Comparative Analysis of Functional Theorists and How Their Theories Relate to Modern Society - Society Essay Example


            Think of society as a living organism in which each part of the organism contributes to its survival.  This view is the functionalist perspective, which emphasizes the way that parts of a society are structured to maintain its stability.  Charles Darwin first attempted to use concepts from the natural biological world to explain evolutionary changes in society.  August Comte and Herbert Spencer argued that society is similar to a living organism in that both have specific needs that must be met to survive.  Various parts of a social system, like those of biological organism, generally function together in an orderly manner, thus producing the well-being of the whole.  Hence, functionalism is theorized as a natural tendency of social systems to strive for equilibrium with each part contributing to that stability.


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The first part of the paper provides a brief literature review on some sociologists’ and researcher’s view on functionalism.  This is done so as to provide an understanding of functionalism before going through the views of the major sociologists included here.  The rest of this paper is dedicated to giving a deeper look at the functionalist perspective by not just simply stating its definition and examples but also examining and criticizing the views of some major sociologists – Émile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Niklas Luhmann – on functionalism which may or may not be similar.  At the end of the paper, a comparison and contrast on the theories given by these sociologists is discussed.  Finally, the author provides an application of the functionalist perspective to modern society.

Literature Review

            In the United States, noted functionalists such as Davis and Moore (1945) have applied functionalism to the study of stratification in American as well as other societies.  Rather than emphasize evaluation processes, Davis and Moore were interested in the principles of a functional theory of social stratification.  Underlining the necessity of stratificatioin for organized social existence they stated, “As a functioning mechanism a society must somehow distribute its members in social positions and induce them to perform the duties of these positions (Davis and Moore, 1945, p. 244).  However, in order for social positions to be filled, incentives must be available to individuals.  Davis and Moore also suggested that social positions are not equal due to the duties and responsibilities attached to these positions.  Similarly, the importance of the position, a person’s ability to meet the position requirements, and the degree of enjoyment derived from the position all play a part in determining a stratified system of social positions.  Hence, “the rewards and their distribution become a part of the social order and thus give rise to stratification” (Davis and Moore, 1945, p. 245).

            Davis and Moore examined three incentives or rewards: material goods, self-respect, and pride.  The result was a system of inequality based upon the differential rewards attached to positions.  They also noted that, in order to obtain certain positions, it sometimes requires considerable financial sacrifice and arduous training.  Finally, the social function of the position or how important it is to society influences its level of social strata.  For example, a bank manager holds a higher status and earns more money than a bank clerk, as the manager is socially defined as a person possessing power and influence in the community.  The clerk on the other hand, usually represents limited influence.

            Van DenBerghe (1963), similar to other functionalists, depicted change as gradual and progressive.  Society slowly improves through gradual elimination of dysfunctions, or though parts of society that fail to operate appropriately within the given framework.  Functionalism does recognize that some changes are not growing but abrupt and sometimes even drastic.  These changes, explain functionalists, affect only “the social superstructure while leaving core elements of the social and cultural structure largely unchanged” (Van DenBerghe, 1963, p. 699).


            Although considered as one of the founders of structural functionalism and widely regarded as the father of the functionalist perspective, Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) is not a functionalist per se.  But his works on sociology contributed much on the development of the functionalist perspective.  For this reason, it is inescapable to discuss Durkheim in view of the functionalist perspective and thus, it is imperative to examine Durkheim’s sociological views as a whole since this is the foundation upon which functionalism builds itself.  Durkheim (1951) is one of the originators of the scientific and statistical techniques for use in sociological researches creating such an aura of influence over the functionalist perspectives, in which these theorists view that the social world can be observed through these techniques.

            As earlier noted, functionalism predicts re-emergence of equilibrium when dysfunctions occur within the community.  Durkheim (1933) observed population growth as a crisis to community solidarity or cohesiveness.  As populations rapidly grew, existing resources, materials, and their modes of application became inadequate and inferior.  To compensate and consequently restore equilibrium, people began to specialize in the type of work they preferred, which Durkheim labeled as the division of labor.  For Durkheim, individualism is mainly concerned with the overcoming of the individual’s deficiencies due to the current social order and the development of one’s abilities by establishing the ideal society, the society that ought to be, in which the famous Marxian precept is realized: “to each according to his labor”.

            Most critics of Durkheim say that Durkheim’s theories are very positivistic and conservative.  Thus, Durkheim’s works can barely elucidate the society in its most realistic sense.  In all its sense, Durkheim’s theory on society is much idealized.  Noting that Durkheim did work on theorizing ideal societies, it can be said that he had difficulty differentiating with real and ideal societies.


            Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), a Harvard University sociologist, was a key figure in the development of functionalist theory.  Parsons had been greatly influenced by the work of Emile Durkheim, Max Weber, and other European sociologists.  In fact, his works may be considered as refined versions of Durkheim’s thoughts on functionalism (although, as earlier said, Durkheim is not a functionalist per se).  For over four decades, Parsons dominated sociology in the United States with his advocacy of functionalism.  He saw any society as a vast network of connected parts, each of which helps to maintain the system as a whole.  The functionalist approach holds that if an aspect of social life does not contribute to a society’s stability or survival – if it does not serve some identifiably useful function or promote value consensus among members of a society – it will not be passed on from one generation to the next.

