Principles of Structure and Change



Copyright © 2013 Frank W. Elwell

Published by AU Press, Athabasca University

ISBN 978-1-927356-20-3 (print) 978-1-927356-21-0 (PDF)

Cover and interior design by Marvin Harder,

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Elwell, Frank W.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

1. Macrosociology. 2. Social structure. 3. Social change. I. Title.

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For Patricia, who keeps me centred on family

But above all, the social scientist is trying to see the several major trends together—structurally, rather than as happening in a scatter of milieux, adding up to nothing new, in fact not adding up at all. This is the aim that lends to the study of trends its relevance to the understanding of a period, and which demands full and adroit use of the materials of history. — C. WRIGHT MILLS, 1959





1 Principles of Macrosociology

2 Materialism in Macrosociology

3 Evolutionism in the Work of the Founders

4 Contemporary Social Evolution

5 Bureaucratization

6 Capital

7 The State

8 Rationalization

9 The System

A Glossary of Sociology





As I often skip over acknowledgements in my own reading (unless I think I might be mentioned), I will keep this very short. Family, friends, and colleagues provided support throughout the writing process. I thank Drs. Jeffery Gentry, Ken Hicks, David Newcomb, Lillian Daughaday, and Bruce Garrison for many stimulating discussions (and arguments) about social issues. Thanks go to Drs. Mary Millikin, Mary Mackie, and Maurice (Rick) Richter for their critical comments on the manuscript; to Ken Browne, of Great Britain, who encountered the glossary on the Internet and made several excellent suggestions for terms I had overlooked or never knew; and to Pamela Holway, senior editor at Athabasca University Press, for believing in the book almost from the opening lines. I am grateful to Dr. Davis Joyce for our discussions about big ideas and the struggles of writing and life itself. I thank the many students who have challenged me over the years to put it in plainer English. I give thanks to Shelly Borgstrom, who helped me through much of the formatting of the manuscript and provided administrative assistance in leading a fractious bunch in the School of Liberal Arts. Thank you to Dorothy and Irwin Fingerit, who provided a much needed break from it all. Finally, I thank my family for putting up with my early morning and weekend writing habits (among other idiosyncrasies) over the years.

In addition, I am beholden to authors I have never met who helped me in the mutually stimulating thinking and writing process. Some of them are listed on the reference pages, but I would be remiss if I did not single out T. Robert Malthus, Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, and, especially, Max Weber. While more contemporary authors helped in the synthesis presented here, particularly Gerhard Lenski and Marvin Harris (although I must take full responsibility for any missteps), we are all standing on the shoulders of giants—a phrase, as Robert Merton taught us, that has a long history and much truth.


A preface generally tells the story of how a book came into being. This particular book is rooted in my previous work in macrosociology: notably, two earlier books in which I summarize the work of the big four in nineteenth-century sociology—Spencer, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber—and of contemporary theorists who write in the tradition of these founders. In writing these books, I not only learned much about macrosociological theory, but I also began to appreciate the common ground among theorists. In the final chapter of the second book, Macrosociology: The Study of Sociocultural Systems, I attempted to briefly sketch this common ground. This work represents a more systematic and fully developed synthesis.

I have always taught at small universities, where teachers and generalists are still valued, rather than empirical research and ever more detailed specialization, so the type of sociology I practice has largely fallen out of fashion. Consistent with other trends in the sociocultural system, the field of sociology has evolved into a broad collection of specialties with little common bond or shared vision. In graduate school, we learn a little about the founders (all of them macrosociologists, by the way) and a few broad theories (functionalism, conflict theory, exchange, symbolic interaction-ism—all seemingly contradicting each other), but we have little to do with macro theories throughout our subsequent careers, unless we specialize in social theory itself, in which case we often teach it as the history of the discipline rather than as its heart. What distinguishes a sociological study from other fields is the fact that almost all sociologists study some aspect of sociocultural systems and its impact on human behaviour. But in so doing, we usually do not root our studies in the broader sociocultural system or develop systematic connections to the other specialties within the disciplines. Sociologists who specialize in criminology, for example, do not often read studies in medical sociology; even if they do, they will struggle to find common terminology, literature, or theory.

I believe it is imperative that sociologists return to our roots. Macro social theory is rooted in a shared world view. If you were originally drawn to sociology because you were interested in the origins of sociocultural systems, in how they maintain themselves through time and how and why they change, in what impact such systems have on human behaviour and beliefs, I believe you will find this book of value. As evolution does for biology, an explicit and shared world view offers an overall framework for understanding a discipline; it serves to define and organize a field, providing an initial guide to a new subject and informing us about what to look for, what is likely to be significant. Used as a program to guide social research, a paradigm can be systematically tested and developed, offering an agreed-upon and empirically based alternative vision to those offered by religion, ideology, or folk wisdom. Such a holistic world view or paradigm offers identity to its practitioners and order to its students; it could well be the most important gift we can give to our students.

