Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A theoretical approach that explains the existence of social institutions such as religion in terms of the needs that the institutions would meet.

Early Functionalism

At first, functionalists likened societies to higher organisms; as one would understand animal lungs and livers by what those organs do for the whole animal body, one would understand institutions by what they do for whole societies. Because the intelligence embodied in the arrangement of traditional institutions transcended any calculative ratiocination on the part of individuals in society, this kind of theory appealed to early-nineteenth-century thinkers who reacted against Enlightenment rationalism. Auguste Comte incorporated functionalism into his early-nineteenth-century amalgam of conservatism and science. Émile Durkheim had a similar insight in his concept of "organic solidarity" at the end of the century; societies held together because their dissimilar parts made unique contributions toward collective life. In emphasizing the needs of the society, and benefits to collective life, Comte and Durkheim conceived societal or macrolevel realities that were not reducible to the wants or impulses of individuals or even groups. Their macrofunctionalism was adopted in anthropology by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown.

Meanwhile, an individualist, or microfunctionalist, approach was developed by Herbert Spencer. In the tradition of Adam Smith, who saw the wider society profiting from individuals pursuing their own interests, Spencer believed individual needs to be foundational to social functions and structural change. He spoke of an evolution away from populations of similar people paralleling one another, toward societies of different kinds of persons performing different functions. The differentiated societies were more competitive than undifferentiated ones in a struggle for survival. Because Spencer's sociology provided a rationale for disparities of power and wealth in society, it gained popularity in the gilded age and was suspect in the eyes of people concerned about impartial science. It did bring individual needs and aims into view, and that emphasis was taken up by the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski in a functionalism that rivaled the macro approach of Radcliffe-Brown. The sociologist Vilfredo Pareto similarly saw individual dispositions as the motor of social life; patterns in society were states of equilibrium among individual people's impulses.

Religion had a prominent position in early functionalism. According to Comte, the macrofunctionalist, it prompted simple folk to serve unseen purposes that even clever scholars could barely detect. Durkheim (1912) proposed that religion sacralized social life itself and, because the perspective of society was implicit in all cognition, religion thus served as the foundation of all knowledge. The microfunctionalist Malinowski (1948 [1925]) observed that religion established, fixed, and enhanced individual attitudes that were valuable to the collective existence and survival of societies—attitudes such as reverence for tradition, harmony with the environment, and courage in the struggle with difficulties and at the prospect of death.

Functionalism remained viable in anthropology, which studies small societies that can be conceived as systems, but by 1920 it seemed to have run its course in sociology. Durkheim (1982 [1895]) had described a function as such an odd process that not many later sociologists wanted to make functional analyses. According to Durkheim, a function could not be intended by people because they would use multitudinous means rather than common institutions to accomplish intended ends; rather, a function would be an effect that somehow revitalized its causes, much as punishment revitalized the collective feeling for laws. The famous German sociologist Max Weber (1921 [1978]: 15) dismissed functions as merely preliminary heuristic devices and saw the whole point of sociology to be the uncovering of typical intentions in the conduct of people.

Harvard Functionalism

Talcott Parsons (1951) revived sociological functionalism in the mid-twentieth century and, together with his students, most notably Robert K. Merton, made it a dominant paradigm in American sociology in the 1950s and 1960s. He met Weber halfway by dwelling on the attitudes, if not intentions, that somehow enhanced the workings of society. These attitudes would reflect the beliefs and values proper to the cultures of societies. Moreover, he would specify what the needs of a social system are ("functional requisites") and what institutions served which functions. Religion would function to reconcile personality systems with social systems. In a step away from nineteenth-century analogies with animal bodies, he looked for "systems," interactions that formed patterns of relative equilibrium. According to the contemporary neofunctionalist Jeffrey C. Alexander (1985), functionalism views society as composed of elements whose interaction forms a pattern that is distinct from an environment; the elements are symbiotically interconnected without any directive or governing force. Functionalism is concerned with the degree to which ends succeed in regulating and stimulating means.

