Structural Functionalism: A Macrolevel Empirical-Analytical Approach in the Social Sciences

Structural functionalism is “a framework for building a theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability” (Macionis 2007, 15). Such parts of the whole system may vary in terms of functions but they are all related to each other. Interdependent as they are, they all have one goal and that is to maintain or keep the whole system, at least in its present form. It follows therefore that the working of one part would have effects on the other parts.

Structural functionalism was developed by Talcott Parsons in the 1930s under the influence of the works of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim (McMahon 2015). It emphasizes social structure, any relatively stable pattern of social behavior” and social functions, “the consequences of any social pattern for the operation of society as a whole” (Macionis 2007, 15). Examples of social structure are the family, government, religion, education, and economy. Social structure shapes our lives in various contexts such as the family, the workplace, classroom, and community; and all social structure functions to keep society going, at least in its present form (Macionis 2007).

Robert Merton (1910-2003) expanded the concept of social function by arguing that any social structure may have many functions. He distinguished between manifest functions, “the recognized and intended consequences of any social pattern” and latent functions, the unrecognized and unintended consequences of any social pattern.” (Macionis 2007, 15).

Higher education, for instance, can be seen with both manifest and latent functions. The manifest function of higher education is to provide the youth with the information and skills needed to enable them to perform their jobs after graduation. By keeping millions of young people out of the labor market, where a significant number of them may not get hired right away after graduation, serves as the latent function of higher education. As a “marriage broker”, that is, bringing together peoples of similar social backgrounds is an equally important, yet not often recognized latent function of higher education (Macionis 2007, 16).

In his classification of social functions into manifest or latent, Merton recognized that the effects or outcomes of social structure are not all necessarily good and not necessarily good for everyone. He coined the term “social dysfunction.” A social dysfunction is “any social pattern that may disrupt the operation of society” (Macionis 2007, 16).

What causes social dysfunction? The lack of consensus among peoples in a given polity or society about what is helpful or harmful to society is a key feature of every society or polity. Differences in backgrounds or status, for instance, may lead to differences in recognition and appreciation of what is functional or not to particular individuals or groups of peoples. In a capitalist order, for example, high profits for factory owners can be seen as dysfunctional for factory workers as they receive low wages (Macionis 2007, 16).

The structural-functional approach built on the following premises:

  1. Within every social structure or system—politics, family, organizations —each member of the system has a specific function.
  2. Those functions can be small or substantial, are dynamic in nature (i.e., they can change), and work toward the same purpose: to keep the system operational within its environment.
  3. Change is evident within any society or system; however, for the system to survive, it must adapt to that change in order to maintain its equilibrium (McMahon 2015).

To maintain the equilibrium of the system, Parsons identified four imperatives for societies to survive, which he called the AGIL model, the acronym stands for the first letter of each of these four imperatives. These are:

  • Adaptation: acquiring and mobilizing sufficient resources so that the system can survive.
  • Goal Attainment: setting and implementing goals
  • Integration: maintaining solidarity or coordination among the subunits of the system
  • Latency: creating, preserving, and transmitting the system’s distinctive culture and values (McMahon 2015 Emphasis added).

Structural functionalism was under sustained criticisms in the late 1960s such that by the 1970s, it has lost its credibility (McMahon 2015). A generalized criticism of structural functionalism was aimed at the theory’s lack of explanation for social conflict or social change in addition to its “bias of political conservatism” (Smelser 1990 in McMahon 2015). In more specific terms, structural functionalism was criticized for being unable to explain phenomena such as social change, disagreement with social and political aims, and the influential underpinnings of the wealthy. Moreover, structural functionalism’s qualitative methodology, its emphasis on the general rather than the specific, and its non inclusion of psychology in the discussion of human behavior came also under attack from social scientists (McMahon 2015).

Critics argue that structural functionalism’s focus on social stability and social order ignore inequalities of social class, race, and gender which cause tension and conflict in the society (Macionis 2017). Feminists, in particular, are critical of structural functionalism due to the theory’s gender-blindness to the historical contributions of women (McMahon 2015). Others find the focus on stability and order at the expense of conflict of structural functionalism as somewhat conservative (Macionis 2017) and less likely to produce cumulative and generalizable knowledge.

In response to these criticisms, some social scientists revert to structural functionalism as it offers a valid explanation of consensus, which supports the concept of social order (McMahon 2015). Others made a critical response. They developed the social-conflict approach (Macionis 2017). In the social sciences, Marxism is an example of this social-conflict approach in the Social Sciences.