What is Functionalist Theory?

Emile Durkheim


Functionalism is a theory that was purposed by the French Academia in response to the rapid decline of society during both French Revolutions, however, there was no unified theory until Emile Durkheim’s writing shaped what would become the Functionalism as we know it today, but what is functionalism? Functionalism is the idea that society is an integrated system of parts that support homeostasis in society. This is achieved through a variety of social structures, ranging from the family unit to educational institutions, to even criminal activity. Each of these various parts could have functional and dysfunctional parts of society. By taking the first example, the traditional role of the family is to produce and rear children, and ready them for the “adult” world, but if there was in neglect or abuse, this would hinder or even be detrimental to the individual, or to the growth and stability they would bring to society. Thus, a functionalist society would be slow to change.

Other functionalist have expounded on Durkheim’s work to include two more functions: latent and manifest. These two functions are intertwined with the other although they offer different ideas. The manifest function is the intended consequences, while the latent functions are the functions that are hidden or unintended consequences. Example of this can be the American prison system, while the intended function of the prison system, is to rehabilitate offenders and to make the prisoners a productive member of society. More than not today, prisons are considered a breeding ground or site of networking for criminal activity. The manifest function of the prison system is the rehabilitation system, while the criminal networking is the latent function.

Functionalism and Censorship

In functionalism each part of the society functions to achieve homeostasis, in the case of the 1950s Tulsa banning of Catcher in the Rye, through Functionalism, the banning can be interpreted in two ways. In the first interpretation, the banning of the book helps prevent chaos and discord, by banning the book and thus preventing the spread of the thoughts of rebellion against the ‘adult’ world. This rebellion would create discord and disturb the homeostasis of Tulsa. This interpretation can be broken down further into it manifest and latent function. The manifest function of the banning is, of course, the prevention of the spread of the teenage rebellion and criticism of the adult world. While the latent function of the banning, is the increase of notoriety of the book, thus increasing the attraction of the book to its teenage demographic.

The second interpretation of Catcher in the Rye, is the criticism and the criticism in books like it, helps achieve homeostasis via by evaluating the ideas held by society, and how it changes, albeit slowly, and do these ideas help towards the goal of homeostasis or if the ideals held by society and guides it towards chaos and discord. Similarly, to the first interpretation of the banning of Catcher in the Rye, this interpretation can be broken down into manifest and latent functions as well. In this interpretation, the manifest function is still the suppression of the book, while the latent function is the spreading of the idea, via of the notoriety.

Emile Durkheim / Portrait photo. Photograph. Britannica ImageQuest, Encyclopædia Britannica, 25 May 2016.

Mooney, et al. “The Three Main Sociological Perspectives .” Laulima.hawaii.edu, 2007.

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