Structural functionalism is a sociological paradigm which addresses what social functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system. Social structures are stressed and placed at the center of analysis, and social functions are deduced from these structures. It was developed in the United States by sociologist Talcott Parsons. It was developed, independently, in the United Kingdom by the students of social anthropologists Bronisław Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Functionalism is most often associated with sociology and sociocultural anthropology.
Structural functionalism is built upon twin emphases: application of the scientific method to the objective social world and use of an analogy between the individual organism and society. The emphasis on scientific method leads to the assertion that one can study the social world in the same ways as one studies the physical world. Thus, Functionalists see the social world as "objectively real," as observable with such techniques as social surveys and interviews. They believe that rules and regulations help organize relationships between members of society. Values provide general guidelines for behavior in terms of roles and norms. These institutions of society such as the family, religion, the economy, the educational and political systems, are major aspects of the social structure. Institutions are made up of interconnected roles or inter-related norms. For example, inter-connected roles in the institution of the family are of wife, mother, husband, father, son, brother, sister and daughter.
The theory is based around a number of key concepts. First, society is viewed as a system – a collection of interdependent parts, with a tendency toward equilibrium. Second, there are functional requirements that must be met in a society for its survival (such as reproduction of the population). Third, phenomena are seen to exist because they serve a function [Holmwood, 2005:87].
Functionalists believe that one can compare society to a living organism, in that both a society and an organism are made up of interdependent working parts (organs) and systems that must function together in order for the greater body to function. An example of this can be found in the theory of Emergence. Functionalist sociologists say that the different parts of society e.g. the family, education, religion, law and order, media etc. have to be seen in terms of the contribution that they make to the functioning of the whole of society. This ‘organic analogy’ sees the different parts of society working together to form a social system in the same way that the different parts of an organism form a cohesive functioning entity.