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, in anthropology and sociology
functionalism, in anthropology and sociology, a theory stressing the importance of interdependence among all behavior patterns and institutions within a social system to its long-term survival. It was supported by French sociologist Émile Durkheim in the late 19th cent., a reaction against the evolutionary speculations of such theorists as E. B. Tylor. Durkheim sought to comprehend the utility of social and cultural traits by explaining them in terms of their contribution to the operation of an overall system. Functionalism was promoted in England by B. Malinowski, who argued that cultural practices had psychological and physiological functions, such as the reduction of fear and anxiety, and the satisfaction of desires; and by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, whose theoretical work contended that all instituted practices ultimately contribute to the maintenance, and hence the survival, of the entire social system. Functionalism was supported in the United States by sociologist Talcott Parsons, who introduced the notion that there were stable structural categories that made up the interdependent system of a society, and that functioned in such a way as to perpetuate a society. The functionalist approach has been criticized as an ideology that celebrates the status quo. Its detractors charge that it pays little attention to conflict and change as essential features of social life, and simplifies the relationship between individual agency and the structures of social action.


, in art and architecture
functionalism, in art and architecture, an aesthetic doctrine developed in the early 20th cent. out of Louis Henry Sullivan's aphorism that form ever follows function. Functionalist architects and artists design utilitarian structures in which the interior program dictates the outward form, without regard to such traditional devices as axial symmetry and classical proportions. After World War I, the German Bauhaus produced a number of influential architects and designers, notably Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who worked within this aesthetic. Functionalism was subsequently absorbed into the International style as one of its guiding principles.
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A design movement (1920–1940) evolved from several previous movements in Europe, advocating the design of buildings and furnishings as a direct fulfillment of functional requirements. The construction, materials, and purpose was clearly expressed, with the aesthetic effect derived chiefly from proportions and finish, to the exclusion or subordination of purely decorative effects.
Illustrated Dictionary of Architecture Copyright © 2012, 2002, 1998 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. All rights reserved


Theories in sociology and social anthropology which explain social institutions primarily in terms of the FUNCTIONS they perform. To talk of the function of something is to account for a social activity or phenomenon by referring to its consequences for the operation of some other social activity, institution, or society as a whole. Modern functionalists treat societies as SYSTEMS of interacting, and self-regulating, parts.

In the 19th century, social thinkers theorized about society in terms of an organic analogy. As Herbert SPENCER wrote: All kinds of creatures are alike in so far as each exhibits cooperation among its components for the benefit of the whole; and this trait, common to them, is a trait common also to societies’. The idea of studying social life in terms of social functions was also central in early 20th-century British SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY. Both RADCLIFFE-BROWN and MALINOWSKI used the concept of function suggesting that society could be conceptualized as made up of interdependent parts that operate together to meet different social needs.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, ‘structural-functionalism’ was the dominant theoretical perspective in North American sociology. In the 1950s, the functionalist approach was associated especially with a form of SYSTEMS THEORY (see also STRUCTURAL-FUNCTIONALISM), articulated by Talcott PARSONS at Harvard University. Parsons’ theories were widely influential, though there was critical dissent from other functionalists (see MERTON) and from non-functionalists (e.g. MILLS). In the 1970s and 1980s, functionalism's star waned, partly as a result of internal theoretical weaknesses, but also from changes in the political climate (see also GOULDNER).

