Functionalism and Systemism

De Baripedia


Image of the human body, each organ has its function. In functionalism, the organs of society are analysed by their function. So society or politics is interpreted as a living body. It is through the coordination of functions and bodies that development takes place. This vision implies an efficiency concept and regulatory processes. Function is defined here by its biological meaning: "it is the contribution that an element makes to the organization or action of the whole of which it is a part"[1].

The current appeared in the 1930s and its golden age was in the 1960s, mainly in Anglo-Saxon sociology.

Functionalist theory is based on the following founding principle: without considering its material resources and architecture (organization), every society must fulfil certain natural (universal) functions. Among them: produce goods and services (food, housing, care), reproduce (organization of unions, sexuality, family), ensure the protection of members (solidarity, defense). Thus, functional analysis postulates that every custom, every material object, every belief fulfils a vital function, is a vital part of an organic whole.

Societies are then distinguished from each other by the way in which they perform these functions through the establishment of their cultural institutions. Depending on functionalist approaches, different institutions may perform the same functions. For example, social rules can be learned through imitation, fusion or transmission. These three forms of socialization can be described as "functional equivalents".

The founders of functionalism are to be found in the field of anthropology, where Malinowski created the neologism. We see three main trends represented by the following authors.

Bronislaw Malinovski (1884 - 1942) : Anthropological functionalism or absolute functionalism

Bronislaw Malinovski is a Polish student of anthropology, especially the early societies, those far from us that have preserved traditional customs. He undertook studies in Krakow in philosophy, did a doctorate in economics at the London School of Economics and specialised on Melanesian peoples in the islands in order to work on protected human groups that retained their customs. He will produce a number of books on the Melanesians also known as the "Argonauts" in an anthropologist tradition.

Anthropology postulates that there is no immediate knowledge of politics or society. He remains in immersions for years in the Trobriand Islands and will study a particular phenomenon that exists in these tribes.

The tribes of the Trobriand Islands practice inter-tribal exchanges, which means that this exchange will take place between the different tribes. Two types of objects circulate, namely red shells in the form of necklaces and bracelets through a social exchange system. It highlights a principle which states that these two objects reappear continuously and enter into an economy of rapid exchange, families should not keep them. As soon as another party is declared, these objects are put back into circulation.

Phénomène de la kula.png

It describes the phenomenon of the Kula which is the place where individuals will exchange their gifts. Any man who enters this space receives one or more armbands and must quickly enough transmit it to another on the occasion of another gathering.

This is interesting, because it is an original phenomenon for Westerners, it is also a principle that perpetuates itself; it is an object that is not a one-off transaction, but a perpetual transition. In the Kula, he wonders about the nature of this transaction; basically, this transaction has no particular value, but it is accompanied by a ceremonial and an ability to think of possession as very limited.

In the Kula, he questions the fact that there is not a financial exchange, but a framed social exchange that has a precise function that is permanently fabricated the social link between individuals and communities. There is an operation which, seen from the outside makes no sense, but seen from the bottom describes a regulating function by the very nature of the exchange.

The Kula has a regulatory function. This exchange refers to a societal and political space, because these exchanges regulate symbolic exchanges that regulate the community. It is an important social activity precisely controlled and framed by magic.

What is interesting is that Bronislaw Malinovski pronounces a functionalist analysis, here the function is not economic, but societal and functional.

The analysis of the Kula makes it possible to constitute the discourse on the functional analysis of political systems; social regulation allows the collective cohesion of the various tribes. From the moment that it must take place continuously, it prevents war and then forces people to meet and exchange.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown: 1881 - 1955

Radcliffe-Brown is a British anthropologist who will study Australian Aboriginal political systems and social organizations. In his book Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1968) we see the structuralist analysis that is to say that our societies are traversed by invisible structures that persist in their social, spatial and political organizations.

He will recognize the structuralist message and add to it the functionalism giving structural-functionalism: every society is elaborated and built from structures, but which have precise functions.

