Functionalism and its Early Roots

What is Functionalism?

According to “A Modern Dictionary of Sociology”, functionalism is defined as, The analysis of social and cultural phenomena in terms of the functions they perform in a sociocultural system. In functionalism, society is conceived of as a system of interrelated parts in which no part can be understood in isolation from the whole. A change in any part is seen as leading to a certain degree of imbalance, which in turn results in changes in other parts of the system and to some extent to a reorganization of the system as a whole. The development of functionalism was based on the model of the organic system found in the biological sciences.

Because it is concerned with the overall characteristics of social structure and the general nature of social institutions, functionalism has a macrosociological focus. What functionalists mean by the “interrelation of the parts of a social system” can be understood by looking at an airport. Its “parts” include the roles of airline ticket and reservation personnel, maintenance crews, pilots and flight attendants, passengers, air traffic controllers, restaurant workers, and luggage carriers, to mention a few. All these parts are interrelated, and you need only think of a disturbance in any one of the parts to realize their interdependence. Many changes could lead to the disequilibrium of the airport as a social system, including the closing of runways due to inclement weather, a malfunctioning of the radar control system, and the “crunch” of passengers during the holidays. Any of these disturbances can result in a “certain degree of imbalance,” often to the point of a temporary breakdown in the system. In analyzing social systems along these lines, functionalists emphasize three elements:

  • 1. the general interrelatedness, or interdependence, of the system’s parts;
  • 2. the existence of a “normal” state of affairs, or state of equilibrium, comparable to the normal or healthy state of an organism; and
  • 3. the way that all the parts of the system reorganize to bring things back to normal.

One of functionalism’s most important propositions is that there will always be some such reorganization and a tendency to restore equilibrium. In the case of the airport, it is easy to define “normal” conditions and see how the system organizes to restore them: personnel will work harder, overtime will be set up, and additional staff will be hired. In other cases, as we shall see, restoring equilibrium may be more difficult.

In analyzing how social systems maintain and restore equilibrium, functionalists tend to use shared values or generally accepted standards of desirability as a central concept. Value consensus means that individuals will be morally committed to their society. The emphasis on values is the second most important feature of functionalism, alongside the stress on a system’s interdependence and tendency to restore equilibrium. As such, it is in direct contrast to the other major macrosociological perspective, conflict theory. Whereas functionalism emphasizes the unity of society and what its members share, conflict theorists stress the divisions within a society and the struggles that arise out of people’s pursuits of their different material interests.

Early Roots of Functionalism

The most important intellectual ancestors of modem functionalism are the sociologists Comte, Spencer, Pareto, 9urkheim and, at a later date, the anthropologists Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. Comte, Spencer, and Pareto emphasized the interdependence of parts of the social system; Durkheim emphasized integration, or solidarity, which inspired both Radcliffe-Brown’s and Malinowski’s analyses of the function of social institutions. Auguste Comte (1789-1857), who is commonly identified as the founder of sociology, derived his interest in “statics” (order) and “dynamics” (progress) in society from his general investigation of the foundations of social stability. Comte stated functionalism’s basic assumption of the social system’s interdependence when he said, “The statical study of sociology consists in the investigation of the laws of action and reaction of the different parts of the social system.”7 The functional concept of equilibrium also emerged when Comte declared that a lack of harmony between the whole and parts of the social system was “pathological.” The concept of equilibrium was borrowed from biology’s treatment of homeostasis, which can be illustrated when you fall and scrape your knee, and eventually, scab forms as other parts of your body come to the rescue. Soon it heals and your body’s system is in equilibrium again. Comte’s work was replete with such comparisons between social and biological organisms.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) should also be mentioned as a forerunner of functionalism because of his concept of differentiation. By differentiation, Spencer meant the mutual dependence of unlike parts of the system, which is brought about inevitably by an increase in society’s size. Modern functionalists similarly identify differentiation as an important aspect of a social system’s interrelatedness and integration. Spencer’s evolutionary theory generally resembled the theory that Durkheim later presented in The Division of Labor in Society-a theory that greatly influenced modern functionalists. However, there were two important differences. First, Durkheim did not insist on the inherent necessity of social differentiation, as did Spencer. Second, Durkheim’s insistence that social facts were the proper subject matter for sociology directly contradicted Spencer’s reductionist position that the cause of social progress was psychological; that is, the determining factor was the individual’s need for greater happiness. In these respects, functionalism follows Durkheim. Nonetheless, Parsons used Spencer’s notion of social differentiation in his theory of social change.

Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) patterned his system of sociology on a physiochemical system characterized by the interdependence of parts and adjustive changes, rather than on the biological organism. To Pareto, the “molecules” of the social system were individuals with interests, drives, and sentiments. He was the first sociologist to provide a precise description of a social system in terms of the interrelations and mutual dependencies among parts. In his discussion of how systems adapt and change while maintaining equilibrium, Parsons later borrowed Pareto’s idea of a dynamic or “moving” equilibrium that produces harmony for the system.


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