Functionalism – Theory and Methods

Lesson objectiveTo explore what Functionalists believe
Lesson outcomes• Compare Functionalism to different perspectives
• Evaluate Functionalism
• Explain what Functionalists believe

Preparing for my learning: Flip learning

Do some research on Functionalism exploring what it is. Sociology wants you to use theories and theorists to support your arguments in debating core ideas. Use the link below to help you.


Functionalism is a structural theory as well as being a macro theory, concerned with understanding human behaviour through the way in which society operates as a whole. Functionalism was founded by Parsons, Spencer and Durkheim in the nineteenth century. Spencer initially created an idea called the ‘Organic Analogy’. This is where the human body was compared to society. The human body is made up of independent organs linked together to ensure survival. This is the same as society, where the are linked to social facts e.g. Schooling, the NHS e.t.c. 

  • Material social facts are those structures which can be measured. E.g. progress in education. 
  • Non-material social facts are those which are non material as stated and cannot be measured, e.g. culture…

Durkheim developed the ideas of Spencer and created further ideas such as value consensus which are the basic integrating principle in society. These are shared norms and values which bind society together. This created a collective consciousness. 

Parsons and Socialisation

Parson’s stated that society consisted of four sub-systems (economic, political, kinship and cultural). These are used by humans to survive in society and they flow through us. This was referred to as imperatives or prerequisites. Success stems from the happiness of individuals and how well they equalise these four sub-systems. In turn, society creates an equilibrium too benefiting the country and so on.


Functionalism’s support was reduced by the rise of Marxism in the 1960s. Three main criticisms were:

1) There is too much emphasis on society being consensus and doesn’t examine any conflict which arises. It treats people as equal in society when in fact there any many reasons why individuals could be disadvantaged, such as class e.t.c.

2) The organic analogy is too simplistic and there is no evidence that an equilibrium creates harmony. 

3) Finally, Functionalism is only relevant to the past, since society has changed, so too has our understanding of society. Therefore, other theories offer better alternatives. 

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