Structural-functional approach is a holistic perspective which studies society or system as a whole and with a view to its maintenance. It is a variety of functionalism involving the study of both functions and structures of a system. It describes the order of determinate relationships of structures and functions of a system, including its processes and mechanisms. Certain patterned and recurrent processes keep up the functionally integrated system in equilibrium.
Society is conceived as ‘a system of functionally inter-related variables’. According to Robert T. Holt, ‘the social system is the system of interdependent roles and corporate structures of the society’.” Scholars may put emphasis on either functions, or structures, or both.
Structural-functional approach involves that:
(1) Every society is a well-integrated system consisting of relatively persistent and stable structures;
(2) The system or structures perform certain requisite functions; and
(3) Functions contribute to the balance, health, or equilibrium of the system.
In this approach, a scholar analyses what functions are being performed by what structures to maintain the equilibrium of a political system. Its main concepts are: system, function, and structure.
A system, according to Cohen, is ‘any ongoing set of recurrent and interrelated social actions.’ The system is primary. Functions maintain the system. Structures, such as, limbs, habits, organisations, groups, etc. perform functions. The essence of functional approach is the system maintaining activity while structures performing this function remain secondary. In the structural-functional approach both are viewed from the point of their contribution to maintain the system.
For studying maintenance or equilibrium aspects of a system, most of the scholars have elaborated a set of ‘functional requisites’ for all systems. Functional requisites are conditions necessary for the operation of a system.
For example, Talcott Parsons has put them under four categories of:
(i) Pattern-maintenance and tension-management,
(iii) Adaptation, and
‘Function’ connotes many meanings, such as, conditions or needs or basic processes or activities or necessities required for the maintenance of a system For Merton, ‘function’ is observed consequences. Radcliffe-Brown describes it as recurrent actions. Levy explains it as ‘any condition, or state of affairs resultant from the operation of a unit in terms of a structure through time’. ‘Function’ can also be considered as persistent relationship or its influence on the unit or system.
It is the contribution of some elements to the system or its maintenance at a given state. It relates to operations pertaining to persistence or a situation where in more than one actor or event may be involved. Function, in brief, subsumes activities or actions operating in a system, or influences thereof. Functionalism, according to Eugene J. Meehan, is a particular mode of inquiry. Functionalist explanation requires (a) a phenomena to be explained, (b) a system in which the phenomenon occurs, and (c) a stipulation of the consequences of the phenomenon for the total system.
Thus ‘function’ as such has many meanings. Particular meaning and its use depends on the functionalist himself. However, as effect, activity, consequences, influence, or contribution toward a system, ‘functions’ by nature are general, transitory, varying, and abstract. It is different from its popular use it is used in place of ‘basic needs or conditions or necessities of a system, being organismic and value-laden.
‘Function’ is a neutral term which frees a system, its structures, and activities performed therein from assuming an essential or traditional relationship, interdependence, or teleology. Functions resulting from structures like bureaucracy or courts may or may not be proving helpful for the persistence of a political system. A functionalist scholar looks into the consequences or effects of events, acts, and operations upon the equilibrium of a system.
Diehard or orthodox functionalists study a system only as a set of certain functions: operations, acts, effects, or consequences. They neglect structures even the system. This attitude makes the analysis confusing and undependable. Many functionalists have reformulated their functional concepts, and give importance to structures. Joseph La Palombara felt that ambiguities can be removed if we give importance to the structures of a political system at par with its functional aspects. Sometimes structures prove more important than functions.
‘Structure’ is a pattern of ordered relationship, operations, interactions, or actions. Over a period of time, recurrent functions, activities, or processes convert themselves into or generate structures. Levy finds it as a pattern or an observable uniformity in terms of which action or operation takes place.
Recurrent activities concerning adjudication generate the structure of judiciary over a period of time. Structures like legislature, army, college, etc. also come out in a similar manner. Structures, thus, are made of roles and their functional relationship. Parsons has called it ‘a system of patterned expectations’.
Structures in due course of time begin to influence the operations of functions and the system itself .They acquire the capacity gradually to delimit, direct, constraint, even operate the functions of the political system. Bureaucracy, political parties, judiciary, etc., illustrate this observation. They evolve characteristics of persistence, regularity, continuity, increasing size and influence, and normativeness. Their ‘is’ transforms into ‘ought’ which means people take their existence as given, and begin to think that they ‘ought’ to exist and should be complied with.