The structures of a society can be functionalist, they have the aim of making links and rationality, they have objectives of functionality, the structure is not simply something heavy, but that organizes, then they have a functionalist scope in order to regulate living together.

Thus every process of social life is an adaptive system, structures remain, but can evolve. Adaptability manifests itself at three levels:

  • ecological;
  • institutional;
  • cultural.

From then on, institutions function from social structures made up of individuals, but are linked by social actions within a whole. It is a vision of organicism and interrelationships; political institutions function in social structures, society are individuals who are connected by social relations within a whole, that is, individuals are never isolated, they are part of a social whole. The notion of social system follows from this, the social is not only a sum of individual it is also an organization, when we speak of social system we speak of collective values that make society.

Behind the notion of social system appears the notion of the organization of society and the implicit rules that make us adhere to a society and accept its values.

Radcliffe-Brown continues to think about adaptability, the system and the link between structure and function.

Talcott Parsons: 1902 - 1979

Talcott Parsons.

Parsons is a biologist who supported a doctoral student at the University of Heidelberg in sociology and economics. It is interesting, because it will continue its work by seeking to make the link between action, structure, and then functionalism. In 1969 he published Politics and Social Structure'' which dealt with social and political structures, in 1977 on social systems, he published Social Systems and the Evolution of Action Theory and in 1978 a book dealing with action and the human condition Action Theory and the Human Condition.

He is an interesting author, because he posits action not as something individual, but as being incorporated into a system of action. If we are in a systemic interpretation of society and politics, action no longer depends on an individual, but on a system of action. As a result, important notions about the analysis of governmentality and the implementation of systems appear, because they are never only those of an individual, but also a set of data in a more global system referring to the question of the system.

An action system is an element, units or parts of units that must make relationships between them in order to arrive at choices of actions. An action system will engage a whole set of activities that link individual choices to collective choices.

Thus, Parsons highlights four functions or dimensions of the system of action:

  1. adaptation: consists in drawing from external systems the various resources that the system needs. It went looking for resources and adapting them to needs.
  2. Goals-focus: the ability to set goals and pursue them methodically. In an action system, you first have to adapt to the real situation, then define goals; you have to set them and then give yourself the means to achieve them. There is a logically instrumental dimension. Goals condition means and instruments.
  3. integration: protect the system from sudden changes and major disruptions. It means questioning the implementation of a system that will be able to withstand crises and continue in action. If we do not build, it will be tossed around by crises, the whole report we have today is the contradiction between being present in the immediacy of events and continuing action.
  4. latency: a channeling system that serves both to accumulate energy in the form of motivation and to diffuse it, it is of the order of motivation, of the order of the ability to contain motivation in the ability to act. In public policies, one often has a declaration of intent without the awareness of the means to achieve it, in other words one sets an objective, but one does not think of the very conditions of the resolution of the question highlighting institutional contradictions. It is not enough to keep the motivation, it is necessary to transpose it, but also to manufacture a device which makes it possible to solve them.

The reality often shows that these functions of the action system are not fulfilled or do not manage to be fulfilled almost naturally.

Parson moyen but.png

The functional paradigm of the system of action is to say that we are in a loop that means we have to adapt to return to the goals that promote the question of integration (coordination, fighting against disruptive agents), then we return to the question of latency and motivation and we return to the question of integration. We're in a totally circular device.

Robert King Merton (1910 - 2003) : medium-range structuralism

Robert King Merton.

Influenced by Durkheim, he became interested in social groups and strengthened this model with two important concepts:

  • the role of individuals

In a functionalist vision, he adds a human dimension by saying that there is functionalism, functions, but that individuals are actors at the level of functions.

  • the issue of anomie and social dysfunction

An anomie is a state of decomposition, failure, shutdown, rupture in a system. Anomie means that at some point a social and political system may experience forms of breakdown that will cause the system to fail.

Functional systems are not guaranteed forever, they can experience phenomena of mutation or internal disintegration that defeat the system. The whole system and function can no longer achieve their objective, there is deregulation. Thus anomie is characterized in social dysfunction.

