Do you believe that society is based on shared values and is held up by social institutions fulfilling a set function in it? 

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Table of contents

    Then you belong to the sociological perspective known as functionalism.

    Many famous sociologists believed in the functionalist theory, including Émile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. We will discuss the theory in more details and provide a sociological evaluation of functionalism.

    • We will, first, define functionalism in sociology.
    • Then we will mention examples of key theorists and concepts within functionalism.
    • We will discuss the work of Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.
    • Finally, we will evaluate functionalist theory from the perspective of other sociological theories.

    Definition of functionalism in sociology

    Functionalism is a key consensus theory. It places importance on our shared norms and values, by which society is enabled to function. It is a structural theory, which means it believes societal structures shape individuals. Individuals are the product of social structures and socialisation. This is also called a 'top-down' theory.

    Functionalism was 'founded' by French sociologist, Émile Durkheim. Further key theorists of this sociological perspective were Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton. They established functionalist arguments in several areas of sociological research, including education, family formation and social inequality.

    Examples of functionalism

    We will discuss theories and key researchers of functionalism. We will mention the further sociologists and concepts:

    Émile Durkheim

    • Social solidarity
    • Social consensus
    • Anomie
    • Positivism

    Talcott Parsons

    • Organic analogy
    • The four needs of society

    Robert Merton

    • Manifest functions and latent functions
    • Strain theory

    The functionalist view of society

    There are various concepts in functionalism that further explain the theory and its impact on society and individuals. We will explore these concepts as well as key functionalist theorists below.

    Functionalism: Émile Durkheim

    Émile Durkheim, often referred to as the founder of functionalism, was interested in how society works together to maintain social order.

    Functionalism, Émile Durkheim, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Émile Durkheim is often reffered to as the founder of functionalism.

    Social solidarity

    Social solidarity is the feeling of being part of a larger social group. Durkheim stated that society should provide individuals with this sense of social solidarity through all the institutions in a given society. This social solidarity would serve as a 'social glue'.

    Durkheim believed that having a sense of belonging is very important, as it helps individuals stay together and maintains social stability. Individuals who are not integrated into society are not socialised into its norms and values; therefore, they pose a risk to society as a whole. Durkheim emphasised the importance of society and social solidarity over the individual. He argued that individuals should be pressurised to participate in society.

    Social consensus

    Social consensus refers to the shared norms and values held by society. These are shared practices, traditions, customs and beliefs that maintain and reinforce social solidarity. Shared practices are the basis of social order.

    Durkheim said that the main way to achieve social consensus is through socialisation. It occurs through societal institutions, all of which uphold the social consensus.

    A specific social value is that we should be law-abiding citizens. To reinforce and maintain this shared value, institutions such as the education system socialise children into adopting this outlook. Children are taught to follow rules and are punished when they misbehave.


    All individuals and institutions in society should cooperate and carry out social roles. This way, society will remain functional and prevent 'anomie', or chaos.

    Anomie refers to the lack of norms and values.

    Durkheim stated that too much individual freedom is bad for society, as it leads to anomie. This can happen when individuals don't 'play their part' in keeping society functioning. Anomie can cause confusion about an individual's place in society. In some cases, this confusion can lead to negative outcomes such as crime.

    However, Durkheim believed that some anomie is necessary for the proper functioning of society, as it reinforces social solidarity. When there is too much anomie, social solidarity is disturbed.

    Durkheim expanded on the microtheory of anomie in his famous 1897 book Suicide, which was the first methodological study of a social issue. He found that social problems can be causes of suicide as well, apart from personal or emotional problems. He suggested that the more integrated an individual is in society, the less likely they are to take their own life.


    Durkheim believed that society is a system that can be studied using positivist methods. According to Durkheim, society has objective laws, much like the natural sciences. He believed these could be studied using observation, testing, data collection, and analysis.

    He did not believe in using interpretivist approaches to society. In his view, approaches in that vein, like Weber's Social Action Theory, placed too much emphasis on individual interpretation.

    Durkheim's positivist approach is evident in Suicide, where he compares, contrasts, and draws correlations between suicide rates in different sections of the population.

    Functionalism, documents and pen with statistics and graphs and a calculator, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Positivists use quantitative research methods and numerical data.

    Functionalist Theory in Sociology

    We will mention two further sociologists, who worked within functionalism. They were both followers of Durkheim and built their theories on his research. However, their evaluation of Durkheim's arguments is not always positive, there are also differences between their views and Durkheim's. Let us consider Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.

    Functionalism: Talcott Parsons

    Parsons expanded upon Durkheim's approach and further developed the idea that society is a functioning structure.

    Organic analogy

    Parsons argued that society is like the human body; both have working parts that achieve an overarching goal. He called this the organic analogy. In this analogy, each part is necessary to maintain social solidarity. Each social institution is an 'organ' that performs a specific function. All institutions work together to maintain healthy functioning, in the same way our organs work together to keep us alive.

    The four needs of society

    Parsons saw society as a system with certain needs that must be met if the 'body' is to function properly. These are:

    1. Adaptation

    Society cannot survive without members. It must have some control over its environment in order to meet its members' basic needs. These include food, water, and shelter. The economy is an institution that helps do this.

    2. Goal attainment

    This refers to the goals that society strives to achieve. All societal activity is carried out to achieve these goals using resource allocation and social policy. The government is the main institution responsible for this.

