Professor Marshall

LESSON 2: Functional Theory

Functional Theory

By definition, using a functional lens requires us to ask the main question: how is ________ functioning? Functional theories would also assert to us that if something is not functioning, a slow process over time would eventually see its demise. In other words, IF IT AIN'T BROKE, DON'T FIX IT, AND IF IT IS BROKE, IT WILL FIX ITSELF. The answers to the two key questions:

  1. How do we exist? Functionalism rests on the notion that things are working in a balanced state. This theory has space for things not working well, but generally speaking, this theory would explain social reality in terms of the balance of the different parts of society.
  2. How do we change? Functionalism tells us that an evolutionary process will help to balance out those things that have gone wrong in society--by its very essence, we don't have to intervene to make these changes happen. The system will always seek a state of balance or equality, and so the members of the system (the people in society) will eventually quit repeating those behaviors which aren't working out, and over time, society will become a better place.

Remember that this is a MACRO theory, which means the focus is on the structure and systems of society and their impacts on the individual:

Macro Explanation

This Lesson is structured in three sections:

  • Part 1 discusses the significance of the concept of interdependence
  • Part 2 explains the concepts of integration and anomie
  • Part 3 introduces contemporary interpretations of functional theory

Part 1: Interdependence

Comte, Spencer and Pareto focused on the idea of interdependence.

Auguste Comte: 1789-1857

Social Statics and Social Dynamics

Auguste Comte's concepts of statics and dynamics carved the way for the foundation of sociological theory. "SOCIAL STATICS" refers to the ways in which society exists, and "SOCIAL DYNAMICS" refers to the ways in which society changes.

There are three important factors that we must consider about social statics:

  • Language--Language is the means of storing the thought and culture of preceding generations. Without a common language we could never have attained solidarity and consensus, and without this collective tool no social order is possible.
  • Religion--Common religious beliefs provide a guide for behavior and prvide us with an overarching unifying principle: common ground without which individual differences would tear society apart. Religion is the root of social order and is indispensable for making legitimate the commands of government. No power can endure without the support of spiritual power.
  • Division of Labor--Creates interdependence among members of society, and society ultimately benefits from a properly functioning division of labor. As societies become more complex, the division of labor is the only means to properly adjust to that complexity.


If social statics are correctly balanced within a society, social dynamics (how we go about changing things for the betterment of humankind) can be orderly and positive.

Comte is generally considered to be the founder of the academic field of sociology. Even though the word "sociology" had been around for some time before him, he recycled the word and used it to describe a way to study society. He also thought that using science was paramount to the field of sociology, and coined the term "positivism:"

  • Sociology: The scientific study of social behavior in human groups; focuses on social relationships and how those relationships influence people's behavior; and how society, the sum total of those relationships, develop and change (Schaefer 1).
  • Positivism: the philosophy that the only authentic knowledge is knowledge that is based on actual sense experience; such knowledge can only come from affirmation of theories through application of the scientific method ("Auguste Comte"). In essence, Comte asserted that in order for sociology to have any sort of "street cred" within the academic community, it had to have a method wihich allowed for objective study of what society IS--what we can see and measure--as opposed to what we might THINK IT IS. He said that we must make statements about society which are grounded in facts and experience, not in heresay and supposition (Hoult 1974:243-244).

Comte lived through the turmoil of the French Revolution, and he saw sociology as a way to restore order to society. Social philosophers of the day were thinking about ways to try to restore order amidst the chaos of the aftermath of the Revolution. Comte felt that if the scientific method (positivism) could be applied to the study of social behavior, then society could be manipulated or controlled for its own benefit. He also felt that the French Revolution has permanently impaired the stability of France and that sociology, the systematic study of human behavior, would eventually lead to more rational societal interactions (Schaefer 9).

The Law of Human Progress (or The Law of Three Stages)

Comte asserted that there were three stages to human progress: Theological, Metaphysical, and Scientific. These stages see societies as "progressing" from primitive to complex. It is the third stage in which we are the most interested this semester.

Comte's Three Stages

As a society grows, it must pass through the different theoretical conditions: Theological, Metaphysical, and Scientific. It is the third state--Scientific--which Comte identifies with the concept of positivism.

