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What Is Functionalist Sociology?

T. Carrier
T. Carrier

Sociology involves studying the behaviors of groups of people. Several fields of sociology strive for this understanding, including functionalist sociology. The theory operates on a structural functionalist philosophy, which considers how various parts of a structure work together to make that structure operable. In sociological terms, individuals create traditions and shared behaviors that ultimately build and sustain groups like civilizations or societies. The perspective emphasizes cohesion, stability, and usefulness.

The term functionalist sociology is an offshoot of a larger social sciences theory of structural functionalism. At a basic level, this theory holds that the whole is the sum of its parts. Any structure — whether it be a physical structure like a building, a biological structure like a body, or a social structure like a civilization — can only operate or function properly when all of its interrelated parts work together. In addition, every part of a structure, good or bad, serves an ultimate purpose and creates solidarity.

Woman standing behind a stack of books
Woman standing behind a stack of books

In the case of sociology, these separate parts usually consist of the aspects of a society that humans have built to create cohesion among peoples. Each culture, for example, typically has customs that most individuals in that culture perform. These shared behaviors could include large-scale behaviors such as work or smaller traditions such as specific ceremonies or celebrations. Shared belief systems are another common uniter of groups of people. Similar values and beliefs lead to the rise of institutions like religion and legal or political systems.

Shared beliefs and actions, according to functionalist sociology, are what ultimately build and sustain civilizations. Behaviors that create cohesion are rewarded, and anti-group behaviors are punished. Since sociology is the study of human groups, then understanding the conditions that unify and stabilize those groups is essential. The same principles can be applied to studying past civilizations in anthropology, which is why structural functionalism is a prominent theory in that social science as well.

Critics have attacked functionalist sociology on two major points. For one, they argue, the theory somewhat ignores the conflicts that arise within societies. While the functionalists emphasize harmony and balance within groups, wars and countless other smaller physical and philosophical battles occur every day due to individual differences. Further, functionalist sociology praises a status quo view of society without considering the often radical social changes that can take place within a society or group at any given time. Two other major branches of sociology — conflict sociology and interactionism — have arisen as a response to the gaps perceived in functional sociological theory.

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