    If the government decides the country needs a stronger defence system, it will increase its defence budget and allocate more funding and resources to it.

    3. Integration

    Integration is the 'adjustment of conflict'. This refers to the cooperation between different parts of society and the individuals who are part of it. To ensure cooperation, norms and values are embedded in law. The judicial system is the main institution responsible for resolving legal disputes and conflicts. In turn, this maintains integration and social solidarity.

    4. Pattern maintenance

    This refers to the maintenance of basic values that are institutionalised in society. Several institutions help to maintain a pattern of basic values, such as religion, education, the judicial system, and the family.

    Functionalism: Robert Merton

    Merton agreed with the idea that all institutions in society perform different functions that help keep society running smoothly. However, he added a distinction between different functions, saying that some are manifest (obvious) and others are latent (not obvious).

    Manifest functions

    Manifest functions are the intended functions or outcomes of an institution or activity. For example, the manifest function of going to school every day is to get an education, which will help children get good exam results and let them move on to higher education or work. Similarly, the function of attending religious gatherings in a place of worship is that it helps people practice their faith.

    Latent functions

    These are the unintended functions or outcomes of an institution or activity. The latent functions of attending school every day include preparing children for the world by giving them the knowledge and skills to excel in either university or a job. Another latent function of school may be to help children develop social and communication skills by encouraging them to make friends.

    The latent functions of attending religious gatherings can include helping individuals feel a sense of community and solidarity, or to meditate.

    The example of the Hopi Indians

    Merton used the example of the Hopi tribe, who would perform rain dances to make it rain when it was particularly dry. Performing rain dances is a manifest function, as the intended goal is to produce rain.

    However, the latent function of such an activity could be to promote hope and solidarity in difficult times.

    Strain theory

    Merton's strain theory saw crime as a reaction to the lack of opportunities to achieve legitimate goals in society. Merton argued that the American dream of a meritocratic and equal society is a delusion; the structural organisation of society prevents everyone from accessing the same opportunities and achieving the same goals due to their race, gender, class, or ethnicity.

    According to Merton, anomie occurs due to an imbalance between an individual's goals and an individual's status (usually related to wealth and material possessions), causing a 'strain'. This strain may lead to crime. The strain theory is a key strand in the sociological topic of Crime and Deviance.

    Evaluation of functionalism

    The sociological evaluation of functionalism discusses the theory's strengths and weaknesses.

    Strengths of functionalism

    • Functionalism recognises the shaping influence of each social institution. A lot of our behaviour comes from institutions such as family, school, and religion.

    • The overall goal of functionalism is to promote and maintain social solidarity and order. This is an inherently positive outcome.

    • The organic analogy helps us understand how different parts of society work together.

    Weaknesses of functionalism

    • A Marxist critique of the theory states that functionalism ignores social class inequalities. Society is not a consensus-based system.

    • A Feminist critique holds that functionalism ignores gender inequalities.

    • Functionalism may prevent social change, as it encourages individuals to stick to specified roles. It also sees non-participation in society as undesirable, as this can lead to anomie.

    • Functionalism over-emphasises the impact of social structures in shaping individuals. Some would argue that individuals can form their own roles and identities independent of society.

    • Merton criticised the idea that all parts of society are bound together, and that one dysfunctional part will negatively affect the whole. He said that some institutions can be independent of others. For example, if the institution of religion collapsed, this is unlikely to cause the collapse of society as a whole.

    • Merton criticised Durkheim's suggestion that anomie is caused by individuals not performing their roles. In Merton's view, anomie is caused by a 'strain' felt by individuals not being able to achieve their goals in an un-meritocratic society.

    • Not all institutions perform positive functions.

    Functionalism - Key takeaways

    • Functionalism is a key consensus theory that places importance on our shared norms and values as functioning members of society. It is a structural theory, which means it believes societal structures shape individuals.
    • Social solidarity is the feeling of being part of a larger social group. Emile Durkheim said that society should provide individuals with this social solidarity throughout all social institutions. This social solidarity would serve as a 'social glue'. Without this, there would be anomie or chaos.
    • Talcott Parsons argued that society is very similar to the human body, as both have functioning parts that work to achieve an overarching goal. He called this the organic analogy.
    • Robert Merton distinguished between manifest (obvious) and latent (non-obvious) functions of social institutions.
    • Functionalism recognises the importance of society in shaping us. This has an inherently positive goal, which is to keep society functioning. However, other theorists such as Marxists and feminists claim functionalism ignores social inequalities. Functionalism also over-emphasises the role of social structures in shaping our behaviour.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Functionalism

    What does functionalism mean in sociology?

    In sociology, functionalism is the name given to the theory which says that individuals are the products of social structures and socialisation. Each individual and social institution performs a certain function to keep society running smoothly.

    What do functionalists believe?

    Functionalists believe that society is generally harmonious, and that social solidarity is maintained through every institution and individual performing specified functions. Functionalists believe that every individual should be socialised into the norms and values of society. Otherwise, society will descend into 'anomie', or chaos.

    How is functionalism used today?

    Functionalism is a rather outdated sociological theory. It has more of a historical significance. The New Right perspective, however, uses many traditional, functionalist ideas and concepts today too actively.

    Is functionalism a consensus theory?

    Functionalism is a key consensus theory. It places importance on our shared norms and values, by which society is enabled to function.

    Who is the founder of functionalism?

    Émile Durkheim is often referred to as the founder of functionalism.

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