Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change

Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Change

Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists

A Commentary on Malthus" 1798 Essay as Social Theory

Industrializing America

The Evolution of the Future

Great Classical Social Theorists

In the Classical Tradition: Modern Social Theorists

Glossary of Social Science

Dr. Elwell's Professional Page


rbert Spencer's Evolutionary Sociology
Robert K. Merton [1910-2003]


Merton on Structural Functionalism

By Frank W. Elwell


Robert King Merton (1910-2003) is a self-styled “Durkheimian,” writing very much in the functional tradition. In conceiving of society as a system it becomes natural to see it, like other systems, as composed of parts that are interrelated and whose operations have consequences on the whole. For example, when examining a simple system like the human body it becomes readily apparent that the various organs are interrelated and impact the overall health of the body. So is it with sociocultural systems. Functional analysis is a consequence of thinking of society as a total system. Functionalism is the analysis of social phenomena in terms of their effect on other phenomena and on the sociocultural system as a whole.

The functional orientation has long been implicit in biology and physiology, as well as in the social sciences of anthropology, economics, and sociology. Social scientists as diverse as Malthus, Spencer, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber have each engaged in describing the interrelationships between social phenomena. To take a famous example, Weber wrote of the effect that a religious belief, what he called the “Protestant Ethic,” had on the rise of capitalism. In a more explicit functional reference, Durkheim wrote of the “functions” of criminal punishment in terms of its impact upon criminal behavior as well as its effect on society as a whole (it serves to bind society together, making explicit the rules as well as building consensus around these rules).


Robert K. Merton’s signal contribution to functionalism lies in his clarification and codification of functional analysis. Specifically, Merton:

  1. strips functionalism bare of the unexamined and insupportable assumptions of many of its practitioners,
  2. broadens the analysis to incorporate change as well as stability,
  3. makes critical distinctions between functions and personal motives,
  4. develops a descriptive protocol for functional analysis to guide the analyst in social observations, and
  5. engages in the functional analysis of a variety of sociocultural phenomena to demonstrate the utility of the perspective.

One assumption of traditional functionalism is that all widespread activities or items are functional for the entire system. Functional unity, Merton stated, cannot be assumed; at most it is an empirical question to be determined by social research. Further, it is possible for some social or cultural items to have functions for some groups within a social system and not for others. Instead, Merton offered a “provisional assumption” that widespread and persisting sociocultural forms have a “net balance” of positive over negative consequences.

Merton Quote

A second assumption of traditional functionalism is that all such prevalent activities and cultural elements have sociological functions and are therefore necessary for the maintenance of that system. Sociocultural systems may well have functional needs or prerequisites, Merton asserted, but these needs may be met by a diversity of forms. Calling it a “major theorem of functional analysis,” Merton asserted that “just as the same item may have multiple functions, so may the same function be diversely fulfilled by alternative items” (Merton 1948/1968, 87–88).

One of the charges hurled against functional analysis in the 1940s and 1950s, and still echoed today, is that functionalism is an inherently conservative perspective devoted to preserving the status quo. Merton suggested that this charge is due to the fact that analysts, chiefly in anthropology, have adopted these postulates that are untenable and unnecessary to the functional orientation. To offset the focus on stability of traditional functionalism, Merton introduced the concept of “dysfunction.” Whereas functions contribute to the adjustment of the system, dysfunctions are those consequences that lead to instability and ultimately change. The analyst must recognize, Merton asserted, that institutional structures and cultural elements are interrelated and mutually supporting, and that the dominant orientation of sociocultural systems is to stability. “As we survey the course of history, it seems reasonably clear that all major social structures have in due course been cumulatively modified or abruptly terminated. In either event, they have not been eternally fixed and unyielding to change” (Merton 1948/1968, 95).Merton Quote 2

Merton insisted that social structures can only be analyzed in terms of both statics (stability) and dynamics (change). The concept of dysfunction allows functional theory to focus on change. The concept of dysfunction is based on tension, strain, or contradictions within component elements of sociocultural systems. Dysfunctional elements create pressures for change within the system (Merton 1948/1968, 176). Social mechanisms within the system, including the interrelation and predominantly mutually supporting elements of the system, operate to keep these strains in check, attempting to limit or minimize change of the social structure. However, such mechanisms are not always effective, and the accumulation of stress and resulting conflict often cause systemic change. One of the primary goals of functional analysis is to identify these dysfunctions and examine how they are contained or reduced in the sociocultural system as well as how they sometimes cause systemic or fundamental change. Merton, 1948/1968, p. 107.

