Functionalism (sociology)

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Conflict Theory
Symbolic Interactionism
Social Constructionism
Deviant Behaviour
Auguste Comte
Karl Marx
Emile Durkheim
Max Weber

Functionalism is a theory which examines society through interdependent elements, using a somewhat biological approach. For other definitions of functionalism see the disambiguation page.


Social institutions have a specific function for the welfare of the entire society, in much the same way that the body's organs have specific functions that contribute to the overall welfare of the body. Functionalists believe that it is stable social relations or structures that influence human behaviour; these structures arise from shared values, and can either contribute to, or detract from the social stability. Functionalists believe that restoring equilibrium and increasing social cohesion can solve most social problems. In the late 40s, Robert Merton made a significant contribution to functionalist thought with his theories of manifest and latent functions. That is, a social structure can have both intentional functions, and unintentional functions respectively. Merton also believed that social structures can have a varying impact on different groups.[1][2][3]

Example: The functionalist approach to deviant behaviour takes the position that a certain amount of deviance or crime is necessary in society. At the correct balance, deviance has latent functions that contribute to the health of society. When the balance is disrupted, social cohesion deteriorates. More specifically, latent functions of deviance include providing an example of unacceptable conduct to other members of society. Criminals and others demonstrate unacceptable conduct by incurring sanctions from other formal structures, such as the courts, or mental health institutions.

Key Figures: Auguste Comte, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, Robert Merton

Notable works include
Cours de philosophie positive by Auguste Compte
Suicide: A study in sociology by Emile Durkheim
Social Theory and Social Structure by Robert Merton

External links

Professional Organizations



  1. Brym, R.J. (2001). Introducing sociology. In R.J. Brym (Ed.), New society:sociology for the 21st century (pp. 2-25). Toronto: Harcourt.
  2. Abercrombie, N., Hill, S. & Turner, B.S. (2000). The penguin dictionary of sociology (4th ed.). Toronto:Penguin.
  3. Gomme, I.M. (2002). The shadow line: deviance and crime in Canada (3rd ed.). Toronto:Nelson.