Semester V modern sociological theories

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Module I - Functionalism

Theoretical perspective – It is ‘a verbal image of society’. It focuses the questions that sociologists ask and the way they seek answers. It shapes the ways in which sociologists seek to explain society and the behavior within it. The three most common perspective used by sociologists today are the functionalistic perspective, the conflict perspective and the interactionistic perspective.

Three theoretical perspectives –a summary


Central concern

Scope of theorizing

Typical concepts

Some proponents


How parts contribute to workings of total society or institutions


Manifest functions

Latent functions






Social conflict and inequalities; why they arise and how they are maintained


Class struggle, self interests, domination of some social groups




Symbolic interactionism

Everyday encounters between people and the symbols by which they are interpreted


Definition of the situation, Looking –glass self





This perspective emphasize the way in which each part of a society contributes to the whole so as to maintain social stability. According to this perspective society is like the human body or any other living organism. Like the parts of the body(such as limbs ,heart, and brain )the parts of society( such as families, businesses and governments) function together in a systematic way that is usually good for the whole. Functionalism (sometimes called structural functionalism) has its roots in the work of early sociologists like Auguste Comte , Herbert Spencer , Durkheim etc. Organismic Analogy is the basic premise of functionalism, which conceptualised the society as a whole.

Intellectual background

The history of functional analysis may be traced to Comte’s ‘Consensus Universalis’, Spencer’s Organic Analogy, Pareto’s conception of society as a system in equilibrium and Durkheim’s causal- functional analysis.

Comte viewed society as a functionally organized system, its components in harmony. To him ‘consensus universalis’ ,the necessary correlation between the elements of society, was the very foundation of social structure.

Spencer presented an organic biological model. He compares society to a biological organism. The organization of parts is so high that its separation is fatal.

Durkheim insisted on the primary of the system over the parts and maintained that social facts are independent of the individual will and imposed upon him from without. Durkheim insisted that when the explanation of a social phenomenon is undertaken , we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills.

Pareto’s most important contribution to sociological theory is his conception of society as a system in equilibrium. If society is a system ,it is a whole consisting of interdependent parts , change in some part affects other parts and the whole.

Definition of functionalism

Functionalism or structural functionalism is the perspective in sociology according to which society consists of different but related parts, each of which serves a particular purpose. According to functionalism, sociologists can explain social structures and social behavior in terms of the components of a society and their functions.

Marion Levy- Structural functionalism is simply a synonym for explicit scientific analysis in general.

Bredemeir – The functional approach to sociology consists basically of an attempt to understand social phenomena in terms of their relationship to some system.

Martindale – defines function as ‘system- determining and system- sustaining activity. This refers to the positive and negative consequences of social institutions and processes.

Marion Levy – defines Function as a condition or state of affairs, resultant from the operation of a structure through time. He uses the term ‘eufunction’ to refer to positive or favorable consequences which contribute to the maintenance and survival of social system and term ‘dysfunction’ to mean negative or unfavorable consequences that contribute to the disintegration of the system.

Merton – defines Function as those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system.

Radcliffe Brown – Function is the contribution which a partial activity makes to the total activity of which it is a part.

Branches of Functionalism

Functionalism is not a single strain of thought. It represents a variety of approaches, systems of definitions and philosophical orientations.

Individualistic functionalism- Malinowski’s functionalism is often termed as individualistic functionalism because of its treatment of social and cultural systems as collective responses to fundamental biological needs of individuals modified by cultural values. Social structures and processes, institutions and values are all regarded as functional responses to individual’s physiological needs such as hunger and sex which prompt cultural usages and social institutions , which in turn shape the way these basic drives express themselves.

Structural functionalism – Radcliffe Brown emphasized structured social relationships. He focused primarily on the function of each element in the maintenance and development of a social structure and largely overlooked functional consequences of specific elements.

The basic perspective of structural functional point of view emerges in its prime emphasis on society and on the interrelations of its institutions , rather than on the individual or groups such as family. Social life persists because societies find means (structures) whereby they fulfill the needs (functions) which are either preconditions or consequences of organized social life.