            The publication of Parson’s The Structure of Social Action (1937) and that of his Toward a General Theory of Action and The Social System (both in 1951) bracketed a period which witnessed a “scientific revolution” in the field of sociology nationwide, a paradigm shift away from the previously dominant “operationalist” and “interactionist” approach exemplified by the sociologists of the Chicago School to the structural functional analysis spearheaded by none other than Parsons himself and his students, most notable Robert Merton and Kingsley Davis (Matthews, 1989; Kuklick, 1973).  In contrast to the operationalists who perceive the society as in a state of constant flux, structural functional analysts proceeded from the conception of society as an organic whole with inherent order.  For the functionalists, the goal of sociological analysis is “to relate the parts to the whole, and to relate on part to another,” so as to arrive at “interpretations of phenomena in terms of their interconnectedness with societies as going concerns” (Davis, 1959, p. 9).

            Parsonian sociology, with its characteristic assertion that societies are homeostatic, self-regulated systems of action, rose to become the new hegemonic tradition that would maintain a near-exclusive hold on the profession well beyond the 1960s.  Sociologists of the post-Parsonian era often debated among themselves as to why Parsons’ social theory was able to capture the intellectual allegiance of generations of sociologists for more than two decades after the end of World War II.

Parsons (1937) have applied functionalism to the study of stratification in American as well as other societies.  Parsons viewed stratification as a necessary element of social organization and identified it as an important factor in all societies.  He defined stratification as “the ranking of all units in a social system in accordance with the standards of the common value system” (Parsons, 1953).

            By far, Parsons’ theories not just on functionalism but on his overall view on the social system are critiqued by other sociologists and researchers as ambiguous, at many unclear with what he is trying to emphasize.  This absence of clarity may be regarded from his imprecise and inconsistent use of semantics and syntax.  That is, he failed to define consistently most of his core terms such as his definition of pattern maintenance.  However, note that Parson in his sociological theory persistently used analogies and metaphors mostly drawn from the natural sciences.  The significance of his borrowing from natural science through analogies or metaphors was so great that almost each and every major development in his social theory throughout his long, active career, roughly from the 1920s to the 1970s, had as its landmark either his adoption of one (set of) new analogy or metaphor, or his reject or reinterpretation of an old one.  Thus, it is imperative to treat Parsons’ use of natural scientific concepts, methods, and images as the very key to understanding Parsons’ sociological work itself.  It is essential to seek to trace the trajectory of some of the prominent analogies and metaphors employed in various stages of Parsons’ intellectual development.


            Perhaps the most contemporary sociologist who advocates the functionalist theory on sociology is Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998), a student of Talcott Parsons and considered to be Parsons’ successor.  Although both sociologists are functionalists, Luhmann challenges Parsons’ structural-functionalist approach with the introduction of a new paradigm – the problem-functionalist approach.

            Luhmann shared Parsons’ ambition of devising a grand theory of social system and considered Parsons’ “structural functionalism” a suitable starting point for theorizing the social.  But while Parsons’ was a “general” theory, Luhmann claims to be no less than a universal theory of social system.  Luhmann claims his systems theory to be universal, being able to explain or describe whatever happens in the world or society.  Writing within the theoretical tradition of autopoiesis and second order cybernetics, Luhmann’s point of departure is not ontology but distinction and observation.  Using the system/environment distinction as his “guiding difference” of observation, Luhmann constructs a comprehensive social theory that consists of self-referential systems and their ‘empirically’ observable operations.  Systems theory amounts to a paradigm shift beyond the familiar track of the humanities (Rasch and Wolfe, 1995).  While his early works can be described as somewhat technocratic Parsonian functionalism, since the early 1980s Luhmann’s reflections on society had shifter from an emphasis on the ontological to the epistemological (Rasch and Knodt, 1994).  Luhmann refigures systems theory as a radical constructivist theory of observation and sociology as the comparative observation of first-order observing systems at a second level (Fuchs, 1999).

            Replacing the world/subject relation with that of environment/system, Luhmann integrated the humanist tradition of “Geisteswissenschaften” and the concept of self-reference by assigning meaning as the unit of self-referential reproduction for both psychic and social systems.  For Luhmann, meaning is a selective relationship between a system and its environment.  The meaning of meaning resides in the difference between actualities and potentialities.  Meaning is not pregiven in the objective world or transcendental in the experiencing subject, but is constitutive process through which system reaffirms its initial distinction, past selections, and future hopes, which is its existence in the world.  Meaning is the medium by which a system uses to “reduce the complexity of the world”.  It is also the medium through which observers could recognize and dissolve forms and observe other observers’ attempts to construct the difference between system and environment (Sciulli, 1994 [sun]).