Criticisms of Functionalism

There is a serious logical problem in functionalism that social scientists have debated for decades. Functionalism seems to be a teleology, an explanatory scheme that assumes some great intelligence exists that designs features of societies to serve large purposes. The more functionalists propose unobvious functions—the more they emphasize what Robert Merton (1957) termed "latent" functions—the greater this logical problem becomes. As Pitirim Sorokin (1969:339) once put it, functionalists would say, "Birds have wings in order to fly" rather than "Birds have wings and therefore they can fly." It is difficult to explain functions apart from conscious purpose, and conscious purposes require intelligent beings with purposes. Religion often focuses on other-worldly concerns and hence has latent functions proposed for it.

Functionalism also tended to justify social arrangements as found at hand by showing some system-maintaining benefit they brought about. Many functionalists have in fact been humane thinkers who favored conscious efforts at social amelioration; so, rather than defend the conservative aspect of older functionalist thought, they have revised the approach to make it politically acceptable. Merton proposed paying attention to system-disturbing consequences of social features—"dysfunctions," as opposed to "eufunctions." Parsons added an emphasis on social change, with increasing levels of system complexity and differentiation emerging over time. Merton, again, noted that abstracting institutions from their value-laden traditions and assessing them in terms of hardheaded system benefits can be a radical rather than conservative exercise. Nevertheless, as Marie Augusta Neal noted (1979), functionalism fails to analyze important aspects of societies if it neglects asking in whose interest systems function and who are the victims of social arrangements, and if it neglects issues of class and power in nongovernmental and noneconomic institutions such as religion.

There was also a problem of functionalism dwelling too much on the largest possible systems—whole societies. Parsons actually helped overcome this difficulty by specifying smaller systems, such as personalities and organizations, within the larger, but the more interesting functional statements about religion actually pertained to the relationships between personalities and the functioning of whole societies. One could question whether modern life actually operates as a more or less closed pattern of interaction ("system") at all. Merton and other functionalists of the midtwentieth century proposed that system units be specified explicitly, and that functional analyses be made of small groups and of organizations as well as of macro-level systems.

Finally, there seemed to be some confusion over just what kind of question was actually a functionalist one. Were functionalists trying to explain, for example, the origins of religions, the reasons that religions persisted, or the reasons that societies that had religions survived? The question of origins was a concern largely in nineteenth-century anthropology, but late-twentieth-century sociologists took to studying the emergence of new religions in the youth culture. The persistence of religion came to be studied in terms of some individuals in society being more religious than others, but this created problems for those who saw universal functional needs being served by religion; functionalists often defined religion broadly so that individuals would be differently religious rather than more or less so. The question of the survival of systems came to be applied to religious identity groups rather than to societies.

Applications and Potential

For all the importance placed on functionalism in general sociological textbooks and in major works of social theory, it has inspired relatively little actual research. What research there is has focused on religion. Thus studies of premodern societies, such as Karl-Heinz Messelken's (1977) examination of the late Roman Empire and Kai Erikson's (1966) study of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, saw religion as functional for the coherence and identity, respectively, of whole societies.

Modern societies do not seem to be amenable to such analyses. For example, Richard Sykes (1969) observed that American churches typically focus on matters other than those relevant to the functioning of the wider society. John L. Thomas (1962) noted that a minority religion, such as mid-twentieth-century American Catholicism, could not succeed in providing the function needed by its host society without losing its own internal coherence; the societal and organizational systems were mutually dysfunctional. Not only minority status but also social change creates the same dilemma, as Jean-Paul Rouleau (1990) observes in regard to Catholicism in Québec. In a few studies, the finding that religious questionnaire respondents are happier at work and more likely to endorse generous helping behavior norms are given macrofunctionalist interpretations. More often surrogates for religion—political ideologies and public education, for example—are found to serve some function in lieu of religion doing so. Sometimes different religions have been conceived as functional substitutes for one another. In between religions being societally functional and surrogates for religion being so, one finds the civil religion school of thought.

