Structural functionalism

Structural functionalism also known as a social systems paradigm is a sociological paradigm which addresses what social functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system. Social structures are stressed and placed at the center of analysis, and social functions are deduced from these structures. It was developed by Talcott Parsons.

Theoretical background

Structural-functionalism drew its inspiration primarily from the ideas of Emile Durkheim, Bronisław Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Functionalism is referred to as consensus structuralism because it emphasizes the central role that agreement (consensus) between members of a society on morals plays in maintaining social order. It is this moral consensus that creates an equilibrium, which is the normal state of society. Durkheim was concerned with the question of how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or, as his nephew Mauss held, systems of exchanges. In modern, complex societies members perform very different tasks, meaning that a strong interdependence develops between them. Based on the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole, Durkheim argued that complex societies are held together by organic solidarity. He espoused a strong sociological perspective of society which was continued by Radcliffe-Brown, who, following Auguste Comte, believed that the social constituted a separate "level" of reality distinct from both the biological and from inorganic matter. Explanations of social phenomena therefore had to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively stable social roles.

Consequently, he proposed that most stateless "primitive" societies that lack strong centralised institutions or government are based on an association of such corporate descent groups. Structural-functionalism also took on Malinowski's argument that the basic building block of society is the nuclear family, and that clans are therefore an outgrowth of families, not vice versa, being that.

The central concern of structural-functionalism was a continuation of the Durkheimian task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion of societies which are necessary to ensure their continued existence over time. Societies are seen as coherent, bounded and fundamentally relational constructs, who function like organisms, with their various parts (social institutions) working together to maintain and reproduce them. The various parts of society are assumed to work in an unconscious, quasi-automatic fashion towards the maintenance of the overall social equilibrium. All social and cultural phenomena are therefore seen as being functional in the sense of working together to achieve this state and are effectively deemed to have a "life" of their own. They are then primarily analysed in terms of this function they play. Individuals are significant not in and of themselves but in terms of their status, their position in patterns of social relations, and their roles the behavior(s) associated with their status. The social structure is then the network of statuses connected by poopy associated roles.

In the 1970s, political scientists Gabriel Almond and Bingham Powell introduced a structural functionalist approach to comparing political systems. They argued that in order to understand a political system, it was necessary to understand not only its institutions (or structures), but also their respective functions. They also insisted that these institutions must be placed within a meaningful and dynamic historical context to be properly understood. This idea stood in marked contrast to the prevailing approaches in the field of comparative politics: the state-society theory and dependency theory. These were the descendants of David Easton's system theory in international relations, a mechanistic view that saw all political systems as essentially the same, as subject to the same laws of "stimulus and response" -- or inputs and outputs -- while paying little attention to the unique characteristics of the system itself. The structural-functional approach was based on the view that a political system is made up of several key components, including interest groups, political parties, and branches of government. In addition to structures, Almond and Bingham showed that a political system consisted of functions, such as political socialization, recruitment, and communication. Socialization referred to the way in which societies pass along their values and beliefs to succeeding generations. In political terms, it described the process by which a society inculcates civic virtues, or the habits of effective citizenship. Recruitment denoted the process by which a political system generates interest, engagement, and participation from citizens. And communication referred to the way in which a system promulgates its values and information.

Social change

Talcott Parsons viewed society as naturally being in a state of equilibrium or balance. Therefore, according to his equilibrium model, as change occurs in one part of society there must be adjustments in other parts. If this does not take place, the society's equilibrium will be threatened and strains in the social order will occur. Parsons posited that society changes in four distinct and inevitable processes. These are:

  1. Differentiation - refers to the increase in complexity of social organizations
  2. Adaptive Upgrading - whereby social institutions become more specialized in their processes
  3. Inclusion - this occurs where groups previously excluded from society because of such factors as race, gender, social class etc. are now accepted
  4. Value Generalization - this is the development of new values that tolerate and legitimate a greater range of activities.

Structural functionalism and unilineal descent

In their attempt to explain the social stability of African "primitive" stateless societies where they undertook their fieldwork, Evans-Pritchard (1940) and Meyer Fortes (1945) argued that the Tallensi and the Nuer were primarily organised around unilineal descent groups. Such groups function like "corporate groups", meaning that they are stable and lasting social groups with clear rules of membership and an internal structure that regulates each member's relation to other members through the assigning of statuses and roles. Corporate groups are characterised by common purposes, such as administering property or defending against attacks; they form a permanent social structure that persists well beyond the lifespan of their members. In the case of the Tallensi and the Nuer, these corporate groups were based on kinship which in turn fitted into the larger structures of unilineal descent; consequently Evans-Pritchard's and Fortes' model is called "descent theory". Moreover, in this African context territorial divisions were aligned with lineages; descent theory therefore synthesised both blood and soil as two sides of one coin (cf. Kuper, 1988:195). Affinal ties with the parent through whom descent is not reckoned, however, are considered to be merely complementary or secondary (Fortes created the concept of "complementary filiation"), with the reckoning of kinship through descent being considered the primary organising force of social systems. Because of its strong emphasis on unilineal descent, this new kinship theory came to be called "descent theory".


Before long, descent theory had found its critics. Many African tribal societies seemed to fit this neat model rather well, although Africanists, such as Richards, also argued that Fortes and Evans-Pritchard had deliberately downplayed internal contradictions and overemphasised the stability of the local lineage systems and their significance for the organisation of society. However, in many Asian settings the problems were even more obvious. In Papua New Guinea, the local patrilineal descent groups were fragmented and contained large amounts of non-agnates. Status distinctions did not depend on descent, and genealogies were too short to account for social solidarity through identification with a common ancestor. In particular, the phenomenon of cognatic (or bilateral) kinship posed a serious problem to the proposition that descent groups are the primary element behind the social structures of "primitive" societies.

Leach's (1966) critique came in the form of the classical Malinowskian argument, pointing out that "in Evans-Pritchard's studies of the Nuear and also in Fortes's studies of the Tallensi unilineal descent turns out to be largely an ideal concept to which the empirical facts are only adapted by means of fictions." (1966:8). People's self-interest, manoeuvring, manipulation and competition had been ignored. Moreover, descent theory neglected the significance of marriage and affinal ties, which were emphasised by Levi-Strauss' structural anthropology, at the expense of overemphasising the role of descent. To quote Leach: "The evident importance attached to matrilateral and affinal kinship connections is not so much explained as explained away.

New support from multilevel selectionists

Some evolutionary theorists - including the biologist David Sloan Wilson and anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson - have provided strong support for structural functionalism by proposing a framework called multilevel selection. The structures of a society such as religion, is by them seen as Darwinian (biological or cultural) adaptations at the group level. DS Wilson has put new life into the old "society as organism" theory/metaphor.

See also


  • Barnard, A. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Barnard, A., and Good, A. 1984. Research Practices in the Study of Kinship. London: Academic Press.
  • Barnes, J. 1971. Three Styles in the Study of Kinship. London: Butler & Tanner.
  • Holy, L. 1996. Anthropological Perspectives on Kinship. London: Pluto Press.
  • Kuper, A. 1988. The Invention of Primitive Society: Transformations of an Illusion. London: Routledge.
  • Kuper, A. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists. London: Routledge.
  • Layton, R. 1997. An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge: CUP.
  • Leach, E. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. London: Bell.
  • Leach, E. 1966. Rethinking Anthropology. Northampton: Dickens.
  • Levi-Strauss, C. 1969. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. London: Eyre and Spottis-woode.
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