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Structural Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, and Conflict Theory
Sociological Theory

Chapter 7 Chapter Summary

Structural Functionalism

Although popular, even dominant, after World War II, structural functionalism is today generally of only historical interest. Emerging as an offshoot of organicism, structural functionalists were mainly societal functionalists who were interested in large-scale social structures and institutions within society, how they interrelate, and their constraining effects on actors.

One of the earliest and better known applications of structural functionalism was the functional theory of stratification. This theory argued that stratification was universal and necessary for society, and that it was therefore functional. Stratification here refers to positions rather than individuals and to the way that individuals are placed in the appropriate position. Since some positions are more important, more pleasant, and require different skills, a system of stratification is necessary to make sure all roles are fulfilled. Much like other versions of structural functionalism, this theory is criticized as conservative and lacking in empirical support.

Talcott Parsons

The single greatest contributor, and practitioner, of structural functionalism was Talcott Parsons (1902-1979). The heart of Parsons's theory is built on the four functional imperatives, also known as the AGIL system:

  1. The adaptive function, whereby a system adapts to its environment.
  2. The goal-attainment function, i.e., how a system defines and achieves its goals.
  3. The integrative function, or the regulation of the components of the system.
  4. Latency, or pattern maintenance function, i.e., how motivation and the dimensions of culture that create and sustain motivation are stimulated.

Complementing this are four action systems, each of which serve a functional imperative: the behavioral organism performs the adaptive function; the personality system performs goal attainment; the social system performs the integrative function; and the cultural system performs pattern maintenance. Parsons saw these action systems acting at different levels of analysis, starting with the behavioral organism and building to the cultural system. He saw these levels hierarchically, with each of the lower levels providing the impetus for the higher levels, with the higher levels controlling the lower levels.

Parsons was concerned primarily with the creation of social order, and he investigated it using his theory based on a number of assumptions, primarily that systems are interdependent; they tend towards equilibrium; they may be either static or involved in change; that allocation and integration are particularly important to systems in any particular point of equilibrium; and that systems are self-maintaining. These assumptions led him to focus primarily on order but to overlook, for the most part, the issue of change.

The basic unit of Parsons's social system is the status-role complex. Actors are seen as a collection of statuses and roles relatively devoid of thought. Parsons's interest was in the large-scale components of social systems, such as collectivities, norms, and values. Parsons also thought that social systems had a number of functional prerequisites, such as compatibility with other systems, fulfillment of the needs of actors, support from other systems, inducing adequate levels of participation from its members, controlling deviance, controlling conflict, and language.

Parsons was particularly interested in the role of norms and values. He focused on the socialization process, whereby society instills within individuals an outlook in which it is possible for them to pursue their own self-interest while still serving the interests of the system as a whole. It was through socialization that Parsons believed that actors internalized the norms of society. Physical or coercive systems of control were seen as only a secondary line of defense.

The cultural system is at the very pinnacle of action systems. For instance, Parsons believed that culture had the capability of becoming a part of other systems, such as norms and values in the social system. Culture is defined as a patterned, ordered system of symbols that are objects of orientation to actors, internalized aspects of the personality system, and institutionalized patterns. The symbolic nature of culture allows it to control other action systems.

The personality system generates personality, defined as the organized orientation and motivation of action in the individual actor, built by need-dispositions and shaped by the social setting. Again Parsons presents a passive view of actors.

In order to deal with change, Parsons turned to a form of evolutionary theory, focusing on differentiation and adaptive upgrading. He suggested three evolutionary stages: primitive, intermediate, and modern. This perspective suffers from a number of flaws, primarily because it sees change as generally positive and does not deal with the process of change, but rather points of equilibrium across periods of change.

One way that Parsons does inject a real sense of dynamism into his theory is with the concept of the generalized media of interchange. Although this concept is somewhat ambiguous, it can be thought of as resources, particularly symbolic resources, for which there is a universal desire (e.g., money, influence, or political power). The suggestion that individuals might act to influence the social distribution of such resources (as media entrepreneurs) adds dynamism to what is often seen as a static theory.

