To understand social structure, several theories took the forefront in the 20th century. Among them, Structural functionalism or simply ‘Functionalism’ is one of the most thought-provoking ones. It originally came out of the writings of English philosopher and biologist, Hebert Spencer (1820–1903). He tried to compare society with our body organs. Just like how our body organs all rely on each other, Spencer argued that like these organs, our society is full of a different institution that relies on each other. According to him, all this institution serves a function, and change in one can lead to change in others.

While Spencer gave the birth of this theory, it was a French sociologist Emile Durkheim who properly established this theory. Before trying to understand his take on Functionalism, let’s use an example for better understanding.

Think of a school, which is full of students, teachers, and other staff. The teachers teach, students learn and do their homework. That is their function. Just like that, the genitor cleans the classroom, and the cafeteria staffs serve food. That is also their function. The school properly operates when all of them serve their purpose. When one doesn’t, others needs to react. If the students don’t do their homework properly, the teacher may have to punish them. If the genitor is absent then the students may have to clean their own class. If the students don’t like the foods in the cafeteria then the kitchen staff may have to prepare something else to sell better.

This is how functionalism works. The whole school is structured in a way where everyone relies on each other. Changes in one sector can lead to change in others. These changes can be good or bad. Students cleaning their room because of janitors absent may help them develop a good skill. On the other hand, teachers punishing the students may make them do their homework better or it can backfire and cause them to cheat or worse.

This is how Emile Durkheim tried to see society from the theory of Functionalism. Under this theory, society is full of all these institutions that can create a structural order. However, this order is never absolute. With time it can change. That is why when a new factory is built around a remote area, the people in that surrounding area find jobs and structure their lives around that identity. But if that factory shuts down, they need to re-shape their social order. It happened since the dawn of human society. When early humans settled near rivers, their lives centered on that fact. When that river dried up, their society also took a dramatic shift to cope up. It doesn’t even need to be as major as this. A shop can pop out with a new clothing brand that sells different kinds of clothes; it can be a new genre of movies that attracts people. Events like these slowly change people’s preferences and it can change the whole culture of a society.

While individuals are what make up a society, Durkheim believed that it is the collective actions from social institutions that shape our society. As a sociologist, he believed that it is paramount to study the ‘Social facts’ not the individuals. That is why the theory of functionalism focuses on these ‘Social facts, which are laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and cultural norms.

Basically, what it means is that it’s not one individual action but a series of similar actions by people is what leads to the evolution of society. If a nation suffers from massive cases of rape, then its law can change to address that issue; just like it did for India and recently Bangladesh. Durkheim believed that even the crimes of the people serve a function. Through those crimes, criminal challenges the law and cultural order of the society, and thus it can force a change.

Another renowned structural-functionalist, Robert Merton (1910–2003) suggested that the functions of the social institutions or social process can be categorized into two. One is “Manifest functions” and the other is “Latent functions”. Manifest functions are those that we expect from those institutions. For example, when people send their children to school they expect that they’ll get educated, make new friends, and socialize. On the other hand, latent functions are more of an unexpected occurrence of consequences. By going to school children can learn about different culture or norms from their friends, they can pick up new habits or learn new tricks, they can even fall in love. Functions that any institution or social process serve aren’t always clear-cut. There can always be many such latent functions that occur and in some cases, they can have more influence on society than typical manifest functions.

Criticism of this theory:

Although the theory of functionalism extensively tries to explain how society evolves, many critics believe that it doesn’t do an adequate job in explaining social changes. Critics believe that functionalism tried to explain society from a narrow viewpoint devoid of individual desire and necessity. This theory can’t properly explain conflicts, wars, or massive social changes that can happen in a short amount of time. It tries so desperately to compare human society to a machine, that in a way it fails to see the humane side of our social structure. Critics such as Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci believes that this theory justifies the status quo and the process of the cultural system that maintains it. This theory doesn’t offer us any idea on how we can improve our society or make positive changes. Instead, it talks about an equilibrium that will be reached organically even if we don’t do anything.

Despite its rapid popularity in the 1940-1950s, the theory of functionalism started to suffer from a decline after the 1960s. By the 1980s, the theory of Structuralism took its place. Yet, this theory does offer us a unique take on society. Even today sociologists study it to have a better understanding of social order.


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