Structural Functionalism: Definition, Theory & Examples

Structural Functionalism: Definition, Theory & Examples
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  • 0:02 What Is Structural…
  • 0:51 Structural…
  • 2:43 Challenging the Status Quo
  • 4:10 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

While largely discredited, structural functionalism was a powerful theory during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In this lesson, we'll examine just what it was as well as how it was flawed.

What is Structural Functionalism?

Take a step back and think of your hometown's government. Unless you live in a very small town, chances are that the local doctor is not also the local policeman. In fact, there are plenty of municipal services that make up the small town. Each different part of the government contributes something different. After all, you wouldn't want the local dogcatcher to be too busy fighting fires to keep stray dogs out of your garbage.

Several decades ago, some sociologists thought that all of society interacts like this; where each part of society had a specific task. They called this framework structural functionalism. While the ideas of structural functionalism have fallen out of favor, let's take a bit to try and understand what they were saying.

Structural Functionalism in Theory

First, let's look at the history of structural functionalism. During the 19th century, the world was becoming a much smaller space. Trains and steamships had linked the world in a way no one had thought possible. While many Europeans were starting to think of themselves as superior, due to their more 'advanced' culture, a French philosopher, named Emile Durkheim, noticed this and started to think that society was made up of building blocks that were focused towards a common goal. If people stopped agreeing on those common goals, then society would disintegrate. However, as long as most people agreed, society would be fine.

In structural functionalism, individual institutions work together in service of the whole

For example, this image of a circular flow of money through an economy demonstrates how something that almost everyone can agree on, education, is made into a goal. Of course, this only worked as long as everyone was focused. If one group disagreed on where society is going, then the whole thing falls apart. These social bonds are very important.

However, structural functionalism had a serious problem. It was too far removed from actual society. It assumed that these blocks were homogenous, all wanting the same thing. Also, it thought that all motivation was a zero-sum game, meaning that there had to be winners and losers. After all, if you increase funding for the police department, that money had to come from somewhere, right? This all neglects that groups can have different starting points and different motivations. For a two-person dog catching team, an extra $50,000 in funding is a big deal, while for a forty-person police department, it is relatively minor. To put that into real world terms, structural functionalism assumed that all of society's groups are always equal, which is simply not the case. Just turn on the news or watch any political debate and you'll see that many groups of society are anything but equal.

Challenging the Status Quo

All of that may sound a little confusing, so let's take a look at an example of society going through massive changes and see what structural functionalism says about each of them. Chances are that you're familiar with the French Revolution of 1787. If not, all you really need to know is that the will of the masses was ignored in favor of the will of the nobility and that afterwards there was chaos for several years while society tried to figure out what to do. Suddenly, the masses decided that they weren't going to put up with the nobility anymore. In what was known as the Reign of Terror, thousands of people were executed as one part of society, the masses, rebelled against the rest of society.

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