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functionalism (structural functionalism)

Definition of Functionalism

(noun) A theory that views society as a complex but orderly and stable system with interconnected structures and functions or social patterns that operate to meet the needs of individuals in a society.

Examples of Functionalism

  • aging (disengagement theory): As people age they gradually withdraw from society and are relieved of responsibilities, providing an orderly transition between generations. This shift justifies the discrimination (ageism) older people experience as they become less useful to society.
  • deviance: Creates social solidarity by branding some behaviors as deviant. Those that are labeled deviant will develop a collective identity.
  • education: Transmits knowledge to the next generation, teaching good citizenship, and preparation for future work.
  • family: Provides reproduction and protection of children; as a primary agent of socialization fosters understanding of expected behaviors, norms, and values.

Functionalism Pronunciation

Pronunciation Usage Guide

Syllabification: func·tion·al·ism

Audio Pronunciation

– American English
– British English

Phonetic Spelling

  • American English – /fUHngshnUH-liz-uhm/
  • British English – /fUHngkshUH-nuh-li-zuhm/

International Phonetic Alphabet

  • American English – /ˈfəŋ(k)ʃənlˌɪz(ə)m/
  • British English – /ˈfʌŋ(k)ʃn̩l̩ɪz(ə)m/

Usage Notes

  • The basic assumption of functionalism is that all structures, particularly institutions within society serve a purpose or function, contributing the stability of the social system.
  • Functionalism emphasizes that social stability and order comes from shared behaviors, norms, and values.
  • Deviance leads to change as society must adapt to maintain or achieve stability.
  • Dysfunctions within society negatively affect all other parts and create social problems.
  • Functionalism originates in the work of Auguste Comte (1798–1857) and Émile Durkheim (1858–1917), who was interested in social order and how how societies maintain stability over time. Durkheim suggested that society was more than the sum of its constituent parts, with each part providing stability and in someway relying on all other aspects of society.
  • To understand functionalism think of different aspects of society as parts of the human body, each part serving a purpose.
  • Robert Merton (1910–2003) furthered the developed of functionalism, building on Durkheim and Parsons, contending there are two types of functions: latent functions and manifest functions.
  • Criticisms of functionalism:
    • Functionalism understates the power imbalances and the role of conflict within society.
      • Functionalist counterpoint: Higher status individuals have more power, prestige, and wealth because they are more important to a functional and stable society.
    • Functionalism is far too conservative and accepting of the status quo, particularly inequality.
      • Functionalist counterpoint: Inequality serves a purpose as it promotes solidarity among the affected classes and incentives people to work and improve themselves.
  • Functionalism is a macrosociological perspective.
  • Functionalism along with conflict theory and symbolic interactionism are the typical perspectives studied in sociology, but postmodern perspectives are challenging this tradition.
  • Functionalist Scholar include:
  • Also called:
    • functionalist perspective
    • functionalist theory
    • social systems theory
    • structural functionalism

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Cite the Definition of Functionalism

ASA – American Sociological Association (5th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “functionalism.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Retrieved July 18, 2024 (https://sociologydictionary.org/functionalism/).

APA – American Psychological Association (6th edition)

functionalism. (2013). In K. Bell (Ed.), Open education sociology dictionary. Retrieved from https://sociologydictionary.org/functionalism/

Chicago/Turabian: Author-Date – Chicago Manual of Style (16th edition)

Bell, Kenton, ed. 2013. “functionalism.” In Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Accessed July 18, 2024. https://sociologydictionary.org/functionalism/.

MLA – Modern Language Association (7th edition)

“functionalism.” Open Education Sociology Dictionary. Ed. Kenton Bell. 2013. Web. 18 Jul. 2024. <https://sociologydictionary.org/functionalism/>.