Sociology 319 – Contemporary Social Theories

January 23, 2006


Conclusion to Parsons and functionalism


7.  Function


Parsons was concerned with society as a whole, and with the various institutions and structures within society.   Parsons took the idea of function from anthropology “as a way of talking about the consequences of any given pattern of patterns of social interaction for the stability and ongoingness of systems of interaction.”  (Johnson, p. 117).  These systems could be families or other small groups, or they could be the society as a whole.  Parsons thought that social processes could be studied empirically and within a dynamic context to determine the function and consequences of the process for the system as a whole.  That is, social action and social processes must be studied relative to the social system as a whole, to determine whether “consequences will be found to fit into the terms of the maintenance of stability of production of change, of integration or disruption of the system...” (The Social System,  p. 21-22).  This makes it possible to consider integration of parts into the whole as one possible outcome, with deviance, strain, social control, conflict, and dysfunction as other possibilities.  For institutions to survive and continue, the latter may be means of bringing a system back to equilibrium and there must be means of “forestalling and reversing the deep-lying tendencies for deviance to get into the vicious circle phase” (The Social System, pp. 319-320).  As we have seen in the discussion of AGIL, action systems, and family structure, for the most part Parsons considered the social relationships and social institutions of society to work together well and adjust to each other.  He considered there to be a high degree of consensus, social order, integration, and solidarity in societies, with the different parts of the social system functional for the actors, the institutions of which they were part, and the system as a whol.


In terms of change, there are evolutionary processes that lead to change, new forms of specialization, and new values and patterns of action that became regularized and become functional for a given system.  Johnson argues that Parsons’s model was not teleological in the sense that the new processes came about because they were functional.  In the quote from The Social System, Parsons states, “Without deliberate planning on anyone’s part…”  On the other hand, Johnson notes that Parsons did not generally ask who things were functional for.  In the latter sense Parsons tended toward a conservative orientation, looking on values and processes as functional for the whole system, rather than merely being functional for a small group or for some at the expense of others.  (Johnson, pp. 117-119)  


Robert Merton (1910-2003).   Merton was initially a student of Parsons and then became an interpreter and friendly critic of Parsons.  For most of his academic career, Merton was a professor at Columbia University in New York. 


Merton is important in the study of North American sociology for (a) his emphasis on establishing sound quantitative and qualitative methods (CST, pp. 23-24, 27-28), (b) focusing on theories of the middle range (pp. 24-25), and (c) expanding the explanation of functionalism.  Merton’s sociological approach involved the study of both social theory and the empirical study of the social world.  The two are closely connected to each other and have a mutual impact on each other.   Theories of the middle range concern issues such as deviance and crime, social institutions such as the family, and issues such as social analysis of suicide (as studied by Durkheim).   These fit between the comprehensive sociological theories of Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and Parsons and the detailed study of particular situations.   Much of the applied sociology of today appears to be in the middle range – sociology of family, gender relations, race and ethnicity, sociology of education, sociology and health, etc.  These are studies and analysis that address a variety of issues in relation to the social organization of society as a whole and to details about how social relationships and institutions work in each of these areas.  They bridge these two extremes though in that they focus on a set of social relationships and institutions that are common to many situations, at the same time these do not constitute the whole of society.


Merton's discussion of function.   While Merton adopted a functionalist approach to the study of society, he subjected function to considerable scrutiny and modified Parsons’s analysis of function.  Three concepts that Merton introduced were manifest function, latent function, and dysfunction.


Ritzer (p. 245) notes that Merton criticized some forms of functionalism, questioning

  • functional unity in a society, that is, whether social practices and beliefs are always functional for the whole society, for all institutions, and for all individuals.
  • universal functionalism, that is, whether all of these practices and beliefs, structures, and institutions have positive functions for the parts of a social system.
  • indispensability, that is, are the parts of the social system necessary for the system to operate smoothly. 

Merton argued that not all parts of modern, complex society work for the functional unity of society, that some values and customs may not be functional for society as a whole (or even for groups within society), and that some aspects of social organization may not be necessary. 


