Functionalism regards society as an interdependent and self-regulating social system tending toward equilibrium. The goal of functional analysis is to establish to what extent the parts (subsystems) contribute to the functioning of the system as a whole.
With functionalism, the theoretical emphasis moves from causes to consequences. No effort is made to derive a given social phenomenon from specific causes. Instead, the question becomes which functions have to be fulfilled, through particular social actions, so as to guarantee the maintenance of the system. The results of actions, thus, are interpreted teleologically in terms of their contribution to the stability of the system. According to Robert K. Merton (1968, 84), the theoretical framework of functional analysis requires a specification of the units for which a given social or cultural item – e.g., mass-mediated messages – may be functional, allowing for diverse consequences – functional and dysfunctional – for individuals, sub-groups, and the social structure and culture as a whole. Functional analysis, further, focuses attention on a causal loop through which the results of specific courses of action act back on the items and units under study, bringing about persistence or modification (Coser 1976, 146).
History of Functionalism
The origins of functional analysis can be traced back to the ideas of Herbert Spencer and Émile Durkheim. Spencer developed the view that society, like an organism, is a self-regulating system consisting of subsystems which have to contribute to the survival of the system. Spencer was probably the first to use the terms “structure” and “function.” Durkheim argued in The division of labour in society (De la division de travail social, Paris 1893) that social order should be explained not by the self-interest of individuals, but by social solidarity based upon collectively shared values. Social anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown extended this idea to develop a method of “functionalism” in order to explain the contribution of customs to the maintenance of social systems. Societies were regarded as consisting of parts related both to one another and to society as a whole. Societies have stable structures and functions; i.e., the contributions of partial activities relate to the total activity of which they are a part, so that each custom has a function within the total society (system). In “On the concept of function in social science” Radcliffe-Brown (1935, 397) argued that the function of a particular social usage is the contribution it makes to social life in its entirety. He emphasized that a social system (the total structure of a society together with the totality of social usages in which that structure appears, and on which it depends for its continued existence) has a certain kind of unity, which he called functional unity.
Talcott Parsons, whose ideas had been strongly shaped by biologists, had a determining influence on structural-functional analysis. Parsons and Edward A. Shils (1951, 197) defined a social system as a system of the actions of individuals, the principal units of which are roles and constellations of roles. Roles, which are regarded as the junction points of individuals with the social system, are the elements building the structure of the social system. Internal differentiation, which is a fundamental property of all systems, requires integration. The existence of the system depends on the coordination of differentiated roles, either negatively in the sense of avoiding disruptive interference with each other, or positively in the sense of contributing to the realization of certain shared collective goals through collaborative activity. The integration of the value orientations of various actors can be regarded as one of the most important functional prerequisites for the maintenance of the social system.
Parsons wanted to develop an all-embracing functional theory. Merton (1968, 39), a student of Parsons, suggested that research is not yet ready for a total system of sociological theory. He focused attention on theories of middle range, i.e., theories intermediate between the minor working hypotheses that evolve in abundance during the daily routines of research, on the one hand, and on the other the all-inclusive speculations that make up grand conceptual schemes from which one may hope to derive a very large number of empirically observed uniformities of social behavior.
Key Principles of Functional Analysis
The following basic assumptions of functional analysis can be outlined (e.g., Hagedorn & Labovitz 1973, 38 – 42; Kinloch 1977, 215; Merton 1968, 79–91):
- The social system possesses an independent existence and consists of subsystems that mutually influence each other.
- The system has a certain number of basic needs that must be fulfilled; otherwise, the system breaks down.
- For the maintenance of the system’s equilibrium, the needs of the subsystems must be met.
- The subsystems can be functional (contributing to stability), dysfunctional (decreasing stability), or irrelevant with regard to the stability of the system as a whole.
- A specific need of the system can be satisfied in different ways (through functional equivalents).
- Society adapts to its environment while trying to control the environment.
- Society is integrated by culture.
- Only institutionalized (regularly recurring) patterns of behavior lend themselves to functional analysis.
Structural-functional analysis, Philip Selznick (1948) argued, is especially suited to the analysis of adaptive structures or processes, because this method places currently variable behavior (functions) in relation to an assumed stable system (structure). Functions are short-lived processes that quickly run their course. By contrast, structures are stable, long-lived processes. Functions are those observed consequences that make for the adaptation or adjustment of given structures; dysfunctions are those observed consequences that lessen adaptation or adjustment.
Merton (1968, 105) further distinguished between manifest functions (objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system, which are intended and recognized by participants in the system) and latent functions, which are neither intended nor recognized. Latent functions, then, refer to the “unintended” consequences of various kinds of behavior. There has been a tendency, however, to use the concept of latent functions particularly as way of giving seemingly irrational behavior (e.g., prayers for rain) a rational basis (for instance, strengthening social solidarity).
A main weakness of structural-functional analysis is its lack of clear criteria for answering the question: what is functional; what is not? This occasionally results in an uninformative formulation of the framework of interpretation. Consequently, there is a danger that the individual researcher’s value orientations will determine the answers to the research questions. At the same time, the emphasis on systemic equilibrium implies that functional analysis contains within itself a conservative perspective, one justifying the status quo. If a specific social system, regardless of its degree of social injustice, is regarded as being in a state of equilibrium, then unrest, rebellion, and revolution will easily be classified as upsetting the equilibrium, and accordingly as dysfunctional.
