Reigned as the dominant theoretical
Often referred to as structural
Two leading functionalist
Talcott Parsons
Robert Merton
Intellectual Roots of Functionalism
The most significant forerunners of
functionalism were:
Auguste Comte
Herbert Spencer
Emile Durkheim
Max Weber
Auguste Comte (1789-1857)
 Science relies upon empirical
 Through his notions of social statistics
and social dynamics he established a
direction for social research.
 Through social static’s Comte
maintained that units of investigation
were the individual, family, society and
the species.
Auguste Comte (1789-1857)
Social dynamics, which today is known as
social change.
Organic Analogy
Described the social structure as
Elements (families)
Tissues (classes)
Organs (cities)
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
 Influenced by Von Baer.
 Acknowledged the role of
environmental variables
in social organization
 Super Organism (society)
 The Organism (body)
 Concept of differentiation
is very important.
Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)
Process of growth is a process of
In 1898 argued that societies change from
incoherent homogeneity to definite
Premodern Societies vs. Modern Societies
Social institutions arise from structural
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
 His study on suicide rates
was recognized for one of
the most important
programs of research in
the last generation.
 Theory supported by
empirical data provides
 Validity of a structural
functioning system is
Emile Durkheim (1858-1917)
 His sociology maintained a focus on structural analysis
rather than individual action.
 Shared Comte’s functionalist, evolutionary and positive
 Functionalism was the idea that society is a system.
 Interested in how societies change over time.
 Crime and deviance serve a functional role in society.
Max Weber (1864-1920)
 He caught Parson’s interest by
his spiritual orientation.
 Stated that Protestant ethic was
responsible for rise of the spirit
of capitalism.
 His analysis marked the 1st
major development in
systematic discrimination.
Linguistics and the Anthropoligical
Ferdinand de Saussure
 Saussure was a Swiss
linguist who was very
significant in the
development of
Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913)
Distinction between Langue and Parole
Formal, grammatical system of language
Meaning of words can be altered
 Ex: the word gay once meant “happy”; now it also means
Actual speech such as facial expressions and body
Anthropologists who influenced
 Clause Levi-Strauss
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown
Bronislaw Malinowski
Claude Levi-Strauss
 Applied structuralism
more broadly to all
forms of
 Major innovation was
to reconceptualized
social phenomena.
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown
 Organismic
analogizing presents
 Attempted to
eliminate problems.
Bronislaw Malinowski
 Malinowski and
Radcliffe-Brown both
committed to scientific
 Focused attention of
existing societies.
Defining Functionalism
 A macro sociological theory that examines
social patterns and structures.
 Views society as having interrelated parts.
 Explains social change by variables such as
population growth and increased technology.
 Two basic assumptions:
1) Idea of interdependent parts
2) Consensus of values.
Talcott Parsons (1902-1979)
 One of the most
prominent theorists of
his time.
 Attempted to
generate a grand
theory of society.
Robert Merton (1910-2003)
 Raised in South
Philadelphia slum.
 Merton was not the
family name, he
changed his name
from Meyer R.
 Received B.A. from
Temple University
and doctorate from
Robert Merton (1910-2003)
Always stressed importance of empirical
Goal was to keep functional assumptions
to a minimum.
His functionalist theories are “middlerange” variety.
Despite differences, Parsons and Merton
are known as the leaders of the structural
functionalism school of thought.
Theories of the Middle Range
Merton felt grand theories were too
Middle range is principally used to guide
empirical inquiry.
They are functionalist theories that consist
of limited sets of assumptions.
Durkheim’s Suicide and Weber’s
Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of
Capitalism are examples.
Theories of the Middle Range
Role sets are an important element.
For Merton, the term function does not
mean the same thing as purpose.
Merton promoted a process referred to as
Anomie Theory
Initially developed by Durkheim.
The success goal in American culture leads many
feelings of anomie.
It is the conflict between cultural goals and
availability of institutional means.
Theory on the study of social deviance.
Two most important elements of structures:
(1) culturally defined goals
(2) Institutionalized Means
Merton described five types of individual
1) Conformity
2) Innovation
3) Ritualistics
4) Retreatism
5) Rebellion
Manifest and Latent Functions
 Merton came to distinguish between two
usages for the word function:
1) Manifest Functions
-consequences that are expected
2) Latent Functions
-consequences that are not intended
A performance with disrupting
Dysfunctional events lessen the effective
equilibrium of society.
Merton’s concept of dysfunctions is central
to his argument that functionalism is not
Empirical Research
Different research methods are necessary
for different empirical problems.
Consistently drew links between theory
and research.
For Merton theorizing was always
Neofunctionalism and Post Functionalism
Well known neofunctionalists:
Niklas Luhmann
Anthony Giddens
Jeffrey C. Alexander
Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)
 In 1949 received a law
degree at the
University of Freiburg.
 Spent a year studying
under Parsons.
 Witnessed firsthand
his country’s defeat
and concluded that
modern society was
not a better place to
Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)
 Argued that modern world is too
 Very difficult to read his work.
 Stressed the importance of grand theory.
 Described general systems theory as
having two important elements:
1) Distinction of the whole
2) The concept of self-referential systems
Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)
His focus remains on the system not the
Social systems consist primarily of
communication networks.
Created a communication theory that
stressed human communication as
Anthony Giddens (1938-present)
 Few theorists have
been as productive.
 Produced 31 books
and more than 200
 Takes a postmodernist
point of view.
 Believes classical
ideas must be repaired
Anthony Giddens (1938-present)
Referred to his approach as the theory of
Views social systems as continuous flows of
conduct in time and space.
For years has been working in area of
Three key areas of power:
1) Government
2) Economy
3) Communities of Civil Society
Jeffrey C. Alexander and
Neil Smelser
 Alexander is credited
with coining term
 Views
neofunctionalism as
part of the
evolutionary growth.
 Smelser is considered
a top level theorist in
 Believes people seek
to avoid experience of
 Ambivalence refers to
such phenomena as
death and seperation.
 Every sociologist is a functionalist because
sociology IS functionalism.
 Functionalism fails to explain social change.
 Functionalism fails to explain most important
1) Structure
2) Function
3) Social system
 Safe to say functionalists approach will remain
around for many years to come.

Functionalism (Merton) - Department of Sociology, Iowa