Robert K. Merton: Theories and Functionalism

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  1. 0:05 Robert Merton: The Functionalist
  2. 0:39 Manifest and Latent Functions
  3. 3:47 Dysfunctions
  4. 5:01 Lesson Summary
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Bethany Johnson

This lesson will discuss Robert Merton's functionalist view of society. Merton distinguished between the types of functions within each social structure... manifest functions and latent functions. This lesson also discusses how not all functions serve a society positively.

Robert Merton: The Functionalist

Robert Merton's contribution to sociology is one of great importance in regards to the functional perspective of society. Merton and other functionalists viewed society as an organism with various parts, and each part has a function to perform. Merton recognized that some functions were intentional and other functions were not. He also acknowledged that some functions actually disrupted society. These functions are known as the manifest and latent functions and dysfunctions.

Manifest and Latent Functions

As stated above, the functionalist perspective states that society is a complex system whose parts work together to promote the stability and survival of society. The parts, or the structures, of society, such as the education system, criminal justice system, and economical system, all have a function, or a job, to perform. When all parts are performing their functions correctly, society as a whole runs smoothly. However, have one part not functioning correctly and there will be an adverse reaction to society.

Robert Merton pointed out that all parts of society have various functions in which they perform. Some of these functions are obvious and others are not-so-obvious. He distinguished between the two by stating that the recognized and intended functions were the manifest functions and the unrecognized and unintended functions were the latent functions.

Let's look at the social structure of a college or university and identify some of the manifest and latent functions that apply to them. Many people attend college because 1) they need the degree to get the job they want and 2) to make more money. So when asked what is the function or purpose of college, one may automatically think 'to get a degree.'

This is true, but the degree is the result of going to college, not the function of college. The function of college is to teach you the skills and knowledge necessary to earn a degree, which, in turn, can help you get the job you want making the money you want. So a manifest function, an intended or obvious job of college, is to prepare you for your future careers.

There are many other functions of a college - how about to find your future spouse or to stimulate the economy? So when asked why you want to go to college, how many of you said 'to find your future wife or husband' or said 'to stimulate the economy'? I bet not many of us, if any! However, these are latent functions - the unintended or not-so-obvious functions - of college. Many people do meet their future spouses at some point while attending college. Also, once you've graduated and have that position you wanted, earning the money you wanted, you spend money on various things like housing, food, trips, clothes, cars, movies, etc. Spending money on all of these things stimulates the economy!

Take a look at the practice in some cultures of doing a rain dance. The manifest function of the dance is simple: to produce rain. When a group is performing the rain dance, they are not expecting hail or snow. No, they are obviously expecting rain. While the purpose of the rain dance is to call forth rain, it also accomplishes instilling in the group a sense of oneness or togetherness.


Prison gangs are a dysfunction because they perpetuate former negative behavior
Prison Gangs

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