When a social system can no longer regulate the role of each person in society and the place and function of politics in these exchanges, at that moment there can be a form of anomie, that is, social dysfunction jeopardizes the whole system. It also characterizes anomie as a passage from an old order to a future order whose rules are unknown; it is the feeling of leaving a model without knowing in which direction we are going.

Anomie is described not only as a social structure that no longer functions, but as individuals waiting for lost meaning and who, in waiting for that lost meaning, can redefine specific behaviours, particularly violent or deviant behaviours. Deviancy is behaviour that no longer responds to society's behaviour and aspirations. Deviance would occur when there is a disproportion between the cultural flows considered valid and the legitimate means to which individuals may have access to achieve these goals.

In other words, deviance occurs when there is a contradiction between the aims and objectives of society and then the fact that it no longer has the means to achieve them. From the moment society can no longer regulate the social field, the mafia replaces the vacancy of a state employer that provides work and organizes the social field that creates another power within that is a deviant power. So we must ask ourselves about these questions of deviance, because they are ruptures in a structural-functionalist system that shows a gap and a tension between the evolution of society and the reality of the model that no longer works.

In Contemporary Social Problems: An Introduction to the Sociology of Deviant Behavior and Social Disorganization, written by Robert K. Merton and Robert A. Nisbet and published in 1961, a sociological theory of social problems appears, or taking up the question of the normal and the abnormal, the logical and the illogical, saying that the same social and cultural structure can create conforming behaviours, but can also create behaviours of social deviation and disorganization.

Thus, they question the origin of the disorganization in the system by distinguishing three elements :

  • institutional conflicts ;
  • social mobility: it is the fact that there is too much gap between individuals and that there is no longer a sense of belonging ;
  • anomie.

Functionalism explains social facts by their function, then questions social functions and facts in a social system always related to how they are related to each other. For example, the Kula is a system of exchange that has a very important social and functional scope, because beyond the exchange it is a game of construction of a community whose function is to avoid wars and conflicts.

In a system, individuals are part of a device for which they serve the purposes. However, in this system there may be strategies of integration and deviance.

Systemic theory

In systems theory, social or human action involves four main systems:

  • biological system: elementary motivations of the individual;
  • personality system: psychic organization of the individual;
  • social system: set of interaction relationships;
  • cultural system: set of values.

What is the difference between a traditional policy approach and a systems approach?

In the traditional approach to policy analysis, we study the actors as such and the decision-making process, whereas in systemic policy analysis, we think in terms of interactions between the actors, in terms of resource allocation processes, and then think in terms of the power of the actor or the social benefits of the actors, i.e. in terms of the weight of the actors in the system. In the systemic analysis, we will rather question the field of competitiveness, relations and conflict between the players in the systems.

In systemic analysis, systemic policy analysis is based on the assumption that each group of actors has norms, specific processes of action and processes of distribution of modes of action in order to categorize actors in a more complex process. In a systemic analysis, an analysis of the interactions in the very environment in which these interactions occur is implemented by giving more space in the interaction between action and environment that is contextualized in the notion of system.

In systemic analysis, the hypothesis of consistency is maintained; the process must be consistent. We will study the systems of actors, the systems of coherence as well as the coherence between the different sub-systems, i.e. we will analyse the decision-making process of political processes as a set of actors and agents from which sub-systems through which they act derive. We are in a retroactive analysis which means that a decision process and rarely a linear process. An action process poses a question of action and then it seeks to define the action processes, begins to act and finally revisits the conditions of its action. This is called non-linear causality.

David Easton (1917 - 2014) Systems Theory in Political Science

Easton is interested in the invention and constitution of a systemic theory in political science. He will seek to use this systemic view of the social sciences to try to analyze what politics is.

In his book The Political System published in 1953 he says that basically this theory is done in the interpretation of politics as universality, there is politics everywhere, but as being in one system one can compare all systems in relation to others. It is far removed from the relativistic vision of anthropology. The fundamental thought of anthropology is cultural relativism, there are different political governments and what is interesting is to understand the nature and their own functions.