Readers of this work will find that I have a passion for quotation, especially of the nineteenth-century founders of the discipline of sociology. The driving force behind these numerous quotations is my desire for accuracy. The extent to which textbook authors and practicing social scientists rely upon secondary sources characterizing the nineteenth-century social scientists is surprising; this reliance came home to me in my study of T. Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population (1798). The secondary literature on Malthus and his theories is replete with fundamental misunderstandings. With rare exceptions, authors who have summarized and critiqued Malthus’s theory have asserted that it was a theory of future population overshoot and collapse rather than a theory detailing the continuous checks on population growth and the consequences of those necessary checks for the entire sociocultural system.1 Even a cursory reading of the first few chapters of Malthus’s essay reveal that the standard interpretation is nonsense, yet it is rarely challenged and has yet to be corrected in much of the literature. I doubt that many contemporary social scientists have read the original essay, or, if they have, the secondary literature has so completely biased their interpretations that they are reading into it what they expect to find. A similar situation exists with Marx, although it is compounded by the fact that almost fifty years of Cold War with the former Soviet Union has so biased the American mind toward Marx and his critique of capitalism that reading him at all is rather suspect. The labelling of people of the Left as “communists” or “Marxists” has a long history in the United States, peaking in the years after World Wars I and II. It appears the label is coming into fashion again: commentators and even some congressmen have recently used it on opponents.2 Because serious errors have crept into the secondary literature, I think it imperative that we not simply allege that a theorist held one opinion or another (and then criticize the theorist for holding that opinion in the next paragraph) but rather root our allegations in actual quotations of that theorist’s work.

In this book, I quote extensively from Marx’s seminal work, volume 1 of Capital: A Critique of Political Economy. Das Kapital was originally published in German in 1867; the third German edition, published in 1883, was the source of the first English version (1887), translated by Samuel Moore and Edward Aveling and edited by Friedrich Engels. It is from this first English translation, now referred to as volume 1 of Capital, that I quote fairly often in this book. I use this translation for several reasons: (1) the primary translator, Samuel Moore, was, for many years, a friend of both Marx and Engels, and Dr. Aveling, the secondary translator who was responsible for several chapters, was Marx’s son-in-law; (2) the translation was closely supervised and edited by Friedrich Engels, Marx’s long-time friend and collaborator; (3) this edition is widely available both online and in a relatively inexpensive e-book format, a boon to readers who wish to explore the text further; and (4) the Moore-Aveling translation is in the public domain, so I do not have to seek or pay for the rights to use extensive quotes. Although a translation is by definition a secondary source, given the extensive involvement of intimates of Marx (who were assisted by Eleanor, Marx’s youngest daughter and Aveling’s wife) in this translation, I consider it to be authoritative.

One of my goals in writing this book is that it will serve as an introduction to both classical sociological thought and its style of expression, thus making the classics less intimidating. For this reason, I often quote the passage I am referring to in the narrative. Unfortunately, much of Marx’s prose can be overwhelming to the uninitiated, particularly in long and complex paragraphs (even in translation, he often seems to be writing in German). Therefore, for particularly complex passages, I put the quotation in an endnote rather than in the narrative. With quotations that are restricted for copyright reasons (and this includes translations of Durkheim and Weber, as well as work by contemporary social scientists), I characterize the authors’ writing and provide citations for the original material.

But my passion for quoting the early social scientists goes beyond simply documenting my characterizations of their writings or giving the reader a sense of the “tang and feel” of their writing (to borrow a phrase from C. Wright Mills). It is also a result of my desire to highlight the sociological insight of these remarkable theorists. Writing in essentially agrarian societies, these sociologists identified the major forces of stability and change in sociocultural systems and were thus able to foresee the immediate future development of those systems with astonishing accuracy. I am in complete agreement with C. Wright Mills when he wrote, “I believe that what may be called classic social analysis is a definable and usable set of traditions; that its essential feature is the concern with historical social structures; and that its problems are of direct relevance to urgent public issues and insistent human troubles” (1959, 21). The quotations that I use in this book amply demonstrate this assertion. This is not to say that nineteenth-century writings in the social sciences should be accepted uncritically. One can appreciate Malthus’s focus on population and its impact on other parts of the sociocultural system without accepting his attitudes toward birth control or the severe limitations he places on government action to alleviate the plight of the poor. One can accept the accuracy of Marx’s analysis on the role of capital in society without his predictions of a socialist revolution that will solve many of its contradictions. One can accept Weber’s analysis of bureaucracy without completely accepting his pessimism toward the future. Still, the nineteenth-century social theorists provide a solid foundation upon which contemporary sociologists can stand.

