Playing Necromancer with Structural Functionalism

by Benjamin Studebaker

Today I’d like to raise an old idea from the dead–structural functionalism. Structural functionalism is the idea that society is rightly conceived as an organism, subject to external and internal pressures that it must adapt to via evolving norms, institutions, and other patterns of behavior. If societies cannot adapt, they collapse, either internally, via rebellion, or externally, via foreign subjugation. For structural functionalists, social structures serve stabilizing or adaptive functions. They seek to identify what those functions might be and to sort out which structures are adequately performing their functions and which are not. Systems of institutions, when well-suited to their functions, combine to produce stability and survival. The goal of our various social adaptations is a kind of sustainability, an imperviousness to outside stress or collapse. Structural functionalist began to fall out of favor in social science in the 1960’s as theorists influenced by the endemic social conflict that took place during that period embraced conflict/critical theories (Marxism, feminism, postmodernism, and so on). My aim today is to raise structural functionalism from the dead, adjusting it to reincorporate the various conflict theories back within its larger whole.

Modern scholars who reject structural functionalism typically do this on the grounds that they consider structural functionalism to be conservative, to justify the status quo. If every structure and societal phenomenon we see ultimately has or had some social purpose, some evolutionary feature that is or was beneficial to society, then seemingly any current practice can be justified. Critical theorists reject some of our current structures (feminists reject the current family system, Marxists reject the current economic system, and so on). They view these structures as wholly destructive and bad. Consequently, they see themselves in opposition to the idea that these structures exist to serve some positive end. It seems monstrous to argue that slavery, segregation, homophobia, classism, racism, sexism, and so on could have any positive purpose or play any role in perpetuating any kind of society that could simultaneously be deemed in any way “good”.

However, I accuse this critique of attacking a straw man, of being insufficiently inventive in the way it conceives the structural functionalist position. Seeing as most structural functionalists are long dead, it is easy to write off a defenseless methodology. Whenever we engage in political argument, it is necessary always to present opposing points of view in their strongest and most persuasive form. Even if none of the original structural functionalists are themselves persuasive, it may yet be true that the method is good but merely in need or adjustments or reformulations. Only by adopting, at least briefly, the idea as our own and arguing for it as such can we truly gauge its potential.

So if I were a structural functionalist, how would I defend the theory? First and foremost, I would attempt to explain the existence of critical theories themselves through a structural functionalist analysis. Throughout history, there have persistently been theories that attack status quo institutions and seek to change them, to themselves become the dominant theories and the authors of the dominant institutions. For a structural functionalist, these critical theories do important work–they identify potentially outdated or otherwise no longer useful institutions and practices and contribute to necessary adaptation and change.

Most critical theories object to the way economic roles have historically been distributed. Marxists object to the poor inheriting poor roles and being unable to choose for themselves new roles. Feminists object to the confinement of women to a specific gender role. In sum, critical theories have been claiming that various arbitrary factors (parents’ wealth, gender, race, etc.) should be not determine one’s economic role. Instead, one’s merits and inclinations should determine that role. From a structural functionalist perspective, these fixed roles at one point and time did serve some purposes:

  • Ethnocentrism and racism at one point in time contributed to social cohesion because societies used to be more or less homogeneous and consequently could unite through these communal conceptions more than they could be divided by them.
  • Sexism once ensured stable reproduction and appropriate population growth.
  • The sharp division between the rich and the poor was once the bedrock of the feudal social structure.

This is not to say that structural functionalists must support these ideas–the very existence of large portions of the population that oppose them is evidence that they are long past their usefulness. Modern societies are heterogeneous, multi-racial, and multi-ethnic. Whereas ethnocentrism and racism once provided societies with a sense of identity, they now are a divisive and destabilizing force. The feudal system is no more; our economy is now firmly grounded in industrialism, in the division of labor. This economic system is one in which jobs are highly specialized and year-round (as opposed to the feudal system, in which jobs required less specialized training and hours were shorter). In order to be successful in one’s job, one needs both a great deal of specialized, specific abilities and sufficient inclination to do the job for more hours and more days out of the year.  To support an economic system of this kind, we need workers assigned on the basis of merit and inclination. While ordering people by class or gender is simple and easy, it is too inefficient. Societies that began to industrialize also began to distribute workers differently. Social mobility is not merely a moral issue, it is one of efficiency. Those societies that did not begin to make these adjustments were colonized or conquered, and remain economically behind the curve to this day.

Critical theorists rightly point out that this work is not yet done. Gender, class, and racial norms have not yet been brought into equilibrium with the rest of our social system. We can still see ways by which we might increase mobility and better allocate workers to jobs they will be well-suited to. There are still many poor, female, or minority individuals who fail to reach their economic potential purely because norms are lagging. Consequently, our society as a whole is not yet up to speed. While social structures adapt and evolve aiming at a new consensus and the stability that brings, change is a constant process, and as we adapt our goalposts themselves move.

Sometimes, our adaptations spawn new problems of their own. Regular readers will note yesterday’s piece, in which I considered the slow (and still ongoing) death of sexism, which affords both genders tremendous opportunities to more efficiently allocate roles for themselves but simultaneously raises the question of how we are going to raise future generations going forward. Our societies must adapt to the new stresses introduced by their own adaptations.

Even my pet project, sophiarchism, is itself an adaptation to specific social stresses. As our societies have grown more institutionally complex, our politics has followed our economic system in requiring more specialized knowledge, more specific skills and talents, in order to get efficient results. Yet our political system was designed in the 18th century before industrialization and the division of labor had well and truly come to the United States. As a result, our political system is steadily lagging further and further behind, producing worsening outcomes and coming into conflict with our other systems. While other systems incorporate the division of labor, we continue to govern without specialization either on the part of our political leaders or on the part of our voters.

Structural functionalism does not justify bad institutions and norms, it explains why they developed and why they persisted. It also explains why reforming theories and movements have come into being and why they persist. It is not inherently conservative or progressive–structures must be analysed to see what functions they serve and whether or not they serve them well. This is not a question with a pre-determined answer. Our institutions don’t exist purely to favor some interests or groups over others. While some of our more vestigial institutions do indeed do this, it is not for that purpose but for the purpose of sustaining societies long past that did indeed derive some portion of their stability from those orders. Other institutions, like the very reform movements that criticize structural functionalism, exist not merely to exchange beneficiaries, but to build socially and collectively useful new institutions to suit new conditions. It is no contradiction to understand where defective institutions come from and what has sustained them while simultaneously knowing that they are indeed defective and need to be changed.