"Functionalism" shows up in many disciplines.
In sociology, it's a broad tradition involving lots of theorists
Central ideas
Existence/persistence of practices/institutions explained by their contribution to operation of social system
Rationality understood not in terms of actors' means/ends, but in terms of how a practice contributes to system
Society conceived as system having "functional pre-requisites"
Positivist, realist, and wholist in orientation
Does not rely on unobservables (such as intentions, "the social," etc.)
System as object of theory
Like structuralists, functionalists search for the "behind the scenes reality" — patterns not immediately discernible.
Coming out of the 1930s and 40s, structuralism-functionalism began to take on air of being THE paradigm in American sociology (and anthropology)
Spencer & Durkheim
Society as organic whole
Influence of Darwin & evolution: systems must adapt to environment, internal complexity and differentiation is adaptive.
"Society" as generic entity, has "needs" or "requirements" and we can distinguish properties as "normal" meaning fulfilling a need and pathological, meaning not.

"mode of analysis concerned with interrelations between social phenomena in general, and, more particularly, with the consequences of given items for the larger structure or structures in which they are embedded" (Coser 1976 146) [after Merton & Stinchcombe].

  1. causal loop, feedback, consequences influence persistence or modification
  2. Spencer and the organismic analogy for social systems
  3. Parsons General Theory; voluntaristic ACTORS + goals +choices of means + situational constraints + norms/values that channel choices of both means and ends; Durkheim's structural constraints and collective consciousness + Weber's voluntarism and deterministic force of ideas and values + Pareto's moving equilibria from interaction among actors with drives (residues); later more Freud than Pareto for drives and more interaction than individual behavior; with Shils 1951 "pattern variables" (affectivity — affective neutrality; universalism — particularism; diffuseness — specificity; achievement — ascription). 1953 with Shils and Bales : four problems (adaptation; goal attainment; pattern maintenance; tension management AGIL system).
  4. Critiques (Lockwood 1956; Mills 1959; Coser 1956; Dahrendorf 1958; Gouldner 1970) : bias toward conformity, absence of social conflict, omission of material interests as central, naive optimism, too

much concern with integration and consensus and not enough with conflict and change.

Take note here of the aspiration to scientific/logical completeness. There is an intellectual optimism and systematicness here that we get hints of in Weber (in Economy and Society, for example) but it mostly reminds us of someone like Comte.

Reversing the logic : construct a sound deductive theory as above and then observe how real world diverges and then seek explanations for the divergence (in, for example, socially organized power, etc.)

Merton; middle range theories; emphasis on structural position yielding constraints about goal and means options; dysfunction as well as function; rejected Malinowski's everything has function; critical of conservative "if it's there it must be necessary for society"; did not hold that all is well in the functionalist world — society not simply one big happy system; manifest and latent functions (those whose consequences are not in actor's head); separation of individual goals and social functions;

Coser, Lewis. 1976. "Sociological Theory from the Chicago Dominance to 1965," pp. 145-160 in Annual Review of Sociology 2.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License