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Function has been an important idea within specific sociological paradigms and in sociology more generally. Analyzing the function(s) of social practices has been central ever since Emile Durkheim, in Division of Labor in Society (1893), defined function as consequence, and exhorted sociologists to distinguish functions of social phenomena from their causes while examining both.
Examining functions of social practices need not imply viewing society as an interdependent set of differentiated structures functioning together to promote societal maintenance and well-being. However, these two ideas intertwined in the post-World War II US structural functionalist paradigm. Like Durkheim, structural functionalists examined how social order is maintained and reproduced. More recently, a metatheoretical movement called neofunctionalism tried to retain structural functionalism’s core while extending it to address issues of social change and microfoundations.
Structural functionalism dominated US sociology in the period after World War II. Kingsley Davis, in his 1959 Presidential address to the American Sociological Association, went so far as to argue that structural functionalism was neither a special theory nor a special method, but synonymous with all sociology.
For Parsons, all systems, including biological, psychological, social, and cultural, must perform four functions to meet systemic needs. These functions are adaptation (adjusting to the environment), goal attainment (defining and achieving objectives), integration (coordinating and regulating interrelationships among parts), and pattern maintenance or latency (providing or maintaining motivation or cultural patterns sustaining motivation). In social systems, adaptation is primarily associated with the economy, goal attainment with the polity, integration with law and custom, and pattern maintenance with schools, families, and churches.
Merton noted that social practices could be functional for some organizations and groups, and dysfunctional for others. Instead of presuming that a social practice with a particular function in one setting was universally associated with that function and thus indispensable, Merton argued that there could be functional alternatives. Even if some function were required for system survival, there likely would be alternative practices that could fulfill this function. Finally, Merton highlighted unintended consequences of social practices. Intended versus unintended consequence is one dimension of Merton’s (1968) famous contrast between manifest and latent functions.
- Davis, K. (1959) The myth of functional analysis as a special method in sociology and anthropology. American Sociological Review 24: 757-73.
- Merton, R. K. (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, New York.