According to the functionalist theory of sociology, social function refers to the role performed by an institution, norm, or practice. Durkheim embraces social institutions as they perform social functions that contribute to the stability and maintenance of society.
The concept is a central idea in functionalism theory, which sees society as a group of functional units (government, economy, family, etc.) that work together. The organic analogy is often used to describe functionalism.
Think of any biological creature, say a human being. Each of its constituent parts (heart, lungs, kidneys) works together to maintain the whole body. In the same way, functionalism sees the society as an organic being, whose parts function together to maintain its stability.
Definition of Social Function
Donald A. Nielsen defines functionalism as:
“a theoretical perspective…which emphasizes the positive contributions made by any given social arrangement (e.g. institutions, cultural values, norms, rites, and so forth) to the current operation and continued reproduction of society and its cultural pattern.”
Within this theory, all institutions, cultural values, norms, etc. have a social function – i.e. a purpose and value for society.
For example, the social function of a family is to raise healthy children; the social function of a school is to educate; and the social function of the police force is to maintain law and order.
Similarly, the functional explanation of religion is that it has a social function it creates as well as maintains social solidarity through shared values & practices (Scott, 2014).
Modern functionalism makes a distinction between manifest and latent functions, which we will discuss below.
Manifest vs Latent Functions
Robert Merton distinguished between manifest and latent functions, depending on the consequences of functions.
- Manifest Function: A manifest function is known and deliberate. It has intended consequences and the participants are aware of these.
- Latent Function: A latent function is the unintended consequence of a phenomenon.
For example, the manifest function of education is to teach children skills/knowledge and familiarize them with social norms. However, by going to school, children also form friendships and discover their interests; these are latent functions.
Robert Merton wrote that the distinction between manifest and latent functions allows us to know the difference between “conscious motivations for social behavior” and “its objective consequences” (1957). He derived the terms from Freud’s work in psychoanalysis.
Merton’s Contribution to the Social Functions Concept
Robert Merton’s work brought three major changes to functionalism, which helped revitalize the theory.
During the late 1960s, functionalism came under heavy attack from many scholars. They argued that the theory’s reliance on the “organic analogy” (the analogy to the human body used in the introduction to this article) and stability made it ideologically conservative. Moreover, it could not account for conflict or social change in societies.
Merton’s work helped revise functionalism in three ways.
1. Social Functions contain Inequalities
First, Merton was against functional unity in society. In other words, he argued that all institutions/practices are not beneficial to all individuals.
Merton demonstrated that the social function of some institutions was also to oppress and constrain many members of society.
Take the example of slavery. It allowed slave owners to get cheap labor and expand their wealth. But it was exploitative for the slaves themselves. So, a particular practice can be beneficial to some and harmful to others—“function” or “dysfunction” are relative terms.
2. The concept of Social Dysfuctions
Secondly, Merton pointed out that not all institutions/practices are functional. For example, some religious or spiritual beliefs may have little impact, and therefore, these can be termed as nonfunctional.
3. Dispensable Social Institutions
Finally, Merton argued against indispensability of institutions in society. He believed that for any social process, there can be functional alternatives (alternative institutions or ideas that could serve the same social function).
For example, modern families (say having same-gender parents) are quite different from traditional families but they can still fulfill all functions properly.
Nannies and daycares can take the pressure off of the mother; emotional support can come from friends, roommates, etc. This essentially allows functionalism to come out of its conservatism and accept social changes.
Examples of Social Function
- Capitalism’s Social Function is the Division of Labor: Émile Durkheim’s work is an influential predecessor of functionalism, and one of his primary focuses was on the division of labor. Durkheim argued that the division of labor (the specialization of roles) not only leads to increased productivity but is also essential to the stability of society. Traditional, pre-modern societies were founded upon shared beliefs and customs, which he called “mechanical solidarity”. In contrast, modern societies are based on “organic solidarity”; individuals rely upon each other to perform specialized tasks, and this sense of interdependence creates social cohesion. (1964).
