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Video transcript

Functionalism is a system of thinking based on the ideas of Emile Durkheim that looks at society from a large scale perspective. It examines the necessary structures that make up a society and how each part helps to keep the society stable. According to functionalism, society is heading toward an equilibrium. I know it sounds a bit strange that a society can be at equilibrium, but consider the changes many businesses have had to make in response to companies like Amazon. Local businesses must adapt to find a new way to cater to customers in order to restore the balance. In the theory of functionalism, society is made from a bunch of connected structures. One structure is institutions, which are structures that meet the needs of the society, like education systems, financial institutions, businesses and marriage, laws, mass media, nongovernmental organizations, medicine, religion, the military, police forces, and lots of others, too. Another structure is what Durkheim called social facts. Social facts are ways of thinking and acting formed by the society that existed before any one individual and will still exist after any individual is dead. They are unique objects that cannot be influenced by an individual. They have a coercive effect over the individual that is usually only noticed when we resist against them. So for example, one social fact is the law. It is always there, but we don't notice it until we try and break it or act against it. Some other examples are moral regulations, religious faiths, and social currents like suicide or birth rate. You might wonder how suicide can be a social fact. Well, one person committing suicide has no effect on the presence of suicide in the society . Social facts are a facet of the society itself and, according to Durkheim, are a necessary structure. But society is more than just the sum of its parts. It is dependent on the structures that create it, just like a cell is dependent on all the little parts that make it up. Every part of the cell has a specific vital function that depends on other parts of the cell. Without everything working together smoothly, the cell would die. The same is true of a society. Every structure has a function that meets a need of the society, and all the structures work together to maintain the social equilibrium. So for example, you have schools, which educate students so they can find good jobs and support the community. And businesses provide specialized services. And laws maintain social order. These recognized and intended consequences of institutions are known as manifest functions. But sometimes the institutions have unintended consequences. Schools allow the students and professors to make social connections, and they expose the students to new activities through extracurriculars. Businesses connect people across societies. These unrecognized and unintended consequences are called latent functions and are often indirect effects of the institution. Now, Durkheim's main question was, what holds a society together? How can it remain relatively stable even as traditions disappear and customs change? He thought that small societies were held together by their similarities, and the individual was self-sufficient. But that only works for small societies, and we all know societies change and grow large. The small society would eventually evolve into a large society where the individual was interdependent on others. But what causes the evolution of society to occur? The most basic factor is population growth within a limited space. Suddenly there isn't enough land for everyone to own their own farm and feed themselves. So just a few farmers grow enough food for the entire community. But now the farmers don't have enough time for other necessities like making clothes or teaching their kids. The people who no longer have to grow food now take on different roles like tailoring or education. And everyone becomes dependent on one another for their continued well being. People have become specialized, which forces mutual interdependence. This interdependence helps to ensure that the community won't fall apart. Now that people depend on each other for the production of goods and services there's a need for a method of distribution and a way to control and coordinate that production and distribution. In functionalism, a change to either production, distribution or coordination will force the others to adapt in order to maintain a stable state society. Social change is annoying and upsets the equilibrium and threatens the mutual interdependence of the people within that society. The institutions and structures of the society adapt only just enough to compensate for a change and maintain the stability of mutual interdependence. Phew. All right, that just about covers it. While functionalism is a nice way to look at society with its equilibrium of institutions all filling the needs of the society they create, there are some serious problems here. Functionalism focuses completely on the institution with little regard for the importance of the individual. The individual is acknowledged, but nothing they do really affects the structures of society. Functionalism is also largely unable to explain social change and conflict. We know it happens, but functionalism is so focused on maintaining the equilibrium of the society that little significant change is modeled and no conflict can occur. The structures of a society adapt only just enough to find stability again. Right, so, while there's more to understanding a society than just looking at the stable state of its parts, functionalism is helpful in understanding the workings of society by examining the functions of its integral structures.