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4 Tutorials that teach Structural Functionalism: Manifest and Latent Functions
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Structural Functionalism: Manifest and Latent Functions

Structural Functionalism: Manifest and Latent Functions

Author: Zach Lamb

This lesson will summarize the contributions of Robert Merton's development of manifest and latent functions. The definitions of social functions, manifest functions, latent functions, and social dysfunction will be delineated.

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Structural-Functional Theory: Manifest and Latent Functions

Source: Intro Music by Mark Hannan; Public Domain

Video Transcription

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Hello, and welcome to Sociological Studies. As always, thank you for taking the time out of your busy day to study society. The topic of today's lesson is going to be the structural functional approach, looking at latent and manifest functions. We're going to look at the work of Robert K. Merton, an American sociologist who contributed to the structural-functional approach by giving us this concept, manifest and latent function.

Well, for starters, Robert K. Merton lived from 1910 to 2003. He founded the sub-discipline in sociology called the sociology of science, where sociologists turned their gaze to the scientific process itself. And for this, Merton was awarded a National Medal of Science. He was the first sociologist to receive this prestigious honor.

But today we're going to focus on another of Merton's achievements and that is giving us the idea of latent and manifest functions, really theorizing social functions, which a social function is the consequence of any pattern of social action or interaction for society as a whole.

So there's two kinds of social functions. There's a manifest function and a latent function. Before we get into manifest and latent functions specifically, it will be helpful to give a brief overview of the structural-functional approach. There's an entire tutorial that covers the structural-functional approach in more detail so for now I'm just going to give a brief overview.

Well, the structural-functional approach sees society as a complex and interconnected system, a complex machine, you could visualize, with interlocking parts that all work together to promote the functioning of the system as a whole, to promote stability and harmony. Your body is one of these systems with all of its organs working together to produce function and harmony in your body.

So to come back to social functions. Well, a manifest function is an intended consequence of any social structure or pattern. Its intended. You want it to happen.

A latent function, though, on the other hand is unintended, and it's often unrecognized or unforeseen. It's an unrecognized or unforeseen consequence. So these lurk. They're latent. You don't know they're there until maybe they become known or maybe they might even become a problem, which is a social dysfunction. A social dysfunction is a consequence that's harmful for society.

So I'll give you a couple examples of manifest and latent functions to help make this clear. So for starters, recall that Robert Merton founded the sociology of science, and that looks at the scientific process.

Now the scientific process is really about generating knowledge. So let's go back in time a bit to about 1900 with the scientific process. Scholars were going about measuring the cranial size of people of different races because they felt that different races had different biology and that this explained racial differences. So this got used later on as a way to subjugate people so this was called scientific racism.

Now these scientists at the time, though, didn't know that this was a latent function of the process of science, of discovery. They didn't know that this was going to happen. They thought they were just producing objective knowledge, but we now later see that the manifest function of producing scientific knowledge had this unintended consequence, scientific racism. That could even be social dysfunction as these people don't get to live rich and flourishing lives because they are subjugated. They're not adding to the economy or anything like that. So that was also an example of social dysfunction.

Now a more contemporary example. When I was doing my [INAUDIBLE] research at Chicago, I was on the way to a focus group. I had set up six people to meet me for this focus group, but I didn't know that President Obama was in town at a dinner, a fundraising dinner.

So here I am cruising out Lake Shore Drive, trying to make my focus group, but I get stuck in traffic for two hours because so many streets in and around where this meeting was taking place or this dinner was taking place was closed. So I didn't make the focus group I left everybody hanging. I got stuck in traffic.

So this focus group never happened. It was suppose to happen, but it didn't so I didn't get to add it to my research. So here the manifest function of the political dinner, of the political process really, is to raise money to keep the thing going, keep the election going, have Obama get elected. The latent function of that is all of the traffic congestion and how that affects everybody that's stuck in that traffic. Who knows what other stories people had that didn't make it to whatever they were trying to do? So these are latent functions.

Well, I hope you enjoyed this discussion of Robert F. Merton's work and the structural-functional approach with a specific focus on latent and manifest social functions. Have a great rest of your day.

Terms to Know
Latent Functions

The unintended and often unforeseen consequences of a system, institution, or society.

Manifest Functions

The known and intended consequences of a system, institution, or society.

Robert K. Merton

American sociologist who won the National Medal of Science and contributed the idea of manifest and latent functions.

Social Dysfunction

Factors that lead to the breakdown of a system, institution, or society.

Social Functions

The actions that contribute to the maintenance of a system, institution, or society.