The structural functional theory is a theoretical approach that views society as a complex and interconnected system whose individual parts work in concert to promote stability and harmony in the system as a whole.
EXAMPLEConsider the metaphor of your body: each organ in your body has a function to promote the overall well-being of your health. You can't take away one organ and still expect to be healthy. Your heart needs to pump the blood, your brain needs to do the thinking, your liver and kidneys do the purifying, etc. If one of them ceases to function, your whole system fails.
This is the same way that structural-functionalists look at society. Each part of society has a function that contributes to the maintenance of society as a whole.
These ‘parts’ of society are called structures. Each structure has a function. A social structure is defined as any stable pattern of social behavior. Any routine, big or small, that represents a stable pattern of social behavior would be considered a structure.
EXAMPLEAmericans like to watch football on Sundays. Is this one of your routines? If so, this would be a stable pattern of social behavior, or structure. It's helpful to think of these structures as routines.
An act that contributes to the maintenance of a structure, such as system, institution, or society, is called a social function. These functions keep the structure going.
Your education system socializes you and teaches you how to be a member of the society, to obey laws, to participate in society and politics, to get jobs and contribute to the economy. Some sociologists even believe that religion is essential for capitalism to function--that it helps develop the work habits and ethics that promote capitalism. In this manner, religion connects to the economy, to the family, and to culture.
Even things that you might consider ‘bad’, like deviant behavior and crime, contribute to the overall maintenance of the system.
For sociologists working within the structural functional perspective, the first task is to identify the various structures, and from there, begin to investigate each of their functions. This is a macro-level view of society. Structural functionalists work with a macro orientation; they don’t work on a level of individual interactions. Instead, they work on the macro level of social structures. They examine how aggregated patterns of behavior combine to make social structures, which then perform functions for society.
French sociologist Emile Durkheim was a prominent figure working within the structural functional approach. Durkheim lived from 1858 to 1917 and was hugely influential in sociology. He was regarded by many as one of the founding theorists of sociology. Durkheim gave us the idea of a social fact, which is defined as a phenomenon arising from a collective consensus--that is, our norms, our values, and our mores.
Durkheim also wrote a book called On Suicide. In this book, Durkheim looked at suicide rates for countries in Europe and broke them down by sub-groups: the rate of suicide for men, and the rate of suicide for women. He further broke down the sub-groups by religion and marital status: the rate of suicide for Protestants versus Catholics, for the married versus the unmarried. He discovered that the more socially integrated you were--the stronger your societal ties, the more stability you had in your life--the less likely you were to commit suicide.
In this suicide study, Durkheim took the most ostensibly individual act - suicide - and gave it a social explanation. The root causes of suicide were linked to stability, social ties, strength, and harmony of the society. When those things were functioning, people weren’t killing themselves, according to Durkheim.
Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Zach Lamb.