Normative (or functionalist) Period

Page by Sarah Dye

Emile Durkheim

Functionalism has it’s origins with Emile Durkheim, a French sociologist. The main thought behind functionalism encourages sociologists to look at each individual aspect of society and see how it affects the stability of society as a whole. Order is seen as necessary for society to function. Functionalist see inequality as something that supports that order and that each person with in society has a fixed role. Functionalists look at things like societal institutions as being parts of the whole that are important to understand in order to understand the whole of society. This is taking the approach of the sum of the parts making up and affecting the whole.

Functionalists were not focused on deviance as much as their predecessors, the social disorganization theorists. According to functionalism any change with in a society was the result of deviance, or disorganization that cause the society to adjust and bring the disorganization into order. These changes maybe good or bad depending on wither or not the social institutions remain stable and continue to have shared values. Other than this idea functionalists did not have much to say about deviance. This became one of their main criticisms however in that many felt they over looked the power and affect that deviance had on society.It was around this time that the study of deviance began to move out of the spot light as far as sociology is concerned.

One of functionalism main theorists in America was Talcoot Parsons. Talcoot said that
there were four main things that social institutions could accomplish and each one affected
the other-

  • provision of environmental adaptation (economic services)
  • Goal attainment institutions (government)
  • Socialization institutions (families)
  • Maintenance of cultural beliefs (churches)

Robert Merton was also a very prominent person in the theory of functionalism. He proposed that human behavior often has an affect on society that is not always apparent with out further analysis. He developed the idea of “manifest functions” and “latent functions”. Manifest functions are the obvious goals of behavior while latent functions are the unintentional affects that behavior may have in the long term. For example getting grades bad or good grades during the four years your in college may not have any immediate affect on your life. However after graduation, those grades may affect graduate school choices or potential employment opportunities. This thought process is similar to that of Lemert’s concerning labeling theory.

Merton also reintroduced the word anomie (first used by Durkheim). Anomie  according to Merton, is “an acute disjunction between the cultural norms and goals and the socially structured capacities of members of the group to act in accord with them.” (Merton, 1968)  Merton theorized that the lack of harmony between culture and social institutions, created deviance which would be a detriment to society as a whole.  For example owning a nice car might be seen as a socially desirable goal by the majority of society. The disparately occurs when it comes to how someone goes about the attainment of that car. This thought process is very closely related to strain theory.


Andersen, M., & Taylor, H. (2009). Sociology: the essentials 4th ed. Belmont, Cali.: Thomson Corp.

Orcutt, J. D. (2010, August 23). Unit 2:. Retrieved November 17, 2010, from Deviance and Social Control:

Merton, R. (1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: Free Press.

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