Robert Merton’s Internal Critique of Functionalism

Merton criticises three of Parsons’ assumptions:: Indispensability, Functional Unity, and Universalism.

Criticisms of Parson’s systems theory have come from both outside and inside Functionalism.

Within Functionalism, the most significant criticisms come from Robert K. Merton (1968). He criticises three key assumptions made by Parsons.

  • Indispensability
  • Functional Unity
  • Universal Functionalism


Parsons assumes that everything in society – the family, religion and so on – is functionally indispensable in its existing form.

Merton argues this is an untested assumption and he points to the possibility of functional alternatives. For example, Parsons assumes that primary socialisation is best performed by the nuclear family, but one-parent families or multi-generational families may do this just as well.

Functional unity

Parsons assumes that all parts of society are tightly integrated into a single whole or ‘unity’ and that each part is functional for all the rest. Similarly, he argues that if one part changes, it will have a knock on effect for the others.

However, Merton argues that some parts of society may be relatively independent from others – maybe society wouldn’t collapse if the nuclear family disappeared altogether.

Universal functionalism

Parsons seems to assume that everything in society performs positive functions for society as a whole.

However, Merton argues that some aspects of society may be dysfunctional for certain groups, which relates to Conflict perspectives.

Manifest and Latent Functions.

Merton also contributes a useful distinction between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions. He cites the example of the Hopi Indians who, in times of drought, perform a rain-dance with the aim of magically producing rain. This is its manifest, or intended function. From a scientific viewpoint, however, this goal is unlikely to be achieved.

However, the ritual may also have an unintended or latent function – such as promoting a sense of solidarity in times of hardship, when individuals may be tempted to look after themselves at the expense of others. Merton’s distinction is here useful for helping us to identify functions which members themselves might not be aware of.

Signposting and Related Posts

You might also like to read this post on The Functionalist Theory of Society. Parsons’ system theory is summarised in the second half of the post.

This post has mainly been written for students studying A-level Sociology. It should be useful as part of the compulsory Theory and Methods module, usually studied in the second year.

Robert Merton was also famous for this Strain Theory of Deviance.

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Source: Adapted from Robb Webb’s Second Year A Level Sociology Text Book.