Structural functionalism, or simply Functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability This approach looks at society through a macro-level orientation, which is a broad focus on the social structures that shape society as a whole.
In structural functionalism, the terms structural and functional need not to be used in conjunction, although they typically are conjoined. We could study the structures of society without being concerned with their functions (or consequences) for other structures. Similarly, we could examine the functions of a variety of social processes that may not take a structural form.
Functions, according to Merton, are defined as those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system. However, there is a clear ideological bias when one focuses only on adaptation or adjustment, for they are always positive consequences for another social fact. It is important to note that one social fact can have negative consequences for another social fact.
There are certain functional requirements that must be satisfied if a society is to survive. Within any society there are functional subsystems (institutions) that meet those requirements. Each institution is similarly structured to provide for the requirements of all the others. Individuals are socialized to wants and needs that are socially appropriate. Balance of power between institutions is always maintained, and if social needs are met, individual needs are also met.
Structural-functional theory begins to answer the question of order in society. The Hobbesian Question is "in a society where competition between individuals is paramount, how is order possible?" The answer is that human beings are social animals that create social forms (i.e., social structure), in order to organize the elements of society.
Structure-functionalism relies upon an "organic" analogy of human society as being "like an organism," a system of interdependent parts that function for the benefit of the whole. Thus, just as a human body consists of parts that function as an interdependent system for the survival of the organism, society consists of a system of interdependent institutions and organizations that function for the survival of the society.
Relying upon the successes of biologists in understanding the human body, functionalists took a similar approach to understanding human social systems. Social systems were dissected into their "parts," or institutions (family, education, economy, polity, and religion), and these parts were examined to find out how they worked and their importance for the larger social system. The rationale was that if scientists could understand how institutions worked, then their performance could be optimized to create an efficient and productive society. This approach as proved to be very successful and is the predominant philosophy guiding macro-level sociology today.
During the 1940s, '50s, and '60s, many criticisms and challenges to structural functionalism emerged. Radical sociologists such as C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) and conflict theorists attacked structural functionalism for its grand theory, purported political conservatism, inability to study social change, and lack of emphasis on social conflict.
Functions from which society benefits are considered positive, functions that cause negative consequences for society are considered dysfunctions. Positive functions may be intended (manifest functions) or unintended (latent functions).
Sociological research has seen some key exponents of the functionalist theory. The primary sociologists concerned with functionalism are Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.
Functionalists have therefore argued that the existence of some form of social stratification in every known society implies that social stratification [and the inequalities of income, wealth, power and status implied by it] must be both desirable and inevitable.
Social stratification is seen as desirable because it meets one of the so-called functional pre-requisites in all societies of ensuring that individuals are allocated to suitable occupational roles and that they will perform these roles effectively which will contribute to the economic and social well-being of all members of society whatever their positions within the system of social stratification and thereby contribute to the stability of society as a whole.
It is important to consider Functionalist analyses of the different aspects of social stratification: i.e. occupational differences in income and wealth, differences in social status and differences in power. As we shall see Functionalists describe occupational differences in income and wealth as involving a hierarchy of a large number of slightly differentiated and non-antagonistic social strata rather than as involving a limited number of antagonistic social classes as in Marxist Class Theory