Functionalism: general view that mutual interdependence of parts is foundation of scientific understanding of society. In Parsons the functionalist approach discovers the long term social equilibrium brought about by the 'strains to consistency' of the integrative effects of its subsystems. The concern then is with the overall stability or continuity of a society that allows it to be defined as such.
As a sociological discipline, functionalism is counterposed to Marxism. However it shares with Marxism the importance of 'totality' and the corresponding view that scientific inquiry is based upon the interdependence of parts within a whole. It is important to distinguish why the Marxian use of the totality differs significantly from functionalist systems. Primarily this involves the Marxian emphasis on the contradictory character of the whole and the treatment of the social totality from the perspective of its conflicts. Functionalism in contrast views society generally as a stable system and looks for the mechanisms that give it harmony - it thus seeks to reduce conflict to a residual element of the system, or (as Simmel was to do) view conflict from the perspective of its maintenance of the social system. Functionalism is thus concerned with social equilibrium. It has also been strongly criticised for being simply descriptive and classificatory, thus not explaining society or social change but merely giving names to these social phenomena. In one not too impressive book by W.W.Isajiw, the author tries to exonerate functionalism from this charge by explaining functionalism in terms of tele-causality, here functionalism is defended as the method of arranging data and comprehending it in relation to other interdependent features of the system. This approach in anthropology and structuralism pertained well to early societies but faced with the complexity of modern society fails to register its nuances. Because functionalism was set up partially as an alternative to Marxism and a challenge to the latter's explanatory power, functionalism characteristically de-politicises the content of social systems, not least by construing a generic method of cognition of the social in general. Behind much of the functionalist scientism therefore lie often quite conservative agendas, concerned with order and stability. It is evident that in Parsons' later work there is an attempt to update the functionalist project in the light of some of these criticisms. Hence conflict and pattern maintenance and aberrations in the system have a renewed focus, this leads Isajiw to remark that the stability of the system is both the product of the institutionalised pattern maintenance and conflicting pattern tendencies, and further to suggest that for Parsons a perfect working system without conflict was unattainable. However despite these retorts it is clear that functionalism is disposed to analyse social phenomena that perform repetitive patterns of behaviour and has not real room for anomalies, antimony and contradiction, especially not in terms of the role they perform in Marxian systems, where they are the very basis of social reality itself.