- Religion’s Social Function is the creation of a Moral Community: The primary function of religion, according to Durkheim, is to bring together the members of society into a single moral community. Through its beliefs, values, and practices, religion acts as a force for social integration, binding individuals and groups together. Durkheim also argued that religion also creates a shared moral framework—telling people what is right and what is wrong—and regulates social behavior. Finally, in times of upheaval, religion gives people a sense of support, thereby helping to maintain the social order (1995).
- Government’s Social Function is to Manage Society: Talcott Parsons developed a systematic theory of society, discussing how various institutions (such as the government) work together. Parson believed that all societies are primarily concerned with solving four functional problems: adaptation to the environment, goal attainment, integration, and cultural pattern maintenance (1951). The government focuses on the allocation of resources, addressing social problems, etc.
- The Economy’s Social Function is to Distribute Goods: Besides the government, there are various institutions (such as the economy and the law) that work together to contribute to the four functional problems of society. The economy, as Parsons discussed, is responsible for the production, distribution, and consumption of goods/services that allow adaptation. It also provides various opportunities for individuals, helping them and society in goal attainment. Finally, similar to what Durkheim discussed, the economy creates an interdependent system of specialized roles, which promotes social solidarity.
- Mass Media’s Social Function is to Disseminate Information: Mass media plays a key role in disseminating information and shaping public opinion. According to Luhmann, modern societies are characterized by social differentiation. There are various functional subsystems (economy, politics, mass media) that operate independently but still rely on each other (1995). The role of mass media is to produce and disseminate information, which influences people and also creates a shared sense of social reality.
- Schooling’s Social Function is to Educate: Education is fundamental to shaping us as humans, and both Durkheim & Parsons saw schools as essential to maintaining society. Durkheim believed that schools have two primary functions. First, they provide people with the necessary knowledge & skills (reading, writing, etc.) to work effectively in society. Secondly, they also familiarize us with the values and norms of society, helping to maintain the social order. Parsons further adds that schools also help with selection (choosing individuals for different roles) and the distribution of opportunities in society.
- Immigration’s Latent Function is to Change Social Norms: An immigration policy is a good example of how something has different manifest and latent functions, as Merton discussed. In Canada, the federal government welcomes immigrants without any discrimination, and the manifest function is a steady supply of skilled workers in the economy. However, as immigrants come, they bring their cultural influences too. So, this impact on Canadian culture is the latent function of immigration, which some people support while others oppose.
- Family’s Social Function is to Raise Children: Family is the basic unit of society, which is essential for the continuity of society. Durkheim argued that family is the primary means of regulating sexual behavior and maintaining social stability. Parents play a central role in the socialization of children, teaching them the values and practices of society. The family also provides emotional support to all members, helping each other cope with difficult situations and giving a sense of security.
Social function refers to any social arrangement (institution, norm, practice, etc.) that contributes to the maintenance of society.
Functionalism sees society as an organic being, whose constituent parts work together to ensure the functioning of the whole. The theory came under heavy attack during the 1960s, but the work of Robert Merton helped to revitalize it.
Durkheim, E (1964 ) The Division of Labor in Society. Trans. G. Simpson. Free Press.
Durkheim, E (1995 ) Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. K. E. Fields. Free Press.
Elster, Jon. (1979). Ulysses and the Sirens: Studies in Rationality and Irrationality. Cambridge University Press
Luhmann, N. (1995). Social systems. Stanford University Press.
Merton, Robert K. (1957). Social Theory and Social Structure. Free Press.
Parsons, T. (1951). The Social System. Free Press.
Scott, John (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford.
Sourabh Yadav (MA)
Website | + posts
Sourabh Yadav is a freelance writer & filmmaker. He studied English literature at the University of Delhi and Jawaharlal Nehru University. You can find his work on The Print, Live Wire, and YouTube.
Chris Drew (PhD)
This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.