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.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises


Structural functionalism

core definition

Structural functionalism is an approach to explaining the social world that presupposes an organic model with the various elements having a particular function that ensures, though consesnsus, the maintenance and order of the social system.

explanatory context

Structural functionalism had its origins in the work of two anthropologists: Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. Both of these writers found that functionalism was a valuable method for analysing societies that were 'anthroplogically strange' and used the method in their field work. Malinowski, in his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific examined the people of Trobriand Island. Radcliffe Brown undertook a study of The Andaman Islanders; again a Pacific people. Both writers develop, in their work, the central themes of functionalism: namely functional unity; universality and indispensability. They both claim that their field work exemplifies the nature of functional analysis. However the nature of functional analysis remained unclear rather than problematic until the careful analysis conducted by Merton in his paper 'Manifest and Latent Functions' reprinted in Social Theory and Social Structure (Merton, 1968)

Structural functionalist arguments hinge on the concepts of functional unity, universal function and functional indispensability.

Functional unity (as defined by Radcliffe Brown) refers to the function of a particular social usage is the contribution it makes to the total social life as the functioning of the total social system.

Universal functions refers to the principle that in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfills some vital function (Malinowski).

Functional indispensability proposes that in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfills some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part within a working whole (Malinowski).


Structural functionalism might better be named 'system functionalism' as it tends to construct a system model rather than anlyse structural relationships.

Rise of structural functionalism

The success of structural-functionalism in American sociology has been quite remarkable. Merton's codification of functionalist analysis and theory came at a point when functionalism in sociology generally was quite evidently the dominant form of sociological practice. The reasons are not hard to find.

In the first place, the notion that social order is a necessary condition for social life has been around for a long time. Parsons begins his book The Structure of Social Action with a reference to Hobbes(17th century social philosopher) and Hobbes' concern with the problem of social order. The concern for order is evident in the writings of the Greek city states, of the Roman Empire and so on. Order, therefore, has been a perennial concern.

Second, the idea that a 'scientific ' solution to the problem of order was readily available is a very seductive notion. There is no problem regarding the maintenance of social order if we have the theoretical understanding of the nature of social order readily available. Once Comte raised the possibility of a solution to it in the form of an application of a biological analogy then the various attempts that were made at making this application simply needed to be combined. This is essentially what Merton did.

Third, the idea of a scientific solution to the problem of social order that did not require social change—that justified the retention of the present disposition of social inequality (for example Davis and Moore's justification of functional inequality)‚—had great and continuing appeal. In these senses, structural functionalism became the dominant form of sociological practice throughout the industrial world. It forms a clear expression of the nature of (positivist) scientific sociology.

Parsonian structural functionalism

The American sociologist, Talcott Parsons, further developed Durkheim's ideas in The Social System, (1951) He includes functionalist analysis but extends it with his systems analysis. In this text parsons outlined what he considered to be the four basic prerequisites for a functional society. His view that society is a system into which people are socialized is the essence of structural functionalism according to which view society is considered to be greater than the sum of its parts.


See Tetley lecture on Parsons.

Mertonian structural functionalism

Merton's codification of structural functionalism

In his influential paper 'Manifest and Latent Functions' written in 1948 and reprinted in 1968, Merton ( a contemporary of Parsons) summarised structural functionalism (which was the dominant approach in American sociology in the late 40's and 50's). In so doing he drew heavily on organic analogies.

Merton clarified the problems of functional analysis. He began by considering what the term 'function'means? Is it a single term with diverse meanings? For example, does function have the same meaning as the popular usage, e.g., a social 'function'. Or is it the activity assigned to a role e.g., the function of the President? Is it mathematical-e.g. the function xy? Is it sociological i.e. does it have a sociological meaning? According to Merton, function in sociology refers to the biological sense of 'vital or organic processes considered in the respects in which they contribute to the maintenance of the organism'. In structual functionalist sociology the 'organism' is social. Is it a single concept with diverse terms? For example, use, utility, purpose, motive, intention, aim and consequences.

Merton defines function as 'those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system' and dysfunctions as 'those observed consequences which lessen the adaptation or adjustment of the system'. I.e. functions are those activities that are conducive to the maintenance of social life; dysfunctions are those activities that are not conducive to the maintenance of social life. Robert Merton developed structural functionalism by distinguishing between manifest (clear) and latent (hidden) functions.

Manifest functions are those objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system, which are intended and recognised by participants in the system; latent functions being those which are neither intended nor recognised. That is, manifest functions are those that can be said to be clearly identifiable as conducive to social life and latent functions are those that have, as their implicit purpose, the maintenance of social life in the future. The converse is the case for dysfunction. For example, a functionalist would argue that a functioning family will produce children who conform to the accepted norms of society, this is a manifest function. Nevertheless, crime in society serves the latent function of revealing the socially accepted limits of behaviour.

