white guys who are running the place. They are only understood in terms of their status as the subordinate, the vestigial.

Through the DRWGUF lens, indigenous peoples are vestiges of a former, “primitive” time. They’re not current-day human nations going about their lives and co-existing with other peoples. They wouldn’t be here, if a society was the product of DRWGUF intelligent design, but we’re stuck with them for historical reasons. To DRWGUFs, the idea of Aboriginal people being autonomous is simply unthinkable. Ideas of self-determination, notions that Aboriginal peoples belong to sovereign nations, are as unthinkable as the idea that an tonsil should have a voice in its own fate. The idea of treaty with Aboriginal people is as bizarre to DRWGUFs as entering into negotiations with their own junk DNA. Who reconciles with their grumbling appendix?
Aboriginal communities are only thought about either in terms of their utility to the DRWGUF brain – or, on the flipside, as pathology to be managed, suppressed, removed. When Howard says that “we need to move Aboriginal people into real jobs”, he might as well be talking about a tendon transfer to repurpose his useless palmaris longus tendon to something that can be of service to him. When Howard talks about a unilateral decision to cut off porn and booze and impose unreasonable and racist punitive welfare systems, it’s as if he is mentioning that he has a bit of a smoker’s cough that he needs to take a course of antibiotics for, and that should clear it right up. When he talks about storming in to steal land, he may as well be talking about having surgery to cut off a few pesky skin cancers at risk of ulceration and metastasis. (The analogy doesn’t quite hold unless those cancer cells, once bottled, have a large untapped capacity for commercial exploitation, but work with me here.) He has convinced himself that his crimes are just him doing what is necessary to maintain homeostasis for the whole. Bleaching people of their personhood, their communities, their heritage, and their autonomy is necessary to maintain the “national interest” and “common destiny” myths in the DRWGUF brain.

Functionalist theory doesn’t acknowledge deviant individuals or groups as representative of a problem with the status quo since its premise is that all society’s needs are satisfied by the existing structure when the social and institutional participants play their respective parts. Sargent
With regard to dysfunction, crime, for example is considered “normal….It is a factor in public health, an integral part of all healthy societies”. Durkheim Its universal character pointed to its functionality…..
“Crime serves to ‘heighten the collective sentiments’, sharpen perceptions of moral imperatives, more tightly integrate the community against the transgressor,-in short, to clarify and reinforce the norms and values of the group. A certain amount of crime is therefore functional, while too little or too much is pathological…….when the crime rate drops noticeably….this apparent progress is associated with some social disorder.”
“The terms and limits within which the problems of lawlessness are understood and acted upon are established within a form of public discourse which has been with us for generations, each generation remembering the elusive harmony of the past while foreseeing imminent social ruin in the future. To a functionalist, such continuities are the stuff of which social order is made”. Parsons
“The hostility towards the criminal derives from his challenge to the moral boundaries with which the members of the community identify. This hostility cannot be reconciled with the desire to ‘reform’ or ‘treat’ the offender” and sanctions are imposed. Mead
“….prostitution operates as a social service…..acting as a safety valve for potential sexual aggression…..this is ultimately the reason why prostitution can never be eliminated…..” Kingsley-Davis
“In this sense, prostitution complements the institution of the monogamous nuclear family….” since “both are threatened by the rise of more widespread sexual freedoms….”
“He argues that the volume of deviance has more to do with the community’s capacity to handle it than with the inclinations towards deviance among its members. Social control agencies tend to regulate rather than attempt to eliminate deviance, whatever they claim rhetorically about the ‘war against crime’. Stabilisation seems to be preferred to elimination partly because the control agencies demand some predictability of employment, but also because the very definitions of the problem adjust to fit the community’s calibration of its control machinery”. Erikson
Whatever the sanction, it is, a “serious and symbolic issue in any society because it lies directly at the roots of social order, as well as having a prominent place in the psychic formation and development of individual persons”. David

“….there is almost no recognisable, schematic functionalist criminology. Robert Merton, one of the prime functionalists, a man who had a very major impact on the sociology of crime and deviance, was reported for example to have ‘had no interest in criminology and little interest in the nature of crime or its correlates. He explicitly distained interest in prior research in the field, and he did not bother to summarise the evidence bearing on the empirical relation most important to his theory of anomie. At least two general principles explain that indifference and that absence. First, it may be said that functionalism was established to analyse social systems conceived comprehensively, not any one system’s minute parts. It was defined less by an interest in the impirical bits and pieces of society than with the broad formal workings of society as whole. Like other global theories, then, it does not preoccupy itself over much with the detail of substantive problems such as crime and deviance”.

Parsons eludes to the sense of the magnitude of the accomplishment of social order, even if it is at the expense, as Wrong so eloquently put it, of an ‘over-integrated’ view of society and an ‘over-socialised’ conception of man”.
The social democrat’s welfare state as perceived by Hayek (Pierson, p42) promulgates a “mirage of social justice”. It cannot refer to general rules of universal application when “interventions in the market will always have suboptimal outcomes and always lessen general social welfare.

“ ….crime is in infinite supply and the penal repression applied by any society says more about the erosion of other, more sensible ways of managing control, the relentless politics of demonising the other and the search to profit from the building of prisons”. Christie
“The functionalist approach to crime and deviance continues to survive”

Downes & Rock

“….to assert that things ‘hang together’ in society as an argument against reform tends as much to revolution as to preserving the status quo”. Merton

Mary Douglas, “Dirt is matter out of place”.

Parsons: very little empiricism or ethnography
M & Radcliffe –Brown: empiricism and ethnography

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