Structural functionalism is a theoretical framework that attempts to explain both positive and negative purposes of social structures and institutions. Structural functionalists view society as a complex system whose diverse elements interact to encourage stability and cohesion. Some theorists liken society to a biological organism whose diverse organs perform different functions that together ensure the effective functioning of the whole. Certain analysts also use structural functionalist theory to examine the manners in which societal customs, norms, traditions, and institutions work to restrict individual choice and action and thereby preserve order within society. They argue that an individual’s capacity to influence her/his social environment is governed by her/his ranked position within society. Those with the highest-ranking positions are generally the ones with the greatest potential influence. Yet they often tend to be the very people who are committed to preserving the status quo.
Structural functionalism was the dominant theoretical school within American sociology for almost two decades after 1950. By the late 1960s, however, there was a rising tide of opposition to what many critics characterized as an innately conservative, logically flawed perspective that was ill-equipped to explain changes like the ones that seemed to be reshaping America and other Western societies in those heady times. Still, the reassertion of conservative forces in the decades that followed might lead one to question whether the structural functionalists were not more insightful than some of their critics realized.