Societal functionalism – The primary concern of societal functionalism is the large social structure and institutions of society, their interrelationships and their constraining effects on actors. The major assumptions of Durkheim in explaining society are as follows

  1. Society viewed as an entity in itself, and as distinguished from and irreducible to its parts.

  2. Parts of society as fulfilling basic needs or requisites of the whole.

  3. Basic needs of a society have to be fulfilled if ‘abnormal’ states are to be avoided, and

  4. Societies have equilibrium states around which normal function occurs.

Durkheim established certain guiding principles for the explanation of social facts.

  1. in explaining a given social phenomenon, we must seek separately the efficient cause which produces it and the function it fulfills.

  2. The function of a social fact cannot but be social and therefore it ought to be sought in its relation to some social end.

Universal functionalism ( Malinowski ) – This type of functional analysis may be called traditional functional because it is most widely used. It is based on the assumption that the elements of the social structure assist in the integration and adaptation of the larger social system.

Formal functionalism (Merton) –This approach is concerned with homeostatic or equilibrating systems. It abandons the basic assumption that the consequences or effects of a pattern must always be beneficial or necessary. According to this type, the consequences or effects of a pattern may not be beneficial or necessary to society. This approach is called ‘formal’ , because it is not based on a substantial hypothesis about empirical events. Formal functionalism consists in the attempt to construct models that describe how the units of a system are interrelated so as to maintain each other or some other state of the system.


According to structural functionalism or functionalism, society is:

  • An organism, a system of parts, all of which serve a function together for the overall effectiveness and efficiency of society.

Structural functionalism is a consensus theory ; a theory that sees society as built upon order, interrelation, and balance among parts as a means of maintaining the smooth functioning of the whole. Structural functionalism views shared norms and values as the basis of society, focuses on social order based on tacit agreements between groups and organizations and views social change as occurring in a slow and orderly fashion. Functionalists acknowledge that change is sometimes necessary to correct social dysfunctions but that it must occur slowly so that people and institutions can adapt without rapid disorder.

Structural functionalism makes 7 assumptions. These assumptions focus on several levels of analysis {society, community, individual, social unit (eg. family, organizations) }:

  • Systems have a property of order and an interdependence of parts.

  • Systems tend toward self-maintaining order, or equilibrium.

  • The system may be static or involved in an ordered process of change.

  • The nature of one part of the system has an impact on the form that the other parts can take.

  • Systems maintain boundaries within their environments. ( If one or more parts within society or social units significantly conflicts with others, others must adapt).

  • Allocation and integration are two fundamental processes necessary for a given state of equilibrium within a system.

  • Systems tend towards self maintenance involving control of boundaries and relationships of parts to the whole, control of the environment, and control of tendencies to change the system from within.

Macro sociological theory and Micro sociological theory

Functionalism focuses on the MACRO level (looks at large-scale social institutions like “society” as a while, international networks (NATO),government , the labor force, etc ). Focuses on grand–scale phenomena; pays little attention to individual agency and personality development. In contrast , MICRO theories (like symbolic interactionism) focus more on individuals and their everyday interactions with others and small-scale social groups/ organizations.

Functionalists argue that in order for society to function, it has to place and motivate individuals to occupy the necessary positions in the social structure. There are two main ways society does this:

  • Society must instill in the proper individuals the desire (motivation) to fill certain positions.

  • Once the proper individuals are in these positions, society must offer them appropriate rewards so that they maintain desire to fulfill their (difficult) positions.


There are a number of criticisms of structural functionalism:

  • It is ahistorical.

  • It is unable to deal effectively with the process of change or conflict.

  • It is conservative.

  • It is viewed as ambiguous and lacking in adequate methods.

  • Structural functionalism inhibits certain forms of analyses such as comparative analysis .

  • Functionalists argue that the positions that are most highly rewarded are the most important for society. But critics argue that the most highly rewarded positions are not necessarily the most important.

  • Percy Cohen and Jonathan Turner see Teleology and Tautology as the two most important logical problems confronting structural functionalism.

Teleology is defined as the view that society and other social institutions have purposes or goals. In order to achieve these goals, society creates a large number of social structures and institutions . But the idea of teleology is that it is not necessary for the society to create particular structure to fulfill particular needs.

