What Is Meant by Structural-Functional Theory?

Structural-functional theory, or structural functionalism, views society as a system of functional and interconnected units that work together as a whole to produce a state of stability and order. Because of their interconnectedness, the individual units of society can affect each other. If one of the functional units is weakened, the structural-functional view anticipates a possible effect upon the entire society.

Structural functionalism compares the workings of society to a living organism comprised of various functioning organs working together in unison to keep the organism alive and healthy. The institutions of society function in the same manner as the organs of the human body, and each serves a specific function which is required to maintain the stability of the entire system.

Structural functionalism divides society into functional units such as family, government, education, economy, religion and science. The members of each functional unit are aware of their specific roles and duties, and they also share common cultural beliefs and social norms. In this way, the system maintains its stability and reproduces itself over time through socialization within the family unit and by social control through peer groups and polity. Abrupt or unexpected social change, however, can severely disrupt the balance between the interconnected institutions and affect the entire society.

Belief in the theory of structural functionalism began to decline during the 1960s as more conflict-based social theories began to gain acceptance. Contributing to the decline of structural-functional theory was its inability to take into account social change, the inequalities among different members of society and the conflicts and contradictions that occur between various functional units in a modern and complex society. Conflict-based social theories tend to view differences in values and unequal access to resources as inevitably leading to conflict between societal groups and institutions.