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Essay on Functionalism as One of the Major Theoretical Perspectives in Sociology

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Table of contents

  1. What is culture?
  2. What is the definition of culture from a functionalist perspective?
  3. References

The structural-functionalist perspective, also called functionalism, is one of the major theoretical perspectives in sociology. It is based largely on the works of Emile Durkheim as well as Herbert Spencer. It has been given various, but similar definitions by many sociological scholars. Generally, it sees society as a structure with interrelated parts designed to meet the biological and social needs of the individuals in that society.

Functionalism can also be defined as a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability where each part of society had a specific task.'(Robert K. Merton). This is why it is usually compared to a living organism whose organs all have a purpose to keep the organism alive and healthy. Functionalists (Ex. Herbert Spencer) use the human body or organic analogy to explain how the different aspects of society are all interconnected and interdependent and problems in one area of society might be symptoms of dysfunction elsewhere. Simply put: If one organ fails, sooner or later, so do the others.

According to functionalism, society is a system of interconnected parts that work together in harmony to maintain a state of balance and social equilibrium for the whole. Functionalists, such as Durkheim, believe that without collective conscience/ shared values and beliefs, achieving social order is impossible and social order is crucial for the well-being of society. They believe that value consensus forms the essential integrating principle in society.

The structural-functionalist perspective focuses on the institutions found in our society(or Emile Durkheim's 'social facts'). Institutions in society may include the family, education, religion, politics, the economy, the media, etc. According to functionalism, they all have clear social functions, which ensure there is a societal agreement (consensus) about the norms and values within society.

Structural-functionalism doesn't focus on the individual but rather on the institutions that the individuals belong to. Durkheim believed that 'to study society, a sociologist must look beyond individuals to social facts such as laws, morals, values, religious beliefs, customs, fashion, and rituals, which all serve to govern social life.'

Functionalist sociologists emphasize what maintains society, not what changes it. However, this does not deny that changes exist. Talcott Parsons (1902–1979), a leading functionalist, saw society in its natural state as being stable and balanced. That is, society naturally moves toward a state of homeostasis. To Parsons, important social issues, such as union strikes, represent nothing but temporary rifts in the social order. According to his equilibrium theory, changes in one aspect of society require adjustments in other aspects. When these changes don't occur, equilibrium disappears, threatening social order. Parsons' equilibrium theory incorporates the evolutionary idea of continuous progress, but the predominant theme is stability and balance. (Talcott Parsons,

While largely discredited in recent times, structural functionalism was a powerful theory during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, we can still see its applications. We can look at the most basic institution – family- as an example. Family serves more than one purpose within society. It provides the most obvious purpose as a mode of reproduction, to create the next generation. But even more importantly it helps by nurturing and socializing children. Education is also an important institution as it offers a way to transmit a society's skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth. Economics provides for the assembly, distribution, and consumption of goods and services. And looking at a very religious society(such as ours in Ethiopia) religion helps to serve as a moral compass and to give guidance to the members. These are all elements studied by functionalism. It helps us see the problems that may arise due to a change in one of these institutions.

For example, these days, there are many families with single parents or where both parents have full-time jobs. This has contributed to the number of children who are failing in school because parents have become less available to supervise their children's schoolwork. In this case, we first notice the failure of the education system, but when we look deeper, it is a symptom of trouble within the family. Office systems, especially government offices, are another example where structural functionalism is applicable. There is a hierarchy and flow within the system and every part of the office has to work smoothly for maximum efficiency.

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What is culture?

Culture is the total way of life of a certain unique society. It is the sum of the total values, ideas, and beliefs that they have. It is an aspect of the human environment encompassing both tangible and intangible things. Sociologists define society as the people who interact in such a way as to share a common culture. When we say culture, it consists of the beliefs, behaviors, objects, and other characteristics common to the members of a particular group or society. 'Through culture, people and groups define themselves, conform to society's shared values, and contribute to society.' ( Thus, culture includes many societal aspects: language, customs, values, norms, mores, rules, tools, technologies, products, organizations, and institutions.

Sociology understands culture as the languages, customs, beliefs, rules, arts, knowledge, and collective identities and memories developed by members of all social groups that make their social environments meaningful. (ASA official website)

Culture often refers to the beliefs that people hold about reality, the norms that guide their behavior, the values that orient their moral commitments, or the symbols through which these beliefs, norms, and values are communicated.

What is the definition of culture from a functionalist perspective?

The structural-functional theory proposes that culture functions as the structure in society that exists to meet human needs. For example, our culture gives our lives meaning and direction, giving us cues for what to do and how to live. It encourages us to work together to find resources to help us survive and to make connections with other people who provide care and comfort. (Erin Long-Crowell,

Structural functionalism can help us see the cultural universals that exist not only within one society but throughout the world. Cultural universals are elements of culture that exist within almost every society. Even though their practice and the customs that accompany them are unique, similar rituals exist in every culture. For example, marriage ceremonies and funeral rituals exist in every culture to celebrate the creation of a family and to help grieving families mourn, respectively.

Functionalists would see culture as being an important part of our society with a certain function - educating the people, strengthening social interactions, gaining perspective, or expressing tendencies and feelings among humans. (Marie Moeller, Copenhagen University)

We can see the effects of functionalism in our culture by looking at the institutions within our society. For example, to see religion as an institution, we can see the effects it has on our culture. To be specific we can see the Ethiopian context. In the Orthodox religion, it is common to fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and some months during the year. Because of this, it is a culture in most cities to serve only vegan(fasting) foods during those times. Regardless of whether you follow the religion or not, because of the norms that come with it, you will end up eating those fasting foods. This shows that the institution of religion can affect one country's culture.

Structural functionalism sees the family as the most basic institution. The concept of family exists in every society. A nuclear family is generally made up of parents and children. But the difference in cultures makes a difference in what kind of family there is. In recent times the concept of homosexualism is becoming more common. In countries such as the USA and Europe, gay marriage has been legalized. This brings a big change to what makes up a family. This is because it doesn't contradict their culture. However, in our country, a family is required to have a mother and a father. Not just any set of parents, so two same-sex parents can't be accepted as a family. In this case, we can see how the culture of a society can affect the institutions within it.

Structural functionalism, even now, is still a very important theory because it helps us to understand our society and our culture as a sum of its parts. It has a more positive perspective toward society as compared to others such as the conflict perspective. It promotes stability and was followed by respected sociologists. All these are some of the reasons why it is considered one of the grand sociological perspectives.


  1. CliffsNotes Study Guides | Book Summaries, Test Preparation & Homework Help | Written by Teachers. (2018). Retrieved from
  2. Culture. (n.d.). Retrieved from
  3. Learning, L. (2017). Reading: Structural-functional theory. In Introduction to sociology[1_11_17] (p. 37).
  4. Learning, L. (2017). Module 2: Culture and society. In Introduction to Sociology [1_11_17] (p. 76).
  5. Long-Crowell, E. (2018). Cultural Analysis: Theoretical Approaches. Retrieved from
  6. Moeller, M. (2016). Functionalist perspective on culture. Retrieved from
  7. Parsons, T. (2018). CliffsNotes Study Guides | Book Summaries, Test Preparation & Homework Help | Written by Teachers. Retrieved from
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