Functionalist social theory, also known as structural functionalism, is a perspective in sociology that views society as a complex system of interdependent parts working together to maintain social order and stability. In this article, we’ll explore the key concepts of functionalism and how they apply to our understanding of society.

Origins of Functionalist Social Theory

Functionalism emerged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a response to the challenges posed by industrialization and urbanization. Sociologists like Emile Durkheim, Talcott Parsons, and Robert Merton sought to understand how societies could maintain stability and coherence amidst rapid social change.

Basic Assumptions

At its core, functionalism assumes that society is composed of interrelated parts that work together to maintain social equilibrium. Like a biological organism, each part has a specific function or role that contributes to the overall health and well-being of the system.

Social Order

One of the central tenets of functionalist theory is the idea that social order is essential for society to function properly. This means that there needs to be a shared set of values, norms, and expectations that guide individual behavior and interactions.

Structural Differentiation

Another important concept in functionalist theory is structural differentiation – the idea that different parts or subsystems of society perform different functions. For example, education serves the function of transmitting knowledge and skills from one generation to another, while religion serves the function of providing moral guidance and support.

Social Integration

Functionalists also emphasize the importance of social integration – or the degree to which individuals feel connected to one another within a larger social system. They argue that strong social ties promote cooperation and harmony within society.


Despite its insights into how societies maintain stability, functionalism has been criticized for being too static and conservative. Some critics argue that it focuses too much on consensus and downplays the role of conflict in shaping social change.


Functionalist social theory offers a valuable perspective on how societies work and maintain stability. By emphasizing the interdependence of different parts of society, it provides a framework for understanding how individuals and institutions contribute to the larger whole. However, like any theory, it has its limitations and should be evaluated critically in light of new evidence and perspectives.