Finally, I am proud that Athabasca University Press is an open-source press; in addition to publishing this book in hard copy and in e-book format, the press will make it available free to anyone with access to the Internet. This appeals greatly to my sense of community.

Frank W. Elwell

April 2012



In earlier times, maps often did a poor job of adequately reflecting actual geography; they were not often drawn to scale, they misrepresented many geographical features, and they left many areas blank or decorated with pictures of mythical beasts or phrases such as Hic sunt dracones (“Here be dragons” in today’s vernacular) denoting the fear of the unknown. Over time, as people explored the world around them and maps became a sorely needed tool in these explorations, cartography became more specialized; systematic gathering of information from explorers and travellers became more common; new technologies such as the compass, printing press, longitude, and latitude were employed; and maps gradually became more accurate and useful in understanding the lay of the land (and waters). Today, our map-making skills are more accurate still through the professionalization of cartography, the further development of technologies such as global satellites, and the creation of government and private bureaucracies that employ cartographers, produce and distribute their maps, and promote education, research, and development in the field. Theories of society have much in common with the evolution of map making and with the maps themselves.

The knowledge base of a culture becomes broader, deeper, and more reflective of empirical reality with experience, discovery, and contact with other sociocultural systems. The accumulation and empirical accuracy of this knowledge base developed slowly through human history; very often, the accumulated knowledge based on observation and reason was confounded by traditions, folklore, myth, and religious and political beliefs. The Enlightenment and the development of science, however, greatly sped up the process of attaining ever greater empirical accuracy. Science has a strong connection to the rigorous observation of the physical world. Because its accumulated body of knowledge is continually checked and replicated by other scientists, the practice of science gradually filters out the wishful and the mistaken; tradition and emotion; the mythical, political, and spiritual; it thus arrives at ideas, concepts, and theories that more closely approach physical reality and the relationships among objects in this reality. Norbert Elias ([1970] 1978, 23) elaborates further:

At one time, people imagined that the moon was a goddess. Today we have a more adequate, more realistic idea of the moon. Tomorrow it may be discovered that there are still elements of fantasy in our present idea of the moon, and people may develop a conception of the moon, the solar system and the whole universe still closer to reality than ours. The comparative which qualifies this assertion is important; it can be used to steer ideas between the two towering, unmoving philosophical cliffs of nominalism and positivism, to keep the current of the long-term development of knowledge and thought. We are describing the direction of this current in calling special attention to the decrease in the fanciful elements and increase in the realistic elements in our thinking, as characteristics of the scientificization of our ways of thinking and acquiring knowledge.

What Elias calls “scientificization” is more generally called “rationalization”—Weber’s concept of the process by which modes of precise calculation based on observation and logic increasingly dominate the social world. As has happened with maps, our knowledge base, our mental map of empirical and social reality, has been refined; elements based on tradition, values, and emotions have gradually been replaced. Of course, many irrational elements stubbornly remain, particularly beliefs held by elites, because to hold them is in their material interest (rejection of global climate change comes to mind, but there are many others), or by large numbers of a population who feel that their interests, values, or traditions are directly threatened by the findings of science (evolution being one example among many). But in general and over time, the knowledge base of society is undergoing constant rational refinement. While this process began in the West, it has spread as a result of both conquest and peaceful contact.

Social theorists could be thought of as cartographers of the socio-cultural world. Like cartographers, they attempt to determine on the basis of evidence what phenomena are real and how they are related to one another. They decide on what social elements they wish to map, what social processes and relationships they are trying to capture—from micro theories of interactions among bureaucrats to macro theories that attempt to cast in language the relationships among sociocultural systems. Like cartographers, theorists attempt to eliminate objects from their theories that are not relevant to the generalizations they are trying to make and to reduce the complexities of the characteristics and the relationships of their theories, all in order to produce a framework that can be used to better understand the sociocultural world. Finally, like cartographers, they learn from their own and others’ observations, from the maps that have been made before; their theoretical postulates are constantly checked by their peers and by new observations of social reality. Like a map of a given geographic territory, a social theory is judged on its parsimony and clarity of expression, and by the accuracy of the symbolic reflection of social reality that it creates. This book argues that the macro social theory created by the founders of sociology—as revised and refined by those who have followed—provides a very useful map for both understanding and navigating our world.

