Sociological research has seen some key exponents of the functionalist theory. The primary sociologists concerned with functionalism are Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons and Robert Merton.


DurkheimEmile Durkheim (1858 – 1917) was a French sociologist and one of the so-called ‘founders’ of sociology. In Durkheim’s study “Suicide” , one of the most influential of all sociological texts, he explored links between social integration and suicide rates. Durkheim argued that society has a reality of its own over and beyond the individual who comprises it- structural functionalism. Durkheim attempted to explain any social institution in terms of the contributions that particular institution makes to society as a whole. For example, he believed that one of the most important functions of education is to bind members of society together, and create a sense of belonging to society – social solidarity. Durkheim had a “homo duplex” model of human nature; he believed that people had two sides, one selfish and another concerned with shared moral values. Writing over 100 years ago, his ideas are dated and “out of fashion”.


Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) was an American sociologist, who contributed to the development of structural functionalism. During the 1940’ and 1950’s Parsons became the dominant theorist is American sociology. Parsons most important work was “The Social System” in which he argued that institutions in society contribute to social order. Parsons believed in meritocratic society. For example, Parsons believed that schools operate a meritocratic principle and status is achieved on the basis of merit. Like Durkheim’s ideas, Parsons ideas are also seen as “out of fashion”.


Robert Merton (1910 – 2003) was an American sociologist who helped develop structural functionalism even further and on a more sophisticated level. Merton popularised phrases such as “self-fulfilling prophecy”. He suggested that in different societies, institutions may have a high degree of “autonomy “. In other words, a change in a particular institution may have little or no effect on others. Unlike Durkheim, Merton believed that in society not all social systems necessarily perform a positive function. Merton argued that institutions like the family and religion aren’t necessarily part of all human societies. He claimed that his method of analysis meant that functionalism wasn’t perceived as ideological.



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