Functionalism is a sociological paradigm that sees society as a complex system whose various parts work together to promote stability and social order. Durkheim was a functionalist who believed that every social fact and institution existed because they had a role to play in maintaining social equilibrium. He was inspired by one of the earliest structural functionalists, Herbert Spencer. Spencer, an early evolutionary theorist, came up with the organic approach for structural functionalism. This involved viewing society as an organic system. Similar to how different parts in a body work together and perform different roles for the organism to function, different social institutions work together to form a society in equilibrium. Like how the failure of a single organ can result in ill health or loss of life, an institution not functioning properly could result in social disintegration.
This meant that every social institution can be analyzed at two levels- their latent functions and manifest functions. Manifest functions are those of which people are aware when they participate in them, i.e. they are intentional and obvious. On the other hand, Latent functions are those of which people are unaware, which are unintentional and less obvious. This can be understood by viewing religion from the functionalist perspective like Durkheim did in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Religion’s manifest function seemed to be the moral righteousness of individuals, but it may have certain latent functions that believers are unaware of, like creating a network of social support, giving a simplified worldview that prevents existential thoughts from arising, providing coping strategies to deal with stress and increasing social stability by (in most cases) giving a moral framework that makes people law abiding. Another example is Malinowski’s work on the Kula, an elaborate gift-giving institution of the Tobrianders. He identified the latent political, economic and social functions of the Kula, of which Tobrianders are largely unaware. Similar exercises can be done on any social institution.
Functionalist approaches have been criticized for taking an oversocialized view of human beings. It views individuals as passive recipients of social norms, without agency of their own. Conflict theorists have particularly criticized its blindness to power relations. Functionalists see things like domination and subjugation as essential to a society as according to them unless it was necessary, it wouldn’t exist. Even negative aspects of social life, like poverty, crime or even discrimination will be viewed as necessary for the functions they can perform. In that case, attempts at alleviating such problems will be viewed as potentially damaging to society. Another important criticism is the reification of society under functionalism. This refers to the tendency to view society as a thinking being who acts intentionally, when in reality those actions are performed only by the parts that make up society- individuals. Regardless of these problems, Functionalism was an important approach in Sociology.
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