Theory: Functionalism (Consensus)
Famous Functionalists: Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons,
Every society is made up of four sub-systems: economic, political, family, and cultural systems such
as education, religion and the media. Each sub-system functions to maintain a healthy society.
Cultural systems socialise individuals to conform to society’s norms and values. This creates a value
consensus, which is a shared agreement of norms and values by all individuals in society. This
maintains social order so that society is able to function properly, creating a stable and harmonious
society. Because of this social change will be slow and gradually evolves.
Functionalism is a structural theory (sometimes called a macro theory) that studies sociology as a
whole. It sees society as a system with all parts inter-related and working together to meet the needs
of society. In other words, society operates like a living organism (the body) with interdependent
structures of society such as medicine, families, education and religion, (the heart and lungs).
Functionalism has wider theoretical appeal. Its underlying ideas have been taken up by other
structural perspectives and has generated new theories and research from the New Right.
Functionalism recognises the structural nature of society. It demonstrates the links between major
social institutions for e.g education, religion and the economy.
Durkheim’s and Parson’s work has provided insights that have helped modern sociologists to
understand contemporary societies, and many of its basic assumptions still guide much sociological
research. For example, the idea that society should be seen as a whole and that society is structured
and the social structure directs human behaviour.
If one part of the system does break down and becomes dysfunctional then this can affect all other
aspects of society. For example dysfunctional families have been connected to crime, mental illness
and low levels of educational achievement, in this way social order and stability are threatened, (in
the same way heart disease will cause the whole body to become weak). Where socialisation is
inadequate, or aspects of society become dysfunctional, or where social change is rapid anomie can
occur. According to Durkheim this means a state of normlessness, which is when society is unsure
of what social norms are.
Functionalists maintain that social inequality in society is both inevitable and functional, so acts as a
motivator for people to strive for high social class positions.
Application of Functionalism
1. Educational systems socialise individuals into norms and values through the formal and
hidden curriculum’s e.g. citizenship education.
2. Educational systems provide a vital role in allocating individuals into a class based society
through meritocratic principles.
Medicine performs a vital social control function by limiting access to the sick role.
1. Religion plays a functional and positive role in society. It integrates people and provides
support and guidance.
1. Crime and deviance result from blocked opportunities within the social structure.
2. Crime and deviance further result from sub-cultural pressures.
Sees sociology as a science and therefore favours quantitative, positivist approach. They like
questionnaires, structured interviews and official statistics.
Functionalism tends to over-emphasise the harmonious nature of society and fails to see that
some groups are disadvantaged by society. Competing sociologists maintain conflict occurs between
many social groups in society e.g. working class v. Middle class and disabled v. able-bodied.
Functionalists try to explain the beginning of a social institution by its function. For example if
religion’s function is to maintain social stability then society must have religion in order to survive.
Through the secularisation debate we know that religion’s functions have been diluted and can be
Functionalism provides an inadequate explanation of social change. It does not adequately explain
social change, but instead states that if it does it will just be through evolutionary factors.
Although functionalists provide a useful insight into the workings of society the theory is ideologically driven. Therefore, the theory is reductionist as it fails to take into account competing theoretical ideas.
Postmodernists are critical of the functional meta-narrative as they claim to have a ‘totalising’, (all encompassing), theory of society. Postmodernists maintain that rival narratives should be considered for a
full account of social life.