Principles of Macrosociology

Knowledge is a process of piling up facts; wisdom lies in their simplification.

Modern macrosociologists still tend to be deeply rooted in the classical social theories of Karl Marx, Émile Durkheim, Max Weber, and Herbert Spencer.1 While many specialists in social theory like to emphasize the differences among macrosociological perspectives, the various theories actually share much common ground. They agree, for example, that the sociological world view differs from psychology, which puts great emphasis upon early socialization, individual motivation, and personal control over behaviour. It differs from the biological and medical views of human behaviour, which stress physiological and genetic predisposition. All of these factors are important, most sociologists would concede, but there is something more. Human behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs are profoundly affected by the groups and organizations in which people interact and the sociocultural system in which they are embedded. But the theories of Marx, Weber, Durkheim, and Spencer—as refined and elaborated by many contemporary macro theorists—share a good deal more common ground than even this; they overlap in ways that have until now been minimized or ignored.

Macrosociology is the study of large-scale organizations, socio-cultural systems, or the world system of societies. All four of the classical sociologists named above began from a macro perspective. Macrosociology should not be considered just another specialty within sociology. It is not a specialty; it is the holistic view of a sociologist’s subject matter, the overall framework within which the specialties exist. Macro social theory seeks to unite numerous empirical observations and middle-range theories into a single, testable, explanatory framework. It is important that the field not be taken over by specialists, that macrosociology retain its role as an integrating mechanism to organize and inform the world view of all sociologists. There is a pull toward almost inevitable specialization in the modern world. As knowledge and techniques proliferate, society responds by breaking them up into supposedly discrete fields, encouraging individuals to specialize and ignore the whole. This is a disaster for the social sciences since so many of the disciplines themselves are based upon the influence of the sociocultural system on various parts of that system, and ultimately on individual behaviour and beliefs.

A reading of introductory sociology textbooks reveals the curious state of the discipline. The books usually mention the founders of the discipline. Each was a macro-level theorist, concerned with whole sociocultural systems—their origin, maintenance, and change—and how they affected human behaviours and beliefs. Our introductory texts briefly paraphrase these theories, mention how they differ from one another (conflict, functionalism, symbolic interaction, etc.), and then largely ignore them as the focus shifts to individual specialties—stratification, deviance, organizations, medical—within the discipline. What is lost in these textbooks, what has been lost in the discipline itself, is the fact that these macro theories actually have much in common. A close reading of the classical literature, as well as the more recent literature in that tradition, reveals that there is substantial overlap in their analyses, considerable agreement on the basic components of society, on sociocultural stability and change, and much common ground as to how sociocultural systems affect human behaviours, attitudes, and beliefs. While macro theorists do not always use common terminology and concepts, they share many conceptual tools. For example, Durkheim’s “anomie” and Marx’s “alienation” have much in common, as do Durkheim’s concept of the division of labour and Weber’s concept of bureaucracy, which encompasses the former concept and applies it to all human organization. Much of Durkheim’s work on the division of labour was built upon a foundation laid by Spencer (who relied heavily on Malthus). Weber has sometimes been described as being in a running dialogue with the ghost of Marx; his overall theory is quite compatible with Marx’s emphasis on capitalism and the centrality of economic factors in understanding sociocultural systems. In this work, I focus on many of the common themes of macrosociology and make the case that there is, in fact, a common sociological perspective or world view.

The theories of Malthus, Spencer, Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, and their modern manifestations, are not as incompatible as many critics make them out to be. The apparent incompatibility is, perhaps, more in the texts that summarize and critique these theories than in the theories themselves. The goal of the textbook author is to present the essential ideas of the theorist in a coherent and distinct manner to the student (as well as to the professor). This requires the author to highlight the theorist’s unique contributions, and as a result, the elements shared with other sociologists are often ignored. In addition, summarizing a theorist’s life work in a single chapter or even a single book is a difficult task; including key qualifications and subtleties is nearly impossible.

