Functionalism is the theoretical framework that analyzes society, social structures, interconnectivity, and complex interrelationships. Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Malinowski, Brown, and Parson has contributed immensely to functionalism.
Functionalism Sociology


Functionalism is the theoretical framework that analyzes society, social structures, interconnectivity, and complex interrelationships. Comte, Spencer, Durkheim, Weber, Malinowski, Brown, and Parson has contributed immensely to functionalism.

Auguste Comte and Functionalism 

From the early decades of the twentieth century, it was the right time to get a new discipline dedicated to the systemic analysis of the social world. Thus, Auguste Comte added a name into an accumulating body of theorizing about the nature and dynamics of societies.

Comte had preferred this new societal physics title, where he was supposed to study the social world’s fundamental nature. However, to Comte’s dismay, he found that a Belgian statistician had taken the title, and thus, he was forced to use the tag “sociology.”

Auguste Comte and Biology

In attempting to establish sociology as a separate discipline, Comte assembled his central “hierarchy of the sciences” theory to assert that the most complex science to emerge at last is sociology. Sociology was in the process of arising from biology, and by doing it, it would complete the hierarchical structure.

Thus, sociology was considered a queen science. Although biology analyzed biological organisms, the brand new, emerging sociology was the analysis of social organisms or evaluating these structured patterns of connections among societal organisms.

Comte began to analogize that society is a more complex organism. As a complex social organism, societies are finally built not by individual human beings but, instead, from a complex social system: households in societies with the practical equivalent of cells in biological organisms.

He further argued that all other parts of the social system like groups, associations, communities, and other societal structures were extensive elaborations of the household and considered the fundamental part of societies. And therefore, societies as social organisms were connected by common civilization and political power.

Sociology’s first theoretical analysis is developed from this theory of organismic analogy.

Comte divided the discipline of sociology into social statics, which includes structural properties of the social, and social dynamics, which provides for processes formulating, nurturing, and transforming the properties and relations among these structural properties that make up the social organism. This theory of societal organism and a new mode of analysis was finally called functionalism or, on occasion, structural functionalism.

The principle of functionalism is to envision a particular social structure as impacting the social organism in its environment. In biology, the heart, kidney, lungs, stomach, or any biological structure in an individual organism has a particular function for supporting the body. Similarly, society is analyzed by discovering the functions of particular social structures.

Like individual organisms, social organisms also become complex as new social units that make up the whole are becoming increasingly diverse. The social units are learned by examining the functions they serve for supporting societies. According to Comte, social integration, coordination, regulation, and control of various system elements are required for a social system to become complex.

Societies which is unable to meet this requirement will disclose the increased potential for social pathologies. However, societies that can develop mechanisms of mutual interdependence among various units and centers of power for political control of major system parts are most likely to meet the requirement for social integration.

Comte believed that the progression of the scientific discipline of sociology would guide the future advancement of biology.

Auguste Comte and his application of Early Physics

Comte has been a pioneer of the natural science perspective of precisely what sociology might be. In similarity with other sciences, sociology can create explanatory laws regarding the properties and kinetics of the social world. The primary law is when human beings organize themselves into different social systems.

Newton’s formulation of the law of gravity is competent in describing many of the properties and dynamics of the cosmos. Comte asserted that it was possible for the social universe too. By creating dynamics of fundamental properties of social systems universe, abstract laws can be formed.

He proposes the three main properties of the social universe as

  • Structural interdependencies between differentiated social units
  • Significant areas of power and authority
  • Cultural systems that monitor and regulate the actions of social units and individual actions.

These properties of the social universe have evolved because their dynamics revolve around deepening system-level coordination and control among diverse societal subsystems. Hence according to Comte, the explanatory methodology of Sociology came from physics.

Herbert Spencer and Functionalism

Spencer as a philosopher, started a project that he named Synthetic Philosophy. His primary goal was to subsume subjects such as psychology, biology, ethics, physics, and sociology under a few fundamental laws of the universe deduced from the laws of physics, which were articulated in the 19th century. Thus, the new law intends to explain that all organisms’ evolution begins from simple to complex forms.