Herbert Spencer: 1820-1903


Spencer was not a sociologist, but during his time, he was a very well-respected social philosopher. His concept of differentiation is an important foundation for functional theory when we apply it to societies which are increasing in complexity. We attribute the concept of evolution to Charles Darwin, a contemporary of Spencer's, but Spencer actually wrote about evolution before Darwin. His "take" on differentiation was that as societies become more industrial, they will become more differentiated (or complex). This sounds like a "no brainer" today, but in his time, Spencer was on the intellectual cutting edge--the Industrial Revolution was just beginning and society was dramatically changing.

The Role of Genetics

Comte was influential in the ideas that Spencer had about society, but Spencer had his own ideas about what the concept of evolution meant for society. While other theorists asserted that society itself would evolve to a better, more egalitarian place over time, Spencer saw the concept of evolution on a more individualistic, human level. He thought that behaviors that were "good" for society (and by this he essentially meant working hard, doing the "right" thing, being an upstanding law-abiding, wealth-seeking person) would be BIOLOGICALLY passed down from generation to generation. He also thought that "bad" behaviors (alcoholism, stealing, spouse and child abuse) would not be passed down as these behaviors were not good for the overall health of society. Well, we clearly can see that his idea cannot be validated--we continue to have many of the same social ills in our time as Spencer had in his--in fact, we probably have many more! This was also a very dangerous idea--if behaviors, either bad or good, were genetically encoded, then we could point to problem behaviors being in a person FROM BIRTH. For example, the child abuser: "I couldn't control myself. It's in my genes." Or, in the case of a racist ruler, genocide could be encouraged and sanctioned (as in the case of the Rwandan genocide and Civil War between the Hutu and the Tutsi).

Spencer's attempts to claim genetics as the "seed" of behavior didn't work, and in fact, resulted in our having a clear definition between the natural sciences (which are all about genetics and evolution) and the social sciences (sociology, psychology, etc.).

Vilfredo Pareto: 1848-1923

Adaptation and Adjustment

Just as with Spencer, Pareto was not a classically trained sociologist. He is known more for his work with mathematics. His work was profoundly influential to the work of Talcott Parsons.

Pareto was disturbed that he could not successfully apply math to society--his calculations about how society should function with regard to economic forces often didn't work out. He felt this was due to the irrational acts of individuals who "skewed" the outcomes of his calculations. Where he coincides with functional theory is in his ideas about societies over time. Pareto felt that societies existed on a sort of pendulum which swings from conservative to liberal--as the conservative control begins to weaken due to the needs of society not being met (generally, for Pareto, this was due to some sort of catastrophe), the pendulum would swing back toward a more liberal focus. Then, as the liberal control begins to falter (again, due to some sort of social event impacting many people) conservativism would gain ground:


Part 2: Integration and Anomie

Emile Durkheim: 1858-1917

Social Solidarity

Durkheim was a French sociologist and pioneer in the development of modern sociology. He is considered to be the founding father of the French positivist school of sociology. His work and editorship of the first journal of sociology, L'Année Sociologique and his creation of the first European department of sociology helped establish sociology as an accepted social science.

Some of his earliest contributions were the observations he made about society at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution (IR) in western Europe. He noted that society was rapidly changing, and he noted the differences between what society had been like prior to the IR and after the IR began to change the way many groups in society related to each other. He called these observations the "Division of Labor" and noted two differing "types" of society:

  • Mechanical solidarity (collective consciousness) - Social cohesion based upon the likeness and similarities among individuals in a society, and largely dependent on common rituals and routines. Common among prehistoric and pre-agricultural societies, mechanical solidarity lessens as modernity increases
  • Organic solidarity (decline of collective consciousness) - Social cohesion based upon the dependence individuals in more advanced societies have on each other. Common among industrial societies as the division of labor increases. Though individuals perform different tasks and often have different values and interests, the order and very survival of society depends on their reliance on each other to perform their specific tasks.

Durkheim discussed social solidarity--the bond between all individuals within a society--in considerable depth. He first described the social cohesion particular to pre-industrial societies. This mechanical solidarity as he called it occurred when all members of a society performed the same or nearly the same tasks as all others in a society. If one person were to die and not be replaced, the society would not change, because all other members did exactly the same thing as the member that died. The collective conscience of a mechanical society is identical among all members, and the bond is not from dependence on other individuals, but from the dependence on the total social system.

