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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
Instructor’s Comments
Topic 11: Structural Functionalism and Positivist Sociology
We are now entering the fourth learning module for the course. The topics in this
module explore some of the major theoretical styles and themes that shaped
Sociology in Europe and the U.S. between 1940 and 1980. The first topic examines
perhaps the most influential perspectives—positivism and structural functionalism—
whose roots can be traced back through Durkheim, Martineau, and Comte. The two
topics that follow examine perspectives–critical theories and post-structural
theories—with different intellectual roots and decidedly oppositional stances toward
structural functional theorizing.
I will begin my comments on positivism and structural functionalism by reviewing the
work of Beatrice Potter Webb, who actually predated the 1940-1980 era (she lived
from 1858 to 1943). I include her work in this period because it provides a very clear
foundation and rationale for what became the dominant mode of developing
sociological theory after 1940: positivism. I will then turn to a description of
structural functionalism and an examination of the theories of one its most celebrated
devotees: Talcott Parsons.
Beatrice Potter Webb
Beatrice Webb was a profoundly important figure in sociological theory, although an
often-unrecognized one. Like the members of the Chicago Women’s School (CWS) in
America, Webb was strongly committed to finding ways to reduce what she saw as
increasing poverty despite increasing wealth generation in capitalist/industrialist
societies. She was also deeply committed to using sociological methods to help
inform our understanding of the forces that contribute to increasing poverty. Webb’s
unique contribution to this effort was her articulation of a critical positivist approach
to understanding social life.
Background: Debates about Poverty in Victorian England
Webb began her work in sociology amid debates about poverty and social programs in
England. The predominant explanation for poverty at the time viewed poverty as
resulting from individual deficiencies (e.g., lack of effort, skills, intelligence, etc.).
Swept up in the prevailing intellectual infatuation with evolutionary thinking, many
scholars and policy-makers argued that poverty reflected the natural selection
process whereby the “least fit” gravitated toward lower socioeconomic levels in
society. The same scholars and policy makers argued that it would be unwise to
intervene in this “natural” process, because to do so would inhibit social evolution and
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
progress. Briefly, they argued that public intervention in the problem of poverty
would pull down the rest of society. One rationale for this argument was the
assertion that there is always a finite supply of money available to pay workers. If
money is diverted away from workers to the unemployed (or underemployed), then
there is less money to go to the “deserving” workers (thus dragging down their
lifestyle). Well, economics has progressed since then, but at the time, it was difficult
to argue against this belief.
Webb was among a small but growing group of social thinkers who believed that
governments could effectively intervene to alleviate social problems such as poverty.
The key ingredient required for effective intervention, however, was a very solid
understanding of the forces that led to poverty. Webb’s position was that one had to
apply rigorous scientific methods to uncover these forces and to learn how they
interacted with one another. In the next section, I discuss her thoughts on
sociological methods.
Inductive Positivism
Webb argued that any claims to understand social life must be inductively achieved,
and grounded in the rigorous application of scientific methods. By induction, she
means that sociologists should attempt to engage in their work as free from bias as
possible, and to allow their understandings to grow out of a systematic appraisal of
the empirical world.
I think it’s easiest to explain her point by contrasting it with the deductive approach
that was more widely applied in her day (and remains fairly popular today). The
deductive approach begins with a theory or set of hypotheses about the processes
that one is investigating. The researcher is then guided by these expectations in
designing a research project that will test the validity of the theory. Many of those
Victorians who believed in the “individual deficit” theory of poverty used just such an
approach. They began with the expectation that individual deficits explained
poverty, and they attempted to gather “scientific” evidence that supported the theory
(this is one major critique of Herbert Spencer’s work). Not surprisingly, this approach
yielded much “evidence” that individuals were responsible for their poverty.
By contrast, Webb argued that in order to have a clearer picture of the causes of
poverty, one had to begin with no assumptions about its causes. The best way to
proceed in her view was to gather scientific data on “the situation-at-hand” that
revealed the complexity behind what was “commonly believed” about the situation
(e.g., that poverty was caused by individual deficits). Moreover, she believed that
the “best” data were gathered as close to the situation-at-hand as possible (no ivory
tower research here). This belief followed her assumption that the quality of data
degraded very quickly, the farther was one’s vantage point from the actual experience
one was trying to understand. For example, she believed that many non-poor people’s
understandings of poverty came from their reading of newspapers. This inserted
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
journalists between the readers and the subjects–creating opportunities for “common
assumptions” to be used to distort the “true” experiences of the poor.