Spencer published three volumes of Principles of Sociology, including various social phenomena supporting data from biology and different societies. The data so collected from various societies were labeled as descriptive sociology.

According to Spencer, biology is the study of individual organisms, whereas sociology is the study of the organization of humans into societal structures. This sociological analysis of the organization of organisms or superorganisms applies to any organism capable of organizing itself.

Spencer’s Organismic Analogy

Similarities between the organisms and superorganisms (human beings) include:

  • They grow and progress, and their growth increases complexity and differentiation of structure.
  • Number of distinctive functions internally among them occurs along with differentiation of structure.
  • Organic and superorganic are interdependent between diverse parts. So, change in one part of an organism affects the structure of other parts;
  • Every unit in itself is an individual superorganism. Family (Society) or Lungs (Human body) is an individual unit of the whole and a superorganism within itself.
  • Life of the whole of the organism can be destroyed, but the parts can survive.

Differences between organisms and superorganisms

  • Organisms have a greater level of connectedness and closeness of parts in comparison with superorganisms.
  • The method of communication is vastly different. Communication occurs through molecular waves in organisms, whereas in superorganisms, communication occurs through cultural symbols organized into languages.
  • Consciousness and thought in organisms and superorganisms are significant areas in which they differ vastly. All individuals in superorganisms have the capability for reasoning, consciousness, and decision-making. In organisms, only one part is capable of consciousness.

The Functional Basics in Organic Analogy 

The organismic analogy in Spencer’s work is significant as it is his major treatise on Principles of Biology, where individual organisms are looked upon as fundamental requisites required to sustain life.

Both superorganisms and organisms display basic functional needs that are necessary to ensure their viability in an environment.

Society and social systems are made up of interrelated parts. The social system shows us internal and external adaptation issues to its environment and the need to resolve them if the system continues its course.

These problems are mainly from external changes in society’s biological and ecological environment and the internal environment created by the progress and differentiation of societies.

Spencer suggested three general functional basics for superorganisms that are similar to organisms.

  • Superorganism is itself required to meet needs for producing materials that sustain superorganism. It includes the reproduction of both the individual organisms like people and the social structures and culture of superorganisms that manage and regulate the activities of the people.
  • Ability to control and coordinate people and structures related to their lives by consolidating power and developing cultural systems like values, laws, and beliefs.
  • Information about the territories, circulation, or movement of the people, resources, and structures of the superorganisms.

As the population increase, there is a requisite to produce more food to sustain the larger population. Therefore, it results in the creation of structures within the economy that increases differentiation. It will inevitably increase the development of new distributive infrastructures like roads, bridges, and transportation systems.

Emile Durkheim and Functionalism

In correlation with Spencer’s theory of differentiation, Durkheim also emphasized the relationship between population growth and structural differentiation. Durkheim believed that as time passes, mechanisms of integration would eventually evolve along with differentiation.

Durkheim stood more with Comte than Spencer to emphasize the importance of cultural mechanisms as a unifying force. He considered culture as necessary in the evolution of law to regulate and coordinate relations within and among social units.

Durkheim extended Comte’s ideas and brought functionalism a perception of culture as essential to meet the necessity of integration in complex social systems and institutions.

The Transition into Modern Functionalism

All early functionalist theories focused on the evolutionary framework. The principal idea was evolving from a simple to a complex social system.

Complex societies were seen as progressive societies, and primitive ones were seen as inferior. Charles Darwin’s survival of fittest theory was interpreted to justify racism.

Functionalism was slowly disregarded. Functionalism started to find a new home in anthropology, where it developed as a theory.

Anthropology and Functionalism

Anthropologists cherished the evolutionary method as it provided the data on preliterate societies. Renowned anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe Brown played an essential role in the Functionalism school of thought that emerged in the early twentieth century. The organic analogy principle is used in anthropology to analyse different parts of society.

