Latent Functions in Sociology

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  • 0:01 Latent vs. Manifest
  • 1:40 Examples
  • 3:29 Dysfunctions
  • 4:23 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson discusses the difference between latent and manifest functions and dysfunctions. After starting with a simple example from your own living room, we'll consider how sociologists use the concept to better understand the larger structures of society.

Latent vs. Manifest Functions

Have you ever rolled up a newspaper and used it to squash a bug? You didn't buy the paper with the idea that you would use it to crush unwanted critters in your home, but when the time came, it served that purpose.

A newspaper acting as a fly swatter is a latent function of the newspaper. This means that while it can serve that purpose, this was not an intended purpose for a publisher to produce a newspaper. The editors did not set out to give you the perfect bug-busting machine. Instead, they had published the paper to provide useful information and advertising.

Latent functions of a newspaper include the ways it is used that are not expected or intended.
A rolled up newspaper

Providing the news is a manifest function of the newspaper, its intended, sought-after purpose. There can be more than one manifest function, such as advertising products and services and providing entertainment to the reader.

There could also be more than one latent function. In addition to using the newspaper to keep your home free of bugs, you might also use it as floor protection when you have a new puppy that isn't trained to go outside. Some people even use newspapers to wash windows. All of these are unintended latent functions.

While the newspaper worked just fine for the job of squishing a bug, you could have used a fly swatter if you had one. For a fly swatter, squashing flies is its manifest function, its intended purpose. If you use it to scratch your back or to fish your keys out from behind the washing machine, these are latent functions. The fly swatter manufacturers don't advertise these uses of the tool, yet you can still use it this way. Just like the newspaper can have the latent functions of swatting flies, a fly swatter can have latent functions by using it in other ways.

A fly swatter has an obvious manifest function and could also have less obvious latent functions.
A fly swatter

Examples of Latent Functions

What about important matters in life, issues bigger than bugs? These more complicated areas are where sociologists place their attention when they talk about functions. They aim to better understand functions produced by major components of society to help get a better view of how society operates. Particularly in the early days of the discipline, sociologists have used the idea of a function to try to make sense of what consequences are produced by structures such as the family, government and education systems.

Organized religion is also of interest to those studying functions. Faith communities can be said to have a variety of manifest and latent functions. Manifest functions of religious gatherings include having a time and space for worship and the communication of religious teachings to participants.

Religions also have latent functions. Are you part of a family, or do you know of a family, who is not Christian but celebrates Christmastime gift-giving? This commercial aspect of Christmas is a latent, unintended function of the Christian religion.

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