A Structural Theory of Poverty
The fruit of Webb’s rigorous induction was a growing belief that poverty did not result
from individual factors as much as it was the result of social structures. Despite her
admonition that one should begin one’s analysis as free of biases as possible, Webb
admitted that she began her study of poverty in the hopes of finding ways to
strengthen individual character (and, thus, reduce poverty). However, as she
investigated poverty more fully (while trying to discover ways to strengthen
character) she discovered that no amount of character strengthening could overcome
social forces that reinforced poverty. Increasingly, she came to view these social
forces as primary determinants of wealth and poverty, not the character of the
individuals who wound up rich or poor. She argued that she “discovered” that
capitalist competition and class conflict had more to do with the creation and
maintenance of poverty/wealth distinctions that individual character differences.
Ironically, this same belief led her away from her earlier claims that sociologists
should attempt to be unbiased in their work to the slightly modified claim that
sociologists should be aware of how their own structural position (e.g., social class)
shapes the way they view the problems they are investigating.
Sociological Activism
Webb argued that the sociologist’s role in society was to provide high quality data to
help policymakers and social activists develop experimental social programs and to
evaluate whether these programs are working. Her hope was that eventually society
would gravitate toward organizing itself around other imperatives than capitalist
competition. But she was no Marxist. She argued that society would be better served
if it moved toward a more democratic decision making process for the deployment of
productive (and consumption) energy. Rather than relying purely on competition and
opportunism to drive economic and political development, she hoped that producers
and consumers would enter into more collective dialogue about social aims. She
referred to this new basis of social organization as the “collective bargain,” a stage of
industrialization beyond the present system of capitalist exploitation of
workers/consumers: a kind of socialism that would supersede what she saw as
rampant individualism.
Structural Functionalism
As promised, I will now describe Structural Functionalism (S-F)– arguably the most
widely accepted paradigm among sociological theorists between 1940 and 1980. To
be sure, S-F elicited quite vigorous critiques, especially among Marxists, Feminists,
and Critical Theorists, but for many years, it reigned as the dominant perspective
within American Sociology. Its heyday was the period from the 1940 to the midCopyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
1960s. However, it has regained strength within the theorist community as strains of
neo-functionalism have emerged and flourished. My aim here is to sketch out the
contours of Structural-Functionalism by presenting five assumptions that underpin this
1. Organic Metaphor: Society Viewed as Like an Organism
The key to understanding S-F is to recognize that it is built upon a metaphor: that
societies and social relations are like living organisms. Adopting this metaphor leads
the sociologist to approach her or his subject matter much like biologists or ecologists
would approach their subject matter. The social group (whether the world system, a
nation, a community, a family, a workplace, a friendship network, or a couple) is
viewed as if it were an internally complex, developing and evolving organism. Like an
organism, the social group or “system” (from now on I’ll use the more widely applied
term “social system”) has survival needs that must be met in order to continue to
exist. The sociologist’s job is to learn about the morphology of the system as well as
the function that the various parts of the system play in securing the system’s
continued development and survival.
2. Society is a System of Integrated and Interdependent Parts
As the S-F theorist casts a gaze on a social system, s/he is inclined to see an organism
comprised of many interlocking sub-units that are interdependent, much like a body’s
organs are interconnected and interdependent. Think of the relationship between
organs in the human body. For example, the human heart is connected to a
circulatory system that distributes oxygenated blood to tissue throughout the body.
The heart’s role is to keep the blood circulating throughout the body. The blood also
collects metabolic waste, some of which is expelled through the respiratory system.
Each of these parts of the body serves specific functions as is dependent on the
others. Without the heart, the blood doesn’t circulate. Without the system of veins,
arteries, and capillaries, the blood doesn’t reach the cells that need its oxygen.
Without the lungs, carbon dioxide can’t be expelled from the system.
Social systems are seen in the same light. Larger social systems, like societies, are
seen as comprised of many smaller parts that promote system survival. For example,
societies usually have some system of education whereby new members are socialized
to behave in line with cultural norms and values. Some of the education may take
place in informal settings as with family members, friends, etc. These informal
systems are augmented by formal systems, such as schools and workplaces. Each of
these educational contexts, informal and formal, are thought to be interconnected
and interdependent–and all are thought to be necessary to the system’s overall
In societies, there are also political systems and economic systems that coordinate
the administration of power, production, and consumption. The S-F theorist would
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
see these systems as interconnected and interdependent among themselves, as well
as with other sub-systems like educational institutions, families, neighborhoods, etc.
