Functionalism is an American sociological concept created by an American-Talcott Parsons. As a young Ph.D Parsons joined the Sociology faculty at Harvard University.  At Harvard during the McCarty era he was erroneously reported to be a member of the Communist party. Moreover, Parsons was further referred to as the organizer of an “inner group” of Communists at Harvard. Additionally, the new department of Social Relations chaired by Parsons was seen as a den of left wing communists. All charges were dropped by the FBI

After this extreme emotional, personal, and professional trauma, Parsons turns his attention to his Social Action Theory labeled Functionalism. As a result of the communist party allegations, he tries to get as far away from Marxist philosophy as humanly possible, and turns to the natural and physical sciences. Specifically that of homeostasis, which is found in “Living System Theory”, and schematic/ blueprint concepts found in engineering.

[ad#article]Therefore, the sociological intent of Functionalism is found within the institutions and parts of society that operate as a system creating social balance and equilibrium. Functionalism is defined as the parts of society that are structured to maintain social equilibrium or balance. The parts all contribute to the “functional” operation of the system in general. If a part of society is not maintaining social homeostasis, it is referred to as dysfunctional. Furthermore, all other parts of society which are connected to this part are like-wise dysfunctional. For example, a dysfunctional school system is the outcome of dysfunctional family life.  If the family does not support the goals of education, or does not understand the importance of education in our post-modern society, the children will on average not perform well in school.

Parsons’ social action theory is based upon a synthesis of Durkheim, Weber and Pareto.  Again Parsons’ scholarship in this area led him to the conclusion that these early sociologists were Anti-Marxist, further widening the distance between Marxist thought, and functionalism.  Hence, the functionalist approach tends to argue that there is a consensus or agreement within the social system, through the process of individual behavior governed by social norms and values which are generally held, accepted, and agreed upon.  Hence, Durkheim argued that religion, philosophy, ideas, and morals are products of the social condition of humanity, and are expressed as social realities. These social concepts are seen by Durkheim as a “conscience collective” of a clan or group, because they correspond to, and are at the root of each member’s judgments and actions. Thus, producing social cohesiveness of collectives and assuring that social systems operate effectively.    

Max Weber’s concept known as the Ideal Types is also used by Parsons’. Weber suggested that society has sets of values which are revered and supported through social life.  Moreover, Weber also pointed out that in capitalist society there are levels of income, prestige, skill level, and life chances. These  hierarchies of authority are inevitable in modern societies, which he referred to as Status Groups.

Pareto influenced Parsons because he was the first to use the term “social system” to describe the general state of human society. The chief task of sociology for Pareto  was to investigate the nature and property of social systems, the transformations they undergo, and the relationship between these elements which produce social equilibrium.

Epistemology of AGIL Scheme:

Parsons’ sociology transforms the above mentioned ideas into a set of analytical tools or an engineering schematic for interpretation and comparative study of social systems known as “pattern variables”, commonly referred to as the AGIL scheme. The AGIL scheme consists of adaptation, goal attainment, integration and latency.    The Adaptation cell contains those instrumental actions and capacities toward which we see adaptation and change. Intrinsic to this cell is the concept of homeostasis or harmony and balance within social systems, and most importantly harmonious social change. Parsons further argued that the actor as a biological entity is always interacting and adapting to his/her environment. The Goal attainment cell contains consummatory needs, selection, and expressive symbolization for action toward goal attainment.  The Integration Cell contains affiliations, the ability for integration based on moral evaluations, and responsible action. The Latency cell contains normative commitment to the ideals of balanced social change.

Historical Context:

Due to the social and political up-evil of the 1970’s, functionalism became unpopular within the Sociological community: a) it was thought to be used by power elite to justify social inequalities, b) it was viewed as a means of  justifying the internalization of established values based upon consensus, c) it was  unable to understand human suffering, poverty, deprivation and conflict, d) it was seen as rooted in social conformity,  e)  it was a tautology,  and f ) it did not explain social change. Although Functionalism has been critiqued at many levels, the criticism that functionalism cannot explain how social change occurs is simply incorrect.  Social change occurs throughout the AGIL scheme, with the major transition occurring in the I and L cells.

