Structural Functionalism

Maureen McMahon. Research Starters Sociology. Salem Press Encyclopedia, 2019.

Structural functionalism was a sociological theory developed in the 1930s by Talcott Parsons. Its basis stems from the work of Max Weber and Emile Durkheim. The theory was popular in relation to describing social systems like family and government institutions, in that the systems contain members who each held a function within the system; the overall purpose of each member was to keep the system in balance to allow for its continuance. Parsons focused on qualitative data analysis rather than quantitative analysis like the theory of positivism, which it replaced. Structural functionalism was discredited due to its qualitative methodology and its focus on the general rather than the specific, although some social scientists still use it today.

Structural Functionalism


Developed in the 1930s, structural functionalism is a sociological theory that dominated social interpretive approaches until the 1970s. Talcott Parsons, born in Colorado in 1902, presented the theory in the United States based on the work of Max Weber (economist and social historian in Germany) and Emile Durkheim (a social theorist in France). Parsons studied both Weber and Durkheim and translated their work into English a few years after becoming a professor at Harvard in 1927. Parsons is the author of The Structure of Social Action and The Social System, both well-known texts within the social science field.

Structural functionalism posits that within every social structure or system—politics, family, organizations—each member of the system has a specific function. Those functions can be small or substantial, are dynamic in nature (i.e., they can change), and work toward the same purpose: to keep the system operational within its environment. According to Parsons, change is evident within any society or system; however, for the system to survive, it must adapt to that change in order to maintain its equilibrium. As part of this maintenance, Parsons identified four imperatives for societies to survive, which he called the AGIL model:

  • Adaptation: acquiring and mobilizing sufficient resources so that the system can survive.
  • Goal Attainment: setting and implementing goals
  • Integration: maintaining solidarity or coordination among the subunits of the system.
  • Latency: creating, preserving, and transmitting the system’s distinctive culture and values.

A good example of structural functionalism is an ant colony. Ants live within a social system that is structured yet adaptable, with each ant holding a position within that system. While the positions of the ants may be different (worker, queen), their goals are the same: to maintain the colony’s status as a functioning unit so it can survive. The queen ant gives birth to a tribe of worker ants who find sustenance and share it with the rest of the system. While not considered as complex as an institutionalized form of government, an ant colony is a system which differentiates between its members, adapts to new environments, and includes members and activities that years ago may not have been acceptable. It does this to function effectively and to promote its survival.

Divergence from Earlier Theories

What made structural functionalism notable is its strong divergence from earlier theories. Social positivism, prominent in the early 20th century, focused on empirical studies of social interaction. Often referred to as logical positivism or empiricism, the theory was concerned solely with concrete facts and quantitative data analysis. Parsons believed that ideas like motivation and goals should also be a theorist’s focus, as human interaction cannot always be as clear cut as “the inductive model of scientific knowledge that positivism presented” (Smelser, 1990).

As such, Parsons promoted the analytical over the concrete to interpret the roles of the members within different social systems. To further this view, Parsons posited that every action people take is done so within a social context of the system in which they are have been socialized. In addition, each action is taken in an attempt to get along, rather than as a random set of actions or a system of actions to further an individual’s gain within the system. For Parsons, work toward the “ends” is always done to maintain the order and balance of the system. The system must be flexible and adaptive, but it cannot allow for deviance. And, while established mechanisms (the legal system) are supposed to keep deviance in check, social order is maintained through the socialization process: the members are taught that deviance is wrong because it harms the survival of the system.

Critics attacked structural functionalism in the late 1960s because the theory was unable to explain phenomena such as social change, disagreement with social and political aims, and the influential underpinnings of the wealthy. Furthermore, feminists were critical of Parsonianism because while the theory supplies an explanation for male privilege, it avoids discussion of the historical contributions of women. As a result of these criticisms, structural functionalism lost its credibility in the 1970s. However, some scientists revert to the theory as it offers a valid explanation of consensus, which supports the concept of social order. It is also considered a useful model of description as a result of its collection of quantitative data.


Political Science

Parsons used structural functionalist methodology to interpret many areas of society. When he delved into the realm of political science, controversy ensued. Boskoff (1959) states that, “The development of political sociology reflects the social scientist’s dislike of artificially neat disciplines and their consequent production of isolated bodies of fact and generalization”. It could have been that Parsons did not like the all-inclusive packages of other theories and wanted to expand the political arena to that of his own liking. In his theoretical expansion into politics, he used four levels of analysis, moving from the broad to the restricted.

