Contemporary Sociological Theory
Structural Functionalism, Neofunctionalism, and Conflict Theory
Although popular, even dominant, after World War II, structural functionalism is today generally
of only historical interest. Emerging as an offshoot of organicism, structural functionalists were
mainly societal functionalists who were interested in large-scale social structures and institutions
within society, how they interrelate, and their constraining effects on actors.
One of the earliest and better known applications of structural functionalism was the
theory of stratification
. This theory argued that stratification was universal and necessary for
society, and that it was therefore functional. Stratification here refers to positions rather than
individuals and to the way that individuals are placed in the appropriate position. Since some
positions are more important, more pleasant, and require different skills, a system of
stratification is necessary to make sure all roles are fulfilled. Much like other versions of
structural functionalism, this theory is criticized as conservative and lacking in empirical support.
The single greatest contributor, and practitioner, of structural functionalism was
. The heart of Parsons's theory is built on the four functional imperatives, also
known as the AGIL system:
The adaptive function, whereby a system adapts to its environment.
The goal-attainment function, i.e., how a system defines and achieves its goals.
The integrative function, or the regulation of the components of the system.
Latency, or pattern maintenance function, i.e., how motivation and the dimensions of
culture that create and sustain motivation are stimulated.
Complementing this are
four action systems
, each of which serve a functional imperative: the
performs the adaptive function; the
performs the integrative function; and the
pattern maintenance. Parsons saw these action systems acting at different levels of analysis,
starting with the behavioral organism and building to the cultural system. He saw these levels
hierarchically, with each of the lower levels providing the impetus for the higher levels, with the
higher levels controlling the lower levels.
Parsons was concerned primarily with the creation of social order, and he investigated it using
his theory based on a number of assumptions, primarily that systems are interdependent; they
tend towards equilibrium; they may be either static or involved in change; that allocation and
integration are particularly important to systems in any particular point of equilibrium; and that
systems are self-maintaining. These assumptions led him to focus primarily on order but to
overlook, for the most part, the issue of change.
The basic unit of Parsons's social system is the