• Functionalists often use an organic analogy to describe society; Parsons (1970) identifies 3 similarities between society and a biological organism:
  • SYSTEM: organisms (e.g. human body) + society both self-regulating systems or inter-related, interdependent parts that fit together
  • SYSTEM NEEDS: organisms have needs e.g. nutrition. If these needs not met, organism dies. Social system has basic needs that must be met to survive too
  • FUNCTIONS: function of anything id contribution it makes to meeting a system’s needs, thus ensuring survival

Value Consensus and Social Order

  • Parsons argues social order achieved through existence of shared culture/central value system
  • Culture = set of norms, values, beliefs + goals shared by members of a society
  • Provides framework for individuals
  • Social order only possible if members of society agree on this framework
  • Parsons calls this agreement value consensus

Integration of Individuals

  • Basic function of value consensus is making social order possible; does this through integrating individuals into social system, directs them to meet system’s needs
  • System has 2 mechanisms to ensure individuals conform to shared norms + meet needs:
  • SOCIALISATION: teach individuals to want to do what is required of them. Through socialisation, we internalise system’s norms + values, becomes part of our personality structure. Agents of socialisation include family, education and so on…
  • SOCIAL CONTROL: positive sanctions reward conformity, negative ones punish deviance…
  • So, through these mechanisms, our behaviour orientates around pursuing society’s goals + meeting needs = predictable + stable behaviour = cooperative
  • Makes orderly social life possible
  • From this, Parson builds detailed model of social system

The Parts of the Social System

  • Takes “building block” approach
  • At the bottom, we have individual actions
  • Each action governed by specified norms + values; come in ‘clusters’ = status-roles
  • Statuses = positions that exist in given social system e.g. teacher
  • Roles = set of norms that explain how occupant of status carries out duties
  • Status-roles also come in clusters (institutions) e.g. family
  • Related institutions = sub-systems
  • Sub-systems grouped together = social system as a whole

The System’s Needs

  • “AGIL” Schema
  • Each need met by a separate sub-system of institutions:
  • ADAPTATION – social system meets members’ material needs through economic sub-system
  • GOAL ATTAINMENT – society needs to set goals + allocate resources to achieve them. Function of political sub-system e.g. institutions like Parliament
  • INTEGRATION – different parts of system must be integrated together to pursue shared goals. Role of sub-system of religion, media + education
  • LATENCY – processes that maintain society over time. Kinship sub-system provides pattern maintenance (socialising individuals) and tension management (a place to ‘let off steam’)
  • P describes adaptation + goal attainment as instrumental needs – instrumental = means to an end
  • Integration + latency expressive needs as they involve expression/channelling of emotions

Social Change

  • Two types of society: modern and traditional; each with own set of norms
  • E.g. in modern we pursue individual self-interest, achieve status, judged by universalistic standards VS traditional put collective interests first, status ascribed + judged by particularistic standards
  • For P, change is gradual, evolutionary process of increasing complexity + structural differentiation
  • Society’s go from simplistic to complex structures
  • But, as society’s develop, kinship system loses functions to things like political parties, school and so on
  • This is structural differentiation – gradual process in which separate, functionally specialised institutions develop, each meeting different needs
  • Thus, gradual change occurs through moving (or dynamic) equilibrium; as one change occurs in one part of the system, changes occur in other parts
  • E.g. rise of industry brings change from extended family to nuclear

Merton’s Internal Critique of Functionalism

  • Criticises three assumptions of Parsons:
  • INDISPENSABILITY: P assumes all things in society, in current form, functionally indispensable. M argues this is an untested assumption + could be ‘functional alternatives’
  • FUNCTIONAL UNITY: P assumes all parts of society tightly integrated into single unit + each part functional for the rest. Change in one part leads to ‘knock-on’ effect. But, neither assumption necessarily true. Complex society has many parts, distantly ‘related’. Instead of functional unity, we have ‘functional autonomy’. Difficult to see connections
  • UNIVERSAL FUNCTIONALISM: P assumes everything performs positive functions yet some things for one group is functional, for another could be dysfunctional. Dysfunction introduces neglected note to functionalism as it suggests conflict of interests = conflict theory!

Manifest and Latent Functions

  • M gives an example to make his point here; Hopi Indians, when in drought, perform rain dances to magically produce rain = manifest (intended) function; promotes sense of solidarity in times of hardship = latent (unintended function)

External Critiques of Functionalism

1 – Logical Criticisms

  • Functionalism argued to be teleological (idea that things exist because of their effect/function)
  • But critics argue real explanation of something comes from cause, logically this must come before an effect
  • Functionalism explains existence of one thing in terms of something that can only be its effect
  • Also criticised for being unscientific as it’s unable or difficult to be falsified

2 – Conflict Perspective Criticisms

  • E.g. Marxists criticise Functionalism for its inability to explain conflict + change
  • Arises partially through organic analogy
  • Marxists argue society not a harmonious whole; it’s actually based on exploitation + divided into two classes with conflicted interests and unequal power
  • Stability provided by dominant class who use coercion or manipulation to prevent change = shared values merely a cloak to hide dominant classes interests
  • Conflict theorists see functionalism as a conservative ideology legitimating status quo
  • All theories e.g. ‘universal functionalism’ help to justify social order as inevitable + desirable; critics argue approach legitimates privileged position of powerful groups

3 – Action Perspective Criticisms

  • Wrong (1961) says functionalism ‘over-socialised’ or deterministic view of individual. He describes functionalism as: the social system uses socialisation to shape people’s behaviour so that they will meet the system’s needs by performing their prescribed roles
  • Individuals have no free will or choice (puppets on strings)
  • From action perspective, this is wrong!
  • Individuals actually create society by their interactions
  • Similar criticism, functionalism reifies society – it treats it as distinct thing over + above individuals
  • Action perspective argues society isn’t a thing out there with independent existence
  • Only socially reality constructed by individuals

4 – Postmodernist Criticism

  • They argue functionalism can’t account for diversity or instability of postmodern society
  • Functionalism = meta-narrative that attempts to create model of working of society
  • But, overall theory no longer possible as today’s society fragmented


  • Functionalism seeks to answer fundamental question of how social order is possible even if answer too deterministic and neglects conflict
  • Craib (1992) says P’s theory “has it’s own faults, but at least it is a theory of society as a whole”

Quick-Check Questions

  1. A manifest function is intended whereas latent is unintended.
  2. Wrong means individuals are seen as puppets of the system, with no free will or choice when he mentions ‘over-socialised’.
  3. Functionalism is a conservative ideology. 
  4. Societies change gradually, through a process of structural differentiation and through a process of dynamic (or moving) equilibrium.
  5. The organic analogy refers to when society is compared to a body or organism.
  6. Parson’s four system need are: adaptation, goal attainment, integration, latency.
  7. a) Two agencies of socialisation are the family and the workplace
    b) Two agencies of social control are the police and prison.