Tautology is an argument in which the conclusion merely makes explicit what is implicit in the premise, or is simply a restatement of the premise. In structural functionalism ,this circular reasoning often takes the form of defining the whole in terms of its parts and then defining the parts of the whole. Thus a social system is defined by the relationship among the component parts and that the component parts of the system are defined by their place in the larger social system. Because each is defined in terms of the other, neither the social system nor its parts are in fact defined at all. We really learn nothing about either the system or its parts.

MERTON on Structural Functionalism

Merton’s theory of Structural functionalism has been called ‘Middle Range’ because he moved away from trying to analyze society as a whole toward studying different levels of the social world such as organizations and groups. Robert K Merton’s signal contribution to functionalism lies in his clarification and codification of functional analysis. Specifically, Merton :

  1. Strips functionalism bare of the unexamined and insupportable assumptions of many of its practitioners.

  2. Broadens the analysis to incorporate change as well as stability.

  3. Makes critical distinctions between functions and personal motives.

  4. Develops a descriptive protocol for functional analysis to guide the analyst in social observations, and

  5. Engages in the functional analysis of a variety of socio-cultural phenomena to demonstrate the utility of the perspective.

Merton introduced the concept of ‘dysfunction’ to offset the focus on stability of traditional functionalism. Whereas functions contribute to the adjustment of the system, dysfunctions are those consequences that lead to instability and ultimately change. Merton insisted that social structure can only be analyzed in terms of both statics( stability) and dynamics(change). The concept of dysfunction allows functional theory to focus on change. The concept of dysfunction is based on tension, strain, or contradictions within component elements of socio-cultural systems. Dysfunctional elements create pressures for change within the system. One of the primary goals of functional analysis is to identify these dysfunctions and examine how they are contained or reduced in the socio-cultural system as well as how they sometimes cause systematic or fundamental change.

{Functions – are those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system; and

Dysfunctions – are those observed consequences which lessen adaptation or adjustment of the system.}

Merton was also concerned with the intended and unintended functions of social structures or Manifest and Latent functions, and their unanticipated consequences.

Functionalism of Talcott Parsons

The single greatest contributor , and practitioner, of structural functionalism was Talcott Parsons. The heart of Parsons theory is built on the four functional imperatives, also known as AGIL system. Parsons outlines four fundamental functions which every functioning social system must perform:

  1. Adaptation (A) – this refers to the need for the production or acquisition of generalized facilities or resources that can be employed in the attainment of various specific goals. This function enables a system to adapt to its environment.

  2. Goal- Attainment (G) – this function involves the necessity of mobilizing actors and resources in organized ways for the attainment of specific goals. It explains how a system defines and achieves its goals.

  3. Integration (I) – This function refers to the allocation of rights and obligations, rewards and facilities, to ensure the harmony of relations between members of the social system.

  4. Latency (L) – This includes Pattern Maintenance and Tension management. Pattern Maintenance refers to the need to maintain and reinforce the basic values of the social system and to resolve tensions that emerge from continuing commitment to these values.

Complementing this are four Action systems , each of which serve a functional imperative:

  1. The Behavioral System – handles the adaptive function by adjusting to and transforming the external world.

  2. The Personality System – performs the goal attainment function by defining system goals and mobilizing resources to attain them.

  3. The Social System – copes with the integrative function by controlling its component parts.

  4. The Cultural System – performs the latency function by providing actors with the norms and values that motivate them for action.

Systems and subsystems- Interpenetration between the four subsystems

The social system is the integrative sub-system of action in general. The other three principal system constitute the environment of the social system. These four systems are analytically separable and mutually irreducible. The four primary sub- systems of society (AGIL) are functionally specialized around their interrelations with the three other subsystems of action ( or the environments of a social system).

Structure of the general action system


Cultural system

Social system

Behavioral system

Personality system


Sub- Systems of Action

Social system Cultural system Personality System Biological system

Integration Latency Goal Attainment Adaptation

Collectivity Cultural value Polity Economy

Parsons’ conception of Action, Interaction and Institutionalization

Parsons take ‘actions’ as the building blocks of the system. He prefers the term ‘action’ to ‘behavior’ ,because he is interested in patterning.