3. The Various Parts of Society Meet the Needs of Systemic Survival
As you may have surmised above, the S-F view is that the parts or elements of society
must serve some functional role for the social system’s survival. They come to this
conclusion by starting with the assumption that no social system is guaranteed
survival (just like no organism has that guarantee). The mere fact that a social
system exists is testimony to its ability to survive in the S-F view. Key to a system’s
survival in this view is the operation of its various sub-parts (or organs). As with the
body, surviving sub-units of the social system are thought to serve some useful
purpose for the larger system’s survival. From this standpoint, parts that do not
contribute to the system’s survival will wither away. Think of this as social evolution
in action. Adaptive parts of the system will survive and maladaptive ones will go
away (or else they will lead to the death of the social system).
Most S-F theorists believe that the societies that they inhabit are old enough to have
proven that their sub-units and sub-systems are adaptive (otherwise, the society
would have become extinct many years beforehand). This leads S-F theorists to see a
certain value in the status quo: because it represents the culmination of “adaptations”
that have led to the system’s survival. One can imagine at this point the kinds of
critiques that might be raised by S-F’s Marxian and Feminist colleagues! Just think for
a minute and ask yourself: What would Ida Wells-Barnett have to say about the S-F
respect for the status quo?
4. The Social System Tends toward Equilibrium
Another assumption is that social systems exist in a kind of dynamic equilibrium: a
balance of forces that might disrupt society (like self-interest) and forces that keep
society together (like cooperative values). From the S-F perspective, the society’s
continued existence requires that this delicate balance be maintained. Like the
human body, that must maintain a dynamic equilibrium (say, for example, reflected
in an average body temperature of 98.6), societies are constantly seeking to return to
equilibrium in the aftermath of shocks to the equilibrium. For example, a social
upheaval following a particular judicial or political decision will have to be quickly
quelled in order to regain the delicate balance of forces in society. Left unchecked
(like an infection untreated) the social upheaval threatens to bring down the system.
5. “Healthy” Social Change is Slow, Evolutionary, Not Revolutionary
Following the last assumption, the S-F view is that healthy social change must
proceed very slowly. Otherwise, the balance of positive and negative forces in
society will be lost and the system will fail. You can see this kind of thinking in
Durkheim’s work on the division of labor. He argued that when social change was too
rapid, the glue holding society together was undermined, leading to social anarchy
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
and individual ruin. From this perspective, Marx’s ideas about the value of a quick
and total revolution of the proletariat made no sense at all, for it could do nothing
more than bring the total destruction of the social system and the individuals in it. In
the discussion session, we’ll examine some of the political implications of the S-F
Talcott Parsons
In a discipline dominated by structural-functionalists, Talcott Parson’s was the
dominant player. Like many of his predecessors and contemporaries, Parsons strove
to develop a grand theory that would link together our understandings of biological,
psychological, and social processes in order to produce explanations of human life. In
other words, Parsons was in search of a “grand” theory (or metanarrative) that could
be used to explain, predict, and control human social life. What was his perspective?
Parsons’ grand theory rests on the fundamental functionalist assumption that societies
need not continue to exist. He saw social systems as no less susceptible to entropy
(degrading into its most simple, and disorganized state) than any other living member
of the world ecology. Survival of the social system in the face of the forces that
would bring its demise was predicated on its successful functioning and adaptation.
Parsons spent much of his time theorizing about the adaptations necessary for social
systems to continue to exist.
His most basic view of social systems is that they are driven by the bio-psycho energy
of the people that comprise the system. In this view, each individual possesses a
certain amount of energy for action that is expended in the process of everyday
living. In its primal, non-socialized state, this energy is unbridled and generally
follows an individual’s self-interest (think of the unsocialized baby’s behavior–very
egocentric and focused on satisfying basic needs like eating, sleeping, bonding, etc.).
