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Structural Functionalist Theory

Structural functionalist theory is a well-known, traditional sociological approach, which teaches how each aspect equally contributes to society.

The structural functionalist theory is a macro-level concept explaining how society is an intricate system. It is a former sociological paradigm that demonstrates society as a mix of interconnected pieces, including huge social systems and institutions. Moreover, structural functionalism teaches how each part of society serves a particular purpose, but they all work together.

Although structural-functionalism has shed its relevance as an explanatory framework, it still has a solid theoretical position. It has great popularity in understanding how each aspect of society grants solidarity and stability to society.

This article provides an overview of the structural functionalist theory, its fundamental principles, and its critical examination.

In-depth study of structural functionalist theory

In the structural functionalist study, structure, as well as functions, are two different things. You can learn about society’s functions without knowing its structure and the functions of various social systems without considering their structural form.

The three essential concepts of the structural functionalist theory are:

  • Collective functioning

  • Preservation of social stability

  • Social progress

The social system comprises complex and interconnected elements, including social institutions, social standards, and beliefs. Each piece of the framework has a specific purpose, and collectively, these social trends let society work healthily and stably.

Additionally, social structures respond to society’s changing requirements. So, if a portion of the structure becomes problematic, the entire society may collapse.

Emile Durkheim, as well as Talcott Parsons, established structural-functionalism as an explanatory framework. Numerous scholars, including Radcliffe, Kingsley, and Wilbert, have elaborated on structural-functionalism’s discussions and concepts.

Examples of structural functionalist theory

Murdock’s 4 family functions

The structural functionalist theory regards the family as the core component of society, and it serves many purposes that are vital to society’s proper operation.

George Peter Murdock was one of the first to describe the functionalist view of the family in detail. According to Murdock, a family has four primary duties:

  • Fulfilment of a biological urge for sex

  • Assuring reproduction and, simultaneously, species spread

  • Verifying sociocultural values are passed onto the next generation

  • Guaranteeing to address the family’s necessities such as food and shelter

Education in schools

The functionalist approach to schools looks at how the school contributes to society. One of the most important roles of schools is to teach students the skills that will assist them in finding work or generating work.

Schools educate language, arithmetic, as well as technical-vocational talents, to this effect. As a result, schools assist society in functioning by creating persons capable of supporting the level of economic interactions necessary for any society’s survival.

Sense of belonging through religion

According to the structural-functional viewpoint, religion is fundamental to human civilization because it fulfills specific vital purposes.

One of the essential tasks of religion, according to Emile Durkheim, is to promote a sense of self belonging to a larger community.

Durkheim’s theories were based on a survey of Australian aboriginal tribes. However, we can see it everywhere.

Many people associate their most profound vibe of self with their faith instead of other organizations like the country or language community.

Structural functionalist theory of social change

As per the structural functionalist theory of social change, society is in an inherent state of balance. Gradual change is both essential and beneficial, and it often results from factors like:

  • Population Increase

  • Technological advancements

  • Engagement with other communities

All of these things come up with new patterns of thinking and executing.

On the other hand, sudden social change is unpleasant since it upsets the equilibrium. To avoid this, other areas of society should make essential changes if one portion of society experiences an abrupt change.

Structural functionalist theories of gender inequality

According to the structural functionalist theories of gender inequality, gender norms emerge from the necessity to create a division of tasks. This aids in the successful functioning of the household and ultimately benefits society’s stability. 

In this approach, girls and boys are trained in various attitudes towards life. Boys have instructed instrumentality, i.e., to gain the ability to be goal-oriented, task-focused, and mindful about the family’s connection to external society systems. Contrastingly, girls are trained to be vocal, that is, to share their feelings as well as to recognize and respond to others’ emotions.

In several ways, the structural-functionalist theories of gender inequality address the facts of gender stereotypes and inequality in the 1950s. This approach is less appropriate for defining gender reality in the post-industrial era when many women work and men stay at home with kids. Nowadays, everyone contributes to household chores. 

Researchers need to acquire a greater knowledge of gender norms today. Moreover, they must understand how the modern industrial age’s shifting requirements influence these positions and the social stability they provide.

Criticism of the structural functionalist theory

The structural functionalist theory is predicted to be incompatible with the advancing society’s perspective. This is because the theory views societal change due to society’s frequent changes. Any abrupt change is regarded as a diversion. Social reforms, according to the structural functionalist theory, are contradictory.

Furthermore, the approach overlooks the necessity of autonomy in society’s operation. Structural-functionalism legitimizes society’s structure and encourages social inequality in jobs and responsibilities.


When you see society applying the structural functionalist theory, you can see that the entire structure is interrelated. Everything is responsible for sustaining society’s balance and safety. And, any abrupt deviation or modification can cause it to stop functioning properly.

According to Durkheim, the structural functionalist theory is vital for comprehending social distinction, social stability, and cultural evolution. On the other hand, Parson’s ideas on structure and processes are founded on the functional implications that any social context needs.

The structural functionalist theory is not much applicable to the modern world, yet it has some benefits in theories.


Frequently asked questions

Get answers to the most common queries related to the UPSC Examination Preparation.

How is structural functionalist theory applicable to society?

The structural functionalist theory considers society to be a system of interdependent pieces tailored to meet its m...Read full

What role does structural-functionalism have in societal awareness?

Structural-functionalism proposes that human communities tend to grow towards more diversity, in which organizations...Read full

What are the four structural-functional principles?

 The four functional imperatives, according to Talcott Parsons, that all social institutions must possess in order to thrive are:...Read full

Why is structural functionalist theory the best theory?

The structural functionalist theory is the best theory because it considers every part of society. It considers how ...Read full

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