Structural Functionalism & Voting Systems

First, Parsons identified a general theory of social systems within the two-party voting system. He believed that because the ability to vote cut across social and cultural boundaries, there was overwhelming support for the social system of politics as a whole. Second, as political campaigns are functional within a society, an over-all political organization is prominent. Third, in addition to the function of an organized political system, having the flexibility to vote for either side—a two-party system model—is also the crux of Parsons’ political theory. Boskoff (1959) notes that

Here the mechanism of cross pressures derived from two or more solidary groups, reference groups, causes an increase in voting interest among those politically indifferent; and shifts in voting choices. Cross-pressures operate principally on those persons involved in social change and subject to the processes of social mobility and thus prevent the development of rigid voting patterns in the face of important changes in the over-all society (p. 71).

Finally, Parsons held fast to the specific voting system of the United States. Focusing on society as a whole, Parsons believed that the people of the country would participate in the voting process simply as a function of membership within the group. Boskoff criticizes this point by suggesting that, in fact, everyone does not vote and when they do, only certain segments of society—those within specific ethnic, economic, and cultural divisions—are the ones who step up to the plate (Boskoff, 1959, p. 71-72).

Also, it is important to point out that Parsons’ theory relies entirely on the proposition that the voting process is the most relevant demonstration of a two-party political system. Boskoff (1959) disagrees and identifies several other indicators that need analysis within this context.

[A] proper functional analysis of our two-party system should also focus on such phenomena as the nature of municipal, county, and state elections; the rural-urban imbalance in state legislatures; the realities of intraparty structure and function, including the selection of candidates, patronage systems on all levels, and ideological factions; the considerable range of one party controls; the extraparty role of pressure groups and lobbyists; the significance of appointed administrators, particularly on regulatory commissions; the effectiveness of specific policies and programs developed and administered by both parties in such fields as agricultural problems, labor-management relations, financial controls, civil rights, and crime control; and finally, the repercussions of two-party maneuvering on foreign policy in a shaky two power world (p. 73).

To defend Parsons’ limited perspective, it is necessary to note that his theoretical interpretation was focused on the voting of one presidential election because that was the data to which he had access. He took that information and, as many theorists do, put his own framework to work to identify a possible explanation for human behavior. Interestingly, Parsons’ data concluded that an election campaign itself “does not convince most voters. Instead, it tends to increase interest in the election and to encourage identification with” parties rather than candidates (Boskoff, 1959, p. 71-72).

Sociology Class: The Family Structure

Mathieu Deflem (2007) teaches his upper-level sociology course as a continuum of sociological theory taught at the introductory levels. He notes that while several theorists are discussed throughout his seminar, Talcott Parsons is one that receives a great deal of attention, as Parsons’ work was the crux of sociological theory for decades; in addition, it links twentieth-century sociology between the classical perspective of the early 1900s to the contemporary one utilized today, fitting well in the middle of the two.

One of the ideas behind using film to depict Parsons’ theoretical perspective is that structural functionalism (and theories in general) earn the consideration of criticism simply because they exist. A large criticism of Parsonian theory is that it is too abstract. As Deflem’s students are seeing the teacher after already learning (probably in sociology 101) about this abstractness and its effect in the downfall of structural functionalism, Deflem spends time concentrating on the benefit of abstract ideas before presenting films.

I … find it particularly useful in the teaching of Parsons’ theories to communicate to students the notion that the development of abstract theoretical ideas does not imply that such theorizing cannot be applied to the study of empirical phenomena. The exact opposite is true (Deflem, 2007, p. 4).

The teacher moves from the abstract to the specific and considers the family system that is a prominent focus within Parsons’ theory.

A consideration worth noting is that Parson’s theory—that everything has a function—was popular in the time when women were beginning to reject the notion of functioning as the housewife and supermom. The theorist did identify this shift in tradition but held that the parental functions did not weaken with the shift. Mom would still be mom in the sense that she nurtured the children (even if she worked outside of the home), and dad would still be dad taking his responsibility to provide financially for his family seriously (even if mom made more money than he did). Even if a shift caused conflict within the family-social system, it worked itself out, just as it was supposed to.

Film & Family Structure: Alfred Hitchcock

Deflem (2007) identifies three tenets of structural functionalism that are demonstrated in Hitchcock’s films. First, the family system and the members within it have a social function—those functions are static. Even if mom gets a job and earns more than dad, she is still the caregiver and will still make cookies for the school bake sale. Second, change is bound to occur within the system; it will always be dynamic. Finally, the family members and system as a whole can undergo strain: conflict is inevitable when one person in a system of several is perceived as doing more than anyone else.

