Structural-functionalism is the earliest sociological paradigm. It is rooted in the scientific advances of the physical sciences occurring in the nineteenth century. Based on these advances, Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) approached the study of social structures through an “organic analogy” that emphasized evolutionary laws (Spencer 1898). In this model, Spencer viewed society as being similar to a body. In the most simplistic terms, just as the various organs in the body work together to keep the entire system functioning and regulated, the various parts of society (the economy, the polity, health care, education, etc.) work together to keep the entire society functioning and regulated. Spencer also saw similarities in the way physical bodies and societies evolve. Spencer actually coined the term survival of the fittest, which is often incorrectly attributed to evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin.
Spencer influenced early French sociologist Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). Durkheim took this organic analogy and refined it into a perspective that would become structural-functionalism. The perspective is also called functionalism, or the functionalist paradigm. This paradigm views society as a complex system of interrelated parts working together to maintain stability (Parsons 1951; Turner and Maryanski 1979). According to this perspective;
Any changes in society occur in structured, evolutionary ways.
Durkheim realized that society influences our human actions but that society is also something that exists beyond individuals. He felt that society must be studied and understood in terms of what he called social facts. These social facts include laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashions, rituals, and the myriad cultural and social rules governing social life. Durkheim (1964b) saw this system of social facts as making up the structure of society.
He was interested in how these social facts are related to each other. He was also interested in the function each of the parts of a social system fulfill as well as how societies manage to remain stable or change. In other words, how do social facts fit together? What needs do the various parts of society serve? What part does each segment of society play in keeping the system operating and balanced? How and why do systems change?
Functionalism has been very influential in sociology. It was especially popular in the United States when championed by Harvard sociologist Talcott Parsons (1902–79) during the 1940s and 1950s. Parsons, profiled below, is known for his grand theory, an abstract level of theorizing that tried to explain the entire social structure at once and was difficult, if not impossible, to test through research.
Robert K. Merton (1910–2003), Parsons’s student, who is also profiled below, turned away from these grand theories in favor of what he called theories of the middle-range. These middle-range theories are theories that are more limited and can be tested through research. They explain, for example, deviant behavior , public opinion, or how power is transmitted between generations.
He also showed that social patterns are complex, with the various parts of society fulfilling different types of functions. Some functions, which Merton called manifest functions, are obvious and intended. Other functions, called latent functions, are less recognized and unintended. These functions may be either beneficial or neutral. However, some functions may be undesirable. These are called social dysfunctions.
A simple illustration of these concepts is the widespread use of cars in America and many other countries (Macionis 1995, 17). Cars provide transportation and status. Both are manifest functions. Cars also provide personal autonomy, allowing drivers to come and go as they please, on their own schedules. This is a latent function of the vehicular transportation system as it currently exists. However, cars also pollute the environment. Thus, relying on cars as a major means of transportation is also dysfunctional in that regard.
Structural-functionalists also recognize that as one part of the system changes, other parts of the system have to readjust to accommodate the change that has taken place elsewhere. A change in one part of the system may have manifest, latent, and dysfunctional consequences. An example of a change that has had a number of consequences is the addition of lighting at Chicago’s historic Wrigley Field. Built in 1914, Wrigley Field is the home stadium of the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team. All games at Wrigley Field traditionally had to be played during daylight hours because the field did not have lighting for nighttime games. In 1988, lights were added to the field as a result of a lengthy and contentious process aimed at generating income and reviving the economy in the immediate area of the field.
Examining the Lake View neighborhood around Wrigley Field as a social system allows application of a functionalist perspective to this situation. Nighttime games can now be played at the field. This one change resulted in a number of other complicated neighborhood effects (Spirou and Bennett 2002). The Cubs have a more flexible schedule and can take economic advantage of televised evening programming, thus achieving the manifest function of lighting the field. A number of other manifest and latent functions can also be noted. For example, the nighttime games have resulted in needed new investments in the surrounding area, population growth, and an acceleration of residential investments by affluent buyers. Sports-oriented businesses catering to a younger crowd, such as sports bars, have flourished. However, dysfunctions have also occurred. Some smaller businesses not catering to the baseball trade have suffered. For example, pharmacies, bookstores, dry cleaners, and restaurants have seen business decline as bar business increased. Automobile traffic around the ballpark has also increased, and area residents and businesses have been faced with more elaborate parking restrictions.
According to its critics, the functionalist focus on social order cannot adequately explain social change. They also argue that this focus on order discounts the conflicts and tensions that exist within society and downplays the impact of factors such as race, class, and gender that impact our lives and social positions. Some critics feel that the perspective also ignores the importance of small-scale, micro-level interactions. Structural-functionalism is also criticized as being tautological, meaning that it makes circular arguments. This criticism says functionalists argue that, because something exists, it serves a function for the system, and thus it exists. Such a view fails to satisfactorily explain how social structures arise in the first place.
Functionalism lost favor in American sociology during the social upheavals of the 1960s. During the mid-1980s, there was resurgence in interest in Parsons’s work. Theorists, including Jeffrey C. Alexander (1998) and Neil Smelser (e.g., 1985) in the United States and Niklas Luhmann (1982) in Germany, who is profiled below, revisited Parson’s perspectives on social systems. Their work became classified as neofunctionalism. This new twist on the old theory draws on Parsons’s basic premises. Neofunctionalism expands the perspective by trying to respond to critics in such ways as incorporating some of the ideas of conflict theorists and also recognizing the importance of the micro perspective. Neofunctionalists argued that by rethinking some of the basics of functionalism and focusing on how it links with micro perspectives, much of this criticism can be overcome (e.g., Turner 2001). Structuralfunctionalism is also still widely used in sociological studies of the family (Mann et al. 1997, 340).
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