Durkheim's primary interest was what happened as societies begin to modernize, when they begin to industrialize and labor becomes increasingly specialized. Durkheim calls the new form of solidarity resulting from modernization organic solidarity. In modern, industrial societies, labor is tremendously divided. Individuals no longer perform the same tasks, have the same interests, nor necessarily share the same perspectives on life. But Durkheim quickly points out that this does not cause a society to fail or disintegrate: organic solidarity is formed. Like the organs within an animal, individuals perform certain specific functions, but rely on the well-being and successful performance of other individuals. If one organ fails, the rest of them fail as well. A body--or in this case a society--cannot function at all if one part crumbles. This reliance upon each other for social (and even physical) survival is the source of organic soldarity, according to Durkheim ("Solidarity").


Social Facts

Durkheim also defined what would come to be known as social facts: laws, customs, etc., that we can scientifically investigate. Durkheim was concerned primarily with how societies could maintain their integrity and coherence in the modern era, when things such as shared religious and ethnic background could no longer be assumed. In order to study social life in modern societies, he sought to create one of the first scientific approaches to social phenomena. Along with Herbert Spencer, he was one of the first people to explain the existence and quality of different parts of a society by reference to what function they served—how they make society "work." His work is seen as the beginning stages of functionalism. Durkheim also insisted that society was more than the sum of its parts. Unlike some of his contemporaries (Ferdinand Tönnies and Max Weber), he focused not on what motivates the actions of individuals, but rather on the study of social facts, a term which he coined to describe phenomena which have an existence in and of themselves and are not bound to the actions of individuals.

Durkheim argued that social facts have an independent existence greater and more objective than the actions of the individuals that compose society. Being exterior to the individual person, social facts may thus also exercise coercive power on the various people composing society, as it can sometimes be observed in the case of formal laws and regulations, but also in phenomena such as church practices or family norms. A "social" fact refers to a specific category of phenomena: it consists of ways of acting, thinking, feeling, external to the individual and endowed with a power of coercion, by reason of which they control him. According to Durkheim, these phenomena cannot be reduced to biological or psychological grounds.

Defined by Durkheim, social facts are "every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual external constraints." Simply put, social facts (commonly called social forces) are the influence placed on an individual by society or social institutions.


In 1893 Durkheim introduced the concept of anomie. Anomie refers to a feeling of disconnection to the goals of society, and it occurs when society is in a state of rapid change (such as the IR) and people are no longer sure of what the rules are. The conflict between the evolved organic division of labor and the homogeneous mechanical type was such that one could not long exist in the presence of the other.

Later in 1897, in his studies of suicide, Durkheim associated anomie to the influence of a lack of norms or norms that were too rigid. Normlessness or norm-rigidity was a symptom of anomie, caused by the lack of adaptation to the changing world.



In classical sociology, the study of religion was primarily concerned with two broad issues:

  1. How did religion contribute to the maintenance of social order?
  2. What was the relationship between religion and capitalist society?

These two issues were typically combined in the argument that industrial capitalism would undermine traditional religious commitment and thereby threaten the cohesion of society. Durkheim placed himself in the positivist tradition, meaning that he thought of his study of society as dispassionate and scientific. He was deeply interested in the problem of what held complex modern societies together. Religion, he argued, was an expression of social cohesion. His underlying interest was to understand the existence of religion. Durkheim thought that the model for relationships between people and the supernatural was the relationship between individuals and the community. He is famous for suggesting that "God is society, writ large." Durkheim believed that people ordered the physical world, the supernatural world, and the social world according to similar principles.

His definition of religion: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, i.e. things set apart & forbidden-- beliefs and practices which unite in one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them." (Durkheim 1917)



In Suicide (1897), Durkheim explores the differing suicide rates among Protestants and Catholics, explaining that stronger social control among Catholics results in lower suicide rates. According to Durkheim, Catholic society has normal levels of integration while Protestant society has low levels. Despite the limitations of his work, it has influenced proponents of control theory, and is often mentioned as a classic sociological study.

Durkheim's study of suicide has been criticized for an error which sociologists refer to as the ecological fallacy. Durkheim's conclusions about individual behaviour (e.g. suicide) are based on aggregate statistics (the suicide rate among Protestants and Catholics). This type of inference is often misleading.

