A number of key concepts underpin Functionalism. The primary concepts within Functionalism are collective conscience, value consensus, social order, education, family, crime and deviance and the media.


The concept of function:


DurkheimFunctionalist sociologists like Parsons and Durkheim have been concerned with the search for functions that institutions may have in society.  However, another functionalist sociologist R. Merton has adopted a concept of dysfunction – this refers to the effects of any institution which detracts from the conservation of society. An example of a function which helps maintain society is that of the family, its function is to ensure the continuity of society by reproducing and socialising new members. Another institution which performs an important function is religion functionalist sociologists believe that it helps achieve social solidarity and shared norms and values, however it could be argued that it fails to do this as a result of increasing secularisation in recent years and therefore it creates a divide between members of society rather than binding them together (moral glue).


Collective conscience and value consensus:

Functionalists believe that without collective conscience/ shared values and beliefs, achieving social order is impossible and social order is crucial for the well-being of society. They believe that value consensus forms the basic integrating principle in society.  And if members of society have shared values they therefore also have similar identities, this helps cooperation and avoids conflict. Value consensus also ensures that people have shared: – Goals, Roles and Norms. Norms can be described as specific guidelines of appropriate behaviour; for example, queuing when buying things.


Functional alternatives:  


R. Merton suggested that institutions like religion and the family can be replaced with alternatives such as ideologies like communism and he argued that  they would still be able to perform the same functions in society.


Social Order:

Functionalists believe that there are four main basic needs that an individual requires in order to exist in society. They also believe that these four basic needs are essential for maintaining social order. They are: food, shelter, money and clothing.


Functionalism and Education: Durkheim believes that education transmits society’s norms and values. Education brings together a mass, and changes them into a united whole which leads to social solidarity. Parsons (1961) believes that education leads to universalistic values and that education performs a link between family and the wider society which in turn leads to secondary socialization. Education also allows people to train for their future roles in society.

Schools instil the value of achievement and the value of equality of opportunity.

Education helps match people with jobs suited to them.


Functionalism and Family: George Peter Murdock believes that the family provides four vital functions for society: sexual, reproductive, economic and educational.


The family is the primary point of socialization in that it provides children with values and norms. Family also stabilizes adult personalities. A family unit provides emotional security for each person in the relationship.


Functionalism and Media: The media operate in the public interest by reflecting the interests of the audience. It portrays public opinion. The media understands that society has a wide diversity of culture and this is shown by the different amounts of stories it covers.


Functionalism and Crime and Deviance: Durkheim shows us that there is such a thing as society, and that it is this entity called society that creates crime and deviance.  Crime and deviance are socially constructed – they are not natural, obvious, or theologically inspired categories.  They are concepts that were brought into the world solely by humankind.  Moreover, Durkheim goes beyond this and shows us how socially constructed definitions of crime and deviance are linked into a wider social structure.


Functionalism and Religion: Religion contributes to the social structure and well-being of society. It does this by teaching values and consensus. Emile Durkheim argued that all society’s divide into the sacred and the profane (non-religious). Durkheim found that totenism was the most basic form of religion with small groups using symbols such as plants or animals. Durkheim saw social life as impossible to achieve without the shared values and norms achieved through collective conscience. Religion comes with values and norms that are shared between groups. This helps strengthen the integration of society. Parsons argued that religious beliefs provide guidelines and that these guidelines establish general principles and moral beliefs which provide stability and order for society.


Functionalism and Politics: Talcott Parsons believed in value consensus. Power is used to achieve collective goals, e.g. material prosperity. Everybody benefits from power (a variable sum of power). Authority is usually accepted as legitimate by the majority as it helps to achieve collective goals.




Courtesy of Lee Bryant, Director of Sixth Form, Anglo-European School, Ingatestone, Essex