One central area of debate has concerned the nature of FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION. A further major area of debate has concerned its treatment of social order, social conflict and social change. One criticism is that the functionalist perspective neglects the independent ‘agency’ of individual social actors, in general tending to operate with an ‘oversocialized conception’ of the human subject (see OVER-SOCIALIZED CONCEPTION OF MAN), e.g. treating people as ‘cultural dopes’ (see ETHNOMETHODOLOGY). Social ROLES are seen as essentially prescribed by NORMS and static expectations of behaviour, rather than actively ‘taken’ and recreated through interaction with others (compare SYMBOLIC INTERACTIONISM). It has also often been suggested that a functionalist perspective has difficulty in accounting for social conflict and instability All of these criticisms of functionalism have some substance, but are also an overstatement. Parsons in particular sought to combine an ‘action frame of reference’ with an emphasis on system and social functions. And, while often concentrating on the conditions of ‘social order’ (including the functions of SOCIAL CONFLICT), both historically (e.g. as for Spencer) as well as in Parsons’ later work, functionalism has usually also sought to combine the analysis of social order with an EVOLUTIONARY THEORY of social change: a model of increasing SOCIAL DIFFERENTIATION, of increasing functional adaption of society (see also EVOLUTIONARY SOCIOLOGY, EVOLUTIONARY UNIVERSALS). These models of social change have in turn been widely criticized (e.g. see MODERNIZATION, DEPENDENCY THEORY) but their existence shows that it is as a particular model of change, rather than a theory which neglects change, that functionalism must be discussed.

Despite the many criticisms, both the term ‘function’ and the functionalist perspective retain widespread significance in sociology, for they involve a concern with the crucial issue of the interrelationship of parts to wholes in human society and the relationship between SOCIAL STRUCTURE and human AGENCY, as well as issues of social order and social change.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a movement in 20th-century foreign architecture based on the affirmation of the primacy of function (utilitarian purpose) over form.

In the second half of the 19th century the principle of integral form was joined with the ethical principle of truthful expression of the purpose and structure of a building. This approach was in opposition to eclecticism, which embodied the splitting of aesthetic and utilitarian principles that is characteristic of bourgeois culture (as was pointed out in particular by the British critic J. Ruskin and the British writer, theorist, and designer W. Morris). The concept of integral architecture developed under the influence of the theories of natural science, chiefly the evolutionary theory of C. Darwin. Increasingly, nature was considered as the source of perfect models of adaptation of form to purpose (as seen, for example, in the work of the American sculptor and art theorist H. Greenough).

American protofunctionalism of the iate 19th century was perfected by the architect L. G. Sullivan, but it was not widely influential in the USA. Only F. L. Wright’s theory of organic architecture was based on protofunctionalism. However in the mid-1920’s, Sullivan’s formula “form follows function” was adopted by Western European rationalist architects, who simplified the theory, reducing it to the primacy of the utilitarian over the aesthetic. The principles of functionality worked out on this basis were elaborated and propagated by Le Corbusier and, most consistently, by the Bauhaus architects in Germany (W. Gropius, L. Mies van der Rohe, H. Meyer). The ideas of integral construction of the environment were connected with the social utopia of “life-building,” that is, the creation of material forms able to aid the “rational transformation” of capitalist society.

The principles governing the construction of a machine were transferred to the structure of buildings, and buildings were thus analyzed in terms of the functions for which they were intended. The functions were in turn analyzed according to Taylorist principles of scientific organization of labor. The concept of zoning, with apportionment of particular spaces for each of the chief life functions (defined thus: “to live, work, rest, and move”), was applied to urban planning as well. In the late 1920’s rational architecture was reduced to extreme mechanicalness by German architects working on municipal housing construction (E. May, B. Taut, M. Wagner).

In the late 1920’s democratic tendencies and elements of social analysis developed in the work of Western European architects associated with functionalism. These tendencies were influenced by constructivism, whose adherents had solved problems closely related to those of the leading functionalists. In the economic difficulties of the late 1920’s functionalism became popular among businessmen, and its Utopian ideas were espoused by social-reform politicians. Elements of social progressiveness, however, were emasculated. Functionalism became firmly established throughout Western Europe and in the USA and Japan. However, as it was disseminated, it lost its distinctive creative method and was transformed into an “international style” of expedient form. Adherents, striving to strengthen faith in the seriousness of the movement, called it functionalism. (The Swiss architectural theorist S. Gidion had already used the term to designate all “nontraditional” architecture of the 1920’s and 1930’s.)

