Functionalism and the Relationship Between Society and Individual Action

In this essay, I will explore the theory of functionalism and the contribution it has had to our understanding of the relationship between society and individual action.  Firstly, I will discuss the concept of functionalism before exploring its contribution to our understanding of the relationship between society and individual action.

Macionis and Gerber (2010) define functionalism as a theory that views society as a complex system that acts in the same way as a living organism: all parts work together in order to create stability and a functioning society.  If all parts are working efficiently and in harmony with each other, society will be able to fully function.  For example, the government is dependent upon tax paying families in order to provide schools and education for their children. Families and societies are then dependent upon these schools in order to produce educated children who can get a good job and raise a family of their own.  The children can then therefore support the government themselves by paying taxes and being law abiding citizens. If one of these institutions is not functioning properly, the other simply cannot exist.   Herbert Spencer argues that that society functions much like the human body, with institutions within society acting in the same way as organs.  In order for a human body to survive, all organs must be healthy and in working order in order to sustain life.  Spencer believes the same idea can be applied to society as a whole as, in order for society to function, all institutions within it must also function properly to create an ordered and functioning society (Simon, 1960).  Furthermore functionalists argue that, much like the human body, institutions are not created because we want to create them but rather because they are a necessary and vital part of a healthy and functioning society. Without these institutions working properly and in harmony with each other, society would be dysfunctional, full of conflict and thus unable to function properly.

A key theorist in the functionalist school of thought is Emile Durkheim. For Durkheim, a key factor in determining individual action is social facts.  By social fact, Durkheim is referring to facts, concepts and expectations that arise in a particular society. These facts then have a direct effect on the behaviour and actions of the people that are socialized within that society (Farganis, 2010).  Social facts, then, are things that affect our individuality, our behaviour and the actions we undertake every day:

“A social fact is every way of acting, fixed or not, capable of exercising on the individual an external constraint; or again, every way of acting which is general throughout a given society, while at the same time existing in its own right independent of its individual manifestations.” (Durkheim, 1895)

For Durkheim, facts such as occupation, gender and culture have a huge effect on who we are and how we act and thus true individuality doesn’t exist. Every action undertaken by an individual is a direct consequence of these social facts.  Therefore, individual action is determined by whatever social facts are constraining an individual rather than individual free will itself.

A key aspect of Durkheim’s functionalist model was that of solidarity.  Durkheim believed that the behaviour and actions of individuals was somewhat dependent on the type of society in which they lived, their position within it and the actions and the roles of those around them.  Durkheim first introduced the terms mechanical and organic solidarity as part of his theory on the creation and subsequent development of societies in “The Division of Labour in Societies” (1893). In a society characterised by mechanical solidarity, there are traditional cultures with a low division of labour.  These societies and communities are bound together by common experiences and shared beliefs. The affect this has on human behaviour and actions is so strong that these communites would reject and push away anyone that tried to challenge or alter this traditional way of life. (Giddens, 2001). Organic society is characterised as a society is entirely dependent on each other to fulfil their roles for the overall good of the entire community. People become more and more dependent on each other as the division if labour expands as each person needs good that others in other occupations can supply (Giddens, 2001).  In such a society, mutual dependence is so great that society simply cannot functions if any roles are not functioning properly. Individual action and behaviour is therefore influenced by the role and function that person has within society.    In his book, “The Division of Labour in Societies,” Durkheim wrote:

“Social life comes from a double source, the likeness of consciences and the division of social labour” (Durkheim, 1893. P. 226)

Here, Durkheim suggests that the actions of individual people are hugely dependent upon their role within society and also due to the influence of those around them.  The actions that they undertake are not necessarily a consequence of their own individual free will but rather due to the role that is required of them within society.  Durkheim believes that integral to a society’s success is a strong division of labour and that in turn affects the way in which people act and behave.

