Functionalism in Sociology

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In sociology and social anthropology the term "functional analysis" is used not only in the mathematical sense, where a function expresses a correspondence between two variables such that for every value of the one there are one or more determinate values of the other, and the second, or dependent, variable is, in a less technical use of the term, said to be a function of the first. Sociologists, of course, like all scientists, are interested in establishing such dependencies. The term "functional analysis" in their work also has a special connotation analogous to the use of the notion of "function" in describing biological systems or such artifacts as are self-organizing systemsfor example, a heat engine with a thermostat. Such a system can be considered as a unitary whole; it is differentiated into elements, and the function of the elements can be said to be the part they play in maintaining the system in a persisting state or (in the case of artifacts) in maintaining the efficiency of the system for the purpose for which it has been set up. There are, however, differences between the use of the notion in sociology and the use as applied to biological and artificial systems, and these have become more apparent as sociologists have worked with and reflected on "functional methods." The differences hinge on the questions of whether a society should be taken to be a single integrated system or whether it may be so diversified that what is "functional" for one part may not be so for others, and whether the only "end" to which an element of a social system should be shown to contribute is the maintenance of the system as a whole in its environment.

Function and Cultural Facts

Functional notions were used by the pioneers of modern social anthropology and sociology, Émile Durkheim and W. Robertson Smith. The term functionalism, however, was first put forward as the name of a special method and approach by Bronislaw Malinowski in the article "Anthropology" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (13th ed., supp. I). The article reads as something of a manifesto, in which functionalism is said to be "the right method" in social anthropology. Functional analysis is said to be "explanation of facts by the part they play within the integral system of culture, by the manner in which they are related to each other within the system, and by the manner in which this system is related to the physical surroundings. The functional view insists therefore upon the principle that in every type of civilisation, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part within a working whole" (ibid., pp. 132133). Thus, the function of magic is said to consist in its being "a remedy for specific maladjustments and mental conflicts, which culture creates in allowing man to transcend his biological equipment" (ibid., p. 136), and myth is said to perform an "indispensable function" in strengthening the traditions on which a cultural life depends.

These claims for the "functional method" were both vague and grandiose. Later exponents and critics of a functional method in the social sciences have been concerned to state more precisely what it does and what it does not claim to assert. (See especially Merton, 1957, and Nagel, 1956.) Malinowski's account left the notion of the "needs" to which a function was said to be related insufficiently clear; his use of the word indispensable left it uncertain whether the "needs" themselves were indispensable to the society in question or whether the particular cultural item held to be the means of satisfying them was indispensable in the sense of not admitting of a substitute.

Malinowski's statement of the method was also far more than a recommendation to anthropologists to look for functions; it was a dogmatic assertion that "an object appears as 'inessential,' 'arbitrary,' 'devoid of function' only as long as we do not understand the function of that detailed feature or object" (ibid., pp. 138139). It also implied that every cultural item was necessary to the working of the social system as a whole. Of course, if the social system is defined as the total complex of all its cultural items, this becomes tautological. Malinowski avoided this by speaking of "vital needs" that the elements in the system are held to fulfill. But the notion of "needs," interpreted biologically and psychologically, is so extremely general that it is not shown why they can be fulfilled only by particular cultural arrangements.

Function and Social Structure

The next leading anthropologist to use and also to write about "functional methods" was A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. (See especially his Structure and Function in Primitive Society. ) Radcliffe-Brown worked with an even more "organic" notion of a society than did Malinowski, since the latter held that practices in a society should be seen as functional for the biological and psychological needs of its members, while Radcliffe-Brown was interested in seeing the function of a particular social usage as the contribution it makes to the total social life, which is unified as a social system. Radcliffe-Brown regarded a social system as a set of interconnected features of social life, while he defined a social structure as "an arrangement of persons in institutionally controlled and defined relations." This definition appears insufficiently abstract: "Social structure" surely should not be used to refer to persons in relationships, but to the distinguishable pattern of recurrent sets of relationships described by social roles. But Radcliffe-Brown's account helped to link the notion of function with that of structure; that is, the uses studied were not those of separate cultural items, but of persistent forms of social relations, such as those shown in marriage arrangements.

The linking of function with structure helps to strengthen the biological, organic analogy behind this way of thinking. Thus, Radcliffe-Brown spoke of a social system as though it were a unitary whole in which every part is internally related to every other, and where it is possible to speak, by analogy with a biological organism, of the structure as serving a "total life." Following this analogy, the use so served is seen as the survival of the total society as an ongoing concern. This way of looking on a society was no doubt made more plausible by the fact that the societies so studied were small-scale primitive ones, where the society might seem to be a whole of integrated parts that, it was thought, could be exhaustively enumerated. It becomes much less plausible when applied to larger, more flexible societies comprising a number of subgroups that often are hostile to one another. This may also explain why it appeared that the "function" served was the survival of the society in its traditional given form and why, therefore, functional theory has been held to support a conservative ideology.