The most singificant feature of these separate but related concepts of function is that they introduce time into the process of sociological theorising.

Merton claims to have codified structural functionalism. Merton proposed that the three postulates drawn from Malinowski and Radcliffe Brown of functional unity; functional universality; and functional indispensability constitute axioms from which the theorms of functional sociology would be derived. Merton pointed out that functional indispensibility contains two related assumptions:

(i) that there are certain functions that are indispensable in any society (Davis, K. Human Society for an example of an elementary text written from that point of view);

(ii) that this identifies functional prerequisites that are then satisfied by social or cultural forms. There may however be functional alternatives or substitutes.

Merton observed that the three principles, whilst unified, do have certain implications:

(a) that the first principle requires specification of the social units subserved by given social functions and that cultural items must be recognised to have consequences;

(b) that the second principle implies a codified approach to functional interpretation;

(c) that these two implications must take account of the functional alternatives identified by the third principle mentioned by Merton.

The paradigm of functional analysis comprises the following elements:

(i) the items to which functions are imputed; e.g., items such as social roles, institutionalised patterns, social processes, cultural patterns;

(ii) concepts of subjective dispositions (motives, purposes);

(iii) concepts of objective consequences (functions, dysfunctions);

(iv)concepts of the unit subserved by the functioni.e. status groups;

(v) concepts of functional requirements; e.g. the problem of survival;

(vi) concepts of the social mechanisms through which functions are fulfilled; e.g. role segmentation, insulation of institutional demands, division of labour;

(vii) concepts of functional alternatives;

(viii) concepts of structural context (or constraint);

(ix) concepts of dynamics and change;

(x) problems of validation of functional analysis;

(xi) problems of the ideological implications of functional analysis.

Testable hypotheses could be deduced from these that could be subjected to test in the social world.

Merton's 'paradigm of functional explanation' provides for the elaboration of a variety of theories that satisfy the three postulates or axioms. It also establishes the methods of functional analysis: namely observation, classification and comparison. And it specifies the nature of the data about which functional statements can be made.

For Merton this constitutes the 'logic of procedure' for structural functionalist analysis and the approach comprises a sociology that will enable 'objective meanings' to be observed, and thus constitutes a science of sociology.

Merton regarded structural functionalism as a middle range theory

One problem for this functionalist approach is that latent functions or dysfunctions can only be identified through a historical analysis and that the imputation of purpose is not a universal, objective truth. Purpose, like truth, lies in the eye or mind of the beholder. Other problems of functionalist analysis include ahistoricity, an assumption of social equilibrium that is founded on consensus and a general lack of concern with power. For some, the main problem with structural functionalism is that it simply justifies the status quo. It is assumed that just because some things have existed for a long time, they must be serving an important function.


Middle-range theory

Middle range theory is a concept that lacks definition, clarity and meaning. It is Merton's attempt to specify the procedure for doing (structural functionalist) sociology.

Merton sees structural functionalism as a triple alliance between theory, method and data. His middle range theorising can best be viewed as a cumulative spiral in which theory, method and data are brought together in an ever-increasing refinement of knowledge about the social world.

Procedurally, this has become the moddern classic positivist (falsificationist) approach to sociological work. The approach involves breaking into the spiral of knowledge. A theoretical area relating to an area of substantive sociology is addressed. Specific questions are framed in the form of hypotheses. These are operationalised and data collected. Hypotheses are thus tested and the results fed back into the substantive theory, which is thereby enriched. New questions are also generated and further investigation ensues.

This fits closely with the Popperian falsificationist thesis of conjecture and refutation. However the lack of rigorous exegisis of middle-range theory also makes it conducive to a (pseudo-Kuhnian) paradigmatic orientation. Indeed, structural functionalists often regard their approach as being the first dominant paradigm in sociology (or at the very least the dominant paradigm in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s).

analytical review

The McGraw-Hill (2004) Sociological Theory site Glossary defines structural functionalism as:

A sociological theory that focuses on the structures of society and their functional significance (positive or negative consequences) for other structures.

associated issues


related areas

See also



multivariate analysis



Malinowski, B., 1932, Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London, Routledge.

McGraw-Hill, 2004, Sociological Theory: Glossary , available at, accessed 14 May 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

Meton, R.K., 1948, 'Manifest and latent functions' in Merton, R.K., [1948] 1968, Social Theory and Social Structure New York: The Free Press pp. 60–69.

Merton, R.K., [1948] 1968, Social Theory and Social Structure New York: The Free Press.

Parsons, T., 1937, The Structure of Social Action, McGraw Hill.

Parson, T., 1951, The Social System,  The Free Press.

Radcliffe Brown, A.R.,1964, The Andaman Islanders. New York, Free Press.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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