Much of Durkheim’s work regarding social facts was centred around the act of suicide.  Durkheim believed that even something as personal as taking one’s life was a consequence of social facts constraining and affecting the behaviour of individuals. Although humans see themselves as individuals with free will and choice, their behaviours and actions are often of socially constructed and patterned (Giddens, 2001).  According to Durkheim, the act of suicide was not a consequence of an individual’s feelings or motivations but rather a response to their position within society (Calhoun, 2002). People may be frustrated with their position in society due to factors such as relationship problems and job opportunities and are thus forced to take their own life.  Durkheim believed that there were four types of suicide and that all were consequences of the effects of social facts: altruistic, anomic, egoistic, and fatalistic (Durkheim, 1897). Egoistic suicide is due to individuals being insufficiently integrated into society and into different social groups. Durkheim found that there was a much higher suicide rate amongst Protestants than Roman Catholics.  This, Durkheim believed, was not due to individual free will but rather due to the fact that Roman Catholics were much better integrated (Durkheim, 1897).  There was much more collectivism within the Roman Catholic community and thus they didn’t feel as isolated and felt far more integrated to society.  This certainly substantiates the idea that suicide is not a personal choice but rather a response to the different social facts dictating an individual’s life and actions.  Durkheim argues that another reason for different suicide rates in Catholics and Protestants is the degree of freedom that each religion allows its members.  Durkheim argues that Protestantism permits a far greater degree of free inquiry than Catholicism whilst Catholics tend to accept their religion “without scrutiny” (Durkheim, 1897 pp. 158).  Therefore, Catholics are much more likely to accept their religion without question and adhere to it fully whilst Protestants are more likely to question their belief system and thus become frustrated and disintegrated from society leading to a far greater chance of suicide.  Again, it suggests that the act of committing suicide and not an individual act but rather due to an individual’s relationship with society and their position within it.

Functionalist theory is also hugely important to our understanding of why people commit criminal and deviant acts.  According to Giddens, (2001) criminal and deviant behaviour stems from structural tensions and a lack of moral regulation within society.  If individuals or groups within society have certain aspirations but are simply unable to achieve them, they may turn to criminal or deviant acts in order to achieve their aims and receive their rewards.  This, again, suggests that criminal and deviant behaviour does not stem from the individual but rather from society as a whole.  An important aspect of criminal and deviant behaviour is the notion of anomie.  Anomie was first introduced by Durkheim and he used it to describe a lack of social norms, or normlessness.  If social bonds between individuals and the wider society or community break down these individuals become frustrated with their position in society and thus, may turn to crime and deviance (Durkheim, 1897).  Durkheim believes that in the modern world, people have much more freedom of choice and are less constrained by the society in which they live.  Because of this, however, Durkheim believes that this will lead to much more rebellion and non-conformity. (Giddens, 2001).  Individuals therefore commit criminal acts due to the way in which society functions. They me disagree and become frustrated by norms and regulations within society and thus turn to criminal and deviant acts to combat them.

Durkheim’s theory on crime and deviance provoked a shift in attention from individual explanations to wider social forces.  His work was hugely influential to the work of Robert K Merton who used the term anomie to define the subsequent behaviour of individuals when accepted norms and values within a society conflicted with social reality. (Giddens, 2001).  Merton’s work focused primarily on America and he believed that criminal and deviant behaviour was rooted within the very structure of American society (Merton, 1957). According to Merton, an individual in a state of anomie would strive to achieve the aims and goals set out by any given society but would be simply unable to achieve these aims and goals.  The individual would be unable to achieve these goals due to the structures and constraints within society and so the individual would begin to engage in criminal and deviant behaviour.  In a society that judges people on their material success and wealth and condemns those that fail, there is a rising pressure to try and get ahead by any means necessary.  In this kind of social climate, there will be much criminal and deviant behaviour as people try and achieve the goals set out by society (Giddens, 2001).