Noting several films as examples, Deflem points to the family system as providing an environment of socialization as a function.

This functional perspective of the family is very common in Hitchcock’s world. It is a view of the family that is easily recognizable and accepted as secure and stable, portraying a well-functioning family as part of an everyday environment in which, as the story unfolds, a disturbing element can be injected to arouse drama and suspense. In this context, also, Hitchcock is fond of showing the family as an affective unit with strong emotional ties. These ties involve special care and affection, especially between the mother and the children (Deflem, 2007, p. 7).

For example, in The Wrong Man (1958), a man is accused of a crime he didn’t commit. The film begins with the man’s family—a wife and two children—functioning at home: mom and dad are doing the dishes; the kids get along for a bit and then begin to fight. Mom tries to stop the bickering, but as she is the nurturer, her intervention does little to remedy the situation, whereas dad settles the dispute quickly and effectively. In another film, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), a similar filial functionality guides the entire plot, with mom putting kids to bed singing, “Que Sera Sera” while dad is doing something else. “The parental functions are thus clarified in terms of a differentiation between the mother’s affective role and the father’s instrumental-occupational role” (Deflem, 2007, p. 8).

In addition to the functionality of the members of the family, Hitchcock introduces the dynamics of the family system as functions change. Deflem notes that the concept of dynamics is not as prominent as conflict as a function in Hitchcock’s films, but it is clear enough to offer examples for his students. In the film, Shadow of a Doubt (1943), a family is visited by an uncle and the distinctive roles within the family system are notable because of the outsider’s presence. Later, the uncle is identified as a murderer. In dramatic contrast, Stage Fright (1950) focuses on romance: that of a daughter and her separated parents. The latter are drawn back together by the idea of their little girl getting married.

Finally, conflict—sometimes drastic and sudden—emerges within the family system, and Hitchcock produces it on film. In Suspicion (1941), a young woman overhears her parents referring to her as a spinster, and in response, she hastily decides to marry a man she doesn’t believe is trustworthy. In The Birds (1963), conflict ensues when a man welcomes a love interest into the home of his newly widowed mother and grieving sister. The mother becomes jealous of her son’s love interest, and competes for the man’s attention. And in Sabotage (1936), a man enlists his brother-and-law to carry out a job the first man cannot complete. Unbeknownst to the brother-in-law—as well as his sister (the first man’s wife)—the job is of the spy nature: to deliver a bomb. As luck would have it, the bomb explodes at the wrong time, killing the young man who is deeply adored by his sister. She finds out that her brother was killed because of her husband and sticks a knife into her dearly beloved, only escaping persecution because the detective investigating the case falls in love with her and covers her tracks.

Applying these films to modern sociological theory puts them into perspective and shows that theory is empirical and pragmatic, even to the entertainment industry. Deflem notes that his “analysis was primarily meant to demonstrate the value of abstract theorizing … the abstractness of theoretical ideas precisely allows for, rather than inhibits, the analyses of empirical dimensions of society” (Deflem, 2007). Some theories are pulled from the outer reaches of a person’s imagination. Deflem’s point is that even if they are, being able to apply them to the world makes them just as legitimate as any scientific interpretation gained by experimentation.

Sociobiology, Feminism & Gender Roles

There are some things that only science can explain, however. Around the time of World War II, primates were studied at length to determine their socialization process in an attempt to gain insight into the socialization processes of humans. According to structural functionalism, female apes carry, birth, and nurture their babies while male apes take on a protective role and gather food. This is similar to the functional socialization of human families and political establishments. In fact, according to feminist researcher Donna Harraway (1986), “… male dominance was viewed as functioning to organize and control the troop in much the same way as political leadership functions in human cultures” (as cited in Sperling, 1991, p. 2).

However, identifying which behaviors are learned and which are innate is a difficult task. In the 1970s, sociobiology replaced structural functionalism as a theory to explain the behavior of female primates. Part of the reason for this is simple biology, more specifically, evolution of the species. Sperling (1991) notes that in a sociobioligist view, “behaviors always evolve to maximize the reproductive fitness of individuals (the relative percentage of genes passed on to future generations)” (Sperling, 1991, 3). In this view, scientists identify the survival of the fittest as being the survival of those most capable of reproducing (females), rather than those most capable of beating off intruders or providing food for the family (males). However, reproduction is a function—a specific role—for members of a group whose greater purpose is to promote the maintenance of that group. In this sense, sociologists believe that both sociobiology and structural functionalism theories explain how adaptation, one group evolving over time, is controlled by genetics.