In Germany and France strict adherence to forms and methods became the rule without regard for the environmental and climatic conditions in the countries, which led to contradictions of the very principles of a rational approach to architecture. Already in the 1930’s Finnish (A. Aalto and others) and Swedish (S. Markelius and others) architects, relying on the methods of functionalism, worked out methods that corresponded to the specific requirements of their countries. This led to the appearance of regional schools of architecture that developed within the framework of functionalism. The international style began to disintegrate. Its adherents, becoming disenchanted with the illusions of the “great social mission of architecture” that had united the pioneers of functionalism, moved away from analysis of social problems, undermining the positions of functionalism even more.

After World War II (1939–45), functionalist architecture revived with the rebuilding of destroyed cities, although the unity of the international style disintegrated once and for all. Opposing the basic doctrine of functionalism were Mies van der Rohe, one of its former leaders, as well as adherents of brutalism, neoclassi-cists, and those advocating a return to historical traditions.

Modern Soviet architectural theory pays careful attention to the masters of functionalism, especially as their work bears on the problems of Soviet architecture of the 1920’s. At the same time, the social-utopian views of the functionalists, many of whom hoped to transform capitalist society with the help of architecture, are subject to criticism.


Vseobshchaia istoriia arkhitektury, vol. 11. Moscow, 1973.
Mastera arkhitektury ob arkhitekture. Moscow, 1972.
Gropius, W. Granitsy arkhitektury. Moscow, 1971. (Translated from German.)
Sfaellos, C. A. Le Fonctionalisme dans I’architecture contemporaine. Paris, 1952.
Zurko, E. R. de. Origins of Functionalist Theory. New York, 1957.




a trend in bourgeois cultural anthropology that emerged in the 1920’s, chiefly in Great Britain and in its former dominions. The founders and principal theoreticians of the functionalist school were B. K. Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown.

Unlike the evolutionists and diffusionists, Malinowski and such other functionalists as R. Firth and E. Evans-Pritchard regarded the culture of each people not as a mechanical blend of vestiges and borrowings but rather as a system of “institutions”—that is, norms, customs and beliefs—established for the purpose of fulfilling essential social “functions” (hence the name of the school). Disruption of any one function leads to the collapse of the social body as a whole.

The functionalists combined theoretical studies with the gathering of ethnographic material. Their method was one-sided: taking into account only the “synchronie” functioning of culture, they ignored the need for a historical approach to the problems of social development. Studies carried out by the functionalist school were used by the British colonial administration in the practice of “indirect government” through local chieftains and the preservation of archaic cultural traits. The method and theoretical constructs of functionalism were developed and partly revised, in sociology, by the proponents of structural-functional analysis and, in cultural anthropology, by the culturalists—notably, E. R. Leach and V. W. Turner.


Etnologicheskie issledovaniia za rubezhom. Moscow, 1973.
Malinowski, B. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. New York, 1960.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London, 1952.
Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Method in Social Anthropology. Chicago, 1958.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


The view that a social system is an expression of human biological and social needs.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Scientific & Technical Terms, 6E, Copyright © 2003 by The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


A philosophy of architectural design asserting that the form of a building should follow its function, reveal its structure, and express the nature of its materials, construction, and purpose, minimizing or eliminating all purely decorative effects. See Louis H. Sullivan’s 1896 statement on this subject, “. . . form ever follows function, ” under Sullivanesque.
McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction. Copyright © 2003 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.


1. the theory of design that the form of a thing should be determined by its use
2. Psychol a system of thought based on the premise that all mental processes derive from their usefulness to the organism in adapting to the environment
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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It is now customary for accounts of functionalism in standard references, such as Levin 2013, to distinguish three main varieties: machine-state functionalism and two forms of causal-role functionalism: a posteriori psycho-functionalism and a priori analytic functionalism (for the cognoscenti, in its role functionalist rather than realizer functionalist version).
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