What Is a Structural-Functional Approach?

Political scientists use a structural-functional approach to predict how any particular political group behaves inside a larger political system. Structural-functionalism provides a system for students and researchers to study the real effects of political activity separately from their intended effects.

Structural functionalists argue that all political systems can be compared based on their means of addressing the need for universal political functions such as political interest aggregation and rule-making. The structural-functional approach provides a system by which differing structural systems can be compared based on their actual effects on the political functions for which they are designed. This approach provides a framework allowing political scientists to describe various political systems efficiently by comparing highly organized and well-categorized comparison data shared between them. This makes structural functionalism different from political science frameworks that focus more on intent than on real world results.

Structural functionalists use data-driven comparison to address four major challenges to political systems: penetration and integration, loyalty and commitment, participation, and distribution. Structural-functional theory describes these four challenges as happening simultaneously in third world countries, leading to violence and unrest. For this reason, structural functionalists use a systemic, comparative approach to identify political entities and predict the effects they are likely to have on their local or national political system.