Durkheim stated that there are four types of suicide. These four types of suicide are based on the degrees of imbalance of two social forces: social integration and moral regulation:

  • Egoistic suicides are the result of a weakening of the bonds that normally integrate individuals into the collectivity: in other words a breakdown or decrease of social integration. Durkheim refers to this type of suicide as the result of "excessive individuation", meaning that the individual becomes increasingly detached from other members of his community. Those individuals who were not sufficiently bound to social groups (and therefore well-defined values, traditions, norms, and goals) were left with little social support or guidance, and therefore tended to commit suicide on an increased basis. An example Durkheim discovered was that of unmarried people, particularly males, who, with less to bind and connect them to stable social norms and goals, committed suicide at higher rates than married people.
  • Altruistic suicides occur in societies with high integration, where individual needs are seen as less important than the society's needs as a whole. They thus occur on the opposite integration scale as egoistic suicide. As individual interest would not be considered important, Durkheim stated that in an altruistic society there would be little reason for people to commit suicide. He stated one exception, namely when the individual is expected to kill themselves on behalf of society – a primary example being the soldier in military service.
  • Anomic suicides are the product of moral deregulation and a lack of definition of legitimate aspirations through a restraining social ethic, which could impose meaning and order on the individual conscience. This is symptomatic of a failure of economic development and division of labour to produce Durkheim's organic solidarity. People do not know where they fit in within their societies.
  • Fatalistic suicides occur in overly oppressive societies, causing people to prefer to die than to carry on living within their society. This is an extremely rare reason for people to take their own lives, but a good example would be within a prison; people prefer to die than live in a prison with constant abuse ("Suicide").


Part 3: Contemporary Interpretations of Functionalism

Talcott Parsons: 1902-1979

Parsons was an American sociologist, who by his own account, was a theorist. He was not concerned with testing his ideas by developing research projects; rather, he was a thinker--he theorized about how society functioned.

Systems Levels

Parsons said that systems are the way in which a society functions. He explained four systems within his General Theory of Action:

Parsons' works drew on the concepts of gemeinschaft-gesellschaft, which were the work of another early theorist, Ferdinand Tonnies:

After Parsons developed his General Theory of Action, he tried to figure out,by using his theory, HOW people would behave. He, along with colleague Robert Bales, came up with what is commonly referred to as the AGIL model:

Grand Theory

Parsons' work is regarded in the category of GRAND THEORIES--this means that his work was focused on developing theory to explain the functioning of EVERYTHING in the social realm. Grand theories are highly abstract and are concerned with the arrangement and organization of society (Marshall 1998). Parsons is considered the GRANDEST of grand theorists!

Robert K. Merton: 1910-2003

Middle-Range Theories

So, while Parsons worked on theories which tried to explain everything about society from a macro perspective (without worrying about testing his ideas through research), Merton took a different approach. Still a functionalist, Merton decided to try to bring together theory and method--he called this work "Middle Range Theories." Merton felt that it was important to be able to clarify and test theories about society, so he broke from the notion that we could have ONE BIG THEORY (like Parsons) to explain society, and instead asserted that we needed to have some less grand theories--more specific--which would allow us to collect data and test the validity of the theories.

Functions and Dysfunctions

Merton also spent some time working on the concept of "dysfunctions--" that is to say, what happens when the system is not functioning smoothly? While Parsons asserted that our social systems FUNCTION, Merton didn't agree. Merton asserted that social systems could certainly dysfunction, and that there were two things a sociologist needed to clarify when trying to find out if a system was working or not:

  1. Even if a system is working, it can have dysfunctions.
  2. The consequences of system function/dysfunction are different depending on who (or which group) you ask.

We can find examples of system function/dysfunction in our major social institutions: the system of education is seen to be functioning--the government says it works, we have more college graduates than ever before, and people "think" they are smarter. But, we can also point to dysfunctions--we have very high high school drop-out rates, the price of college tuition is sky-high, and student loans are out of control. But, the point of view (is it functioning or is it dysfunctioning) largely depends on WHO YOU ASK. These concepts break from traditional functional theory and move toward an acknowledgement of the NEGATIVE aspects found in systems rather than the positives.

Merton's Anomie Theory of Deviance:

So, you can see how this theory specifically deals with one aspect of society--conformity (or non-conformity) and classifications of groups. The theory is small enough to test. It is also vague enough to allow a researcher to consider many ways in which to test its validity. Rather than trying to assert one huge theory that explains everything (as Parsons did) Merton scales it down and by doing so, is able to bring into focus issues which Parsons' work could not address.


Here, we begin to see some similarities to Conflict Theory, and I want you to store this away for future reference--as you will see as we progress, there have been attempts to bring together functional and conflict theory.