Functionalist studies that have specified religious organizations as the systems having needs have tended to focus on small entities that have well-defined boundaries—a particular Quaker meeting group, a communal sect such as the Hutterites, Catholic orders of sisters. Occasionally the system in question may be a large denomination, or some commonly encountered feature such as ritual or myth is hypothesized to be functional for any subsocietal religious system.

The greater part of late-twentieth-century functionalist sociology of religion has taken a social psychological, or alternatively a sociology of knowledge, approach. Involvement in society transforms individuals, born as largely biological systems, into socialized selves, persons. However, once the person manages to develop a coherent biography, further social involvements raise problems, and additionally there are always the dilemmas of suffering and death that intrude upon life. The system having needs, especially a need for "meaning," is the socialized self in its everyday life, and external factors, ranging from the biological to the political, cause problems that can be addressed through religion. These problems, according to J. Milton Yinger (1963), become particularly critical when individuals experience social changes that place them in new, unfamiliar social lives. The functioning of religion moves from public churches, which have become marginal to societal workings anyway, and into the sphere of everyday life, in a process that Thomas Luckmann (1967 [1963]) calls "privatization." Thus many activities and experiences that have nothing to do with religion as defined in traditional institutional settings are "religious" insofar as people work out suprabiological, meaningful biographies, according to Luckmann. In a variation on this kind of thought, Volker Drehsen (1980) distinguishes personal-level functions (meaning, value integration, the ordering of emotions), interpersonal-level functions (identity security, religious construction of social reality), and transpersonal-level functions (coping with authority and contingency).

There have been a number of efforts to expand the functionalist paradigm in the study of religion. Hans Mol (1977) spoke of individual, group, and national identities that integrate lines of conduct in a dialectic with processes of adaptive differentiation. For him, religion is the process of sacralizing identity; it bolsters the personal and social forces that tend toward wholeness, and thereby compensates for the numerous fragmentary facets of human existence (Mol 1982). This approach solves the logical problem of individuals not being cognizant of functional requisites; they need only be cognizant of their identities. Niklas Luhmann (1977) developed a very similar approach, but with a more abstract and inclusive systems theory model; subsystems would define both themselves and their environmental systems through a process of selection. For Luhmann, religion manages contingency experiences brought upon personality systems by society at large; religion does this by reformulating the conditions for insecurity in religious terms, interpreting them, and making them more acceptable.

The problem of consciousness, of who is aware of system needs and responds in such a way as to occasion functions, is at the center of both the logical difficulties and the promise of functional analysis. When Mol uses the concept of identity, and when Luhmann points to the constitution of selectivity of small and environmental systems, they are locating consciousness within the functional model. This goes beyond Parsons, who saw subjectivity in the functional system but only as a recipient of functional beliefs, values, and norms. It even goes beyond the Mertoninspired analysis of inspirational religious literature conducted by Louis Schneider and Sanford Dornbusch (1958), who wondered whether a latent function could still "work" if it became too manifest, whether the inspirational writers were not blowing their cover when they promised inner peace and worldly success. Robert Stauffer (1973) noted that different sectors of a society could be differently conscious, with elites sharing in a rationally functional religious consciousness and nonelites inoculated against such instrumental reason by preoccupations with sacralized identities and nationalisms. Frank Lechner (1985) noted conscious resistance against the rationalist functioning of the wider society, a resistance that took the form of "fundamentalist" religious movements.

