In this article we will discuss about the contribution of structural-functional theory to sociology.
(i) Many features of society which appear, on the surface, to be devoid of any significance to social life become meaningful when we relate these features to their functions—that is, the contributions of these features “to the flow of social life”.
Reference may be made to “the significance of public ceremonials as a way of increasing social solidarity (vide Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life). Similarly, the practice of offering ceremonial gifts, which is widely prevalent in all societies, becomes meaningful when seen in this light.”
(ii) The emphasis of the structural—functionalist approach on the inter-relatedness of several parts of society makes us aware of the fact that a change in one part of society, whether intended of unintended, affects other parts of society. This perspective is particularly valuable to social planners. Structural-functionalists have taught us to see society as a “whole”.
(iii) The structural-functional theory has been of great help in making comparative studies of societies in various stages of development. For example, in primitive societies there may not exist a government in the sense in which we use the term.
There may not also exist the complex economic structure of the type we are familiar with. But even such societies must have some arrangement to regulate the use of force or to provide for the flow of goods and services. Otherwise, such societies could not exist.
In our study of a primitive or strange society we shall naturally look for the institutions which meet these and similar other urgent requirements of society. The structural—functional theory, therefore, widens our perspective and broadens our horizon “concerning the possibilities for variation in the forms of social life”.
Criticisms of Structural-Functional Analysis:
The structural-functional theory has, however, been subjected to various criticisms.
In the first place, reference has already been made to the varied uses of the term ‘function’ by the advocates of the theory. Most often, the term ‘function’ is used in the sense of ‘eufunction’. (“With respect to a given unit ‘eufunction’ may be defined as any function that increases or maintains adaptation or adjustment of the unit to the unit’s setting, thus making for the persistence of the unit as defined in its setting”).
The critics point out that what may be ‘functional’ from the point of view of the structure or unit may not be ‘functional’ for the individual or for a section of the people. Aristotle justified the institution of slavery, saying that it was not only necessary but also desirable.
If we accept Aristotle’s contention as valid, we have to answer the question:
Was it equally ‘functional’ for the slaves? It is, therefore, held that “the functionalist point of view easily leads one to under-emphasise the importance of the individual and his needs relative to those of the group”.
Secondly, the structural-functional approach is criticised on the ground that it is teleological. “Function seems only another word for purpose, and it is often argued that a person can have purpose but that a collectivity cannot”.
In reply to this criticism, it is held that “many groups act so effectively in unison that it seems “as if they were a single organism possessed of only a single will or purpose”. It must also be pointed out, in fairness to the exponents of the theory, that the leading advocates of the theory use ‘function’, only to mean ‘as a consequence of , thus avoiding value-judgments and teleological implications altogether.
Thirdly, the structural-functionalist approach is criticised on the ground that it is concerned with the status quo and that the possibilities of social change are virtually ruled out. It is an equilibrium model based on assumptions of consensus. Conflict situations have been neglected.
The theory, therefore, tends to produce an impression that everything which exists in a society at any given time is easily assumed to be there because it is ‘functional’. “Worse still, the theory produces an apprehension that no social institution, because it is considered to be ‘functional’, can be changed or abolished without endangering the system.
On these grounds, the critics conclude that the structural-functional approach “serves as a politically conservative influence in sociological thinking”.
The aforesaid criticisms appear to be based on a totally wrong interpretation of the theory. One should not ignore the fact that the theory is only a model, a paradigm. The structural-functional approach involves “a more limited time perspective”, as compared to an evolutionary perspective of society in which “time, stages of development, and change” are of central interest.
“The structural-functional approach stops the motions of the system at a fixed point in time in order to understand how, at that moment, it works as a system”. If one remembers that the structural-functional theory is simply an analytic tool to find out how the system actually works, many of the criticisms leveled again would appear to be misplaced.
Stability assumptions of the theory are quite in order w it is interpreted and understood as a model for analysing society. Part of the blame misinterpreting the theory has to be shared by some of the proponents who looked at the structural-functional approach as a master key to sociology. Some of the advocates the theory even tend’ to invent functions for everything in sight.