They stress much the role of balance or equilibrium in society. They view society as a system of interrelated parts. They are mainly interested in the ‘contributions’ or ‘purposes’ these parts serve for ongoing social life.
They focus on the ‘functions’ or ”consequences’, that a given element has in society. To make it more specific, the functionalists say that each group or institution persists because it is functional.
(i) In trying to explain why all human societies have a family system-the functionalists would ask what function (or need) does the family system fulfill for the larger society? The answer to this question will highlight the contributions that family systems make to the on-going life of societies. The family, for instance, functions to regulate sexual behaviour, to transmit social values to children, and to take care of young and aged people who could not otherwise survive.
(ii) Economic activity, functions to provide the goods and services on which our society depends for its existence. It also gives people roles in life, enabling them to earn a living and to draw a sense of identity from the work that they do.
(iii) The school functions to educate children prepare workers; take children off their parents’ hands for part of the day, etc. In the functionalist view, a society has an underlying tendency to be in equilibrium, or balance.
Social change is, therefore, likely to be disruptive unless it takes place relatively slowly. Because, changes in one part of the system usually provoke changes elsewhere in the system.
If the economy requires an increasing number of highly trained workers, the schools and colleges will adopt the policies and practices to supply them, and the state will sanction more money for education. But if the economy expands so rapidly that the other elements in the social system cannot “catch up”, social disequilibrium will result.
From the functional point of view, if a particular social change promotes a harmonious equilibrium it is seen as functional’, if it disturbs the equilibrium it is dysfunctional’, if it has no effects, it is non-functional.
In a democracy political parties are functional, while bombings, assassinations, and political terrorism are dysfunctional, and changes in political vocabulary or party symbols are non-functional.
Functionalists ask such questions as-“How does this value, or practice, or institution help meet the needs of the society “?”How does it fit in with the other practices and institutions of the society “?”Would a proposed change make it more or less useful to society? ”
As Donold Light Jr. and S. Killer have pointed out. “By looking at the social world through a functional perspective, sociologists often develop convincing explanations for the existence of social phenomena that would otherwise be puzzling or incomprehensible”.
For example, Kinsley Davis has come up with some innovative and convincing explanation for the practice of prostitution which the society condemns and at the same time maintains. His functionalist explanations are as follows:
(i) Prostitution provides a sexual outlet for travelers, businessmen, salesmen, sailors etc., who will be unable to find stable partners, (ii) For those who do not have the will or energy to pursue more elaborate forms of courtship, it is required, (iii) For those whose stable partners are temporarily out of contact during separation, divorce, widowhood, (iv) For those sexual perverts cannot continue the long-term enduring sex relationships, (v) For those who are unable to compete in ordinary sexual market place, examples: the disfigured, handicapped, impotent.
Assumptions of Functionalism:
Functional theory is based on some assumptions. According to Dahrendorf the main assumptions of functionalism are as follows:-
1. A society is a system of integrated parts.
2. Social systems tend to be stable because they have built-in mechanisms of control.
3. Dysfunctions exist, but they tend to resolve themselves or become institutionalised in the long run.
4. Change is usually gradual.
5. Social integration is produced by the agreement of most members of the society on a certain set of values. The value system is the most stable element of the social system.
Functional theory and research represent a young but rapidly growing approach. Its accomplishments are promising but still tentative. “Functionalism is perhaps more promise than achievement. But it is an important promise.