Structural Functionalism: Definition, Theories and Criticism

Synopsis: Structural functionalism is considered to be a prominent classical sociological perspective. It is a macro-level theory concerned with large-scale social structures and social institutions. Structural functionalism as an explanatory theory has lost its significance in the contemporary era. Nevertheless, it is a significant theoretical perspective in social sciences. This article presents an insight into the Structural Functionalist approach by laying focus on the basic principles of Structural Functionalism, various developing theories associated with the perspective, and critical analysis of this approach.

Structural Functionalism Definition and Summary

Understanding  Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism that is also referred to as Functionalism, lays its emphasis on the large-scale social structures, social institutions, their interrelationships, and implications on society. In Structural Functionalism, the terms structure and function are not necessarily complementary. One can study the structure of society without examining its functions, similarly, functions of different social processes can be studied without being concerned with its structural form.

The basic principles of Structural Functionalism can be comprehended in three simple terms: maintenance of social stability, collective functioning, and social evolution. The social structure of society consists of various components such as social institutions, social norms, and values, that are interconnected and dependent on each other. Each component of the structure has a specified role and altogether these social patterns contribute to the balanced and stable functioning of society. Furthermore, social structure adapts to the changing needs of society, if any part of the structure acts dysfunctional then society as a whole might collapse.

According to the Structural Functionalists, any form of rapid social change is perceived as something that arises when there is an occurrence of social tensions between different units of society. For instance, a slight incompatibility between traditional belief systems and social norms may result in a social change. Drastic changes in society are considered problematic because these rapid changes disrupt the equilibrium and result in instability.

Structural Functionalism is an explanatory theory primarily developed by Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons. Further debates and theories on Structural Functionalism have been articulated by various scholars like Radcliffe Brown, Kingsley Davis, and Wilbert Moore.

Division of Labor by Durkheim

Emile Durkheim(1858-1917) was a French sociologist and one of the founding fathers of the Functionalist school of thought. In his initial phase of scholarly life, Durkheim was deeply impressed by the significance of functional differentiation and the theory of social evolution. Moreover, he was influenced by the works of Herbert Spencer(1820-1903) and his study of organic analogy. “The Division of Labour in Society” (1893) was Durkheim’s first book in which he explained the forces that keep society intact. He claimed that there are two types of society characterized by ‘mechanical solidarity’ and ‘organic solidarity’. Mechanical solidarity is often present in primitive communities where there is an absence of economic advancement and status differentiation. Whereas, societies characterized with organic solidarity are economically specialized with extensive division of labor and status differentiation. Durkheim argued that functional differentiation is a prerequisite of society because it strengthens the sense of social solidarity and binds people together, each depending upon the functional services of all for the maintenance of social order.

Also Read: Understanding our society through Durkheim’s Division of Labour

AGIL model by Parsons

Talcott Parson(1902-1979) was an American Sociologist who did tremendous theoretical work on structural functionalism and the theory of social action. According to Parsons, a function refers to a set of activities that fulfill the needs of society. He described four functional imperatives that are necessary for the survival of every social system:

  1. Adaptation: a social system needs to adapt in accordance with the emerging demands of its environment.
  2. Goal attainment: a social system needs to define and accomplish its goals.
  3. Integration: regulation of interrelationships between all the components is essential.
  4. Latency: a social system needs to preserve and enhance the sense of motivation among the masses. Maintenance of social patterns contributes to the creation of this motivation.

Parsons had a conservative approach and his major works convey the ideas of social stability, order, and integration that play a massive role in society.

Concept of Function by Radcliffe Brown:

Radcliffe Brown(1881-1955) was a social anthropologist who immensely contributed to the theory of Structural Functionalism. In his book “Structure and Function in Primitive Society(1952), Brown established a comparative analysis between the life of a living organism and the functioning of a social structure. According to him, the structure of an organism consists of various cells and molecules that are arranged in systematic patterns. The living organism tends to preserve the continuity of its structure by losing some of its molecules through respiration and gaining new ones through absorption.

Similarly, the social structure of society is required to function collectively in order to maintain its survival. On one hand, social institutions are necessary for inculcating the values and strengthening solidarity among the masses. On the other hand, social facts are equally essential for keeping a check on human actions and eradicating any form of deviance. Social facts can be understood as an invisible instrument of social control which is present in every society in the form of laws and norms.

Functional Theory of Stratification

The Functional Theory of stratification is propounded by Kingsley Davis(2908-2997) and Wilbert Moore(1914-1987) which is considered as the best-known piece of work in Structural Functionalism.

According to Structural Functionalists, social stratification is considered an essential prerequisite of society. It is a division of the population into strata that are interconnected yet differentiated based on their social role and status. The system of stratification can also be understood as a means of regulating access to ‘scarce resources’. Stratification is seen as a functional necessity because a single unit cannot perform all the required tasks of society therefore each unit of society has an assigned role and responsibility. Furthermore, this stratification of roles and responsibilities creates a continuous motivation among individuals to evolve and grow. For example, different responsibilities are assigned to a teacher and a laborer. However, both of them have a significant contribution to the functioning of society yet a teacher is placed above a laborer in the occupational hierarchy. The system of stratification is considered as a ‘system of positions’ in which certain positions are regarded as prestigious and superior. These higher-ranking positions are associated with certain rewards to ensure diligence among the masses.

Criticism of Structural Functionalism

Structural Functionalism is estimated as incompatible in understanding the modern advanced society. It has been subjected to criticism in the contemporary world primarily because Structural Functionalism sees social change as a consequence of society’s changing needs. Any form of immediate change is considered a deviation. The Structural Functionalist perspective considers social reforms as paradoxical in nature. Furthermore, the perspective neglects the importance of individualism in the functioning of society. It claims individualism to be substantively erroneous. Structural Functionalism legitimizes the system of hierarchy in society and promotes social inequality in terms of roles and positions.


When we look at society from the Structural-Functionalist lens, the whole structure of society is interconnected and accountable for maintaining equilibrium and steadiness in society. Any form of rapid deviation or change may cause disruption in its functioning. Structural Functionalism as an explicative theory has been developed and redefined by various scholars. For Durkheim, this perspective is significant for understanding social differentiation, social order, and the social evolution of society. Whereas, Parson’s ideas on structure and system are based on the four functional imperatives required in every social setting.

However, in the contemporary social world, the ideas of structural functionalism are considered insignificant primarily because it neglects the importance of social change which is a key feature of modern society.


  • Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Structural functionalism”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 17 Jun. 2020, Accessed 12 March 2021.
  • “ Sociological Theory/ Structural-functionalism”. Accessed 12 March 2021.
  • George Ritzer. “Modern Sociological Theory ( seventh edition) ”. McGraw Hill Education Private Limited. (Edition 2016) pp. 98-122.
  • R.Radcliffe Brown. “Structure and Function in Primitive Society”, chapter IX: “On The Concept of Function in Social Science”. FreePress, 1965.
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