What is the functionalist perspective in sociology?

According to the functionalist perspective of sociology, each aspect of society is interdependent and contributes to society's stability and functioning as a whole. For example, the government provides education for the children of the family, which in turn pays taxes on which the state depends to keep itself running. That is, the family is dependent upon the school to help children grow up to have good jobs so that they can raise and support their own families. In the process, the children become law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, who in turn support the state.

If all goes well, the parts of society produce order, stability, and productivity. If all does not go well, the parts of society then must adapt to recapture a new order, stability, and productivity. For example, during a financial recession with its high rates of unemployment and inflation, social programs are trimmed or cut. Schools offer fewer programs. Families tighten their budgets. And a new social order, stability, and productivity occur.

Functionalists believe that society is held together by social consensus, in which members of the society agree upon, and work together to achieve, what is best for society as a whole. This stands apart from the other two main sociological perspectives: symbolic interactionalism, which focuses on how people act according to their interpretations of the meaning of their world, and conflict theory, which focuses on the negative, conflicted, ever-changing nature of society.

Functionalism has received criticism for neglecting the negative functions of an event, such as divorce. Critics also claim that the perspective justifies the status quo and complacency on the part of society's members. Functionalism does not encourage people to take an active role in changing their social environment, even when such change may benefit them. Instead, functionalism sees active social change as undesirable because the various parts of society will compensate naturally for any problems that may arise.