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Functionalism in social science

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-R008-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 24, 2024, from

Article Summary

In the social sciences, functionalists are theorists who give an especially prominent role to functional explanations. One of the most influential self-defined functionalists, Malinowski (1926), summed up this view: the functionalist ‘insists… upon the principle that in every type of civilisation, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable part within a working whole’. As an example of a functionalist explanation, one might consider the hypothesis, as argued for instance by Evans-Pritchard in his work on the Azande in Africa, that belief in witches generally plays a role in maintaining social stability (1937).

In the last few decades of the twentieth century, postmodern, or post-structuralist, sociologists have largely disavowed the pursuit of functional explanations. The extremism of some functionalist theses has been matched by an equal extremism in postmodern antitheses. In denying that everything must be explained functionally, some go so far as to say that nothing should ever be explained functionally.

Yet there is liveable logical space between the modernist’s ‘There has always got to be a reason, the real reason, for everything’, and the postmodernist’s ‘There is never any real reason for anything’. We do not have to be card-carrying functionalists to suspect that functional explanations might be found for at least some of the bewildering things that some people do in various parts of the world. New models of functional explanation are emerging from recent ferment in the biological sciences, and these new models may suggest new ways of approaching functional explanations in the social sciences.

Citing this article:
Bigelow, John C.. Functionalism in social science, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-R008-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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