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Aim:  How does functionalism provide us with a system to understand our world?


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Activity #1: How does the theory of “functionalism” attempt to explain society?


  1. Annotate the text by underlining or highlighting important information to answer the focus questions.


Functionalist Perspective:

The functionalist perspective is based largely on the works of Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton. 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. For example, each of the social institutions contributes important functions for society: Family provides a context for reproducing, nurturing, and socializing children; education offers a way to transmit a society’s skills, knowledge, and culture to its youth; politics provides a means of governing members of society; economics provides for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods and services; and religion provides moral guidance and an outlet for worship of a higher power.

The functionalist perspective emphasizes the interconnectedness of society by focusing on how each part influences and is influenced by other parts. For example, the increase in single-parent and dual-earner families has contributed to the number of children who are failing in school because parents have become less available to supervise their children’s homework. As a result of changes in technology, colleges are offering more technical programs, and many adults are returning to school to learn new skills that are required in the workplace. The increasing number of women in the workforce has contributed to the formulation of policies against sexual harassment and job discrimination.

Functionalists use the terms functional and dysfunctional to describe the effects of social elements on society. Elements of society are functional if they contribute to social stability and dysfunctional if they disrupt social stability. Some aspects of society can be both functional and dysfunctional. For example, crime is dysfunctional in that it is associated with physical violence, loss of property, and fear. But according to Durkheim and other functionalists, crime is also functional for society because it leads to heightened awareness of shared moral bonds and increased social cohesion. Sociologists have identified two types of functions: manifest and latent (Merton 1968).

Manifest functions are consequences that are intended and commonly recognized. Latent functions are consequences that are unintended and often hidden. For example, the manifest function of education is to transmit knowledge and skills to society’s youth. But public elementary schools also serve as babysitters for employed parents, and colleges offer a place for young adults to meet potential mates. The baby-sitting and mate-selection functions are not the intended or commonly recognized functions of education; hence they are latent functions.


Strengths Weaknesses
●       Explains the interdependence of modern society (institutions, roles, etc.)

●       Makes clear evaluations of social phenomena based on their results or contributions to the whole society.

●       Macro-view of sociology


●       Is conservative in nature and accepts the status quo.

●       Understates the role of power and conflict in producing change in a social system.

●       Accepts inequality as a function of “fair” distribution of societal resources that produces cohesive groups with shared goals.


Focus Questions:

  1. What is the purpose of “family” according to the functionalist perspective (theory)? Explain.


  1. What is the difference between a manifest and latent function in society? Give an example.


Activity #2: Are you able to apply “functionalist” thinking to school traditions?


  1. Describe the obvious manifest function of each of the following traditions.
  2. Speculate as to the less obvious latent function of each tradition and who it affects.


  What is the manifest function? What is the latent function?

Regents Exams




Teachers and students need to prove that learning happened and that students have met a minimum standard in order to graduate from high school.


Teachers learn: Shared basic knowledge is important to pass onto the next generation.


Students learn: Paying attention in class and studying can be helpful in passing these exams and being able to graduate high school



Second Period Attendance






Baseball team competing against other schools.




Students gossiping about each other



Wearing a suit for an important interview




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