Functionalism explained: the Definition and Theory

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Functionalism: this article explains Functionalism in a practical way. It contains the definition of functionalism, a summary of academic literature on the topic of functionalism and a practical example. Enjoy reading!

What is Functionalism?

Functionalism is a theory developed in the social sciences. The theory assumes that all aspects of a person’s mental state are shaped solely by the function they have. According to functionalism, society is more than just the sum of its different parts. Each aspect acts as a stabilizer for the whole because each part plays a necessary role, but cannot function independently. When one part goes through a crisis, the other aspects will have to adapt.

Functionalism is therefore different from Cartesian dualism and Skinnerian behaviorism and physicalism. Cartesian dualism advocates independent mental and physical substances and processes. Skinnerian behaviorism and physicalism advocate only physical substances and processes.

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Functionalism in sociology

The theory of functionalism in sociology describes that the various parts of a society mainly consist of social institutions. These all perform a different function to fulfill different needs. Examples of social institutions include family, religion, government, economy, media and education.

According to functionalism, these institutions exist only because they fulfill a certain role. If this role disappears, the institute will disappear. When new needs arise, new institutions will develop.

The definition of Functionalism

Functionalism is defined as the perspective that society is constructed of several interconnected parts designed to meet biological and social needs.


Structuralism and functionalism are the two earliest movements in psychology. The great debate in psychology, at the time separate from philosophy, was about how to explain human behavior. Before that, extensive research was done into ‘the mind’. Different perspectives on the role of mental processes in the individual emerged from these early studies.

Structuralism was the first school of thought in psychology. Researchers broke down mental processes into their most basic components. With the help of introspection, they tried to understand these basic elements of consciousness.

Functionalism in different fields

Functionalism is present in both psychology and sociology. Depending on the field of study, the nuance of the theory changes. Usually, the question: “What is functionalism?” is answered with a general definition.

The interconnected parts are purely designed to fulfill a certain need. In psychology, this can be specifically applied to the human mind and behavior. The function of a person’s mind determines its

In sociology, the theory of functionalism is projected onto institutions and their role in society. Institutions are interconnected, and society is worth more than the sum of its parts. Society and institutions exist and are given meaning based on the function of institutions. In this sense, functions are essential to the existence of institutions.

Literature on functionalism

Herbert Spencer research

Functionalism arose from the work of the English philosopher and biologist Herbert Spencer. He saw similarities between society and the human body.

Just like the different organs of a body, the different parts of society work to make it function. With these different parts, Spencer was referring to social institutions or beliefs and behaviors, such as family, religion, government, education, and economics.

Emile Durkheim research

Emile Durkheim applied Spencer’s idea to explain how societies adapt and survive. Durkheim was convinced that society is a complex system of interconnected and dependent parts. These work together to ensure stability within a society.

Emile Durkheim further believed in researching social facts. Social facts are rituals, laws, morals, fashions, and other cultural rules that construct social life. Every social fact has a specific function.

For example, the function of the law is to protect a society against violence. Another function is the protection of public health.

Alfred Radcliff-Brown research

Alfred Radcliff-Brown defined the function of the various parts of a society as the role they play in social life; the contribution it makes to the stability and continuity of society.

Robert Merton research

Another well-known functionalist is Robert Merton. Merton pointed out that the social processes of societies often have multiple functions. Manifest functions are the consequences of social processes that are sought, while latent functions are the unsought consequences of a social process. A manifest function of higher education is, for example, preparing for a specific career and finding a good job related to the study program. Latent functions are, for example, meeting new people, participating in all kinds of activities or finding a partner.

Thus, latent functions can be beneficial, neutral or harmful. The social processes that have undesirable effects on the functioning of society as a whole are called dysfunctions. Examples of dysfunctions are absenteeism, poor results, absenteeism, not graduating and not working.

Different types of functionalism

Functionalism is so broad that it is expressed in many different variants. The first formulation of a functionalist theory was made in the 1960s by Hilary Putnam.

Machine-state functionalism

It was Putnam who laid the foundation for what is now called machine-state functionalism. It was inspired by the analogies that Putnam and others noted between the human mind and the theoretical computers capable of calculating an algorithm.


A second variant of functionalism is psycho-functionalism. Jerry Fodor and Zenon Pylyshyn are most associated with psycho-functionalism. The fundamental idea behind psycho-functionalism is that psychology and the study of the mind is a complex science and the terms used cannot be redefined in simpler terms. Adherents of this vision view psychology as the use of irreducible teleological or purposive descriptions, just as in biological science. For example, the function of the heart is to pump blood. The kidney filters this blood to maintain certain chemical balances. This is what’s behind the scientific explanation.

Analytical functionalism

This third form of functionalism deals with the meanings of theoretical terms in general. David Lewis is seen as the originator of the term, which is also known as conceptual functionalism. The idea behind analytic functionalism is that theoretical terms are defined by the context and theories in which they occur and not by intrinsic properties of the phonemes themselves.

Example of functionalism

In many societies on earth, government has an important and central role. This government ensures that education is accessible to the children from the families in society. The family, in turn, pays taxes. The state is dependent on these taxes. The family entrusts the educational institution with the task of guiding their children towards a future with a job that suits them. The children can then in turn support and raise their own families.

In the process, the parents turn into the children who become law-abiding and tax-paying citizens who support the government. If all goes well in this process, these parts of society produce order, productivity, trust and stability. If this process is disrupted, these parts of society must adapt to produce stability and order again.

Twin Earth thought experiment

The Twin Earth thought experiment was created by Hilary Putnam. With it, she is responsible for one of the main arguments against functionalism. Originally, the thought experiment was conceived and intended as an argument against semantic internalism. The thought experiment goes like this.

Consider a second earth. This earth is identical in all respects to our earth, except for the fact that on earth 2 water does not have the same chemical structure (H2O) as on earth 1, but XYZ. It is important to note that water on Earth 2 is still called water and has the same properties as on Earth 1. Also, just like on Earth 1, the water flows in lakes, oceans, rivers, etc.

The worlds are thus equal in all respects except the structure of water. The persons on both Earth 1 and 2 see exactly the same things, meet the same people, have the same job, behave in exactly the same way, etc. In other words, these persons are functional duplicates.

They all believe that water is wet. But the content of the mental state of a person on Earth 1 is different from that of the duplicate on Earth 2. Earthling 1 is convinced that water is H2O, while the duplicate on Earth 2 is sure that it is XYZ. Therefore, it is argued, functionalism cannot take sufficient account of mental states. Two people can be functionally the same, yet have different mental states.

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It’s your turn now

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about functionalism? What do you think about functional theories and perspectives on society?Have you thought about society as a constructed mechanism before? How do you think functionalism can be used to tackle problems in the world? Do you have any tips or comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Block, N.J. (1982). Functionalism. In Studies in Logic and the Foundations of Mathematics (Vol. 104, pp. 519-539). Elsevier.
  2. Turner, J.H., & Maryanski, A. (1979). functionalism. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin / Cummings Publishing Company.
  3. Block, N. (1980). Troubles with functionalism. Readings in philosophy of psychology, 1, 268-305.
  4. Givon, T. (1995). Functionalism and grammar. John Benjamins Publishing.

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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