Research Article 10: Functionalism


Written by Dr Hannes Nel, MBL; D. Com; D. Phil

Biological organisms have systems that perform various specialist and survival functions; similarly, social institutions “function” in a systematic and coherent way through their constituent elements to ensure their survival and optimal functioning.

Role differentiation and social solidarity are key elements in the smooth functioning of any organisation. This means that functionalism interprets each part of society in terms of how it contributes to the stability of the whole society. Society is more than the sum of its parts because the contributions of all members of a community facilitate the performance of the community as a whole. Each individual plays an important part and the absence, or inability of an individual to contribute, detrimentally affects the performance of the community as a whole.

According to functionalism, an institution only exists because it serves an important role in the community. An individual or organisation that does not play a role in the community will not survive. This applies to individuals and groupings on all levels in society. The individual, families, clubs, schools, suburbs, cities, countries, etc. all will only survive if they add value to the community.

Organisations and societies evolve and adjust to changing conditions in order to ensure the continued, smooth, integrated functioning of all elements of the organisation or society. When new needs evolve or emerge, new organisations will be created to satisfy the new needs. When any part of the community is dysfunctional, it affects all other parts and creates problems for the community as a whole, which leads to social change.

The mental state rather than the internal constitution of the researcher is important. This implies that motivation plays an important role in what you would be willing to do to achieve success, i.e. the purpose of the research project.

Functionalism includes structuralism because both paradigms investigate the functioning of social phenomena. Like structuralism, functionalism also reacts against post-structuralism because of the disruptive nature of the latter.

In closing, functionalism is criticised for the following:

  1. Some researchers feel that functionalism focuses too much on the positive functions of societies while neglecting the impact of negative events.
  2. The current nature of functionalism is no longer in line with the original spirit and purpose of the paradigm. Researchers sometimes try to gain conclusions and findings from the ontology of a society when it might not even be relevant to the current phenomena any longer.
  3. Findings gained from a functionalist philosophical stance are not always generalizable because organisations and societies often differ in terms of their structure and purpose.
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About Hannes Nel

CEO and owner of Mentornet (Pty) Ltd. Academic background: B. Mil.; BA Honnours; MBL; D. Com; D. Phil Published 10 books with two more in the pipeline.

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