Structural-Functional Theory in Sociology: Definition & Examples

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Kimberly Moffitt

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

Expert Contributor
Lesley Chapel

Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

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. Updated: 04/18/2020

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.

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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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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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Additional Activities

Structural-Functional Theory – Prompts:

Writing Prompt 1:

Write a paragraph that explains structural functionalism.
Tip: Be sure to include the definitions of social structures and social functions, and how those play into structural functionalism!

Essay Prompt 1:

Write an essay in which you first explain why Herbert Spencer compared society to a human body, and then come up with an example of your own to illustrate the structural function of society.
Example: You could use the example of an assembly line. If one part of the assembly line breaks down, what happens to the rest of the line?

Essay Prompt 2:

Write an essay in which you explain Robert King Merton's philosophies of manifest functions and latent functions. Then provide your own examples of manifest functions and latent functions.
Example: An example of a manifest function of social distancing is that it reduces the number of coronavirus cases. A latent function of social distancing is that it causes depression and feelings of isolation in people.

List Prompt 1:

Compile a list of as many different social structures that you can think of, and briefly describe the expected social behaviors of people in these structures.
Example: At the grocery store, people are expected to search for their items, place them in their cart, pay for them, and exit the store.

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