functionalism, in anthropology and sociology, a theory stressing the importance of interdependence among all behavior patterns and institutions within a social system to its long-term survival. It was supported by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in the late 19th cent., a reaction against the evolutionary speculations of such theorists as E. B. Tylor. Durkheim sought to comprehend the utility of social and cultural traits by explaining them in terms of their contribution to the operation of an overall system. Functionalism was promoted in England by B. Malinowski, who argued that cultural practices had psychological and physiological functions, such as the reduction of fear and anxiety, and the satisfaction of desires; and by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, whose theoretical work contended that all instituted practices ultimately contribute to the maintenance, and hence the survival, of the entire social system. Functionalism was supported in the United States by sociologist Talcott Parsons, who introduced the notion that there were stable structural categories that made up the interdependent system of a society, and that functioned in such a way as to perpetuate a society. The functionalist approach has been criticized as an ideology that celebrates the status quo. Its detractors charge that it pays little attention to conflict and change as essential features of social life, and simplifies the relationship between individual agency and the structures of social action.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.