The Context of a Function

That functional theory need not be conservative was shown by Thomas Merton, who defined its central orientation as "the practice of interpreting data by establishing their consequences for larger structures in which they are implicated." Merton pointed out that although the notion of function is related to that of some end or need served, this end may not be the perpetuation of the existing social system. Subgroups may have radical interests served by certain social practices that would thus be functional within the context of those interests. Hence, it is not meaningful to speak of a cultural element or institutional practice simply as "functional." It must be shown to be functional in some specific context and in some specific respect; that is, it must have designated consequences for designated properties of designated units, but these units need not be "the society as a whole." However, the notion does presuppose some complex context in which it is possible to show how certain elements have certain consequences contributing to the complex being maintained in a certain state or to the furthering of some interest to which one "function" is related. That an element has such a function relative to such a context or interest can be stated as a matter of descriptive fact, and it need have no ethical implication to the effect that the interest itself (or the function) is thereby commended. Still less need it imply that persons or groups in a society are of consequence only because of such alleged functions.

Explanations and Descriptions

How far can the direction of attention to consequences be a form not only of description but also of explanation? Malinowski spoke of such functional analyses as "explanations," though he also remarked that explanation, to the scientific thinker, is nothing but the most adequate description of a complex fact (A Scientific Theory of Culture, New York, 1944, p. 117). Whether or not this is a satisfactory view of scientific explanation, there remains the question of whether a functional analysis is the most adequate description of a complex fact tout court, or rather a description of the effects of certain elements in the complex on certain other elements; that is, a partial description from the point of view of a particular interest. Merton indeed used the word interpretation, which is presumably weaker than "explanation," and he spoke throughout his work of "functional analyses."

A functional analysis would be an explanation only if the answer to the question "What is the effect of x in context a, b, c ?" could also be seen as an answer to the question "Why does x occur?" or "Why does x have the character it has?" It could be so put if the effect of x is the intended effect of an intentional action (the effect of my turning the key is to unlock the door, and the reason I turn the key is to unlock the door); that is, if the explanation is explicitly teleological, so that it is said that x occurs in order to produce the effect y.

The interest of sociologists is, however, largely directed to detecting the unintended and unanticipated consequences of actions (what Merton called their "latent" as distinct from their "manifest" functions). In such cases, can an effect y be cited as an explanation, or partial explanation, answering the question "Why does x occur?" Can functional statements in contexts where conscious purpose is presumably absent be looked on as explanations? Jonathan Cohen has defined a functional explanation as one in which the fact to be explained, for example, the beating of the heart, is a necessary condition for that which is cited as explaining it, for example, "to circulate the blood" ("Teleological Explanation," PAS 51 [19501951]: 255292; cf. D. M. Emmet, Function, Purpose and Powers, pp. 48ff.)

This definition describes the form of a functional statement, but does it show that it is a different kind of explanation from a causal one? Ernest Nagel claimed that the factual content of such functional statements can be exhaustively translated into causal terms (Logic without Metaphysics, pp. 250251); for example, "the beating of the heart is a necessary condition for maintaining the circulation of the blood." Similarly Kingsley Davis, in "The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology," maintained that such statements simply assert that certain phenomena have certain consequences. To direct attention to consequences, especially unintended but interconnected consequences, is, he held, the distinctive approach of sociologists. "Functional" analysis is therefore not a special method in sociology, but just sociological method; and the name "functionalism," as supposedly that of a special movement or school, had better be dropped.

From this it would appear that functional statements can be explanations where they can be interpreted teleologically in terms of purpose; that is, where to say an element in a system has a function is to say that it is as it is because it has been so designed with reference to a purpose for which the system has been set up. Where this reference to purpose cannot be made, functional statements would be a form of causal statement in which the interest is directed not to the cause of a phenomenon itself, but to its effects considered as causes within a wider context. However, the reference to a wider context and the need for this to be a context within which some systematic interconnections can be shown distinguish such statements from those presenting unilinear sequences of cause and effect.

Self-Regulating System

Functional statements are also particularly appropriate in those systematic contexts in which "return effects" on the cause itself can be shown; that is, where some of its consequences react back on it, so that the consequences can be invoked to explain, in part at any rate, why it is as it is. Thus, Nagel held that functional statements are most appropriately used in describing self-maintaining or self-regulating systems. His formulation for such systems can be briefly summarized as follows: Let S be a system and E its environment, and let S be functional, self-maintaining, or directively organized with respect to a trait (property, state, process), G. Let S undergo a series of alterations terminating in G. Let there then be some fairly extensive class of changes either in E or in certain parts of S. Then, unless S contains some mechanism that produces effects compensating for these changes, S will cease to exhibit G or the tendency to acquire G.

The system S must be specified to show how its parts are causally relevant to the state G, and if the "function" of a part in maintaining G against changes is to be cited as a cause of the state of S, the return effects of this part on other parts of S must be specified. The instantaneous values of the state coordinates must be independent at any given time, although the values of one set at one time will not be independent of those of another set at another given time (that is, the values in one set will change according to previous changes in another set). Nagel held that the relations between the elements in a functional system need to be thus precisely specified, and that very few "functional analyses" in sociology satisfy these requirements.

