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5. Functionalism and Social Systems Theory

Giuseppe Sciortino

Subject Sociology

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405169004.2009.00006.x


Functionalism has been defined mainly as a methodological stance, by its supporters and critics alike. It can be much better understood, however, as a loose tradition, as a network of intellectual influences kept together by some (broadly defined) theoretical interests as well as by a shared attribution of intellectual significance to some analytical problems. Functionalism has evolved historically as a kind of generalized sensibility for certain dimensions of social inquiry, both methodological (functionalism) and substantive (social systems theory). At its most basic level, functionalism may be defined as any approach that tries to assess an action or social process in terms of its consequences for the social unit deemed relevant. The intellectual roots are usually traced to Herbert Spencer's decision to follow the biological usage of calling function the consequences of the various organs for the life of an organism. Another often-mentioned ancestor is Vilfredo Pareto, for his insistence on the centrality of mechanisms able to keep or restore a social system to a state of (dynamic) equilibrium as well as for his sharp distinction between subjective goals and objective outcomes. Functionalism's roots may be traced also further back, to Leibniz's theodicy or to the tradition of natural law. As the methodological debate on functionalism has produced more than the usual share of ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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