Robert Merton

Robert Merton(1910-2003) attempted to rectify some of the weaknesses within structural functionalism. Specifically, he criticized the underlying assumptions of functionalism and added complexity to how structural functionalism dealt with the relationship between structures and functions. Dispensing with the notion that all parts of the system are functional, highly integrated, and indispensable, he created a system of concepts to deal with the ways in which structures may be related to the whole. For instance, he suggested that some social facts might be dysfunctional, meaning they may have negative consequences for other social facts. Overall, he thought that it was possible to have an idea of the balance of a structure by taking into account dysfunctions, functions, and nonfunctions. He also added additional complexity by asserting that this sort of analysis may be performed at various levels of functional analysis, as "functions" might be a matter of perspective. For instance, slavery was functional for some and dysfunctional for others.

Merton was also concerned with the intended and unintended functions of structures, or manifest and latent functions, and their unanticipated consequences. He added nuance to structural functionalism by noting that dysfunctional structures can exist within systems, depending on their relationship to other systems. Thus not all structures are positive, nor are all of them indispensable.

Merton also took up Emile Durkheim's (1857-1917) notion of anomie. He suggested that when individuals cannot act in accordance with normalized values or realize normalized goals because of the obstacles created by social structures, it produces deviant behavior.


There are a number of criticisms of structural functionalism: it is ahistorical; it is unable to deal effectively with the process of change or conflict; and it is conservative. It is viewed as ambiguous and lacking in adequate methods. Structural functionalism inhibits certain forms of analyses, such as comparative analysis. Structural functionalism has also been described as both illegitimately teleological and tautological. The former implies that structural functionalists rely too heavily on the notion that social structures have purposes or goals. This notion is posited to justify the existence of particular structures without adequate theoretical reasons or empirical backing. Tautology suggests that the conclusion of a theory makes explicit what is implicit in the premise of the theory. Thus, structural functionalism defines the whole in terms of the parts and the parts in terms of the whole.


Neofunctionalism was an attempt by theorists such as Jeffrey Alexander, among others, to revive the stronger tenets of structural functionalism. Neofunctionalism attempted to synthesize portions of structural functionalism with other theories. It highlighted the interactional patterning of the elements that constitute society, attended to both action and order, understood integration as a possibility rather than as fact, adopted various portions of Parsons's action systems, and traced the process of social change that resulted from differentiation within action systems.

Conflict Theory

Associated primarily with the work of Ralf Dahrendorf (1929- ), conflict theory arose primarily as a reaction against structural functionalism and in many ways represents its antithesis. Where structural functionalism sees a near harmony of purpose from norms and values, conflict theory sees coercion, domination, and power. Dahrendorf saw both theories as addressing different situations, depending upon the focus of the study. According to Dahrendorf, functionalism is useful for understanding consensus while conflict theory is appropriate for understanding conflict and coercion.

For Dahrendorf the distribution of authority was a key to understanding social conflict. Authority is located not within people but within various positions. Authority is created by the expectation of certain types of action associated with particular positions, including subordination of others and subordination to others. Various positions of authority exist within associations. The fault lines that spring up around competing loci of authority generate conflicting groups. The conflict between these groups pervades their interaction, with the result that authority is often challenged and tenuous.

Much as Merton looked at latent and manifest functions, Dahrendorf identified latent and manifest interests, or unconscious and conscious interests. The connection between these two concepts was a major problematic for conflict theory. Dahrendorf posited the existence of three types of groups: quasi- groups, interest groups, and conflict groups. Dahrendorf felt that, under ideal circumstances, conflict could be explained without reference to any other variables.

Conflict theory has been criticized for being ideologically radical, underdeveloped, and unable to deal with order and stability. Both functionalism and conflict theory share the weakness of being able to explain only portions of social life.

Conflict Sociology

Randall Collins developed a form of conflict theory that focuses far more on micro-level interactions than does Dahrendorf. It criticized previous conflict theories and theories of stratification as "failures," and attempted to focus on the role of individual action in the process of stratification. His theory of stratification is rooted in Marxist, phenomenological, and ethnomethodological concerns, focusing on material arrangements and exploitation in real-life situations. Collins extended his theory to deal with various dimensions of stratification, such as gender and age inequality, as well as looking at stratification within formal organizations.