“Functions are those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system; and dysfunctions, those observed consequences which lessen adaptation or adjustment of the system.” Motive, on the other hand, is the subjective orientation of the actor engaged in the behavior (Merton 1948/1968, 105). The failure to distinguish between functions and motives is one of the chief sources of confusion for students of functionalism. The observer Merton is implicitly referring to is the social scientist.

The descriptive protocol recommended by Merton consists of four postulates. First, the analyst should make a systematic account of the pattern of behavior of interest as well as the people participating in the behavior. This account should include a detailed description of the social status of participants and onlookers as well as the types and rates of their interactions. Merton, always concerned with the relationships between theory and methods, attempted to summarize the types of data needed to be collected to perform functional analysis. What types of data need to be included in observations, and what types of data can be safely excluded? These descriptions, Merton claimed, go a long way toward suggesting functional interpretations. Merton, 1948/1968, p. 110.

The second item of the descriptive protocol calls for the analyst to explore other possible patterns, perhaps those of other sociocultural systems that represent alternative ways of dealing with the problem under study. For example, Merton pointed out that the “romantic love complex” as the basis for AmericanTransform your Thinking marriage excludes other patterns for choice of mates such as parental selection or marriage as an economic alliance. By comparing the American pattern to these other cultural forms, the analyst often can tease out the different structural positions that benefit (functions) or are hurt by (dysfunctions) the cultural form under analysis.

The third item in the protocol is to describe the various meanings that the pattern of behavior has for the various participants and members of the group. Such meanings often give the analyst clues as to the social functions of these sociocultural items. Such meanings often give the analyst clues as to the social functions of these sociocultural items (Merton, 1948/1968, pp. 111–112).

The fourth protocol is for the analyst to give account of the motivations of the people who both conform or deviate from the pattern under study. Again, these personal motives should not be confused with social functions, but they do serve a purpose in functional analysis. “Inclusion of motives in the descriptive account helps explain the psychological functions subserved by the pattern and often proves suggestive with respect to the social functions” (Merton 1948/1968, 113). “Inclusion of motives in the descriptive account helps explain the psychological functions subserved by the pattern and often proves suggestive with respect to the social functions” (Merton 1948/1968, 113).

Merton’s final contributions to sociology are his many theories and insights to understanding sociocultural systems and human behavior. These include:

»     Anomie theory (Strain theory).

»     Bureaucratic Personality

»     Sociology of science

»     Middle range theory

»     Focus groups

For a more extensive discussion of Merton's theories refer to Macro Social Theory by Frank W. Elwell.  Also see Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change to learn how his insights contribute to a more complete understanding of modern societies.


Elwell, F. W. 2009. Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems. Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press.

Elwell, F. W. 2006. Macrosociology: Four Modern Theorists. Boulder: Paradigm Publishers.

Elwell, F. W. 2013. Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. Alberta: Athabasca University Press.

Merton, R. K. (1994/1996). A Life of Learning. In R. K. Merton, & P. Sztompka (Ed.), On Social Structure and Science (pp. 339-359). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Merton, R. K. (1996). On Social Structure and Science. (P. Sztompka, Ed.) Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Merton, R. K. (1948/1968). Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The Free Press.


To reference Merton on Functional Analysis you should use the following format:

Elwell, Frank W., 2013, "Merton on Functional Analysis," Retrieved August 31, 2013, [use actual date]


StatCounter - Free Web Tracker and Counter
Served since March, 2005.