Criticism of Functionalism
With functionalism's focus on how societies form and stay together, critics have argued that it does not adequately address how they change. For instance, the Industrial Revolution led many people to give up an agrarian lifestyle and move to cities. Social institutions such as religion and education had left people unprepared for massive urbanization and were unable to provide peace, prosperity, and cohesion.
Functionalism has also been accused of being circular. Critics say that it seeks to explain why societies are the way they are simply by describing them. In this view functionalism describes how certain behaviors serve social needs and how they are perpetuated but not how or why they arose in the first place. The theory has also been criticized for treating people as passive creatures. Functionalist research tends to view humans as lacking agency, waiting for social institutions to guide them. Critics argue that societies are not themselves living things that have wants and needs like humans do; society does not decide how humans should behave to suit it. Rather, people decide for themselves what is best, and they may decide that acting in a way that furthers the interests of society is also in their best interests. Another criticism is that it does not take into account factors such as race, gender, social class, and social conflict. These factors also impact the social experience of individuals in different ways.
Robert Merton addressed this criticism to some extent through his strain theory, which proposes explanations for why and how people deviate from society's norms. Merton argued that each society has institutionalized goals (goals that are valued by the society and culture), such as obtaining education, getting a good job, and living in a safe neighborhood. At the same time, society defines acceptable ways of attaining those goals. Some members of society have more access to the means of achieving those goals than others. Those who have little or no access to socially accepted means must find other ways of reaching the goals. For example, wealth is a socially accepted goal. Acceptable ways to achieve wealth include a college education and networking. But people who cannot afford college or who do not have access to helpful networks might use crime as a means to achieve the goal of wealth.
Functionalism assumes that social institutions develop in a way that is best for society. Because of this, the theory has been criticized for legitimizing the status quo and marginalizing calls for change. Some sociologists consider structural functionalism a bygone theory. It reached its peak popularity after World War II but began to fall out of favor in the 1960s, as sociologists expanded their fields of inquiry and diversified their theoretical approaches.