The functionalist theory focuses on society as a system of interrelated institutions and structures that are designed to address human needs. They view society as functioning best when there is agreement about the social values and norms. The functionalist theory asserts that our lives are guided by social structures, which are relatively stable patterns of social behavior in each society. Each social structure has social functions for the operation of society as a whole. Functionalists see social structure of society as more fundamental than the individuals themselves. Functionalism sees society as a skeleton; a set of interconnected parts which together structure an entirety.
Structural Functionalism is considered to be the “framework for building theories”. According to “the Real World” The origins of structural functionalism can be traced back to the roots of sociology. The functionalist theory is the oldest, and still most dominant, theory in sociology. Thomas Hobbes, a seventeen-century philosopher, viewed humans as “self interested beings who were in constant danger of ‘the war of each against all'”. Many pre-twentieth-century social thinkers were in conflict with the “Hobbesian” problem of social order.
The problem of social order became principal in the minds of many social thinkers following political conflict beginning with the eighteenth century French Revolution. At the same time, the biological sciences were revealing the mysteries of bodily function and evolutionary ideas of survival that created controversy and inspired ideas from philosophers. Consequently, a number of social philosophers used the human body as a comparison to society. Philosophers came up with the idea of “Organic Analogy”; the idea that society, like the body, is a system of parts. Just like bodily health is measured by observing if all of its parts are working properly, society was also observed based on its functioning “parts”.
There were many social thinkers during this time period. Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher and sociologist, was born on April 27, 1820 in Derby, England. Herbert wrote many publications and had many ideas about society, which then led to his impact on psychology and sociology. According to Schultz and Schultz, the people of the United Stated accepted his writings because his views were compatible with the “American way” of life during the time period.
Herbert Spencer believed societies are living organisms that grow and develop and only those who were able to adapt to the environment were able to survive. Those individuals could understand at some level what Herbert was implying in the phrase “survival of the fittest”.
According to Bolender, Herbert Spencer’s Synthetic Philosophy was based upon evolutionary principles that included human awareness and experience. Herbert presented the idea that the mind exists in its current state due to “past and constant” efforts of the mind to adapt to its environment. Many social thinkers of his time thought that his Synthetic Philosophy was “the work of a genius”. His evolutionary writings led to the idea of “Social Darwinism”.
The premise of the functionalist theory was based on evolutionary ideas. Each part of the human body is connected, in some way, to all other parts. Individual organs come together to create something that is “greater than the sum total of their individual parts”. Functionalists believe that all parts of society need to have a purpose or a function to that society and certain needs amongst its people.
Functionalism’s explanations of social variation are especially unsatisfying, though. According to functionalists, if poverty, racism and segregation, sexual abuse and sexism exist, they all must serve a purpose in society. Meaning, they are necessary parts of society for it to be able to function. According to Herbert Gans, the poor do our “dirty work”, filling the dreary, low-wage jobs that are crucial to keep society running but others refuse to do. Herbert Gans explains this idea in a critical essay explaining, “the poor provide a market for used and off-priced goods, and keep thrift stores and social welfare agencies in business”. The idea that society’s separate structures are necessary to keep a functioning society seems outdated.
In today’s society, there is so much crime and danger in our everyday lives and we have so many families struggling to survive. As a society, we should not have to deal with so much crime in our daily lives and we should not have to see our neighborhood families struggling to survive as a necessary structure in society for us to continue to function. Poverty, Condition where people’s basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter are not being met is a huge problem for many of United Stated families. Households are struggling to make a steady income that is enough to provide for the family and have a safe and livable habitat. Functionalists would argue that poverty would not exist if it did not serve a function as part of society. Ultimately the logic that characterizes functionalist thought turns out to be the biggest problem with understanding structural functionalism.
Schultz, D.P. & Schultz, S.E. (2004). A History of Modern Psychology: Eighth Edition, New York: Harcourt.
Ferris, K. Stein, J. (2014). the Real World: an Introduction to Sociology New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company