Modes of Types of Interaction among Institutionalization S.System of

orientation Action oriented actors of interaction status, role,

and norm


cognitive Instrumental

cathectic expressive

evaluative moral

2.Value cognitive appreciative moral

The motivational orientation which supplies the ‘urge to get something’ is characteristically 3- fold-

  1. Cognitive – corresponding to belief ; meaning what is or what the actors perceive.

  2. Cathectic – corresponds to sentiments and involves the process through which an actor invests an object with affective significance.

  3. Evaluative – judgment and interpretation of alternatives and selection of appropriate ones.

Value orientation on the other hand, refers to the observance of social norms or standards. Value orientation supplies norms or standards of action. The modes of value orientation are 3- fold

  1. Cognitive standard – those by which the validity of cognitive judgment is assessed.

  2. Appreciative standards – those by which selection among the possibilities of cathectic significance can be made.

  3. Moral standards or Evaluative – it involve both cognitive and appreciative aspect and constitute the standards in terms of which more particular evaluations are evaluated.

Parsons identifies 3 types of actions

  1. Instrumental action – this is oriented to the achievement of a goal which is an anticipated future state of affairs ; gives primacy to cognitive mode of orientation.

  2. Expressive action – this is oriented to the flow of gratifications. Action itself is a goal and gives primacy to the cathectic mode of orientation.

  3. Moral action – here the focus is on the system of order itself , not on the goals nor on the gratification interests of the actor.

The concept of institutionalization is crucial to Parsons’ conceptualization of the system. He regards institutionalization as the fundamental integrative mechanism of social system. Institutionalization builds up and maintains social structure. The actor’s internalization of the cultural values and beliefs is the primary basis of institutionalization. This institutionalized patterns can be , in Parsons’ view conceptualized as a social system. The normative organization of status, roles and norms becomes Parsons’ key to this conceptualization.

Pattern variable

In a given situation the actor is confronted by a series of major dilemmas of orientation. He has to make choice so that situation may have a determinate meaning for him. In order to have a determinate meaning , the actor must make a series of choices. These choices are dichotomous , one side of which must be selected by an hour. Therefore the dichotomous which formulate a choice alternative to the actor are called pattern variables. In the words of Parsons’, ‘ a pattern variable is a dichotomy , one side of which must be chosen by an actor before the meaning of a situation is determinate for him, and thus before he can act with respect to that situation’. He proposed five dichotomies of pattern variables as listed below

  1. Affectivity vs Affective Neutrality( the Gratification – Discipline Dilemma )

The pattern is affective when an organized action system emphasizes gratification; that is when an actor tries to avoid pain and maximize pleasure. The pattern is affectively neutral when it imposes discipline and renouncement or deferment of some gratifications in favor of other interests. For eg , soldiers are expected to ignore immediate gratification and be affectively neutral, in their line of duty even if that involves risking their lives.

  1. Self- orientation vs Collective orientation (the Private vs Collective interest dilemma )

This dichotomy depends on social norms or shared expectations which define as legitimate the pursuit of the actor’s private interests or obligate him to act in the interest of the group. Salesmen and shopkeeper are expected to glorify their products and give ‘sales talk’ in accordance with self- orientation but the doctor is expected to tell the patient what is best for him, even if he can make money from an expensive operation.

  1. Particularism vs Universalism ( Choice between types of value- oriented standard)

The former refers to standards determined by an actor’s particular relations with a particular object; the latter refers to value standards that are highly generalized. A teacher is supposed to give grades to all students impartially, ie in accordance with general universal principles. But if he favors his son or a friend who happens to be in the same class , he is behaving particularly , for he is treating people differently on the basis of their particular relationship to him.

  1. Quality vs Performance – ( Ascription vs Achievement)

This is the dilemma of according primary treatment to an object on the basis of what it is in itself , an inborn quality, or what it does , and the quality of its performance. The former involves defining people on the basis of certain attributes such as age, sex, color, nationality etc; the latter defines people on the basis of their abilities.