Functionalism and Media
The functioning of any social system depends crucially on the internalization of its dominant value patterns by individuals. The motives of the individual and the values of the culture must be in accord to a considerable extent; the value patterns also must accommodate the individual needs of social actors. A prerequisite for the continued existence of a social system is the integration of the system’s demands in terms of values with the individual’s dispositions in terms of needs. In this regard, every social system, according to Parsons, must resolve four basic issues: (1) adaptive functions (means), (2) goal attainment functions (values), (3) integrative functions (norms), and (4) latent pattern-maintenance and tension-management functions.
In complex social systems, each of these functions is ascribed to a specific subsystem; thus, to the economy, adaptive problems; or, to the law, normative directions. And it is assumed that social systems can differentiate themselves further in response to increased demands regarding the fulfillment of the four basic functions. In Parsons’s framework, however, there is no specific subsystem of mass communication. The question arises, then, to what extent mass communication is to be regarded as an aspect of the subsystem of the economy (e.g., stabilization of demand through advertising), of policy (e.g., mobilization of political support through manipulation), of the integrative subsystem (e.g., media contributing to socialization), or of the subsystem of pattern maintenance (e.g., resolution of tension via escapism). Parsons and Winston White (1960), in one treatise, did concern themselves explicitly with mass communication but, interestingly, without reference to system-theoretical considerations.
Functionalist approaches to the relationship between mass media and society have sought to delineate the contribution of a subsystem of mass communication to the functioning of the social system as a whole. A strict functionalist position was formulated by Harold Lasswell (1948, 118), who stated that he was less interested in dividing up the act of communication than in viewing the act as a whole in relation to the entire social process. Lasswell emphasized the system-stabilizing function of communication, which (termed ideology) supports dominant value structures. He detailed the following functions of mass communication: surveillance of the environment, disclosing threats and opportunities that might affect the values of the community and its component parts; correlation of the components of society in responding to the environment; and transmission of the social heritage from one generation to the next. A function of entertainment was added by Wright (1960, 610), who formulated the “classic” question of functionalist mass communication research: “What are the (1) manifest and (2) latent (3) functions and (4) dysfunctions of mass communicated (5) surveillance (news), (6) correlation (editorial activity), (7) cultural transmission, (8) entertainment for the (9) society, (10) subgroups, (11) individual, (12) cultural systems?”
Building on Merton’s (1968) conception of functional analysis, Wright (1960, 606) called for an investigation of those consequences of social phenomena – such as media – that affect the normal operation, adaptation, or adjustment of a given system: individuals, sub-groups, social and cultural systems. Whereas allegations concerning the conservatism of functionalist approaches have often been rhetorical rather than substantial, the conservative orientation of Wright’s analysis was manifest in his argument that the media’s contribution to social stabilization should be categorized as functional, while he applied “dysfunctional” to news of better societies that might threaten stability. In a more descriptive and explanatory vein, Melvin L. DeFleur (1970) asked how television contributes to the stability and permanence of American society as a whole. He concluded that low-taste content on television can capture audience members’ attention and persuade them to purchase the advertised goods. Low-taste content thus functions to maintain the financial equilibrium of a social system that is tightly integrated with the whole of the American economic institution.
A great number of lists of the functions of mass communication are found in the literature. As paradigms or models, they provide theoretical orientation and under certain circumstances structure the research process. Some studies have addressed the communication between groups actively participating in the socio-political process – lobbies, interest groups, political parties, and so on. Other authors locate the dominant functions of media in relation to the political system. Especially after the death of Parsons in 1979 and Merton in 2003, the influence of functionalism in the field of media and communication research has been reduced. Today, there exists a potpourri of theories of which functionalism forms only a part (Bryant & Miron 2004).
- Bryant, J., & Miron, D. (2004). Theory and research in mass communication. Journal of Communication, 54(4), 662–704.
- Coser, L. A. (1976). Sociological theory from Chicago dominance to 1965. Annual Review of Sociology, 2, 145–160.
- DeFleur, M. (1970). Theories of mass communication, 2nd edn. New York: MacKay.
- Hagedorn, R., & Labovitz, S. (1973). An introduction to sociological orientations. New York: John Wiley.
- Kinloch, G. C. (1977). Sociological theory: Its development and major paradigms. New York: McGraw-Hill.
- Lasswell, H. (1948). The structure and function of communication in society. In W. Schramm (ed.), Mass communication, 2nd edn. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, pp. 117–130.
- Merton, R. K. (1968). Social theory and social structure, enlarged edn. New York: Free Press; London: Collier-Macmillan.
- Parsons, T. (1951). The social system. Glencoe, IL: Free Press.
- Parsons, T., & Shils, E. A. (eds.) (1951). Toward a general theory of action. New York: Harper and Row.
- Parsons, T., & White, W. (1960). The mass media and the structure of American society. Journal of Social Issues, 16(3), 67–77.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1935). On the concept of function in social science. American Anthropologist, 37(3), 394– 402.
- Raison, T. (ed.) (1969). The founding fathers of social science. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
- Selznick, P. (1948). Foundations of the theory of organization. American Sociological Review, 13(1), 25 –35.
- Waters, M. (1994). Modern sociological theory. London: Sage.
- Wright, C. R. (1960). Functional analysis and mass communication. Public Opinion Quarterly, 24(4), 605 – 620.
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