As part of a movement from structural functionalism, though, sociobiologists assert that

female primates harass each other in an effort to increase their own genetic advantages … [and] attacks on pregnant monkeys and apes by other females are efforts by the attackers to gain a genetic advantage by reducing the number of competitors’ offspring … [which suggests that] female primates are aggressive strategists in pursuit of their own reproductive advantages rather than passive objects over which males compete (Sperling, 1991, p. 3).

In respect to a feminist perspective, this is a great thing: female primates can take care of themselves with little or no help from Tarzan. Sperling (1991) notes a problem, though. The empirical design (observation) used to identify this female primate behavior should have been stronger. Nature versus nurture is always a difficult case to argue. From Hitchcock’s perspective, primates are doing what they have to do: Adaptation, killing other apes, bullying the young—these are the features that work well for survival (especially on the silver screen). Furthermore, a formal role is clear, change is evident, and conflict ensues; one could argue that Parsons’ perspective has not been replaced by a new theory, just expanded based on behavioral evidence. In addition, Sperling (1991) identifies an overall weakness in the basis of sociobiology.

Feminist sociobiology does not represent progress for feminist evolutionary science because it suggests a biological essentialism at the heart of human behavior. In following its path, we abandon those research strategies that might lead us to insights about gendered aspects of human aggression, among other things (Sperling, 1991, p. 4).

In other words, if science is going to rely on a rationale for behavior, it needs to prove that behavior is controlled solely by genetics. Since that is difficult, sociobiologists need to not only consider but utilize other theories in searching for rationale. However, as feminist expert Sandra Harding, points out, structural functionalism needs to do the same.

Although feminist functionalism has “told new stories” about male and female primates … it proposes a reductionist science of genetic essences of maleness and femaleness that does not explain the diversity observed in nature. An approach that looks at genetic factors in the origin, diversity, and persistence of gender dimorphic behavior is more useful … than reductionist-functionalist models (as cited in Sperling, 1991, p. 26).

It could be as simple as one hand washing the other for a complete sense of cleanliness.


Social Conflict

A generalized criticism of structural functionalism is based on the theory’s lack of explanation for social conflict or social change in addition to its “bias of political conservatism” (Smelser, 1990). Furthermore, psychology is left out of Parsons’ discussion of human behavior. Psychology tends to focus on facts and research-based hypotheses rather than suppositions. While Parsons appreciated human interaction, he ignored the possibility that facts would yield a plausible explanation for human behaviors. Motives and goals pressed the actions of society, in Parsons’ mind. Psychology, also delving into the reasons why people do what they do, based its results on scientific explanations—those observed in a lab or a carefully planned context; types of research which Parsons did not carry out.

Qualitative Methodology

Fielding (2005) furthers this criticism, pointing to methodology as structural functionalism’s biggest flaw. The theoretical principles prior to the time of Parsonianism were based on quantitative research—that which was observed in closely-monitored settings with data being gathered in a bulk of statistics. In fact, positivism was considered a “science of society” in that it attempted to improve social conditions by explaining the causes of social phenomena through the investigation of “empirical phenomena” (Fielding, 2005). Parsons, however, preferred the practical, believing that qualitative data was more valuable (and accurate) than a collection of numbers attributed to hypothetical situations. While statistics can describe a social situation based on raw data, the quality of information collected from observing behavior, talking to people within diverse social strata, and comparing new events to historically similar events was more applicable to structural functionalism (Fielding, 2005). This is not an argument that died away over time. Scientists continue to compare the qualitative versus the quantitative, and both are deemed useful for various purposes.


As different research methods have a place, so do sociological theories. While the former remains stable, the latter do not. In fact, Smelser (1990) notes, almost humorously, that there really is no constant within the realm of intellectual ideals.

The past century seems to have been characterized by the following kind of sequence: From time to time, amid the complex and generally uncoordinated activities of the scores of hundreds of thinkers, researchers, and practitioners in the field, a certain theoretical viewpoint will emerge, consolidate and become relatively dominant as an influence on research and as a focus of intellectual attention. After a period of hegemony, however, this perspective comes to be the focus of multiple criticisms and attacks, begins to fray at the edges, and soon loses its great influence and credibility. From the resultant babble of voices, many lines of thought and research then arise—some of them new and some revivals of something from the past. Then, after this period of confusion, a new perspective emerges, becomes consolidated, wins advocates and followers, and gains its day at the top of the field. But its period of dominance is also limited, and before long a cadre of critics appears, and the whole process begins again (Smelser, 1990, p. 275-6).

Smelser and others might argue that theories are like music, television programs, and snack foods: they are fads to be limited by the contexts in which they are popular.