Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Functionalism argues that the study of the social world should examine the function played by social phenomena.

explanatory context

Functionalism in the social sciences refers to a view which suggests that the principle task of sociology and social anthropology is to examine the function of social phenomena to the social and cultural life of human collectivities. Through the examination of their function, the occurence and persistence of the phenomena may be explained.


In essence, functionalism equates social and cultural phenomena with utility. They come into being, or exist, because they are useful for a given society. The utility of social phenomena, however, cannot be gauged without reference the wider social society in which it occurs. The society is seen as an organic whole in which the phenomenon plays a part in regulating and maintaining the 'health' of the society.


Functionalism, thus, relies upon an analogical distinction between a biological organism and a social organism. Individuals are treated as the basic units, as analgous to cells in a biological organism. The inter-cell relations which structure the organism represent human relations between individuals. The observed behaviour of groups, the activity of the social unit, is seen as analagous to the biological activity of cell behaviour. Finally, the function of phenomena as represented in the correspondence between the effects of acts and needs of the structure is analgous to the correspondence between cell activity and the health of the organism.


This identity between a biological organism and a social organism is quite general and quite explicit: it occurs in Spencer, Durkheim and Parsons, in the anthropologists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown, and in a variety of recent developments. It supposes, as one of its primary conditions, an ability to identify needs (both now and in the future) and to be able to establish a relationship (a correspondence) between needs and activity.


That the needs for which the activity is functional (that is contributes to the satisfaction of need) may only exist in the future means that functionalism has the character of being teleological or purposive, i.e. it identifies a purpose in human life which the activity satisfies.


Functionalism has its roots in the early ethnographic work of anthropologists. In social science in general, functionalism has taken a number of forms, it is developed in the Durkheim and mutated into structural functionalism


In information technology the term functional is used in a confusing sense. It is usually linked to the notion of functional decomposition. This is in effect reductionism. An organisation is decomposed into sub-units based on the functions each performs. Unlike functionalism in social science, the decomposition is construed as a means of breaking up complex structures and thus does not see the elements in the context of the functional whole.

analytical review

Levin (2009) writes:

What is Functionalism? Functionalism is the doctrine that what makes something a thought, desire, pain (or any other type of mental state) depends not on its internal constitution, but solely on its function, or the role it plays, in the cognitive system of which it is a part. More precisely, functionalist theories take the identity of a mental state to be determined by its causal relations to sensory stimulations, other mental states, and behavior.

For (an avowedly simplistic) example, a functionalist theory might characterize pain as a state that tends to be caused by bodily injury, to produce the belief that something is wrong with the body and the desire to be out of that state, to produce anxiety, and, in the absence of any stronger, conflicting desires, to cause wincing or moaning. According to this theory, all and only creatures with internal states that meet these conditions, or play these roles, are capable of being in pain.


Some writiers tend not to differentiate functionalism from structural functionalism. For example, Bryant (undated), on the HistoryLearningSite, writes:

Functionalism: As a structural theory, Functionalism sees social structure or the organisation of society as more important than the individual. Functionalism is a top down theory. Individuals are born into society and become the product of all the social influences around them as they are socialised by various institutions such as the family, education, media and religion.

Functionalism sees society as a system; a set of interconnected parts which together form a whole. There is a relationship between all these parts and agents of socialisation and together they all contribute to the maintenance of society as a whole.


Raynet Sociology Glossary (undated) refers to functionalsim as:

An approach or orientation of studying social and cultural phenomena. It holds that society is essentially a set of interrelated parts, e.g., institutions, beliefs, values, customs, norms, etc., and that each of these parts has a particular purpose, i.e., that each of these parts functions in a particular way. It is held that no part, its existence, or operation, can be understood in isolation from the whole. Society is seen, from this position, as analogous to the human body or any other living organism. Each of the "parts" of society are seen as operating much like organs of the body. As in the body, it is held that if one part of society changes it affects the other parts and how they operate or function, and it also affects how the total system performs as it may also affect the continued existence of the total society (organism). Functionalism's critics have pointed to its tenuous assumption of the necessary integration of all of the social systems parts. Critical and radical sociology thus see functionalism as essentially conservative in nature, both intellectually and politically.


Elwell's Glossary of Sociology (undated) defines functionalism as:

A theoretical perspective that focuses on the way various parts of the social system contribute to the continuity of society as well as the affect the various parts have on one another.

associated issues


related areas

See also

structural functionalism


Bryant, L, undated, Functionalism, available at, accessed 18 January 2013, still available 3 June 2019 (now copyright 2000–2019).

Elwell's Glossary of Sociology, undated, available at, page not available 20 December 2016.

Levin, J., 2009, Functionalism in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, first published 24 August 2004, available at, accessed 18 January 2013. This has entry has an extensive account of various forms of functionalism, still available 3 June 2019.

Raynet Sociology Glossary, undated, available at, no longer available 20 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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