Structure-functionalism relies upon an “organic” analogy of human society as being “like an organism,” a system of interdependent parts that function for the benefit of the whole. Thus, just as a human body consists of parts that function as an interdependent system for the survival of the organism, society consists of a system of interdependent institutions and organizations that function for the survival of the society.
Relying upon the successes of biologists in understanding the human body, functionalists took a similar approach to understanding human social systems. Social systems were dissected into their “parts,” or institutions (family, education, economy, polity, and religion), and these parts were examined to find out how they worked and their importance for the larger social system. The rationale was that if scientists could understand how institutions worked, then their performance could be optimized to create an efficient and productive society. This approach as proved to be very successful and is the predominant philosophy guiding macro-level sociology today.
Structure-functionalism arose in part as a reaction to the limitations of utilitarian philosophy, where people were viewed as strictly rational, calculating entrepreneurs in a free, open, unregulated, and competitive marketplace. The tenet of functionalism, and the fundamental building block of all sociology, is that people behave differently in groups than they do as individuals. Groups have “lives of their own,” so to speak. Or, as you might hear from a sociologist, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
” Anyway, the point is, that just as the “invisible hand of order” can guide economic relations, “social forces” can guide social relations, and thus yield for society very positive outcomes (volunteerism, democracy, laws, moral and ethical standards for behavior, family and educational systems, communities) and very negative outcomes (discrimination, organized crime, moral decay, warfare, poverty).
The idea of the functionalists was to create a science of society that could examine the parts of human social systems and make them work for the betterment of all. And it is the task of sociologists to use scientific principles to help create the best form of society possible.
Listed below are the central tenets of the functionalist approach to understanding human social systems.
We will use these tenets throughout this course to gain a functionalist perspective on social issues facing rural America today.
Society as a system of interrelated parts functioning for the good of the whole.
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