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In the social sciences, a theory that stresses the interdependence of the patterns and institutions of a society and their interaction in maintaining cultural and social unity. In sociology, functionalism emerged from the work of Émile Durkheim, who viewed society as a kind of organism that carried with it certain needs that must be fulfilled. Similar views were adopted in anthropology by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, who attempted to explain social structures as enduring systems of adaptation, fusion, and integration; and by Bronislaw Malinowski, who viewed culture as the expression of the totality of individual and collective achievement, where every custom, material object, idea, and belief fulfills some vital function. The U.S. sociologist Talcott Parsons analyzed large-scale societies in terms of their social, psychological, and cultural components and focused on problems of social order, integration, and equilibrium. Later writers argued that functionalism was too rigid to account for the breadth, depth, and contingencies of human social life and that it ignored the role of history in shaping society.
This entry comes from Encyclopædia Britannica Concise. For the full entry on functionalism, visit Britannica.com.