Process of Change:

The term Melting Pot Theory in the United States has largely been dismissed by modern sociologists as being a pejorative concept associated with ethnocentric philosophy. Hence, since the 1970s, most of the research within Sociology has rejected the concept of the melting pot theory for describing inter-ethnic relations in the United States.  Since the 1990’s the emphasis has been on ethnic and racial groups keeping their cultural traits, with assimilation being unnecessary if it requires the one to abandon cultural heritage. Sadly, the melting-pot theory is erroneously used interchangeable with functionalism

As a result of the above mention concerns, over the decades since the 1970’s, Parsons’ functionalism has been misunderstood.  Indeed, the notion of “Pattern Variables” (AGIL Scheme) is in fact a method of understanding American multiculturalism, the unique state of American Society, and homeostatic social change without conflict. True as in all forms of environmental adaptation, change does take time. However, today’s criticism that social adaptation requires generations for change to occur is also a misnomer. Today by some estimates, the United States changes on average every five years.

Functionalism 2.0:

Therefore, in terms of change and multiculturalism, the following actions are always taking place in the AGIL Scheme in order for the acceptance and inclusion of the new legal immigrant. Of course no one is placing an AGIL schematic or blueprint over American Society, it was Parsons’ best/best attempt at plotting social change within American society. Hence, American multiculturalism/functionalism in the Adaption Cell is always interacting and changing with the current social environment. The United Sates has gone through five major waves of immigration since the turn of  the last century. Within the Goal Attainment Cell our behaviors are reflective of balanced social change. Most, (not all) accept the new legal immigrants.  Within the Integration Cell the new immigrants’’ social values and norms become internalized within the American psyche. In Latency Cell the popular norms and laws now reflect this consensus. This Suggests the full incorporation of the new legal immigrants into the mainstream. What does all this mean?  In the I Cell there is the generalization and institutionalization of the new immigrant’s values attitudes and norms. In the L Cell system membership occurs. In an effort to explain this concept let us look for a moment look at ethnic foods. Pizza is generally seen as an Italian food.  However, what most Americans know as pizza, is not what most Italians know as pizza. Pizza has become an American fast food. It has become generalized and institutionalized into American Society in the I Cell. In the L Cell the gap between Italian-Americans and the rest of American Society has narrowed, or gone completely.

In  New York City today there are an estimated 110 language dialects spoken, with the four major religions practiced. Although New York City has many sociological problems, the City remains the economic engine of the world, and the greatest tourist attraction, suggesting that New York City is relatively safe, and that most New Yorkers interact well.  Given the extent of genocide and ethnic strife around the world today, it should follow logically that there is a strong statistically probability that New York City could be in a similar place, and it is far from that place. Why is this the case? America is an “immigrate Culture” and has evolved differently than almost all other cultures. All Americans are immigrants. We have a true value for this unique quality.

In terms of social change beyond immigration, functionalism also provides an understanding of the rapid, almost anomic, social change American society is undergoing. Similarly, let’s look at another form of change, the growth of personal computers in the United States.  Many Neo-Marxist sociologists would argue that growth of computer use in the United States is the product of the powerful capitalist changing the mode-of-production, making workers more efficient. However, Functionalism explains this growth as a natural adaptation to the changing social conditions of American society based upon consensus.  Since the  late 1990’s to the earl 2000’s  the economy has changed again. Most Americans recognized this change requires the need for computer use and ownership in the home. This occurs in the A Cell. In the G Cell most American purchased computers. Five year ago only about 30% of Americans had personal computers in their home. Today that number has risen to almost 75%. In the I Cell most Americans have come to the consensus conclusion that computers are an important tool in this post-modern society. In the L Cell a computer illiterate person will find it hard, if not impossible, to become gainfully employed, and a productive citizen.

Continuing this line of logic, let us look at the growing need for a college education. Again  in the A Cell the economy has changed.  Most careers now require at least some college. Indeed, most State Departments of Education are now evaluating what the High School achieves based upon at least one year in college. This new evaluation criterion is referred to as the 13th grade. In the G Cell College enrollment has increased exponentially. In the I cell there is growth of the public consensus for the need of college education. In the L Cell, most employment now requires some college at least, and typically a  baccalaureate.


Over the decades it has almost been seen as a crime if a sociologist was seen as a functionalist, for all the reason I have articulated herein. However, today functionalism is alive, evolving, adapting, and changing to the social conditions found in the United States. Is there ro0m for a Functionalism 2.0 in the theoretical spaces of sociology? I believe so and I hope I’ve demonstrated, in this short article, at least the utility of considering Functionalism beyond the critical reactions to early versions of this useful theory.