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Notes on Functionalist Theories of Education DC

Functionalist Theory of Education
Emile Durkheim and Talcott Parsons are two major theorists in this area.
The functionalist theory dominated education paradigm for most of the twentieth century
because it emphasizes:
i. maintaining social stability, and
ii. producing specialized manpower for economic growth.
Thus, many countries, including Nepal, followed this theory to design their education systems.
It is a macro theory which believes that education works to maintain stability and smooth
operation of society.
The most important functions include:
 Teach the knowledge and skills
 Transmission of culture
 Social integration
 Job Placement
This theory believes that social stability must be maintained however archaic, unjust and unequal
its norms and values may be because any attempt to change the social norms will only invite
chaos. Whatever change is needed should be achieved in a gradual manner.
From the early 1970’s, this theory started receiving criticism for:
i. being too mechanical and “coldly rational”
ii. prioritizing systems over individuals and disallowing individuals to flourish in their own
iii. discouraging social changes and innovation
However, it must be noted, that despite its obvious lacking, the functionalist theory of education
contributed significantly in developing educational theories over the century and its proponents
outlined several tenets that provided significant insights and approaches to education.
Though, many of its basic tenets are now considered flawed, functionalist theory does have some
credible arguments worth pondering over.
Purposes of Schooling according to Functionalists
1. Intellectual
2. Political
3. Economic
4. Social
: Acquisition of cognitive skills, inquiry skills.
: Educate future citizens; promote patriotism; ensure order, public civility
and conformity to laws
: Select and train the labor needed by society.
: Promote a sense of social and moral responsibility
Notes on Functionalist Theory of Education
1. Functionalists view society as a set of inter-connected parts – like a human body, with
each part relying on one another, so that the entire body can “function” properly.
2. Social norms, customs, traditions and institutions are important parts of the society to
make it work smoothly and they must not be changed.
3. “Functionalist education theory has a dislike for big social changes (revolutions) and
cannot bring change in society.” Any changes to be made should be gradual.
4. Social gender roles are accepted despite the inequalities. The theory suggests that gender
roles help to maintain social equilibrium and is an efficient way to create division of
5. It is non-secular and considers religion an important institution to maintain social
solidarity, shared norms and values. (Religion and family can be replaced with
alternatives such as political ideologies like communism.)
6. Education must be based on values of achievement and meritocracy.
7. Functionalist theory emphasize on specialization through education. That is why today’s
workplace is highly specialized with positions created for almost every task.
8. The role of education is not to solve social problems. Schools/universities must focus on
manufacturing specialized manpower.
9. Functionalists assert that the principles of evolution, including natural selection (survival
of the fittest), apply to human societies and its education systems.
10. Education system must put more value on achieved status than on ascribed status. That is,
we should value what individuals achieve on their own rather than by his/her birth or
social status.
11. School bridges the gap between home and school through shared values and goals.
12. Spending on education is justified because it is an investment in the economy as
education is like any other capital.
13. One of the main goals of this theory was to convert agrarian societies into industrial ones
to achieve faster economic growth.
14. The education system must work to strengthen the alliance between science, rationality
and capitalism and must lessen supernatural and spiritual influences and be "coldly
15. Education system can be analyzed and managed in the same way as any institution, like,
"everything from department stores to military establishments."
16. Functionalist introduced value-free inquiry, which means that a researcher must not
impose his/her own values when conducting a research.
Functions and Key Features
Manifest Function:
Intended goals of the education program.
Latent Function:
Unintended outcomes of the education program.
Any institution which detracts from the conservation of society.
Manifest Dysfunction:
Not intended but anticipated disruptions due to education.
Latent Dysfunction:
Unintentional and unrecognized outcomes due to going to school, interacting with peers and
adults, and following the rules
Some Keywords/Phrases
Social equilibrium:
 The role of education is to achieve and maintain social equilibrium
Collective Conscience and Value Consensus:
 Education should promote shared values and beliefs to achieve social order and wellbeing, promote cooperation and avoid conflicts.
 Value consensus ensures people have shared goals, roles and norms.
Social Order
 Functionalists believe that there are four basic needs essential for maintaining social
order: food, shelter, money and clothing.
Functionalists’ Views On..
 Education provides a link between family and the wider society through shared values.
 Schools instill the value of achievement and the value of equality of opportunity.
 Education helps match people with jobs suited to them.
 Family provides four vital functions for society: sexual, reproductive, economic and
 Family is the primary point of socialization and provides children with values and norms.
 A family unit provides emotional security for each person in the relationship.
 The media operates in the public interest by reflecting the interests of the audience.
It portrays public opinion.
Media understands that society has a wide diversity of culture
Crime and Deviance:
 Society is an entity and it creates crimes.
 Crime and deviance are socially constructed – they are not natural, obvious, or
theologically inspired categories.
 They are concepts that were brought into the world solely by humankind.
 Religion contributes to the social structure and well-being of society by teaching values
and consensus.
 Power is used to achieve collective goals, e.g. material prosperity.
 Everybody benefits from power.
 Authority is usually accepted as legitimate by the majority as it helps to achieve
collective goals.
(Source: https://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/sociology/theories-in-sociology/concepts-of-functionalism/)