Latent and Manifest Functions

Nevertheless, sociologists may be said to produce analyses in which they seek to approximate this model even if they do not entirely satisfy it. This is true particularly where the data studied are shown to have consequences in some larger context, and the consequences are return effects upon the data themselves, so that there is a mutual reinforcement. For instance, Malinowski claimed that the "function" of myths was to strengthen the traditions that help to maintain a social way of life. This may not have been the original reason for the creation of the myth (whatever this may have been, it was said by Malinowski to be sociologically unimportant). But it may be the case that the fact that the myth now performs this perhaps originally unintended function strengthens people's interest in the myth and its hold upon them, and so serves to perpetuate it. Perhaps in some cases what was a "latent" function of some activity, such as recounting a myth, can thus be made the "manifest" function, the explicit purpose of the activity, without disturbing the disposition of its practitioners to go on doing it. But in some cases this may not be true. When, for instance, Malinowski said that "the function of religion is to relieve anxiety," or others (such as Radcliffe-Brown) said that the function of religious ritual is to strengthen the will to maintain the common values on which the society depends, it is at least open to question whether the adherents of a religion would be able to go on practicing it if they came to look on these functions as the "real reason" for doing so. Thus in some cases the change of a latent into a manifest function will be self-frustrating.

Certain conclusions can be drawn. First, it is misleading to speak of the function of a practice, belief, or institution tout court. It may have a function in relation to a certain interest in a certain context, and this itself may be a disfunction in relation to other interests. Thus, the fact that religion can sometimes relieve anxiety might be a disadvantage in contexts where interest lay in religion as a challenge to complacency.

Further, if such statements of "function" are to do more than merely describe consequences, it should be possible to show that the alleged function also reinforces the practice of the activity. But this must not be taken to imply that this is the sole or "real" reason for the practice. Thus, it may well be that, because of the complexity of human motivation, religious practices sometimes (not necessarily or always) relieve anxieties or promote loyalty to common values; if so, this can strengthen inducements to perform them.

The fact that activities performed with one interest in view can have unanticipated consequences in satisfying other interests can add to the survival value of these activities. Thus, Max Weber's well-known view that there was a nexus between the Calvinistic ethic and the pursuit of capitalist enterprise should not be taken to imply that "the function" of Calvinistic religion was to promote moneymaking (or vice versa), still less that the pursuit of the former was a hypocritical cloak for the latter. Rather, Weber's view implies that a particular kind of moral outlook, stressing diligence, thrift, and abstinence, was appropriate to the furtherance of capitalist enterprise, so that two independent and strong human interests, the religious and the economic, reinforced each other and thus helped to establish a way of life with considerable survival value. (It is worth noticing that this particular nexus could probably become established only under social and environmental conditions where there were opportunities for the entrepreneur who could save capital. But this is not to interpret these probably necessary conditions as sufficient conditions for explaining the Calvinistic way of life.)

A functional approach in sociology can therefore be taken not as the assumption that every cultural item has a function, but as a directive to watch for "functions," particularly in the unintended consequences of a form of social action, above all for those functions that react back on the form of social action itself, so as to produce a mutually reinforcing nexus. But the analogy with biological or with self-organizing systems must not be pressed too far, since behind forms of social activity are persons or groups capable of entertaining a variety of values and interests. Functional statements in sociology, even if they are not themselves teleological, carry an indirect teleological implication in that if something is said to have a function it has one in relation to some value, interest, or purpose held by some person or group within the society (though not necessarily by the sociologist himself, who may simply be reporting the fact that some form of activity promotes this value). Where no value is stated, the presumption tends to be that what is served is the preservation of the society as an ongoing concern. That it is desirable to preserve the society (though not necessarily just in its existing form) is taken for granted by almost everyone. Thus, when something is said to have a "function" in maintaining the society, although the point is not always recognized, one ingredient in the complex notion of function is a value judgment.

See also Durkheim, Émile; Functionalism; Nagel, Ernest; Sociology of Knowledge; Weber, Max.


There is an extensive literature discussing functional methods in sociology. Most of it is surveyed by Robert K. Merton, "Manifest and Latent Functions," in his Social Theory and Social Structure (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1949; revised and enlarged, 1957), pp. 1984.

Discussions of the use of functionalism in anthropology up to 1954 are considered by Raymond Firth, "Function," in Year Book of Anthropology (Glencoe, IL, 1956).

See especially Bronislaw Malinowski, "Anthropology," in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 13th ed., supplement I (Chicago, 1926); A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London: Cohen and West, 1952), which contains some papers and addresses written some 20 years before publication; and Talcott Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory, Pure and Applied (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957).

Other discussions include Ernest Nagel, "Formalization of Functionalism," in his Logic without Metaphysics (Glencoe, IL: Free Press, 1957), pp. 247283, and The Structure of Science (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1961), pp. 520535; D. M. Emmet, Function, Purpose and Powers (London, 1957); Kingsley Davis, "The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in Sociology and Anthropology," in American Sociological Review 24 (1959): 757ff.; C. G. Hempel, "The Logic of Functional Analysis," in Symposium on Sociological Theory, edited by Llewellyn Gross (Evanston, IL: Row, Peterson, 1959).

Dorothy M. Emmet (1967)

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Functionalism in Sociology

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