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Structural functional theory holds that society is best understood as a complex system with various interdependent parts that work together to increase stability. For most of the twentieth century the structural functional perspective (also called functionalism) was the dominant sociological approach in the USA and Western Europe. Although the label structural functional theory has subsumed multiple perspectives, there are a few basic elements that generally hold for all functionalist approaches in sociology: social systems are composed of interconnected parts; the parts of a system can be understood in terms of how each contributes to meeting the needs of the whole; and social systems tend to remain in equilibrium, with change in one part of the system leading to (generally adverse) changes in other parts of the system.
Talcott Parsons was perhaps most instrumental in promulgating structural functional theory in the twentieth century (Parsons 1937). He constructed a theory of social action which argued that individual action is rooted in the norms of society and constrained by its values. In this way, individuals carry out actions that benefit the whole of society. Drawing on Spencer’s work, Parsons also asserted that all societies must meet certain needs in order to survive. His AGIL scheme (Parsons 1951) proposed that all societies must fulfill an adaptive function, a goal-attainment function, an integrative function, and latent pattern maintenance (latency).
Following Parsons, Robert K. Merton laid out a working strategy for how to ”do” structural functional theory in distinguishing between manifest (or intended) functions and latent (or unintended) functions, noting that the same acts can be both functional and dysfunctional for the social whole. Merton (1968) proposed that sociologists can examine the functional and dysfunctional elements of any structure, determine the ”net balance” between the two, and conclude whether or not the structure is functional for society as a whole.
Although structural functional theory has taken various forms, there are a few basic elements that are central to the perspective. First, the theory leads to a focus on the functions of various structures. By ”functions,” theorists in the perspective generally mean consequences that benefit society as a whole, contribute to its operation, or increase its stability. ”Structure,” in its broadest sense, can mean anything that exists independent of individual actors. Social arrangements such as stratification systems therefore are social structures, as are social institutions such as marriage. Structural functional theorists tend to examine social structures in terms of the functions they serve for society. Davis and Moore (1945), for example, developed a functional theory of stratification in which they argued that a stratification system is a functional necessity, with positions in society that are more functionally important garnering higher rewards.
A second basic element of structural functional theory is rooted in the organic analogies of Comte and Spencer. The theory treats society as an integrated whole with a series of interconnected parts. Further, the theory holds that the various parts contribute to the functioning of the whole. Durkheim, for example, proposed that when all of the parts of the social whole are fulfilling their necessary functions, then society is in a ”normal” state. When individual parts are not fulfilling their functions, Durkheim argued, society is in a ”pathological” state.
Third, structural functional theorists assume that society rests on the consensus of its members, and that there is widespread agreement on what is good and just for society. Davis and Moore’s theory of stratification, for instance, rests on an assumption that members of society generally agree on which social positions are most important for society.
In the middle of the twentieth century, structural functional theory became the dominant sociological perspective in the USA and western Europe. In the 1960s, however, criticisms of the theory began to mount. These criticisms took a variety of forms, but two were perhaps most common: the theory deem-phasizes social conflict and it does not adequately address social change.
According to critics, structural functional theory overemphasizes social cohesion while ignoring social conflict. By treating society as an interconnected whole, structural functional theory emphasizes integration among the various parts of society. With this approach, critics hold that the theory disregards social conflict. Moreover, because of its focus on social consensus and integration, any attention the theory does pay to conflict tends to treat it as disruptive.
Critics also contend that structural functional theory is ill-equipped to deal with social change. Another consequence of viewing society as a system of interconnected parts is that any changes are seen as having the consequence of disrupting the entire system. To early thinkers in the functionalist perspective, change was a major threat. Herbert Spencer, for example, held that any change made with the objective of benefiting society will have unforeseen negative impacts. While more contemporary theorists in the structural functional paradigm have not been as hostile to social change as was Spencer, the theory still has difficulty in dealing with change. This has led to a criticism of the perspective as being conservative in nature.
Perhaps the best-known contemporary variant of structural functionalism is the neofunctionalism of Alexander and colleagues (Alexander 1998; Alexander & Colomy 1990). Neofunctionalism is largely a reconstruction of Parsons’s body of work, avoiding many of the pitfalls of earlier structural functional theorists. It accomplishes this in part by not taking social integration as a given, by giving greater weight to social action, and by specifying the role that the perspective should play in the production of knowledge.
- Alexander, J. C. (1998) Neofunctionalism and After. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Davis, K. & Moore, W. (1945) Some principles of stratification. American Sociological Review 10: 242—9.
- Merton, R. K. (1968) Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press, New York.
- Parsons, (1937) The Structure of Social Action. McGraw-Hill, New York.
- Parsons, T. (1951) The Social System. Free Press, Glencoe, IL.