Modern sociology usually links the ideas of function and functionalism to the work of Talcott Parsons. However, functional explanations have been used to study societies for a long time, and a modified form of functionalism is now making a comeback. Émile Durkheim is one of the founders of sociology. He is most closely linked to functionalism because he often makes comparisons to biology. The most common is the organic analogy, which says that society is like a living organism, with each part working to keep the others alive, just like the parts of the body work to keep each other alive and the body as a whole alive.
His idea of “organic solidarity” is based on this idea. Durkheim did make a difference between functional explanations and historical explanations, and he knew that both were important. A functional explanation explains why something happens or why someone does something in terms of its effects, or how it helps to keep society stable as a whole. For example, one function of crime is to define and reinforce (through punishment) the limits of what is socially acceptable behavior. Because of this, crime is a normal part of social life.
In the same way, religious institutions help bring people together and keep them together. Historical explanations show how the same thing happened or happened in a certain order over time. Robert Merton’s work on modern functionalism makes a distinction between manifest functions (intended results or results that the people involved are aware of) and latent functions (unintended consequences of which the participants are unaware). The latter might or might not be good for most people.
In sociology and social anthropology, there has been a strong and often clear functionalism for most of this century. There has also been an implicit functionalism in the more determinist forms of Marxist theory, where the so-called surface features of a social formation (like political systems, ideologies, and trade unions) are seen as being made by the underlying relations of production in order to keep them going. But Kingsley Davis and Wilbert Moore’s “functional theory of social stratification” is probably the most well-known functionalist analysis in sociology. Davis also wrote a functionalist textbook, Human Society (1949), and gave a passionate defense of functionalism in his Presidential Address to the American Sociological Association in 1959, which some people thought was a parody of structural-functionalism.
At the end of the 1960s, functionalism was attacked by many different people and groups. People said that this approach couldn’t explain social change or structural contradictions and conflicts in societies. They also said that it was ideologically conservative because it relied on stability and the organic analogy. As a result, functionalism became known as “consensus theory.” Not all of these complaints are true. The way Parson’s evolutionary theory looks at history is as the separation and reintegration of systems and subsystems. This can explain change and, at least temporarily, conflict until the reintegration happens. Marxism’s use of functional explanations shows that they can be used along with the idea that social systems have contradictions. Durkheim was able to combine functionalist explanations with a form of guild socialism that was sometimes very extreme.
The most important arguments against functionalism have been about how we know what we know and what we are. The epistemological argument is that a functionalist explanation isn’t really an explanation at all because it doesn’t point out the mechanisms and processes that cause things to happen. Instead, it is assumed that social institutions can be explained well by looking at what they are thought to do. The ontological arguments are about what we think society is and how it works. Some theorists are happy to agree that society exists apart from individuals, but they also say that we can’t give needs (like Parsons’s four famous so-called functional prerequisites of adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency) to society as a whole because that would give societies the same qualities as people. Also, even if we can say that a society has needs, that doesn’t mean that those needs will be met just because they exist. To show why and how they are met, you need a good explanation of the past and how things work. Anthony Giddens says that all functionalist explanations can be rewritten as historical accounts of what people did and what happened as a result. This means that people and what they do are the only things that exist, and we can’t think of societies or systems as having a life of their own.
For most of the 1970s and most of the 1980s, it seemed like functionalism as a school of thought and a way to understand and explain social phenomena had gone away. However, in recent years, there have been some interesting attempts to bring it back: in the United States, under the influence of Jeffrey Alexander; in Germany, in the work of Niklas Luhman; and in Britain, in an interesting revision of Marxism by the philosopher G.A. Cohen.
In his book Neofunctionalism (1985), Alexander says that functionalism is best seen as a broad school (like Marxism) with many different ways of looking at things, not as a systematic theory like Parsons’. He says that we shouldn’t look at it as a set of explanations, but as a description that focuses on the relationships between social institutions and their environment. It uses equilibrium (stability) as a point of reference for analysis, not as something that always exists in the real world, and it looks at structural differentiation as a major way that society changes. This takes the determinism out of functionalism that systems theory gives it. For Alexander, functionalism is just one of many ways to look at the world. Its best feature is that it brings attention to parts of society that other theories ignore.
In Inquiry, published in 1982, Cohen makes an argument that Durkheim also makes, but in a different way. He says that societies can be seen not as having needs like people do, but as having what he calls “dispositional facts.” These are things about a society’s environment that make it easier for a certain institution to stay in place, but didn’t cause that institution to start in the first place. Cohen uses racism as an example. Throughout history, racism may have been caused by a number of things, but it still exists today because it helps the capitalist system stay alive by dividing the working class and making social control easier. In a similar way, Jon Elster, a leading proponent of modern rational-choice theory, argues that we need to use a functionalist explanation to show why, on average, capitalist firms choose to maximize profits. No matter how they come into being, the market chooses the ones that are most likely to survive based on how close they are to this best strategy (Ulysses and Sirens, 1979).
So, functionalism still has a place in sociology, though it is less important now than when the Parsonsian version was the most popular.