  1. Diffuseness vs Specificity

This is the dilemma of defining the relation borne by object to actor as indefinitely wide in scope m infinitely broad in involvement, morally obligating, and significant in pluralistic situations; or specifically limited in scope and involvement. The relationship between the employer and the employees in a modern factory is specific, since no obligation is assumed to exist beyond what is specified in the ‘contract’. However ,certain systems of land tenure such as the semi-feudal and zamindari types are supposed to involve the tenants in an infinite variety of obligations to their ‘masters’. Similarly , patterns of friendship and husband –wife relationships are supposed to involve a ‘limitless’ number of obligations.


This is a recent addition to contemporary sociological theory. It is a discovery and reconstruction of Parsons’ and Merton’s functionalism. Luhmann improved upon Parsons’ functionalism and argued that modern society is not a single social system with related parts, but several systems including some commonly recognized institutions such as law, religion, communication, media, education, politics and economics – and other systems consisting of organizations, personality and interactions. To Luhmann , each of these is a system, with the other systems as its environment. Society is like the telephone system , and the interstate highway system, each is part of the other system’s environment.


Luhmann has defined Neo-functionalism as follows:

The concept of system and function no longer refer to the system, but to the relationship between system and environment. Everything that happens belongs to a system ( or to many systems) and always at the same time to the environment of other systems.

George Ritzer argues that functionalism witnessed its decline in the middle of 1960s. however by the middle of 1980s , a major effort was underway to revive the theory under the heading ‘Neo-functionalism’.

The development of ‘Neo-functionalism’is from Germany. In the beginning its scope and development remained restricted to Europe only. In the US , neo-functionalism emerged as a rediscovery. Jaffrey Alexander, Richard Munch, Niklas Luhmann, Paul Colomy, Dean Gerstein, Mark Gould and Neil Smelser made valuable contributions towards the advancement of this branch of sociology called ‘Neo-functionalism’.

Characteristics of Neo-functionalism

Some of the major characteristics of neo-functionalism as developed by Alexander, Colomy and others are as follows:

  1. It views the society as a pattern determined by pluralist forces-

Functionalist theory looks at a society as patterned by mono causal factors of functions. But neo-functionalists talk about a descriptive model of society that considers society as composed of elements, which in interaction with one another, form a pattern. This pattern allows the system to be differentiated from its environment. Parts of the system are symbolically connected, and their interaction is not determined by any mono cause but by some open-ended and pluralistic forces.

  1. It integrates micro and macro actions-

Functionalism is having macro level character. It pays negligible attention to the individual, that is, micro level action. Neo-functionalism has taken a balanced view of micro and macro actions . it supports not only rational but also expressive action.

  1. It pleads for partial equilibrium of social system-

According to functionalists, social system has latency. It has a tendency to integrate its parts even if there are deviants and criminals . But neo-functionalists claim that the equilibrium could be partial or sometimes absent.

  1. Tension in personality ,culture and social systems is continuous-

Parsonian functionalism puts an emphasis on personality, culture, and social system. These three systems are interrelated and tension in one system affects other systems also. But this tension is particular as it does not bring any change in the system. But neo-functionalism is expected not only to bring changes in the system but also change the system itself. Thus change is not productive of conformity and harmony, but rather individuation and institutional strains.

  1. Uneven differentiation-

Traditional functionalists claim that social change creates differentiation in the parts of the system, and the system as a whole remains unchanged. But neo-functionalists argue that there is the possibility of unequal development across various institutions , as well as uneven differentiation within a single institution.

  1. It is a kind of multi-dimensional sociology-

Functionalists believe that the actions of the actor are determined by pattern variables. But neo-functionalism claims that it is not the system only, which is determinant of social action. The actor is open to a wide range of alternatives.

  1. It is a reconstruction of functionalism-

According to Fauske , neo-functionalism is a reconstruction of sociology based on a new interpretation of the functionalistic tradition.

  1. Neo-functionalism is a tendency rather than a theory-

According to Alexander and Colomy, neo-functionalism is a tendency rather than a developed theory. It is a kind of attitude to look at the reality . In Germany it took the shape of a movement.

  1. It is based on post-positivism-

Post-positivism is in which equal emphasis is put on theoretical and empirical elements or explanations.

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