            In pursuing the theme of self-reference, Luhmann interrogates the very notion of “function” by asking the typically circular question: what is the function of function?  For Luhmann, function is not tied to notions of societal self-preservation, but rather to meaning as contingent reduction of complexity (Muller & Powell, 1994).  In Luhmann’s theory, function refers specifically to functional differentiation.  Luhmann’s systems theoretical orientation led him to postulate that social forms, like organisms, are radically contingent, as an evolutionary process of transforming unorganized into organized complexity, meaning always implies a certain amount of risk, in that wrong choices which can threaten the system’s autopoiesis are always possible (Knodt, 1995).  What Luhmann therefore emphasizes in his work is not the stability of modern society but rather its improbability, and this is reflected in the design of his theory: “The methodological recipe… is as follows: look for theories that succeed in explaining the normal as improbable” (as cited in Muller & Powell, 1994).

             For Luhmann, society cannot be seen as the sum of its parts, be it conceived as action, role, or consciousness.  By re-entering the form (system/environment differentiation) into the form, modern society can be seen as the totality of a multitude of subsystems, each constructs itself according to its own specific system/environment differentiation.

            The highly abstract nature of Luhmann’s theoretical work, coupled with his sociological radicalism, caused Luhmann’s work to be frequently criticized and misunderstood.  It is likely that the sociological potential of Luhmann’s work has not yet been fully recognized by many social scientists.  Notwithstanding these obstacles, it is beyond any doubt that Luhmann’s system theory will constitute one of the theoretical pillars of sociology in many decades to come.


In this paper, the views of three major sociologists who advocated (or believed to advocate) functionalism are discussed.  Notice that Parsons and Luhmann both built their theories on the theories of their celebrated predecessors – Durkheim for Parsons and Parsons for Luhmann – but their theories can be considered as more expanded versions of the theories established by those before them.  Durkheim and Luhmann are similar in the sense that both are considered to functionalists but are not in reality.  While Durkheim’s theories are considered to be foundations of the functionalist perspective, Luhmann founds his theories upon functionalism but later on went further away from it with the view that functionalism is not enough to explain the complexity of the system.

Both Parsons and Luhmann share a notion of the concept of “function” that differs fundamentally from its earlier uses.  Luhmann’s appropriation of autopoiesis is entirely consistent with the Parsonian theme of functional equivalence which guided his entire career, but it also represents a more fundamental departure from Parsons’ sociology.  While Luhmann later departed from his foundations on Parsons, Parsons himself drew most of theories on Durkheim.  In fact, it seems that Parsons’ theories are mere extension of Durkheim’s work whereas Luhmann’s theories can be considered as new because it extends far from Parsons’ work.

Since Parsons builds upon Durkheim’s theories on sociology, Parsons believed, as Durkheim, that the society is an organic whole with inherent order.  In contrast to Durkheim and Parsons who see the society as a whole, Luhmann suggests that within the social structure of modern society there is no one privileged position from which modern society can be represented as a whole.

Examine Davis’ (1937) prostitution example to illustrate the functionalist perspective in a modern society.  Why is it that a practice so widely condemned continues to display such persistence and vitality?  Functionalists suggest that prostitution satisfies needs of patrons that may not be readily met through more socially acceptable forms such as courtship or marriage.  The “buyer” receives sex without any responsibility for procreation or sentimental attachment; at the same time, the “seller” makes a living through this exchange.

            Such an examination leads us to conclude that prostitution does perform certain functions that society seems to need.  However, this is not to suggest that prostitution is a desirable or legitimate form of social behavior.  Functionalists do not make such judgments.  Rather, advocates of the functionalist perspective hope to explain how an aspect of society that is so frequently attacked can nevertheless manage to survive.  Although functionalist theory has been severely criticized, it has most certainly, as a contemporary theory, been highly influential in the study of alternative explanations of the variations in social class.

Functionalism takes a comparative perspective to understand why and how people are different.  Yet, more importantly, it demonstrates how the various aspects of social life are interrelated, with every part having some degree of influence on every other part.  Functionalists assert, then, that society is characterized by both interdependence and reciprocity.  The occupation one chooses influences the educational level of his children, his choice of religion, and how he spends money.  In a similar manner, the role of mother exerts an influence on the role of the father and each of the children, but at the same time is influenced by the roles of each other family members play.  Each major institution: the family, religion, the economy, education, and the political arena all interrelate with each other in a reciprocal and interdependent manner.  Depending upon the social class with which an individual belongs to, he will be influenced by those institutions.

            Functionalism can be used to examine the social structure to determine the pattern or organization of the society.  Functionalism uncovers the basic building blocks of society, statuses and roles, and evaluates them in terms of their influence on relationships between people and expectations for behavior.  Ultimately, according to functionalist theory, it is the structure of society that determines behavior.

            Functionalism then must not be viewed as external paraphernalia locked on society to make it function properly, but rather an encompassing philosophy that permeates a community to perform efficiently and cohesively.  Functionalism identifies and explains change in terms of how parts of the system, such as religion, experience change and in turn how those changes affect the system as a whole.


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Durkheim, E. (1951). Suicide: A study in sociology. (J. A. Spaulding, & G. Simpson, Trans.) New York: Free Press.

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Fuchs, S. (1999). Niklas Luhmann. Sociological Theory , 17 (1), 117-119.

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Matthews, F. (n.d.).

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