Sociology Index

FUNCTIONALIST EXPLANATION

Functionalist Explanation involves the study or interpretation of phenomena in terms of the functions which they fulfill, especially within an overall system. The functionalist explanations offered by functionalists or structural functionalists (Structural Functionalism) have a property referred to as teleology, explaining things in terms of their end results or purposes. Functionalist Expanation, Conflict Perspectives, and Symbolic Interactionism perspective offer explanations about society and human behavior. Functionalists tend to explain features of social life in terms of their function in social life. These kinds of functionalist explanations are found in biology as well and it is not surprising that functionalists like David Emile Durkheim adopted an organic metaphor. The lungs, for example, are explained in terms of what they do in and for the human body. We cannot say that there is always a true functionalist explanation for any given social behavior.

In biology, functionalist explanations are scientifically valid, because we understand the causal mechanism whereby function plays a causal role. That causal mechanism is evolution, of course, and we have a very good explanation for how evolution works in the form of genetics. DNA provides the precise causal mechanism by which evolution operates. There is, however, a significant difference between functionalist explanation in biology and functionalist explanation in the social sciences. Functionalist explanations play an important role in evolutionary biology. When we try to explain why an organism has a particular trait we appeal to the function that the trait serves. The classic example of this reasoning is found in Durkheim's discussion of the functions of crime in any society. He argues that as darkness needs light, a moral society needs immorality as a way to make morality visible. Many sociologists have argued that crime or deviant behavior also help the society by clarifying the moral boundaries of the group. Many would argue that these are not functionalist explanations at all, but are logically circular.

Legal Theory Lexicon 040: Functionalist Explanation in Legal Theory. -
Lawrence B. Solum, Georgetown University Law Center.
Abstract: This entry in the Legal Theory Lexicon provides a short introduction to the idea of functionalist explanation in legal theory. Functionalist explanations are familiar from biology, where evolutionary theory explains the existence of a trait in an organism by the effect the trait has on the ability of organism to reproduce. Sociologists frequently explain social behavior on the basis of the social function that the behavior serves. Why does this group do a "rain dance"? Because the rain dance ritual serves to create social cohesion in times of stress. In legal theory, functionalist explanations explain the existence of legal rules or institutions in terms of the effects they produce. For example, Marxist explanations might explain the existence of a rule by showing that the rule serves the interests of the capitalist class. This Lexicon entry investigates the validity of such functionalist explanations and the related notions of microfoundations and methodological individual.

Functional Explanation in Legal Theory. Functionalist explanations are frequently invoked in positive legal theory.

Marxist Explanations of law are functionalist in nature. Marxist social theory relies heavily on functionalist explanation in general.