Bronislaw Malinowski and Functionalism

He is considered a prominent anthropologist and one of the founding fathers of social anthropology. Malinowski emphasized the historical study of society and social institutions rather than speculative study. His work started gaining attention in the 1930s. He laid importance on studying social behavior through participant observation.

Malinowski’s significant contributions are kinship, marriage, magic, ritual language, myth, and the idea of reciprocity. According to Malinowski, a researcher should be able to speak the local language.

Furthermore, the researcher should respect the community’s customs, culture, and laws. His research about Trobriand’s social life laid the foundation of anthropology.

According to Malinowski, customs and institutions in society are integrated and interconnected. If a change happens in one part, it will result in a change in other parts.  So for a holistic study, social anthropologists and ethnographers should consider other parts of the whole also.

Another central area of study for Malinowski is needs functionalism. Human beings have a set of universal biological needs. To fulfill those needs, various customs and institutions are developed.

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe Brown and Functionalism

Radcliffe Brown was influenced by the French sociological school of social phenomena. According to his analysis of the kinship system among the preliterate, the issues related to functionalism could be resolved in three steps.

  • Any society should have a certain basic level of integration within its parts.
  • The concept of function refers to the requisites for the existence of a society. It highlights the necessity for integration.
  • Everyone should look for characteristics that can be displayed for the continuance of integration. The target of explanation by functionalists is to find out how to achieve integration.

He redefined the concept of ‘need’ and altered it with certain primary factors required for human societies’ existence.  He assumes that the required conditions can be discovered by scientific thought and inquiry. This concept of Radcliffe Brown is an evident influence from Auguste Comte.

Along with Brown’s variant of functionalism, a new concept of structure emerged. Structure refers to the orderly arrangement of parts, and function refers to interlinking the structure of an organism. In society, social structure is the orderly arrangement of individuals and social groups.

Social function refers to the internal networks between social life and structures. Therefore, both function and structure are logically linked and support each other and necessary for each other’s continuity.

Talcott Parson and Functionalism

The theory put forward by Parson in many aspects is a revamp of Durkheim, Spencer, and Malinowski’s functionalist ideas. Order in society is the primary area of concern of Parson. Cultural factors in social interaction and social relationships motivate individuals to look for sanction in social relationships.

Parson System of Social Action

According to Parson, societal functions or activities are directed by three systems of social action.

Personality system:  Humans put forward efforts and performs specific actions. To fulfil the conditions required for action, man has to put forward some efforts. Each situation has a particular meaning, and they are provided symbol and symptoms accordingly.

Cultural system: As soon as social action cultivates symbols and signs, they obtain an ordinary meaning. It also evolves as an outcome of a systematised system. A particular situation develops when specific individuals perform a certain set of actions.

Social System:  When a limited number of physical and environmental attributes are involved, and many individuals interact with each other, there is a tendency for the gratification of each other in different situations.

Pattern Variables

Talcott Parson developed a few variables that can be applied to understand different social systems.

It includes normative necessities in social systems, classifying modes of direction in personality-based systems and value patterns of culture. According to Parson, social institutions, social subsystems, values, and norms can be classified according to patterned variables.

The pattern variables are

1 . Affectivity and Affective Neutrality

Neutrality is the expected amount of emotion required for a particular interaction. Particularism is related to affectivity. At the same time, individuals in bureaucracy may lack emotion while in contact with other individuals, which can be associated with effective neutrality. Affective neutrality is deferment of gratification and affectivity refers to the display of gratification of emotions.

2 . Collectivity or Self

When individuals are after collective action, then collectivity precedes individuality. Actions such as the self-sacrifice of a soldier during war and charity activities comes under collectivity. In contrast, utilitarianism considers egoism and individualism as the foundation for building social analysis.

3 . Particularism and Universalism

In particularism, the relation is with a specific individual. The relationships are particular and very diffuse in a parent-child relationship, a relationship among siblings and friends.

