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O’Dea, Thomas F. 1966. Excerpts from ch. 1, “The Functionalist Approach” in The Sociology of Religion. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

…. As a frame of reference for empirical research, functional theory sees society as an ongoing equilibrium of social institutions which pattern human activity in terms of shared norms, held to be legitimate and binding by the human participants themselves. This complex of institutions, which as a whole constitutes the social system, is such that each part (each institutional element) is interdependent with all the other parts, and that changes in any part affect the others, and the condition of the system as a whole …. Hence the questions arises: What is the contribution of each institutional complex to the maintenance of the social system? Such contributions may be either obvious or subtle. They may be such that the human actors understand them, but they may also be beyond the actors’ awareness. That is to say, a social institution has both manifest and latent functions as part of a total social system [1]. With respect to our subject the question arises: What are the functions, manifest and latent, of [institutions] in maintaining the equilibrium of the social system as a whole?

Moreover, functional theory views culture as a more or less integrated body of knowledge, pseudo-knowledge, beliefs, and values. These define the human situation and the conditions of actions for the members of a society. Culture, understood in this way, is a symbolic system of meanings, some of which define reality as it is believed to be, others of which define normative expectations incumbent on humans. The elements making up the system of cultural meanings may be either implicit or explicit. A cultural system of meanings displays some degree of meaningful integration and strain toward consistency. Culture is integrated with the social system in that it enters into the definitions of means and ends, of proscriptions and prescriptions, of the permitted and the forbidden, by defining roles within which a society’s members confront the established expectations of their social situation. Religion, with its transcendent reference to a beyond, is an important aspect of this cultural phenomenon. Culture is the creation by man of a world of adjustment and meaning, in the context of which human life can be significantly lived. Thus culture enters deeply into the thinking and feeling of men and is central to the social forms which emerge from their actions.

…. Functional theory sees man in society as characterized by two types of needs and two kinds of propensities to act. Men must act upon the environment, either adjusting to it or mastering and controlling it, to insure their own survival. A human society with its culture is the unit of human survival and societies often require the death of some of their members to insure their own survival. The history of humanity reveals that men have progressively increased their capacity to control their environment and influence the conditions of their lives. But men are not simply makers of things and manipulators of environmental conditions. Human activity is not simply adaptive and manipulative. Men also express feelings, act out felt needs, respond to persons and things in non-utilitarian ways. As the American sociologist George C. Homans has put it, men never confine themselves to those “activities, interactions and sentiments” necessary for the survival of the group, but elaborate these needs far beyond survival requirements [2].

[1] Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure. (Glencoe, Ill: The Free Press, 1958), pp. 19-84. [2] George C. Homans, The Human Group (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1950), p. 108.