Functionalist Theory – A Guide to This Sociological Perspective

Functionalist theory is a key sociological perspective that seeks to explain how society works as a whole. It emphasizes the interconnectedness of social structures, institutions, and norms, and how they work together to maintain social order. The theory has its roots in early sociological thought and has been developed by some of the most influential sociologists throughout history.

Origins of Functionalist Theory

Functionalist theory emerged as a sociological perspective in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, during a time when sociologists were seeking to understand the complex changes brought about by industrialization and urbanization. The theory was heavily influenced by early sociological thinkers, including Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and Emile Durkheim.

The Contribution of Émile Durkheim

Émile Durkheim is widely considered one of the key founders of functionalist theory. He compared society to an organism with different parts working together to maintain stability and order. This idea formed the basis of his functionalist approach to the sociological perspective.

Durkheim argued that social structures such as institutions, norms, and values were necessary for maintaining social cohesion. He believed that these structures served a purpose in society by fulfilling important functions that contributed to the overall well-being of the community. For example, he saw religion as a way of promoting social solidarity and providing individuals with a sense of meaning and purpose.

Durkheim also emphasized the importance of collective consciousness in maintaining social order. Collective consciousness refers to the shared beliefs, values, and attitudes that exist within a society. According to Durkheim, individuals are bound together by their shared understanding of what is right and wrong, which serves as a powerful force for maintaining social cohesion.

Durkheim’s contribution to functionalist theory helped shape our understanding of how different parts of society work together to maintain stability and order. His ideas continue to influence contemporary sociologists who study topics such as crime, education, and religion from a sociological perspective.

Talcott Parsons and Functionalism

Talcott Parsons built upon Durkheim’s ideas and developed a more elaborate framework for understanding how different parts of society worked together to maintain equilibrium.

Parsons argued that every society had certain functional prerequisites, or basic needs that must be met in order for the society to survive. These included things like food, shelter, and reproduction. He believed that institutions such as the family, education system, and government were responsible for meeting these needs.

In addition to his work on functional prerequisites, Parsons also developed the concept of pattern variables. Pattern variables refer to the different ways in which individuals can orient themselves towards societal norms and values. For example, individuals may prioritize achievement over affiliation or self-expression over restraint.

Overall, Parsons’ contribution to functionalist theory helped develop a more complex understanding of how different parts of society work together to maintain equilibrium. His ideas have been influential in shaping our understanding of topics such as socialization, the role of institutions in society, and cultural values and norms.

Key Concepts of Functionalist Theory

Functionalist theory is a sociological perspective that views society as a complex system made up of interdependent parts that work together to maintain stability and order.

In this framework, there are several central concepts that are essential to understanding how functionalists view society.

Social Structures, Institutions, and Norms

Social structures refer to the patterns of relationships and social arrangements that exist within society. These structures can include things like families, schools, governments, and religious organizations. They provide the framework for social interactions and help to regulate behavior.

Institutions are formal organizations or systems that are responsible for carrying out specific functions within society. Examples include education systems, healthcare systems, and legal systems. Institutions are essential for maintaining social order by providing structure for a society.

Norms are the unwritten rules or expectations that govern behavior within society. They can be informal (such as norms around dress or language) or formal (such as laws), but they all serve to guide behavior and ensure that individuals act in ways that are consistent with societal expectations.

Interconnection within the Functional Framework

These concepts interconnect within the functionalist framework in several ways. Social structures provide the context for institutions to operate within, while institutions help to reinforce norms and values through their policies and practices.

Norms also play an important role in maintaining social cohesion by providing a shared set of expectations for behavior across different social structures and institutions. This helps individuals understand social expectations in various contexts and allows them to navigate complex social situations more easily.

Overall, these concepts work together to create a stable social system where each part plays a vital role in maintaining equilibrium. The functionalist perspective emphasizes the importance of these concepts in understanding how society functions as a whole.

Critiques of Functionalist Theory

While functionalism has several strengths in providing a comprehensive understanding of society as a whole, it also faces criticisms for overlooking inequality and conflict.


One strength of functionalism is its emphasis on the interconnectedness of different parts of society. By viewing society as a system made up of interdependent parts, functionalists can provide a comprehensive understanding of how different institutions and structures work together to maintain social order.

Another strength is its focus on the functions that various social structures serve in maintaining equilibrium within society. This allows for an analysis of how different institutions meet basic needs such as food, shelter, and education while also reinforcing norms and values.

Functionalism also explains why certain behaviors or practices are valued over others within society. By identifying the functions that these behaviors serve in maintaining social order, functionalists can help explain why some practices are more important than others.


One criticism leveled against functionalism is its tendency to overlook inequality and conflict within society. Functionalists tend to view social structures as serving a positive function in maintaining social order, which can lead them to ignore negative consequences such as oppression or exploitation.

Another weakness is its static view of society. Functionalism tends to emphasize stability and equilibrium within society, which can make it difficult to account for changes or disruptions within the system.

Functionalism also runs the risk of becoming overly deterministic by assuming that certain structures or institutions have always been and will always remain in place without accounting for agency or individual choice.

Final Thoughts about Functionalist Theory as a key Sociological Perspective

Durkheim and Talcott’s contributions to functionalist theory have had lasting impacts on sociology as a whole. By providing a framework for understanding how different parts of society work together, this sociological perspective offers valuable insights into the complex workings of society. While it may not provide all the answers to contemporary societal issues, it remains an important tool for analyzing social structures and institutions in today’s world.

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