In the case of a tool or machine, built by humans, the various parts of the machine are functional for the operation of the machine, otherwise they would not be there.  While there may be strains among the parts, a well-designed and well-functioning machine will have the parts adjusted to each other, so the machine carries out its purpose in an efficient, continued, and successful manner.  In this case, function is clear-cut in that the machine has a purpose and is designed and structured to accomplish that purpose.  In the case of social institutions, which are not deliberately designed by anyone, it is not so clear that function exists in the same sense.  That is, each social action, interaction, and relationship has some consequences, but these do not necessarily act to achieve a specific purpose, nor do they always help in adjustment of parts to the whole.  There may also be many unintended consequences, which lead in unexpected directions.   Organizations, such as businesses or lobby groups, developed to accomplish specific purposes, likely have functional parts to them.  But not all social institutions are of this goal-oriented type.


For Merton, what sociologists need to do is to examine each of the processes, groups, values, and institutions empirically, and see how these affect each other.  While there may be a function associated with a social action, interaction, relationship, institution, or structure, Merton introduced the division between manifest and latent function and dysfunction and nonfunction.  These are as follows.

  • Manifest function.  This is the intended or expected outcome of an action.  These are the functions that are usually considered by functionalist analysts as meeting or serving the system needs.  Adams and Sydie also identify it as the observed outcome (p. 25), although it would seem possible that the observed and intended outcome could differ.
  • Latent function.  This is the unintended outcome, one that was not anticipated, expected,  or recognized prior to the action.  Any social process is likely to have a number of unintended consequences, and Merton calls these latent functions.  For example, in individual interaction, a comment that seems innocuous to one person may be interpreted negatively by another, possibly leading to strains in a friendship.  At the level of structure and policy, an example is that of immigration policy.  It appears that immigration policies of the federal government have been aimed at helping ensure a steady supply of skilled workers for the Canadian economy, while being non-discriminatory concerning immigrant origin and providing some means of family reunification.  At the same time, as immigrants come to Canada, this has altered many aspects of Canadian society, leading to new religious and cultural influences.  Some Canadians welcome the latter, unexpected or unintended consequences of immigration, while others are opposed to these.   Weber emphasized some of the unintended consequences of social action, so the latent function is not just Merton's theoretical invention.  For Weber, the protestant ethic had, as an unintended side effect, the promotion of the capitalistic spirit. 
  • Dysfunction.   Some processes, values or, institutions may have dysfunctional aspects to them.  Merton states that these may have “consequences which lessen the adaptation or adjustment of the system” (CST, p. 26).   Wallace and Wolf (p. 49) note that there are two possibilities here. 

One is that the adaptation or adjustment of the system is impaired.  For example, a poorly managed bureaucracy or business, where roles and tasks are confused and not carried out may prevent the bureaucracy or business from carrying on its tasks, and may mean that the normal adjustment mechanisms do not function.  If this is in a for-profit enterprise, the business may fail and go bankrupt as a result.  War and much of what is termed “terrorism” appears to be dysfunctional for whole societies in that the normal operation of such societies is impeded or destroyed.

A second type of dysfunction is associated with  the question "Functional or dysfunctional for whom?" (Wallace and Wolf, p. 49).  While social actions and organizations may function well for some parts of society, they may function to the disadvantage of others in society.  For example, the bankruptcy of a corporation initially appears to be dysfunctional in that jobs are lost and services provided by the corporation disappear.  But one of the consequences of bankruptcy may be to protect the wealth of many of the owners, and prevent that wealth from being further eroded.   Another example is slavery – the existence of this institution may have been functional for the slave owners, their families, expanding their wealth, and for economic expansion.  But it was not functional for the slaves and their families.