The systemic vision in political science will start on the other side by pulling us towards a political theory that considers that we can build universal knowledge all the more easily because it recognizes that the vision of a political and global system. In political science when we analyze political systems we are in a comparative analysis of systems, if there are differences it is that they are always systems.

Easton's hypothesis is that one can construct a political theory by advancing political science on the basis of productions of systemic understanding models.

Thus, he sees contemporary society as a chaos that man can end if he applies the scientific method to the analysis of political phenomena in order to characterize them as they were conceived and developed.

It is for a global systemic theory, it is necessary to dissect in contemporary society what are the different systems at work.

The main functions of political theory according to Easton :

  1. propose criteria to identify the variables to be analysed
  2. establish relationships between these variables
  3. explain these relationships
  4. develop a generalization network
  5. discover new phenomena

Basically, we have a very global vision of the analysis of the field of the system in which these criteria fit between the different elements of the subsystems. It is a political science which will analyse the major socio-political systems and which may have interrelations with the qualification of the types of regimes concerned.

Jean-William Lapierre (1921 - 2007)

Lapierre starts from the hypothesis of the analysis of political systems in his book L'analyse des systèmes politiques published in 1973.

To analyse political systems, we must start from the idea of a universality of political systems, we are in a global society that is constituted by social systems that can be analysed

For Lapierre, a political system is a system, an organization in which the elements are interrelated. Every political system is part of a naturalistic vision; political systems are inputs and outputs.

  • input: a political system can only function by integrating information and data within society in order to transform them.
  • output : reconstructs data in action processes of standards, techniques, laws, rules, judgments.

The political process is the capture of resources. One of the explanations of the French Revolution is the marginalization of the king from French society. At the beginning of the 18th century, Louis XIV and Louis XV feared Parisian riots. Louis XIV will build Versailles as an extraterritoriality to prevent the nobles from rebelling in the provinces, but leaves the territory and no longer has inputs to understand what is happening in Paris. When the great epidemics linked to the great agricultural crises arrived the people woke up and made the revolution. We can note this brief exchange between Louis XVI and La Rochefoucauld: "Mr. King, something has happened. Is it a revolt? No, sire, it's a revolution! ». The relationship between input and output is interesting in the sense that a political system must process information by capturing it, on the contrary there can be no adapted management of the territory.

These are images that pose the field of politics in the confrontation between inputs and outputs in the management of calculated risks, i.e. that we have resources to take, but they come with constraints that we must restore in a project space taking into account the inherited constraints, if we no longer have inputs we can ask ourselves that it is the nature of outputs, i.e. that the answers will be out of reality.

Lapierre describes the political system as a decision-making system it is a system that has one; even if it is programmed ideologically it must take into account reality.

This theory is interesting, because any political system must be decision-making, but it is not programmed because it must evolve, adapt, process the information it has, however incomplete it may be, because they allow it to define outputs.

Hence, a political system according to Lapierre is a system of action conditioned by resources and constraints in a situation of incomplete information and uncertainty about objectives. Thus, we can define the means to mobilize and anticipate the repercussions of the action.

Basically, a political system seeks to manage the best interests of the organization and all the constraints it inherits. In other words, it is sometimes necessary to try to manage the "less evil".

The limits of these two approaches

Limitations of the functionalist approach

It is to consider everything from functions, it is a too functionalist reduction which can lead to interpreting the system of action as being totally functionalist when in reality this is far from it.

Limitations of the systems approach

Not everything is political systems to make comparisons. The logic is to lead us towards value judgments, i.e. to have us reinterpret the value of a political system as such according to categories to the detriment of others. The danger would be to engage too quickly in comparative analyses of political systems or criteria for defining political systems. It globalizes too much and lets us imagine that everything is comparable.



  1. G. Rocher, Introduction générale à la sociologie, p.165.