Jeffrey Alexander, Neil J. Smelser, Niklas Luhmann and Neofunctionalism

Neofunctionalism has not been around for long--it came on the sociological scene in the 1980s. It began with the work of Jeffrey Alexander, who said that there are strong similarities between functional and conflict theories. He said that there are three general similarities:

  1. There have been critiques of both functional and conflict theory with regard to the shortcomings of both
  2. Both come from observations about social struggle
  3. Both have developed many ways to explain society--neither has been able to "stick" with ONE way of viewing how we exist and how we change.

In essence, Alexander argues that Parsons' view of society is lacking, and he reformulates functional theory by adding micro level perspectives (we'll learn more about the micro perspective later) AND by adding a conflict approach. This latter notion is important because it would suggest that we don't need to have two competing theories--neofunctionalism tries to incorporate both conflict and functional theories into one. Is this a problem for theorists? Neofunctionalism has a few key players who would assert that it can work, but I would suggest that most sociologists are hard pressed to see the practical application of this orientation. Alexander argues that his development of neofunctionalism has helped to situate Parsons' work in the past (that means that we can set it aside for more practical and applicable theories--Parsons' can be viewed in the same way as we see Comte, Spencer, and Durkheim--as a building block to theories that work better in modern times). Where Alexander really parts ways with the "old school" idea of functionalism is in his view of the individual being the point of action in a society. Traditional functional theorists would see the STRUCTURE as the agent of movement (definitely a MACRO concept), whereas Alexander has incorported the individual as the AGENT of change (a MICRO level concept).

Recall our lecture on Micro/Macro concepts:

Smelser uses the premises of neofunctionalism to build his theory about the power of ambivalence. He says that, contrary to Parsons' belief of the importance of the role instead of the individual, the reason why society changes is the individual's desire to avoid ambivalence. He asserts that ambivalence (when two opposing ideas exist about one thing) is something that we don't like to experience--so much so, that we feel torn between what we might do and what we actually do:


For Smelser, it is important for us to understand the individual as the unit of action--Parsons would have asserted that the structure was the action agent--Smelser draws on neofunctionalism to incorporate the individual into the equation. Perhaps our poor Stick Person (we'll call him STICK, for short) stays in the relationship. Perhaps Stick decides to leave. In the end, it is Stick's feeling of being torn between two choices that is so difficult to bear, that a choice seems inevitable. This choice, according to Smelser, is what changes society.

Luhmann also uses neofunctional theory as a jumping off point for his ideas about society. Like Alexander and Smelser, Luhmann sees the individual as an important part of theorizing about society. He includes the idea of "self-reference," meaning that being able to reflect on how things are going is an essential component to changing. And, if we think about this, it sounds like it might be a good idea--if we don't take time to assess where we are and where we want to be, we probably don't formulate a plan of action to go anywhere. He does not see this process at the individual level however; he sees it as a group effort--several people together can reflect on how "things" are, and when they realize that things aren't how they want them to be, they can effect some changes. From this basic concept he further states that systems can also be self-referencing! How does that work? Well, that's one of the big issues with Luhmann's idea: how can a system reflect? Isn't reflecting the work of people?

In order to "get around" this problem, Luhmann starts by saying we shouldn't take into account individual feelings--rather, we should view people as units in the system. If we simply count the communications betwen units, then we take the human being out of the equation of change: the units, when tallied, are what bring about the system changes that Luhmann describes:


But, what is it that makes the communcation units WANT to change? Well, we have to have some sort of goal in sight--making money is one of those goals. Luhmann would say that the structure of our society is such that making money is an essential component. When units get together and figure out ways to make money, they change the structure of society accordingly. The units act on faith that their agreed upon method is for their own good. For society, those agreed upon methods (whether they are actually good for us or not) are accepted by us because we realize that society is so complex it would be impossible to change it, and so we go along with whatever has been decided for us. Only in really difficult times (such as a recession or a depression) do we attempt to change the system--and again, it is not the individual who does so, it is the units of communication banding together which would make this change. These units do so when they have assessed the risk of change to be LESS than the risk of no change. Luhmann asserts that we are chained to the decision makers in modern society, and that we are often threatened by risks which are outside of our control.


So, we can see the modern day interpretations of functional theory via Alexander, Smelser and Luhmann. Theorists are working everyday to think up new ideas about how society exists and how society changes. To recap, functional (and neofunctional) theorists see society as a group of interrelated parts. Each of these parts will seek to function to its best potential. If the system dysfunctions, then a sense of restoration to balance will be sought.