postulate of functional indispensability

postulate of functional indispensability


universal functionalism

the doctrine, in some forms of FUNCTIONALISM (see also FUNCTION), that ‘in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function’ (MALINOWSKI, 1926) and that ‘no cultural forms survive unless they constitute responses which are adjustive or adaptive in some way’ (Kluckholn, Navaho Witchcraft, 1944) – both of these quoted in Merton (1949). DURKHEIM (1897), though more cautious, nevertheless also made the assumption that the ‘average form’ in any type of society was likely to be functional for the type.

Robert MERTON in particular, in his famous ‘codification of functional analysis’ (Merton, 1949), challenged what he termed this ‘postulate of universal functionalism’, which he defined as holding ‘that all standardized cultural forms have positive functions’. The alleged indispensability of religion‘, for example (see also FUNCTIONALIST THEORY OF RELIGION), is wrongly seen as based on the assumption ‘that it is through “worship” and “supernatural prescriptions” alone that the necessary minimum “control over human conduct” and “integration in terms of sentiments and beliefs” can be achieved‘. In challenging this view, Merton asserts that ‘the same function may be diversely fulfilled by alternative items’. See FUNCTIONAL ALTERNATIVE, CIVIL RELIGION. See also FUNCTIONAL(IST) EXPLANATION.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000