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How is society like the human body? Find out in this lesson as you read about Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton, who contributed to the theory of structural functionalism. Read about key elements of the theory and test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Structural Functionalism?

Structural functionalism, or, simply, functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. Two theorists, Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton, were major contributors to this perspective.

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Important concepts in functionalism include social structure, social functions, manifest functions, and latent functions. Let’s examine this perspective deeper and take a look at a few examples.

Social Structure and Social Functions

The structural-functional approach is a perspective in sociology that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.

It asserts that our lives are guided by social structures, which are relatively stable patterns of social behavior. Social structures give shape to our lives – for example, in families, the community, and through religious organizations. And certain rituals, such as a handshake or complex religious ceremonies, give structure to our everyday lives. Each social structure has social functions, or consequences for the operation of society as a whole. Education, for example, has several important functions in a society, such as socialization, learning, and social placement.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer, who lived from 1820 – 1903, was an English philosopher. Spencer compared society to a human body. In the same way each part of the body works in harmony with other parts, each part of society works in harmony with all the other parts.

If we want to understand the importance of the heart for helping the body function properly, we need to understand how it relates to other parts of the body. Similarly, if we analyze the functions of some aspect of society, such as education, we can learn how it impacts the other parts of the system. Functionalists emphasize that order and balance are the normal state of society, and a disruption in one part of the system will certainly disrupt the other parts. What would happen to other social institutions if the entire educational system became dismantled?

Robert Merton

Robert King Merton, who lived from 1910 – 2003, was an American sociologist. Merton distinguished between manifest and latent functions.

Manifest functions are the intended consequences of a social activity. Latent functions are the unintended consequences of a social activity. The obvious and intended consequence of education is learning.

What about those consequences that are not so obvious? How many parents look forward to school starting in the fall because it provides free daycare? While learning is a manifest function, free daycare would be a latent, or unintended, function of education.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Structural functionalism is a macro-level orientation, concerned with broad patterns that shape society as a whole. Functionalists view society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability.

Key theorists include Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton. Key elements are social structures and social functions. Social structures refer to any relatively stable pattern of social behavior found in social institutions, while social functions refer to the consequences for the operation of society as a whole.

Sociologists also distinguish between manifest, or intended, functions and latent, or unintended, functions.

Learning Outcomes

This lesson could contribute to your ability to:

  • Paraphrase the definition of structural functionalism and specify some of its main concepts
  • Quote Herbert Spencer’s description of society
  • Discuss the views of Robert Merton with relation to manifest and latent functions

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