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.
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