Sociology Made Simple

understanding sociology one theory at a time

Tag: durkheim


FUNCTIONALISM, also called STRUCTURAL FUNCTIONALISM, is a way of approaching a problem or scenario. These various ways are also called THEORETICAL FRAMEWORKS.

In FUNCTIONALISMsociety is viewed as a collection of social structures, all of which depend on and affect each other. You can think of a functionalist’s view of society as one would look at the different systems of the body. All of society’s institutions and structures are interdependent and when one of them has a problem, the rest compensate to continue to allow society to function smoothly.

Functionalism can be viewed as a sort of “let things handle themselves” way of looking at society, as the belief can be summed up as “things will work themselves out”. So if lung cancer rates skyrocket due to smoking, society will, eventually, look at that and go “holy cow, we need to make sure fewer people smoke!” and that’s what will cause social change.

Functionalism is a MACRO view of society, meaning that it takes society as a whole and analyzes it from a distance, rather than on an individual basis.

Some Notable Functionalists:


A theoretical framework is a way of approaching a problem or situation. There are three major theoretical frameworks in modern sociology. They are:

  1. (Structural) Functionalism: Social structures work together and are interconnected, so when there are any problems in one structure, it affects all of society, creating problems, leading to different structures compensating, which then creates social change. Think of each structure (families, schools, governments, etc.) working together to keep society running smoothly each by performing their own functions. Emile Durkheim is one of the major Functionalist theorists. This is a macro view.
  2. Conflict Theory: Society is essentially split into the “haves” and the “have-nots” and only runs smoothly because the “haves”, who have all the power, keep the “have-nots” without power. The “have-nots” are forced to work for the “haves” for money and this is what keeps society going: the “have-nots” provide their services to the “haves” in exchange for money, while the “haves” provide jobs. Karl Marx is one of the major Conflict Theorists. This is a macro view.
  3. Symbolic Interactionism: Society is thought to be a social construct based on the interpretation of individuals. That’s to say that people’s understandings of the meanings of things are more important than facts. Smoking is bad for one’s health, but despite the medical facts, smoking is still thought to be cool. A symbolic interactionist would say that is the reason people still smoke. Max Weber and George Herbert Mead are two major Symbolic Interactionists. This is a micro view.

Still a bit confused? Let’s look at an example by using this statement:

African-American children in the United States have a lower rate of high school graduation than other ethnicities.

A functionalist would say that this is due mostly to intereactions between the family and the schools. They would say that there is some kind of interaction between these two structures that discourages African-American children from finishing high school. They might also say that this is not problematic because other parts of society will compensate for any problems coming from a low African-American graduation rate.

A conflict theorist would say that this is a clear example of the “haves” preventing the “have-nots” from gaining any kind of power. As African-Americans are a minority in the United States, the Caucasians have set up the school systems to benefit their own children and not the African-American children (or any other minority), which then prevents the minorities from having the education necessary to gain their own power when they get older.

A symbolic interactionistwould say that the perception of school by African-American children is the major reason why graduation rates are low. They could say that African-American children may not believe that they have any reason to graduate from high school, that perhaps they don’t feel they have the ability to pay to go to college, so they don’t care about finishing high school.