The Functionalist Perspective in Social Institutions

Published: 2021-06-23
1526 words
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University of California, Santa Barbara
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Term paper
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Sociology refers to the study of the human society with special emphasis on its structure and functioning. There are three key theoretical perspectives in sociology: the symbolic interactionist perspective, the conflict perspective, and the functionalist perspective. These perspectives enable people to comprehend the social world they live in. These perspectives also offer different explanations about human behavior and interactions. According to Durkheim (2014), the functionalist perspective explains how the world consists of interconnected parts working harmoniously to maintain social equilibrium while the conflict perspective states that the world is made up of different parts competing for resources and power. The symbolic interactionist theory, on the other hand, explains the influence of broad aspects of society such as institutions and large groups of people. It explains how human behavior is influenced by the people they interact with. This paper presents and analysis of the functionalist perspective and how it relates to these three social institutions: family, education, and religion. The functionalist perspective emphasizes on the positive interconnection of social institutions by analyzing how each part influences, or is influenced by other parts of the system (Durkheim, 2014). In the functionalist perspective, the society can be represented as a system of interconnected parts working in unison to maintain a balanced state. Different institutions perform different roles in the society. Although functionalism may mainly apply in perfect situations, functionalists emphasize that a social structure consisting of norms and values passed from institutions exists separately from individuals, and that social order should be maintained in order to ensure that the society progresses.

Functionalism and the Family

In sociology, the family is a vital institution in the society. The US Bureau of Census defines a family as a group of two or more individuals who are related by blood, marriage or adoption (Ferris & Stein, 2016). However, in sociology, this definition is too vague. Contemporary Sociologists view the family as society members who are bound legally, biologically, emotionally or by any combination of the three. The functionalist believes that social institutions implement positive functions generally. The family has always changed in response to changes in economic political and social environment. The meaning of family has changed from the extended family during the Pre-industrial revolution to the nuclear family and then to single-parent families and same-sex couples raising their children (Ferris & Stein, 2017). In sociology, children are an essential part of a family. The functionalist perspective views a family as an integral institution for the well-being of the society. Emile Durkheim, one of the pioneers of the functionalist perspective, argued out that families gave men a sense of responsibility and they were likely to be happy and less likely to commit suicide (Ferris & Stein, 2016).

The family was a key institution in the survival of the society as it served its main functions which included economic production, emotional support, sexual control and normalization of children (Silverstein & Giarrusso, 2010). The family institution may not directly control production, but it performs functions that allow continuity of production. Families shifted to nuclear family to enable people to be more suitable to the industrial economy by reducing their numerous obligations to extended families. The children produced by the family institution act as future workers who will ensure the continuity of production. Families offer emotional support to members by availing companions to the family members. The role of the family in sexual control is regulation of sexuality by determining who we can mate with. Functionalists argue out that these roles of the family institution enable the society to run smoothly and also maintain social order in the society.

Functionalism and Education

Education is defined as a way in which the society transfers knowledge, expectation, and values to its members (Ferris, & Stein, 2016). In sociology, the main aim of education is to enable students to comprehend how the society functions. Education is vital for the transmission of information, principles and regulating personal character. Secular education has been available since the eight century B.C.E. in Ancient Greece, and as the society advanced, so did education (Watt, 2013). However, it was until the Industrial Revolution when education became available to all members of the society. Education in the United States is provided by the government, churches and other private individuals. Education is vital in socialization since it bridges the gap between family and the society (Musgrove, 2011). Students leave their homes to attend schools where they have to learn to co-exist with strangers. Parsons, another pioneer of the functionalist perspective, believes that education instills to students the values of hard work, competition, equality and individualism.

The functionalist perspective views education positively. Schools are viewed as institutions that transfer knowledge, principles, and ethics to students and teach them how the society functions (Ferris & Stein, 2016). Education maintains society by enabling students to learn the values of hard work, achievement, and equal opportunities to all members of the society. Education enables people to be allocated the most appropriate jobs to them by use of qualifications and examinations. It selects and rewards people based on their ability and hard work. The most gifted students are chosen to play key roles in the society such as doctors and engineers where there are highly rewarded, and this encourages healthy competition among students. Education is viewed by functionalists as an entity that creates social solidarity (Watt, 2013). It plays an important role in transmitting culture. A school acts as a small community with rules and interactions that are similar to the larger society. Division of labor enables teachers to teach what they are best suited to. This enables students to learn from the most qualified tutors.

Functionalism and Religion

In sociology, religion refers to any institutionalized system consisting of shared beliefs and ritual that bind together sacred beings and human beings (Ferris & Stein, 2016). There are different types of religions. Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism are the most common in the United States. Religious groups can be classified as denominations, sects or cults (Musgrove, 2011). Sociologists study how our lives are influenced by our religions and how we influence religions but not on the truth behind these religious beliefs. Religions role in early functionalism was key. The functionalist perspective stresses that any religion aims at shaping people's behavior through the provision of morals, rules, values and norms for its participants (Ferris & Stein, 2016). Religious rules govern all aspects of the society from protecting lives to the type of food people should consume. Religion also provides some sort of punishment or penance for the followers who break its rules. This also varies from mutilation of arms for Muslims who steal to confession for Catholics who sin. Fasting as a form of penance is also common in most religions.

For functionalists, religion gives meaning to human life. It enables people to understand situations they encounter no matter how intolerable it is. This is because religion always has answers for all questions that a man may encounter. It made people serve powers that even the most learned people could barely understand. Religion is used to show people those inexplicable and difficult situations are temporary and thus encourages its followers to be hopeful. Religion also offers an opportunity for people to meet, share ideas and form social organizations with like-minded people.


In sociology, the functionalist perspective is very important in analyzing social institutions. This perspective describes the society as a system of interconnected parts working together to maintain social balance. The perspective is based on the assumption that institutions perform tasks that positively influence the society. Functionalists believe that social order must be maintained for the society to progress. In functionalism, the family is a very important institution in the society. It has core influence in economic production, emotional support, sexual control and normalization of children. Family enabled the society to develop a sense of responsibility. The functionalist perspective views education favorably. Education is viewed as vital to the progression of the society as it passes knowledge to students and enables to learn their roles in the society. Education instills the principles of hard work and effort to students to enhance their chances of personal development. Education is also vital is transferring culture between generations. It also enhances socialization by bridging gaps between family and society. Functionalists believe that religion shapes up the behavior of people by providing a set of rules and values to be followed and punishing those who do not comply. Religion also gives hope to people in dire situations. It also gives life meaning. Functionalism is a key perspective of sociology. However, each of the above institutions has demerits which are totally ignored by functionalists. Therefore, it may only be applicable in ideal circumstances.


Durkheim, E. (2014). The division of labor in society (1st ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster.

Ferris, K., & Stein, J. (2016). The real world: an introduction to sociology (5th ed.). W. W. Norton.

Musgrove, F. (2011). The family, education and society (RLE Edu L Sociology of Education) (1st ed.). Hoboken: Taylor & amp; Francis.

Silverstein, M., & Giarrusso, R. (2010). Aging and family life: a decade review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(5), 1039-1058.

Watt, J. (2013). Individualism and educational theory (1st ed.). [Place of publication not identified]: Springer.


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