The structural-functional paradigm is a framework for building theory that sees society as a complex system whose parts work together to promote solidarity and stability. As its name suggests, this paradigm points to the importance of social structure, meaning any relatively stable pattern of social behavior. Social structure gives our lives shape in families, the workplace, or the college classroom. Second, this paradigm looks for any structure’s social functions, or consequences for the operation of society as a whole. All social patterns—from a simple handshake to complex religious rituals—function to keep society going, at least in its present form.

The structural-functional paradigm owes much to Auguste Comte, who pointed out the need for social integration during a time of rapid change. Emile Durkheim, who helped establish sociology in French universities, also based his work on this approach. A third structural-functional pioneer was the English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820–1903). Spencer compared society to the human body. Just as the structural parts of the human body—the skeleton, muscles, and various internal organs—function together to help the entire organism survive, social structures work together to preserve society. The structural-functional paradigm, then, leads sociologists to identify various structures of society and to investigate their functions.

Contemporary U.S. sociologist Robert K. Merton expanded our understanding of social function by pointing out that any social structure probably has many functions, some more obvious than others. He called manifest functions the recognized and intended consequences of any social pattern. Latent functions, by contrast, are consequences that are largely unintended and unrecognized. To illustrate, the obvious function of this country’s system of higher education is to provide young people with the information and skills they need to perform jobs. Perhaps just as important, although less often acknowledged, is college’s function as a “marriage broker,” bringing together young people of similar social backgrounds. Another latent function of higher education is keeping millions of people out of the labor market where, presumably, many of them would not find jobs.

But Merton also recognized that the effects of social structure are not all good—and certainly, not good for everybody (Stern, 1998). Thus, social dysfunctions are a social pattern’s undesirable consequences for the operation of society. People usually disagree on what is beneficial and what is harmful. Moreover, what is functional for one category of people (say, factory owners or landlords) may well be dysfunctional for another category of people (say, factory workers or tenants).

Critical evaluation. The chief characteristic of the structural-functional paradigm is its vision of society as stable and orderly. The main goal of sociologists who use this paradigm, then, is to figure out “what makes society tick.”

In the mid-1900s, most sociologists favored the structural-functional paradigm. In recent decades, however, its influence has declined. By focusing attention on social stability and unity, critics point out, structural-functionalism ignores inequalities of social class, race, ethnicity, and gender, which can generate considerable tension and conflict. In general, focusing on stability at the expense of conflict makes this paradigm somewhat conservative. As a critical response to this approach, sociologists developed another theoretical orientation: the social-conflict paradigm.