Functionalism


We have considered Spencer's emphasis that changes in structurecannot occur without changes in functions and that increases in size ofsocial units necessarily bring in their wake progressivedifferentiations in social activities. Indeed, much of Spencer'sdiscussion of social institutions and their changes is expressed infunctional terms. In these analyses Spencer's point of departure isalways the search for the functions subserved by a particular item underanalysis. "To understand how an organization originated and developed,it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset andafterwards." Spencer analyzed social institutions in relation to thegeneral matrix in which they were variously embedded. He expressed theconviction "that what, relative to our thoughts and sentiments, werearrangements impracticable." He warned against the common error ofregarding customs that appeared strange and repugnant by contemporarystandards as being of no value to particular societies. "Instead ofpassing over as of no account or else regarding as purely mischievous,the superstitions of primitive man, we must inquire what part they playin social evolution."

In his discussions of social institutions,Spencer makes great efforts to show that they are not the result ofdeliberate intentions and motivations of actors--he had a very acutesense for the unanticipated consequences of human actions--but that theyarise from functional and structural exigencies. "Conditions and notintentions determine . . . . Types of political organization are notmatters of deliberate choice." Spencer enjoins us to study institutionsunder the double aspect of their evolutionary stage and of the functionsthey subserve at that stage.

From Coser, 1977:97-98.


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