It is different and opposite in universalism. Bureaucracy is an example of universalism. As dictated by law public should be treated impartially and equally. A bureaucrat cannot be partial even to a family member.

4 . Diffuseness and Specificity

It is related to how narrow and broad our role is in interaction. In a formal setup visiting a dentist is a precise social relationship.

This kind of approach to someone for a particular purpose is specificity. Diffusion and related social interaction are different. We rely on friends for broad areas of interests like support, conversation and daily activities.

5 . Ascription and Achievement

Ascription is the attributes that a person attains since birth. It includes sex, race, age, ethnicity, and family status. Achievement is the attainment of a position concerning the hard work and performance of the individual. Ascribed status is rigid, while achieved status is open to all.

6 . Expressive and Instrumental

The integrative and tension factors are the expressive aspects.

These are individuals, especially women, and their role concerning their family unit. The instrumental features are the goal attainment and adaptation factors. These are related to social action and status related to male roles, the economy, or politics.

Societal interaction in early societies is regarded as expressive characteristics. However, in modern societies with complex labour and differentiation divisions, societal interaction is considered instrumental aspects.

AGIL paradigm and Functionalism

Every social system has specific functional needs for survival and continuation, and these functional needs can be remembered using the acronym AGIL.

Adaptation (A)

Every social system lives in its environment, and it must learn to live along with this environment. While adapting to the environment, the environment itself is affected and is reciprocally adapted to society. Earning an income for the family is a kind of adaptation in the family.

Goal Attainment (G)

Every system has certain specific goals related to it. These goals must be laid out, defined, and then achieved. The polity of a state can alter and organize the goals of a society. The state bureaucracy is the medium that acts in attaining the goals.

For example, Harvard University has the goal of teaching, research, and sharing knowledge. Business, political, economic, social, and cultural organizations worldwide have goals, and within these organizations, there are positions attributed to specific individuals to achieve these goals.

Integration (I)

According to Parson, integration, coordination adjustment, and regulation among different actors in the system assist social relationships and interrelationships to continue to function.

As social processes develop, conflict and strain also emerge along with it. Various social institutions assist in orderly means of carrying out activities and managing conflict and tensions. Parson believed that the system itself generates an automatic integration method.

Latency (L) or pattern maintenance (P)

It is the pattern maintenance and cultural motivational energy for the actors involved in the system. They are called Latent because they may not always seem like A, G, and I functions.

It is necessary to establish this motivation and renew it constantly. Family, religion, and educational institutions solve this issue of pattern management.

Criticism of Functionalism

The major criticisms of functionalism are

  • The primary issue put forward by scientific philosopher’s and logicians are illegitimate tautologies and teleologies.
  • Some of the contemporary families in the society might be categorized as dysfunctional by Parsons as it is not performing the functions designated by Parsons.
  • Functionalism functions as a conservative ideology that lays lower importance for issues like inequality and conflict and focusing majorly on the factors that help in sustaining the status quo.
  • Over prominence for issue concerning analytical categories and not in principles that help in explaining dynamic processes.

Marxist and Feminist theorists, who are the significant chunk of conflict theory of sociology, rejects functionalism theories for their biased approach. They criticize the theory of Parson, which supports traditional nuclear families which oppress women and side-line them as housewives. Functionalist theorists are blind to issues like domestic violence. Functionalists argue that nuclear families are efficient for socialization. Feminists argue that even single parents run the family well and socialize children.

Interactionists consider functionalism as deterministic theory. According to functionalist’s human behaviour is formulated by societal structures and institutions. Interactionists believe human beings as not anyone’s puppet, and the concept of human beings programmed by social forces in functionalism is wrong.

By the late 1980s, functionalism was abandoned and replaced with new non-functionalist approaches to the progress of sociology. A few contemporary sociologists like Jeffrey C. Alexander have attempted to revive functionalism.



Sociology Plus