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4. Robert Merton's Alternative Approach to Functionalism

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In this lecture, we think about Robert Merton’s efforts to develop an alternative functionalist approach which could overcome some criticisms of older functionalism, focusing in particular on: (i) Merton’s division of functions into two types, manifest and latent, which addressed the argument that functionalism had underplayed agency; (ii) his idea that dysfunctions could be reproduced as well as functions, and that power and inequality explained why this happened, which provided an explanation for conflict within a functionalist approach; (iii) his identification of three problematic postulates within older functionalist ideas, and how he proposed to overcome them to create a superior functionalist approach.


In this course, Professor John Holmwood (University of Nottingham) explores functionalism as an approach within sociology. In the first lecture, we think about the emergence of functionalist ideas in the work of Émile Durkheim and their influence in anthropology. In the second lecture, we consider Talcott Parsons’ efforts to create a more systematic functionalist method within sociology, and how Parsons sought to overcome the issue of agency within functionalism. In the third lecture we look at some of the criticisms of functionalism. Next, we look at how Robert Merton attempted to create a new approach which could address these criticisms. In the fifth and final lecture, we explore the ways in which functionalism can help us to understand society and politics through the example of feminism and the family.


Professor John Holmwood is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Nottingham. He researches sociological theory and issues around education and schooling. His recent publications include (with Gurminder Bhambra) Colonialism and Modern Social Theory (2021), (with Therese O’Toole) Countering Extremism in British Schools? The Truth about the Birmingham Trojan Horse Affair (2018) and (as co-editor) A Handbook of British Sociology (2014).

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APA style

Holmwood, J. (2021, August 23). Functionalism - Robert Merton's Alternative Approach to Functionalism [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Holmwood, J. "Functionalism – Robert Merton's Alternative Approach to Functionalism." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 23 Aug 2021,

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