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OverviewFunctionalism is one of the three primary schools of sociological thought. Functionalism is a positivist perspective in which it is believed that members of society work together to maintain equilibrium within society. In the same way that parts of the human body each have their own functions for the wellness of the person, in functionalist thought, members of society complete their own functions to contribute to the success of society in general.Herbert Spencer expressed some of the early ideas which gave birth to functionalism. He was heavily influenced by the 19th Century focus on science and the theory of evolution. Spencer believed that each individual’s pursuits ultimately contributed to the function of society as a whole. With roots in the early industrial period, the theory of functionalism was explicitly developed by French Sociologist, Emile Durkheim. Functionalism reached its height of popularity in the 1940s and 19550s in America (, 2011). This is not surprising, since the functionalist view of society heavily relies on the establishment of common values and norms and preservation of the status quo, which were hallmarks of 1940s and 1950s America. According to the functionalist school of thought, society strives for equilibrium through “social consensus and cooperation,” (Anderson & Taylor, 2009, p.191). Functionalists believe that social inequality serves to motivate people to fulfill roles in society needed for the success of the whole (Anderson & Taylor, 2009, p.191). Specifically, the elite deserve their status and are rewarded for their contributions to social order (Anderson & Taylor, 2009, p.191). These rewards are the impetus for people within a society to do the work needed to attain elite status. People and positions of lower status are necessary to do other necessary jobs (everything from garbage collector, grocery clerk, etc.).According to this theory, there are two types of function in society-- manifest and latent (McClelland 2000). Manifest functions are those that participants in society are aware of and are commonly identified. Latent functions are consequences that were not expressly intended (Mooney, Knox, and Schacht, 2007). For example, children go to school in order to learn (manifest function) and the latent functions of that activity is that parents are provided with free childcare and/or students meet potential mates (Mooney, Knox, and Schacht, 2007).Grounded in conformity and consensus, functionalism has been criticized as failing to address the changes that society necessarily undergoes or negative functions/events (, 2011). Functionalism has also been criticized for justifying the status quo and fostering complacency (, 2011). Sociologist Robert Merton presented ways of looking at functionalism that included the dynamics of change (Elwell, 2013). When change does occur, society adapts to once again regain balance. Each member of society continues to carry out a function for the society to continue.Functionalism continues to be an influential theory in much of sociological, anthropological, psychological, educational and other social scientific research. Researchers continue to apply functionalism to their research designs. Additionally, because of functionalism’s long-standing presence in the annals of sociology, many rely on the theory in whole or in part simply because it has become a cornerstone of sociological thought. It is not explicit in their designs but rather a lurking influence.

Functionalism: A positivist view of social systems

Outstanding ContributorsEmile Durkheim contributed greatly to the field of Sociology by explicitly describing how one can study it both scientifically and empirically. Durkheim was a French social scientist, strongly influenced by the work of Herbert Spencer and Auguste Comte (Carls). He sought to apply scientific method to the study of sociology and succeeded in getting sociology recognized as its own field of study (Carls). Emile Durkheim is considered one the founding father of functionalism. Herbert Spencer, like many of his contemporaries, was devoted to science and specifically evolution. (Darwin’s Origin of the Species was published in 1859.) Spencer believed that society progressed linearly from early man to the industrial period (his time) and would continue to progress in such a manner, laying the foundations of functionalist theory (Parsons, 1937). Spencer believed that each individual’s pursuits ultimately contributed to the function of society as a whole.Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton were significant contributors to the functionalist school of thought. Talcott Parsons was an American functionalist who saw society as a “collection of systems within systems” (McClelland, 2000). These systems spanned from personality up to the entire world, according to Parsons (McClelland, 2000). Parsons also presented the equilibrium theory which states that changes in one part of society create the need for other changes in order to maintain stasis (, 2011). Robert Merton clarified functional analysis by addressing change in addition to stability (Elwell, 2013). Merton also stated that all activities may not be functional for the entire social system but might, instead, only be functional for some groups (Elwell, 2013). Merton introduced the concept of dysfunction and presented ways of looking at functionalism that included analyzing the dynamics of change. He also introduced the idea that societal structures might not be rigidly necessary and that alternatives may exist (McClelland, 2000).

Potential Research Questions1. How does collaborative supervision affect the daily tasks of classroom teachers?2. What effects do deployments have on military students' schoolwork (quality and accuracy)?3.How does homeschooling affect whether children go on to complete advanced degrees and work outside the home, compared with their regularly schooled peers?

ReferencesAnderson, M.L. and Taylor, H.F. (2009). Sociology: The Essentials, 8th edition. Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth.Brown, S. (2013). [video file] Functionalism. Retrieved from, P. (n.d.). Emile Durkheim. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. University of Montreal Canada. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from Three Major Perspectives in Sociology. 22 Jun 2011. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from,articleId-26837.html.Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Merton on Functional Analysis," Retrieved from, Frank W., 2013, "Merton on Structural Functionalism," Retrieved from McClelland, K. (2000). Functionalism. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from, L.A., Knox, D., and Schacht, C. (2007). The Three Main Sociological Perspectives. Understanding Social Problems, 5th edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing.Online library of liberty: A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. Herbert Spencer. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from, T. (1937). The Structure of Social Action. McGraw Hill. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from, A. F., Tracy, J. L., Markusoff, J. L. (2012). (Implicitly) judging a book by its cover: The power of pride and shame expressions in shaping judgements of social status. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1178-1193. doi: 10.1177/0146167212446834.Wikipedia Commons. File: Robert Merton (1965).jpg. Retrieved January 15, 2016 from

Emile Durkheim(1858-1917)

Herbert Spencer(1820-1903)

Talcott Parsons(1902-1979)

Robert Merton(1910-2003)

Functionalism was a theoretical underpinning in the following study: Shariff, A. F., Tracy, J. L., Markusoff, J. L. (2012). (Implicitly) judging a book by its cover: The power of pride and shame expressions in shaping judgements of social status. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(9), 1178-1193. doi: 10.1177/0146167212446834.


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