Structures are concretised, patterned and stable forms of specific functions. Unlike functions, they are more qualitative, uncommon, stable, specific, effective, and useful in making comparison with similar structures belonging to other systems. Their role is unusually important in revolution, war, development and other forms of major change.
Riggs has pointed out the major attributes of structures:
(1) They survive despite change of functions even adopt the form of institutions when they inculcate some elements of norms, culture or value, e.g., the institution of the Crown in Great Britain. Structures are outcomes of constant functioning, and appear as ‘patterned functions’. Once they adopt the form of a structure, they continue to exist despite small or marginal changes in the form of functions. Sometimes they exist even after the fulfillment of their initial goals.
(2) They usually perform their assigned roles, but it is not necessary that they would continue to perform them. Sometimes they stop or decrease their functioning. Developing countries borrow or adopt structures from developed countries, but fail to obtain their functions or functioning.
(3) There is no essential relationship between structures and functions. Still in specific social setting, some particular functions are operated by specific structures. In order to obtain those functions, one has to create structures related to them. However, existence of these structures does not mean that they would always result in functions having the same quality and quantity.
Riggs puts more emphasis on structures to render analysis more empirical and fruitful. He prefers to use the concept ‘function’ in a much broader sense, and does not delimit it to cause-effect relationship or consequence. Riggs likes to go from structures to functions, regarding the latter as hypothetical. A legislature is an elected body of the people but its assumed law-making role should be treated as a proposition to be proved on the basis of empirical observation.
Other Functional Concepts:
As a result of using of both ‘structures’ and ‘functions’ in a balanced manner along with the enveloping concept of ‘system’ there emerges structural-functional approach. But there are other useful concepts also. Functionalists use the standard terminology developed by Talcott Parsons for describing the functions whether they lead toward equilibrium of the system or operate against it. They are presented in the form of ‘ideal type’ concepts, or orientation of absolute or extreme quality, also called as pattern-variables. Actual operations or functions stand in between the two dichotomous situations.
On the basis of orientation towards equilibrium, these traits have been put into two broad categories:
1. Universalistic 1. Particularistic
2. Diffuse 2. Specific
3. Achievement-oriented 3. Ascribed
4. Affective-neutral 4. Affective
5. Collectivity-oriented 5. Self-oriented
Most of the structures in developing and backward societies, such as, bureaucracy, political parties, etc., operate in an anti-equilibrium direction, i.e., particularistic, specific, ascribed, affective, and self-oriented manner. Some of them may be operating in between the two, whereas, structures like universities can be similar to the advanced countries.
Robert K. Merton, who regards ‘functions’ as ‘observed consequences’, stands for the development of a middle-range theory. From the viewpoint of their contribution to equilibrium of a system, he divides functions as, (i) eu-function, (ii) dys-function, and (iii) non-function. Eu-functions like paying taxes, contribute towards adaptation and adjustment of a system. Dys-functions obstruct adaptation and adjustment of a system, such as, smuggling activities or hoarding operations. Non-functions are redundant operations, as beggar-brand ‘sadhus’ roaming about the countryside. Merton does not accept the teleological concept of ‘functional-integration of society’.
All events, operations, or activities may or may not be contributing to systemic equilibrium. In some cases, observed consequences or functions might be fully known, but in many cases, one may not be even knowing anything about accommodative or obstructive functions. Thus, according to Merton, manifest function is that which is intended by the participants and its consequences are recognized as in case of introduction of TV or panchayati raj (scheme of decentralization at the local levels).
In latent functions, the consequence, as in case of increasing unemployment, may not be intended and recognized. Merton also draws attention towards collateral consequences of functions. He does not believe in the concept of functional universalism propounded by Malinowski. He puts forward the dynamic concept of ‘functional alternatives’ implying thereby that a function can be brought about by many structures, and many functions can lead to one specific structure.
Marion J. Levy has put more emphasis on structures, and pays attention to development of system. He has formulated the concepts of requisites and prerequisites. Functional requisite is a generalized condition necessary for the maintenance of the type of unit under consideration. Functional prerequisite is a function that must pre-exist if a given unit is to come into being in a particular setting. Similar statements can be made for structural requisite and prerequisite.
There are three conditions necessary to analyse functional or structural prerequisites: (i) initial, (ii) transitional, and (iii) resultant. If any two of these three are known, the rest can be predicted. They can be: (i) the constitution, (ii) the legislature, and (iii) the law-making. Levy has cautioned the functionalists to be aware of reification, that is, mixing up of concrete and analytical structures, i.e., considering ‘system’ as a concrete structure in Political Science.