The Social Function Theory is a theoretical framework used to understand the communicative function of language in social contexts. It posits that language is not just a tool for conveying information but also serves social functions such as building relationships, establishing social hierarchies, and expressing emotions.

Origins of the Social Function Theory

The Social Function Theory was first proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in the early 20th century. Malinowski argued that language serves a dual function – the referential function which conveys information about the world and the phatic function which serves to establish and maintain social relationships.

The Referential Function

The referential function of language refers to its ability to convey information about the world. This includes describing objects, events, and actions in a clear and concise manner. For example, when someone says “I am going to the store,” they are using language to convey their intention to perform a specific action.

The Phatic Function

The phatic function of language refers to its ability to establish and maintain social relationships. This includes using language for small talk, greeting others, expressing emotions, and establishing a sense of community.

For example, when someone says “How are you doing?” they are not necessarily seeking detailed information about another person’s well-being but rather using language as a way to initiate social interaction.

Social Hierarchies

Language also plays an important role in establishing social hierarchies. This includes using language to display power or authority over others or conversely using language that demonstrates deference or submission. For example, in many cultures, people use honorifics or titles when addressing those who hold higher status or positions of authority.


Language also serves as a way for people to express and regulate their emotions. This includes using words to describe how they are feeling and using language to seek emotional support from others. For example, when someone says “I’m feeling sad today,” they are using language to express their emotions and potentially seek support or comfort from others.

The Social Function Theory provides a useful framework for understanding the communicative functions of language in social contexts. It highlights the importance of considering not just the information conveyed by language but also its social functions in establishing and maintaining relationships, expressing emotions, and establishing social hierarchies. Understanding these functions can help individuals communicate more effectively in a wide range of social situations.