8 junio, 2024

Structural functionalism: origin, theory, representatives

He structural functionalism or structural functionalism is one of the schools of thought in the field of sociology. It presents the construction of society as a large organism, composed of many groups and demographics that, by interacting with each other, keep the machine that is society operational, prosperous, and functional.

These groups that make up the organs of that organism are defined by many different indicators, which often overlap. Wealth, employment status, family size, and criminal activity are just a few examples of attributes that define these groups.

The reason why society acts the way it does is structural functionalism, by emphasizing the relationships between the various institutions that make up society, such as government, education, law, and religion.


Historical origin of structural functionalism

Functionalism originates from the work of Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Émile Durkheim, who were interested in social order and how societies maintained their stability over time.

Development in the United States

The functional approach developed in the United States, dominating American sociology from the mid-1930s to the 1970s.

Unlike other major theories, structural functionalism comes from various authors. It is generally associated with Talcott Parsons, although the most famous article is a summary of social stratification, written by Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore.

Parsons studied Max Weber and Émile Durkheim, becoming a major interpreter of these writers in the United States.

Some new sociological theories were developed in the United States before Parsons, but the functional approach to sociology became so dominant that by the 1950s sociology and functionalism were almost the same thing.

Counter Marxist vision

Parsons used concepts from Weber and Durkheim to establish a sociological approach that would counteract the Marxist vision. With a few exceptions, it was the only sociological approach used, and Marxist concepts were almost absent from sociology textbooks.

Although this theory was not conservative, seeking to return to an earlier society, it also did not support any radical change. It was politically in line with the liberal approach, which became dominant in American universities during the Cold War.

Robert Merton is another sociologist who provided some important theoretical statements. They were all American sociologists or spent a large part of their academic lives there. As a result, this approach is associated with sociology in the United States.

theory debunked

During the 1960s, structural functionalism came under increasing attack, eventually being discredited. It could not explain many features of American society, such as poverty, social changes, as well as the continuing political and economic influence of the wealthy.

As sociologists began to read more about Max Weber and Durkheim, it became clear that structural functionalism omitted much of the insight of these writers. It also became clear that Marx had much to contribute to the analysis of social structure and social change.

Theory of structural functionalism


The basic premise is that different parts of society contribute positively to the functioning of the system.

For people to survive, goods and services must be produced, there must be an administration of justice, a political system must exist, and a family structure must function that provides a means to reproduce the population.

Individuals perform these tasks in different institutions and roles, consistent with the structures and norms of society. A certain degree of inequality is practical, because society could not function without it.

Rewards in the form of income, prestige, or power must be provided to induce people to do the required work.


Social systems are considered to have certain needs, and society is like a system of structures: economic, legal, and educational. This is the origin of the structural part of functionalism.

Social structures are those that satisfy needs. They are functional because they help society function. There are connections between these structures, individuals being limited by them.

interdependence and balance

Since society is made up of different parts and these parts need to function properly for society to function well, interdependence is important.

The roles assumed by people and institutions are interdependent. A change in one part affects the others, requiring the other parts to consider modifying their actions and adapt to these changes.

As long as people perform their roles, the structures will work without a problem. The different parts are generally in balance, with consensus governing the interrelationship between the various parts, rather than conflict.

Norms and values

Individual behavior is governed by accepted norms. These norms are consistent with the equilibrium state of society. In case of disturbances, the rules will return society to normal, with sanctions, punishments or social disapproval.

Conflict is not part of the social world. The changes are not abrupt, but progressive, providing support to the existing structures.

It follows the tradition of Western liberalism, favoring equal opportunities, democracy and social reforms. It has been used politically as a means to counter sweeping reforms.

Regulation of deviations

In this process, the individual internalizes the norms and values ​​prevailing in society, while the deviation of behaviors is regulated through social control. The functional approach ignores the contradictory nature of society, as well as class difference.

Through the perspective of functionalism, the «bad» parts of society, such as homelessness, crime, riots, etc. they are as integral to the regular operation of that machine as the rest of society.

Crime employs police officers, homelessness drives charities into accessible urban areas, and the threat of protests or riots keeps politicians on their toes.

Representatives and their ideas

– Emile Durkheim

This French sociologist laid the initial foundations of structural functionalism. He basically explained social institutions as a way for individuals to satisfy their own biological needs.

I wanted to understand the value of cultural and social traits, with respect to their contribution to the functioning of the social system. Durkheim was interested in four aspects:

– Why societies were formed and what held them together.

– Religion.

– Suicide.

– Deviance and crime.

Durkheim noted that there was a division of labor in all societies and wanted to know why. He claimed that in ancient societies mechanical solidarity held everyone together. He referred to mechanical solidarity to those who perform similar tasks.

For example, in primitive societies there was no great division of labor. He thought that shared values, common symbols and exchange systems functioned as cohesion tools in these societies.

In modern societies, individuals do not perform the same tasks. However, this diversity leads to a different form of solidarity: interdependence. Durkheim called it organic solidarity.

This kind of solidarity leads to a strong feeling that people depend on each other. For example, although a construction worker builds houses, if he is injured on the job he will go to a doctor.

–Talcott Parsons

He was the most eminent American sociological theorist between 1940 and 1970. He synthesized the concepts of Weber and Durkheim to develop his theory of action, integrating them with his own ideas and interpretations.

This theory focused on integrating the social, structural, psychological, and cultural elements of human behavior, seeking to create a unified theory of social action. Parsons’ sociology was theoretical, with little empirical content.

Social order

Social order was a concern for Parsons. How could there be order if individuals were isolated subjects who only sought their own benefit. However, people helped each other and had a certain level of social integration.

For Parsons, this stemmed from social values. People proceed according to their values, in addition to being governed by social norms, which are the platform of social order.


Although people pursue their own satisfaction, that is not their only concern. On the contrary, there is an agreement between people to get along, helping each other.

The ends that people pursue are based on shared norms and values, these being internalized in their motivational systems.


The means that people use are morally regulated, with criteria about what is right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. Without media regulation, society would be affected by social disorder.


Functions were attributed to the various institutions that make up society, Parsons taking these functions as social patterns that strengthen interaction systems.

These patterns he saw as contributors to the smooth running of society. He considered that shared values, the family institution and the means to achieve ends were effective for society to function as a system.

–AR Radcliffe-Brown

Another thread of structural functionalism comes from England, emerging from the study of anthropology at the beginning of the 20th century with the Radcliffe-Brown theory. His vision was based on the social structure. He claimed that the social world represented a separate level of reality.

The disquisition of the phenomena of society had to be based on a social level. This simply meant that people temporarily filled social roles, without any inherent value.

For Radcliffe-Brown, individuals were only significant based on their position in society’s role structure.

–Robert Merton

He made important improvements to functionalism. Although he supported Parsons’s approach, he recognized that this theory could be challenged as it was too general. He was able to address some limitations in Parsons’s thinking. Merton believed that any social structure could have many functions.

He also developed the concept of deviation and made the distinction between manifest and latent functions. Manifests referred to the recognized consequences of any social pattern. Latents referred to unrecognized consequences of any social pattern.


Sociology Dictionary (2020). Functionalism (structural functionalism). Taken from: sociologydictionary.org. The Free Dictionary (2020). Structural-Functional…

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