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  Functionalism (from Latin fungere, ‘to perform’) is a main, and controversial, branch of anthropology and the social sciences. It seeks to explain the features of a society in terms of the functions they perform or the consequences they have for society as a whole. The word ‘function’ itself is used to mean the impact for a social system or society of an occurrence or institution which is assumed to make a significant contribution to the operation and support of the system as a whole.

Functionalism was founded in the late 19th century by the sociologists Herbert Spencer and Émile Durkheim. They compared human society to a biological organism: a system of interdependent parts all of which make a contribution to the overall working and sustenance of the system. Social phenomena are explained in terms of the functions they perform or the contribution they make to the system as a whole. A distinction is usually made between the consequences of social behaviours which are intended and recognized by the individual members of the social system (manifest functions), and those which are hidden and unintended (latent functions). (For example, R.K. Merton\'s analysis of the rain dances of the North American Hopi people suggests that although the rain dances were intended to have the effect of bringing rain, they may also be seen as having the unintended consequence of facilitating the social integration of the community.)

Spencer and Durkheim were chiefly interested in Western industrial society, and functionalism was chiefly a sociological discipline until the 1910s, when Bronislaw Malinowski took the lead in applying functionalist models to non-Western societies—in his case, the Trobriand islanders in Melanesia. Malinowksi concentrated on social and cultural phenomena such as patterns of kinship, marriage and residence, and argued that they fulfil primary psychological and biological needs, which then contribute to the functioning of society.

Malinowski\'s approach involved a fundamental difference in methodology. Earlier anthropologists had based their work mainly on reports and documents produced by travellers and colonial administrators, and their conclusions were therefore somewhat speculative and inadequately documented. Malinowksi and his followers, by contrast, spent time with the societies they were studying, on the assumption (which now seems self-evident) that to understand a given society fully, it must be studied as a total unit. This approach underlay such pioneering work as Edward Evans-Pritchard\'s study of magic, oracles and witchcraft among the Azande people of Sudan in the 1930s. Evans-Pritchard showed that though the Azande viewed these belief-systems in a different way from their common associations in the West, the systems nonetheless performed understandable functions in that they were both systematic mechanisms of social control and a means of explaining personal fortune and misfortune. Finally, in the early 1950s, Alfred Radcliffe-Brown developed ‘structural functionalism’, focusing on structures in society, that is the networks of social relations and institutions (for example, kinship systems, political organizations and rituals) that reinforced collective sentiment and social integration.

In the 1950s and 1960s, under the aegis of such scholars as Talcott Parsons and R.K. Merton, functionalism became a fundamental part of sociological and political explanation. It influenced theoretical and methodological attempts to explain the conditions and factors which make a political system work. For example, systems theory, as expounded by David Easton and others, modelled the political decision-making process as a system of inputs, outputs and feedback loops which lead to the creation of binding agreements. Other political scientists developed functional frameworks for the comparative analysis of different political systems by distinguishing between system, process and policy functions which institutions perform.

Functionalist ‘explanation’ is criticized on philosophical and normative grounds. Philosophical critics complain that functional explanation is circular. It confuses the consequences of an action with its causes. They also complain that functional explanations lack causal mechanisms to give them plausibility. For example, if a political scientist declares that the fragmented pattern of quasi-governmental agencies is explained by its functional consequences for a capitalist economy, he or she has given us no account of how, or why, this result is achieved. Even if functionalist accounts do provide causal mechanisms they are then subject to a second criticism: if they are valid they are usually redundant. For example, if priests conduct rain-dances because they believe it will produce social cohesion among tribal members we have an intentional explanation of the phenomenon, and we do not require a functionalist account.

According to Jon Elster (see below) a valid functional explanation takes the following form: a social activity is explained by its function for a group if and only if the function is an effect of the activity, if the activity is beneficial for the group, and if the effect is unintended and unrecognized by the agents producing the effect. He maintains that very few so-called functionalist explanations meet these requirements.

Normative criticism of functionalism, in the social sciences, takes two forms. First, it is considered as being normatively biased towards conservativism, because it assumes that social systems are well integrated and stable, organic wholes, where everything has a purpose and role, and, by implication, discounts the viability of replacing any given existing system by another. Second, it is argued that functionalists went too far in rejecting the importance of the state and political agency in classical political science and sociology.

In philosophy, functionalism is the view that mental states can be characterized in terms of their functional or causal role. So, for example, the mental state of being in pain might be said to be the state which has the causal role of being typically caused by damage to the body, typically causing the belief that one is in pain, and typically causing aversion behaviour.

The main objections to functionalism concern consciousness. Experiences have a phenomenology: they feel a certain way. But, it seems, the phenomenology of experiences is not captured by functional characterizations of mental states. This claim is illustrated by means of the following thought-experiments. Imagine two people Tim and Sue whose internal states have exactly the same functional roles. Green traffic lights cause in both of them a state which causes them to believe that the lights are green, and to move their cars forward. Red traffic lights cause in both of them a state which causes them to believe that the lights are red, and to stop their cars. But their colour experiences are inverted, in the sense that the experience that Sue has when she sees a green light feels exactly the same as the experience Tim has when he sees a red traffic light. And the experience Sue has when she sees a red light feels exactly the same as the experience Tim has when he sees a green one. So there is a difference between them—a difference in how their experiences as of red traffic lights feel—which is not captured by the functional characterization of their experiences.

In psychology, functionalism views mental phenomena not as states or structures, but as activities. Function leads to structure; phenomena are explainable in terms of the functions they fulfil. Mutatis mutandis, the same idea applies in architecture and the visual arts. It is assumed that if one creates an artefact which serves the purpose for which it is made, one creates a thing of beauty. The idea, present in the writings of Plato and Aristotle, engaged 18th-century European writings on aesthetics, though there a distinction tended to be drawn between fitness for the purpose as a component of beauty, and fitness as being all of beauty. Functionalism in the modern sense makes a connection between function and form, as in the famous aphorism of the early-20th-century architect Louis Sullivan that ‘form follows function’. For Sullivan and other exponents of modernism, the beauty of a structure is revealed through the logical way in which it expresses the inherent qualities of the materials used and the purpose for which it is designed. In this sense, a skyscraper and an abstract expressionist painting may both be said to be ‘functional’ or ‘expressive’.

Such concepts played a guiding role in the Bauhaus, but more recently the doctrine of functionalism in the arts has come to be questioned, particularly since the 1960s, when it seemed that modernism had confused it totally with brutalism. There is after all no reason why a highly-decorated, Art-Nouveau teapot, say, may not pour tea as well or better than one embodying a rigorously austere machine aesthetic. The artists of postmodernism have reacted against functionalism, reintroducing decoration, whimsy, colour and a sense of play, without losing the advances made by the application of fundamentalist principles. DA PD MG AJ CMcD RK JM KMcL BO\'L MS

See also consensus theory; evolutionism; field work; holism; political anthropology; primitivism; social conflict; structuralism.Further reading D. Easton, A Systems Analysis of Political Life; , Adam Kupfer, Anthropologists and Anthropology; , R. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure; , B. Reyner, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age.



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