  • Nonfunction.  Another part of Merton’s functionalist analysis was to note that some social practices, values, or processes may have little function, either positive, negative, or latent.  Some religious and spiritual beliefs, especially those from types of religion not widely practiced today, may be of this sort.  While any social practice may have meaning for an individual, some of these have little effect on others, so may be considered to be close to nonfunctional.  Merton also argued that some aspects of society may be nonfunctional in the sense that they are relics from earlier systems, or have few consequences for other parts of the system.  That is, not all social action need be associated with function, at least in terms of meeting the needs of the system, or having consequences for the system.  Organizations which once had a purpose, but no longer are relevant may have no function with respect to the overall system, although they may have some function for members.
  • Functional alternatives.  Another modification of functionalism by Merton was to argue that there may be functional alternatives in any social process.  Parsons tended to look on the current institutional structures and processes, such as the nuclear family, as being functional for the unit and for the society as a whole.  However, there may be alternative processes, institutions, and organizations that can meet the functional needs of society.  For example, in North America today there is a great variety of family and household forms and structures.  Some of these are considered dysfunctional by some social analysts and differ from the nuclear family model.  Others have argued that many of these different family and household forms may carry out similar functions to those of the nuclear family.  For example, in terms of socialization, there are likely many alternatives to that of the mother’s role in a nuclear family.  Single mothers, fathers, other relatives, nannies, and day cares may all be functional in meeting the socialization needs for children, or at least as functional as the mother in the Parsons model.  The need for stabilization of adult personalities may be met in a variety of ways – friends, room-mates, associates, professional counsellors, same-sex couples, etc. 


In summary, Merton contributes to functional analysis by requiring the sociologist to focus on the consequences of each type of social action, process, organization, or institution.  By doing this, the sociologist may be able to determine a function or dysfunction, and what are the manifest and latent functions of the social process.  At the same time, the functional nature of those alternatives can be considered.  Further, by asking who a social process may be functional for, and considering alternative ways for social relationships to be conducted, Merton's modified functionalism can allow for social conflict and different ends. 


Conclusions.  If there is so many ways of analyzing function, it is not clear that the concept of function is very useful.  What is important for a sociologist is to attempt to understand the reasons for social action and the effects of such social action.  If a sociologist can do this, then it is not clear that there is any purpose in adding function to this analysis.   In addition, much of the sociological analysis of Parsons appears capable of standing alone, without reference to function.


Critics argue that a functional approach does not help explain how society changes and that the functionalist approach tends toward a conservative view of society, one that ignores or is unable to understand conflicts.  In addition, a functional approach can be tautological and teleological.   The tautological aspect is that any social process that appears to have a particular effect is defined as having that effect.  To say that a father performs instrumental tasks in a nuclear family is descriptive and, possibly, analytical.  But to say that this is the function may merely amount to defining what the father does as functional.  Further, such a statement can be teleological in that what the observed social action is, in this case instrumental action, is being considered as its purpose.  In fact, the goal may be achievement of a good life and, given the economic and social structures, instrumental activity such as obtaining an income from a job, is the most common means of doing this.


As description, structural functional approaches may be useful, although it is too static in its approach.  Using the functional approach, it is difficult to separate the existing structures and systems from what would be needed for survival.  That is, there may be many alternative arrangements that allow systems to survive and prosper.  In terms of female and male roles, and the family, there are many such possible forms and structures.  There seem to be no ways of judging what is necessary for survival, or even what survival is.  In that sense, as an overall theoretical explanation, something is missing.



Adams, Bert N. and R. A. Sydie, Contemporary Sociological Theory, Thousand Oaks, Pine Forge, 2002   (CST)

Johnson, Miriam M., "Functionalism and Feminism: Is Estrangement Necessary?" in Paul England, editor, Theory on Gender / Feminism on Theory, New York, Aldine de Gruyter, 1993, pp. 115-130.  HQ 1190 T48 1993

Morgan, D. H. J. Social Theory and the Family, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975.  HQ728 M574

Parsons, Talcott, The Social System, New York, Free Press, 1951.  HM51 P35

Ritzer, George, Sociological Theory, fifth edition, New York, McGraw-Hill, 2000.

Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf, Contemporary Sociological Theory: Continuing the Classical Tradition, fourth edition, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, Prentice Hall, 1995


Last edited January 23, 2006