The basic problem for society is to develop ways to channel this bio-psycho energy in
ways that promote the continued existence of the social system. In other words,
social systems have to find ways to get their individual members to cooperate with
one another in a pro-social manner. This should remind you a bit of Durkheim
Functional Requisites of Every Social System: AGIL
Like other structural functionalists, Parsons employs an organic metaphor to help him
explain the development of social systems that can continue to survive. He begins
with the assumption that all living things (including social systems) must satisfy four
problems of existence in order to survive (he calls these functional requisites for
survival). This is what students of Parsons call his “AGIL” scheme. Each letter
represents one of the four functional requisites for survival. The “A” corresponds to
the fact that every living organism must be able to ADAPT to the changing demands of
its environment. The “G” corresponds to Parson’s assumption that successful
organisms must be able to identify and meet GOALS. A simple goal for an individual
might be to eat; more complex goals could include finding a mate/partner, building a
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
shelter, getting an education, etc. For a larger social system, the goals might be to
socialize members, coordinate commerce, allocate power, etc. The “I” corresponds to
the fact that sub-units of any successful social system are well integrated with one
another (INTEGRATION). The last letter, “L”, corresponds to LATENCY: Parsons’ belief
that every social system must promote consistency in goals, values, and behaviors
across the sub-units of the system.
In Parsons’ view, the AGIL functional requisites applied equally to all elements of
social reality, from individuals, to dyads, to groups, to organizations, and to larger
societies. The AGIL framework thus provides the sociological analyst a conceptual
framework for making sense of the existence of any part of a social system. One
merely had to ask two general questions: (1) what are the ways in which this subunit’s AGIL requisites are met?, and (2) which one or more of the AGIL requisites of
the larger social system does this sub-unit support? Here is an example. Let us take
the educational system. First, we would view it as a sub-unit of a larger social
system, but also as a social system in its own right. We would ask what aspects of the
educational system support its AGIL requisites. This would lead us to identify subunits of the educational system that functioned to meet help the system adapt
(shared governance?), set and achieve GOALS (faculty and students?), support
INTEGRATION (administration?) and assure consistency in norms and values (mission
Second, we would view the educational system as one important sub-unit of the
larger social system. Other important sub-units of the system might be the political,
economic and cultural systems. From this standpoint, we ask what role (function) the
education system plays in meeting the AGIL requisites of the larger system. One
could argue that the educational system helps to assure LATENCY, a consistency in
goals, values, and behaviors (through socializing members of society to common
norms and understandings).
The Importance of Latency
Though he saw all four functional requisites as necessary conditions for a system’s
survival, Parsons suggested that some requisites were more important than others in
human social life. As I mentioned above, he saw the basic problem of social systems
was their need to harness the bio-psycho energy of their members–to avoid collapse
into individualist anarchy. The key to social system survival was to maintain at least
some minimal level of pro-social values and behaviors in order to avoid chaos. Thus,
social institutions that helped to shape motivations, goals, and behaviors toward a
common, pro-social standard become central to the continued existence of the
From this perspective, social problems result from failures to maintain an adequate
balance of conformity and deviance. This could occur following structural changes in
the economic or political sphere that radically change social structures and daily life.
In such a context, old values would be of little use to coordinate action. Chaos would
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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SOC 320: Sociological Theory
Robert E. L. Roberts
be expected until new values emerged. Thus, from this perspective, social change
should occur gradually lest a society be thrown completely off-kilter. Advocates of
this approach reasoned that public policy should move slowly, guided by the wisdom
of sociologists who could suggest where to attempt change, what level of pressure to
apply to the site of change (how much change to create at any one time), and assess
the effects of the small changes on the rest of the system. This is much like the
Federal Reserve’s approach to controlling inflation through small changes in monetary
policy and simultaneous attention to data about many aspects of the economy.
Discussion Questions
(1) Webb believed that the richness of sociological data degrades as a function of the
distance of the observer to the social situation s/he is studying. In simple terms, what
does she mean by “distance” from the social situation? What is an example of
research where the observer is far from the situation? What is an example of a
research method where the observer is close to the situation? What are the
implications of Webb’s view for how sociologists should conduct their research?
(2) The S-F perspective argues that “healthy” social change should take place
gradually, more evolutionary than revolutionary. What are some of the political
implications of this assumption? For example, whose interests does slow social
change favor in society?
(3) Pick any social system of which you are a member. What sub-units of that
system satisfy each of Parsons’ AGIL functional requisites? How does each sub-unit
meet its A, G, I, or L goals? Be sure to do more than just share what the adaptations,
goals, integration, and latency requisites are: tell us also what systems are in place
(personal and/or social) that help achieve these requisites over time.
Copyright © 2020. Robert E. L. Roberts. All rights reserved
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