The functionalist perspective also views education and the school system as a hugely important contributory part of a functioning society and the reasons people act in the way they do within it.  Talcott Parsons believed that the school system was hugely important in a functioning society as it was necessary for children to receive a good education to help them achieve the goals set out by that society. Parsons believed that the school had to be recognised as a social system and that it was the system that held society together (Ballantine et al. 2008).  Schools were the main contributors to socialisation and thus were extremely important as society would only be able to continue to function if its children received a good education.  The idea here is that children learn very early what society expects from them and how to be successful within it.  Their behaviour and is then focussed to achieving these aims and fulfilling the role that is expected of them in society. Parsons describes schools as an “agency of socialisation” (Ballantine, 2008: 81) whereby children are educated and trained to perform their adult roles both motivationally and technically.  Although not the only form of socialisation, Parson argues that the time spent in the education system are the most important (Ballantine, 2008).  Here, Parsons suggests that, as school is the primary and most important form of socialisation, being able to fulfil your adult role within society is the most important lesson to learn in order to be successful. Therefore, as children grow up their main focus will be geared towards receiving a good education and achieving the right attributes and skills in order to be successful in the labour market and achieve the goals that society has set out.  The goals that society has set out will therefore affect your actions and behaviours throughout your life.  Parsons believes that the socialisation within the education system can be broken into two components: a commitment to implement the broad views and values of society and a commitment to perform a particular role within that society (Ballantine, 2008). Again, this could clearly be viewed as a major factor in influencing the way people act and the tasks they perform each day. Children are educated, or “trained,” to believe that performing tasks and behaving in such a way that will conform to that society’s values and norms is of utmost importance.  They will therefore act and behave accordingly so as to be viewed as a successful and respectable member of society by their peers.

Functionalism has, however, received much criticism for being unable to account for social change and asserting that the status quo is always best.  Anderson and Taylor assert that functionalism does not encourage members of society to take an active role in changing their social environment, even if it may help them individually and society as a whole. (Anderson and Taylor, 2009).  This may be due to the fact that the school system teaches young members of society to work towards conserving and conforming to the values and norms of the society you belong to and work towards fulfilling an important role within it.  The functionalist perspective of crime and deviance has also been criticised as it does little to explain why some acts are considered normal and others criminal or deviant.  Furthermore, it does very little to explain who imposes these social norms and on whom are they most effective (Anderson and Taylor, 2009). Functionalism suggests that adhering to social norms and behaving in a way that is considered legal will benefit society overall. However, it does not take into account that behaving in such a way that may alter social norms could in fact improve the life of an individual and thus society overall

Overall, it is clear that the functionalism theory has had a major influence on our understanding of the relationship between society and social action.  It has also inspired future theories that have sought to improve our understanding of individuals within society.  However, most sociologists have stopped using any explicit functionalistic explanations of social phenomena due to its simplistic and one dimensional view of society. It seems to reject the idea of revolution and social conflict being beneficial to the overall well-being of society and the individuals within it.  The functionalist model has, however, been extremely inspirational and has inspired much of the work that has followed it.  Most sociologist still believe that with much scrutiny, an overall understanding of social behaviour and individual action can be achieved.


Macionis, J.J; Gerber, L.M.  (2008) Sociology. Pearsons Education Canada. 7th Canadian Edition

Farganis, J (2010) Readings in Social Theory. 6th ed. McGraw-Hill Humanities

Simon, W.M (1960). Herbert Spencer and the “Social Organism.”  Journal of the History of Ideas. Vol. 21, No. 2, pp. 294-299

Durkheim, E (1895) The Rules of the Sociological Method. Free Press

Durkheim, E (1893) The Division of Labour in Society. The Free Press

Giddens, A (2001) Sociology. 4th ed. Cambridge: Polity Press

Durkheim, E (1897) Suicide. Translated by J.A Spaulding, 1997. Free Press

Ballantine, J.H; Spade, J.Z (2008) Schools and Society: A Sociological Approach to Education. 3rd ed. London: Sage Publications ltd

Anderson, M.L; Taylor, H.R (2009) Sociology: The Essentials. 6th ed. Belmont: Wadsworth





One thought on “Functionalism and the Relationship Between Society and Individual Action

  1. Pingback: “NORMal” humans = humans` NORM? “The rebel against the controlled world by Jon Rappaport |

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