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Structural-Functional Theory in Sociology: Definition & Examples

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  • 0:01 What Is Structural…
  • 0:35 Social Structure and…
  • 1:23 Herbert Spencer
  • 2:16 Robert Merton
  • 2:56 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Moffitt

Kimberly has taught college Sociology and Criminal Justice classes and has a Master's Degree in Criminal Justice.

How is society like the human body? Find out in this lesson as you read about Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton, who contributed to the theory of structural functionalism. Read about key elements of the theory and test your knowledge with a quiz.

What is Structural Functionalism?

Structural functionalism, or, simply, functionalism, is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. Two theorists, Herbert Spencer and Robert Merton, were major contributors to this perspective. Important concepts in functionalism include social structure, social functions, manifest functions, and latent functions. Let's examine this perspective deeper and take a look at a few examples.

Social Structure and Social Functions

The structural-functional approach is a perspective in sociology that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. It asserts that our lives are guided by social structures, which are relatively stable patterns of social behavior. Social structures give shape to our lives - for example, in families, the community, and through religious organizations. And certain rituals, such as a handshake or complex religious ceremonies, give structure to our everyday lives. Each social structure has social functions, or consequences for the operation of society as a whole. Education, for example, has several important functions in a society, such as socialization, learning, and social placement.

Herbert Spencer

Herbert Spencer, who lived from 1820 - 1903, was an English philosopher. Spencer compared society to a human body. In the same way each part of the body works in harmony with other parts, each part of society works in harmony with all the other parts. If we want to understand the importance of the heart for helping the body function properly, we need to understand how it relates to other parts of the body. Similarly, if we analyze the functions of some aspect of society, such as education, we can learn how it impacts the other parts of the system. Functionalists emphasize that order and balance are the normal state of society, and a disruption in one part of the system will certainly disrupt the other parts. What would happen to other social institutions if the entire educational system became dismantled?

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