Structural functionalism, especially in the work of Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton, and their students and followers, was for many years the dominant sociological theory. However, in the last three decades it has declined dramatically in importance (Chriss, 1995) and, in at least some senses, has receded into the recent history of sociological theory.
Parsons’ structural functionalism has four functional imperatives for all “action” systems, embodied in his famous AGIL scheme. These functional imperatives that are necessary for all systems are:
- Adaptation: A system must cope with external situational exigencies. It must adapt to its environment and adapt environment to its needs.
- Goal attainment: A system must define and achieve its primary goals.
- Integration: A system must regulate the interrelationship of its component parts. It must also manage the relationship among the other three functional imperatives (A,G,L).
- Latency (pattern maintenance): A system must furnish, maintain, and renew both the motivation of individuals and the cultural patterns that create and sustain the motivation.
Parsons designed the AGIL scheme to be used at all levels in this theoretical system. The behavioral organism is the action system that handles the adaptation function by adjusting to and transforming the external world. The personality system performs the goal-attainment function by defining system goals and mobilizing resources to attain them. The social system copes with the integration function by controlling its component parts. Finally, the cultural system performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and values that motivate them for action (Ritzer, 2000).
The heart of Parsons’ work is found in his four. action systems. In the assumptions that Parson made regarding his action systems we encounter the problem of order which was his overWhelming concern and that has become a major source of criticism of his work. Parsons found his answer to the problem of order in structural functionalism, which operates in his view with the, following sets of assumptions:
- Systems have the property of order and interdependence of parts.
- Systems tend toward self-maintaining order, or equilibrium.
- The system may be static or involved in an ordered process of change.
- The nature of one part of the system has an impact on the form that the other parts can take.
- Systems maintain boundaries with their environments.
- Allocation and integration are two fundamental processes necessary for a given state of equilibrium of a system.
- Systems tend toward self-maintenance involving the maintenance of the relationships of parts to the whole, control of environmental variations, and control of tendencies to change the system from within.
These assumptions led Parsons to make the analysis of the ordered structure of society his first priority.
Parsons’ conception of the social system begins at the micro level with the interaction between ego and alter ego, defined as the most elementary form of the social system. He described a social system as something which consists of a plurality of individual actors interacting with each other in a situation which has at least a physical or environmental aspect, actors who are motivated in terms of a tendency to the “optimization of gratification” and whose relation to their situations, including each other, is defined and mediated in terms of a system of culturally structured and shared symbols.
In his analysis of the social system, Parsons was primarily interested in its structural components. In addition to a concern with the status role, he was interested in such large-scale components of social systems as collectivities, norms, and values. Parsons was not simply a structuralist but also a functionalist.
Functional Requisites of a Social System by Talcott Parsons
- Social system must be structured so that they operate compatibly with other systems.
- To survive, the social system must have the requisite from other systems.
- The system must meet a significant proportion of the needs of its actors.
- The system must elicit adequate participation from its members.
- It must have at least a minimum of control over potentially disruptive behavior.
- If conflict becomes sufficiently disruptive, it must be controlled.
- Finally, a social system requires a language in order to survive.
The functionalist perspective is primarily concerned with why a society assumes a particular form. This perspective assumes that any society takes its particular form because that form works well for the society given its particular situation. Societies exist under a wide range of environmental situations. Some societies have highly advanced technologies and they also differ in terms of their interactions with other societies. Thus, what works for one society cannot be expected to work for another.
In any society, however, the functionalist perspective makes one basic argument. Whatever are the characteristics of a society, those characteristics developed because they met the needs of that society in its particular situation. The key principles of the functionalist perspective (Farley, 1990) include the following:
- Interdependency. One of the most important principles of functionalist theory is that society is made up of interdependent parts. This means that every part of society is dependent to some extent on other parts of society so that what happens at one place in society has important effects elsewhere. For example, the class requires a faculty member to, teach a subject and the students to learn it. Someone has to provide electricity to light the room, and in order for that electricity to be provided, someone had to build a darn or provide fuel to the power plant.
- Functions of Social Structure and Culture. Closely related to interdependency is the idea that each part of the social system exists because it serves some function. This principle is applied by functionalists to both social structure and culture. Social structure refers to the organization of society, including its institutions, its social positions, and its distribution of resources. Culture refers to. a set of beliefs, language, rules, values, and knowledge held in common by members of a society.
- Consensus and Cooperation. Another key principle in functionalist theory is that societies have a tendency toward consensus; that is to have certain basic values that nearly everyone in the society agrees upon. For example, we all believe in the principles of democracy and freedom. Societies tend, toward consensus in order to achieve cooperation. Functionalists believe that inability to cooperate will paralyze the society, and people will devote more and more effort to fighting one another rather than getting anything done.
- Equilibrium. A final principle of functionalist theories is that of equilibrium. This view holds that, once a society has achieved the form that is best adapted to its situation, it has reached a state of balance or equilibrium, and it will remain in that condition until it is forced to change by some new condition. New technology, a change in climate, or contact with an outside society are all conditions to which a society might have to adapt. When such conditions occur, social change will take place: society will change just enough to adapt to the new situation. However, once that adaptation has been made, the society has attained a new state of balance or equilibrium with its environment, and it will not change again until some new situation requires further adaptation.
The structural functional model addresses the question of social organization and how it is maintained; This theoretical perspective is the legacy of Durkheim and Spencer. It has its roots in natural science and the analogy between a society and an organization. In the analysis of living organism, the scientist’s task is to identify the various parts (structures) and determine how they work (function). In the study of society, a sociologist with this perspective tries to identify the structures of society and how they function; hence the name structural functionalism (Javier et al., 2002).
The component parts of a social structure are families, neighbors, associations, schools, churches, banks, countries, and the like. Functionalists maintain that social structures exist in society for the functions they have to carry out (Panopio et al., 1994).
Functionalist sociologists begin with a picture of society that stresses the interdependence of the social system; these researchers often examine how well parts are integrated with each other. Functionalists view society as a kind of machine, where one part articulates with another to produce the dynamic energy required to make society work. Most important, functionalism stresses the processes that maintain social order by stressing consensus and agreement. Although function-alists understand that change is inevitable, they underscore the evolutionary nature of change. Further, although they acknowledge that conflict between group exists, functionalists argue that without a common bond to unite groups, society will disintegrate. Thus function-alists examine the social processes necessary to the establishment and maintenance of social order (Ballantine and Spade, 2004).
Structural functionalism puts emphasis on social order and social stability not on conflict. It claims that society is made up of different institutions or organizations that work together in cooperation — to achieve their orderly relationship and to maintain social order and social stability. This maintenance of society is extracted from the internal rules, norms, values and regulations of these various ordered institutions.
Modern functionalist theories of education have their origin in the work of Talcott Parsons. As cited by Ballantine and Spade (2004), Parsons believes that education is a vital part of a modern society, a society that differs considerably from all previous societies. From this perspective, schooling performs an important function in the development and maintenance of a modern, democratic society, especially with regard to equality of opportunity for all citizens. Thus, in modern societies education becomes the key institution in a meritocratic selection process.
In addition to its role in a meritocratic society, education plays a significant function in the maintenance of the modern democratic and technocratic society.
In a political democracy, schools provide citizens with the knowledge and dispositions to participate actively in civic life. In an ever-increasingly technical society, schools provide students with the skills and dispositions to work in such a society. Although schools teach specific work skills, they also teach students how to learn so they may adapt to new work roles and requirements.