When taking up the study of religious consciousness, it is important to give an adequate assessment and portrayal of the subjective phenomenon of religion. If a religious experience or subcultural worldview largely concerns matters that have little to do with the functioning of a large system, if it works more or less on its own or is likely to be put consciously to a variety of personal purposes, as James Beckford (1989) suggests, it will hardly do to set out on a functional analysis. This is simply to suggest that functionalism should not be a procrustean bed. Thomas O'Dea (1954) followed up an excellent exposition of Parsons's functionalist analysis of religion with an eloquent critique that argued, in effect, that a functional analysis that led to an understanding of too little of what a religion is about hardly provides an understanding at all. The problem with functionalism was that it presupposed too positivistic a model of the human, leaving too little allowance for the human as a symbolizing and myth-evolving being. To fit the human person and religious interest into a closed conceptual construct concerned with social structures and functions is to commit the logical error of including the whole in a part.

There remains much promise in functionalism, however. Let us take up where O'Dea left off, with symbol, myth, and other forms in which humans manifest to one another and to themselves vague or at least nonconceptual awarenesses of life in society. Durkheim, for example, proposed that humans externalized the authority of society in religious form. However one defines religion, it occurs in the human biography after and as a consequence of socialization. The individual is aware of society and uses that awareness to shape the contents of religious symbols; social forms are imported into the imagination. It is difficult to conceive of society not being affected by the fact that its members are often aware of it through indirection and implication, whether or not in the manner Durkheim described this occurs.

Anthony J. Blasi


M. Abrahamson, Functionalism (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1978)

J. C. Alexander (ed.), Neofunctionalism (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1985)

J. A. Beckford, Religion and Advanced Industrial Society (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989)

V. Drehsen, "Dimensions of Religiosity in Modern Society," Social Compass 27(1980):51-62

É. Durkheim, Les Formes élémentaires de la vie religieuse (Paris: Alcan, 1912 [The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life , Free Press, 1952])

É. Durkheim, The Rules of Sociological Method (New York: Free Press, 1982 [1985])

K. T. Erikson, Wayward Puritans (New York: Wiley, 1966)

F. J. Lechner, "Modernity and Its Discontents," in Neofunctionalism , ed. J. C. Alexander q.v. : 157-176

T. Luckmann, The Invisible Religion (New York: Macmillan, 1967 [1963 original German edition])

N. Luhmann, Religious Dogmatics and the Evolution of Societies (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1984)

B. Malinowski, Magic, Science and Religion (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1948 [1925])

R. K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure (New York: Free Press, 1957)

K. Messelken, "Zur Durchsetzung des Christentums in der Spätantike," Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 29(1977):261-294

H. Mol, Identity and the Sacred (Oxford: Blackwell, 1977)

H. Mol, "Time and Transcendence in a Dialectical Sociology of Religion," Sociological Analysis 42(1982):317-324

M. A. Neal, "The Comparative Implications of Functional and Conflict Theory as Theoretical Framework for Religious Research and Religious Decision Making," Review of Religious Research 21(1979):24-50

T. F. O'Dea, "The Sociology of Religion," American Catholic Sociological Review 15(1954):73-92

T. Parsons, The Social System (New York: Free Press, 1951)

J. Rouleau, "Le catholicisme, vingtcinq ans après Vatican II," Sociologie et Sociétés 22(1990):33-48

L. Schneider and S. M. Dornbusch, "Inspirational Religious Literature," American Journal of Sociology 62(1958):476-481

P. A. Sorokin, Society, Culture, and Personality (New York: Cooper Square, 1969)

R. E. Stauffer, "Civil Religion, Technocracy, and the Private Sphere," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 12(1973):415-425

R. E. Sykes, "An Appraisal of the Theory of Functional-Structural Differentiation of Religious Collectivities," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8(1969):289-299

J. L. Thomas, "Family Values in a Pluralistic Society," American Catholic Sociological Review 23(1962):30-40

J. H. Turner and A. Maryanski, Functionalism (Menlo Park, Calif.: Benjamin/Cummings, 1979)

M. Weber, Economy and Society (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978 [1921])

J. M. Yinger, "Religion and Social Change," Review of Religious Research 4(1963):65-84.

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