A second reason why social theories appear to be almost mutually exclusive is that the differences between theories have often been exaggerated in order to make a point; they are more a product of a critic’s imagination and biased reading. Many secondary sources take on the dual role of both summarizing and critiquing a theory without recognizing that there is often a conflict of interest between the two tasks. Even social theorists themselves are guilty of this. Most authors are attempting to convince readers of the rightness of their own views and to make unique contributions to the theoretical literature. Consequently, they have a tendency to gloss over the finer points of rival theorists and then critique them on failing to recognize these points. Marvin Harris, a fierce advocate for his brand of cultural materialism, was often accused of doing this, and he received much return fire from critics who would similarly misrepresent his theories through oversimplification. The need to be unique may also explain the tendency of many theorists to coin their own terms, thus making common language between different theoretical schools more difficult. The fact that the classical theorists (as well as some contemporaries) are over-fond of coining their own terminology is a significant factor in the seeming incompatibility of social theories.

Social theories, then, are often portrayed (and criticized) as mere caricatures of themselves: Karl Marx is overstated to the point where he denies the importance of all non-economic factors in explaining social life; Max Weber portrayed as a hopeless idealist in which the Protestant ethic is the sole cause of capitalism; Marvin Harris represented as a “vulgar materialist” who failed to recognize any role for social structure or ideology in social life; T. Robert Malthus depicted as a near idiot who failed to realize that agricultural production could expand with improvements in technology; and Gerhard Lenski described as a technological determinist who failed to consider population pressure and structural and cultural factors in his theories. Consequently, the predominant view within the discipline is that these macro theories are mutually exclusive; that sociology is a “multi-paradigm” enterprise consisting of several contradictory and competing perspectives about the nature of the social world.

However, if one reads macro social theory with an eye toward integration and synthesis, one finds few areas in which the classical theorists contradict one another; their differences are more matters of emphasis and focus, and they are, in fact, perfectly compatible with one another. Furthermore, many of their theories have much in common. C. Wright Mills (1959, 6–7) outlines three broad questions addressed by classically rooted sociological analysis: (1) What is the overall structure of the society and its component parts? How are these parts interrelated? And how does this structure and dynamic differ from those of other societies? (2) How is this society rooted in history? What are its major mechanisms of change? (3) What kinds of men and women are coming to prevail in this society? “In what ways are they selected and formed, liberated and repressed, made sensitive and blunted?” Macrosociology is guided by seven principles in seeking to address Mills’s excellent questions: (1) a pronounced systemic/functional analysis; (2) a view that emphasizes a strong materialist-behavioural influence on social structure; (3) an evolutionary view of change; (4) an emphasis upon the impact of social structure (groups and organizations) on human beliefs, values, and attitudes; (5) true to systems theory form, the reciprocal influence of these cultural ideals on structures and material culture; (6) a concern with the endemic inequality within structures; and (7) a rich tradition of comparative historical data that are used to test its generalizations.


Although it is often overlooked, downplayed, or so ubiquitous as to go unobserved, the systemic character of all macrosociology simply cannot be denied. It is, indeed, the very definition of the sociological enterprise itself. Years ago, I wrote a book that attempted to apply the anthropological theory of cultural materialism as propounded by Marvin Harris (1979) to contemporary American society. The book first outlined Harris’s “universal structure” of sociocultural systems—infrastructure (production and population), structure (primary and secondary groups, with some modification of Harris’s perspective), and superstructure (knowledge base, ideas, religious beliefs, ideologies)—and then explained the dynamics of recent cultural change in terms of the theory. For a variety of reasons, I chose as the working title The System. As a child of the sixties, I had grown up hearing “It’s the system, man” from many of my friends, and it seemed to me that cultural materialism—with its emphasis on systemic change as a result of changes in population and technological development, as well as on the depletion and pollution of the environment—reflected that cry very well. But I also liked the title because the view of society as a system is part and parcel of the sociological enterprise, perhaps so ingrained in the discipline that it is given only passing mention in our texts and then rarely examined.2 In fact, I know of no macrosociologist who does not see society as a system. While some claim that it is more or less organized, or that some parts of the system are more important in determining change than others, all assert its system-like qualities: that different parts of the system affect one another and affect the whole. A systems perspective teaches one to focus not only on the various components of the system but also on their interconnections and interactions. Demography, production processes, government, economy, and environment cannot be seen in isolation from one another. There are interconnections—feedback loops—that are as important for studying social structure and change as are the various components themselves.

All of the founders, as well as their modern followers, have at least implicitly asserted that society is a system that is focused upon stability and meeting the physical and psychological needs of its population. Spencer and Durkheim went even further, making explicit the analogy between social and biological systems. The analogy between societies and biological organisms or mechanical systems can be misleading, however, for it calls to mind a perfect coordination and integration of the various parts of the system. This is not the case with sociocultural systems, in which the parts have varying degrees of autonomy and independence from the overall system. Society is a system, but it is an imperfect system. The fact that society is an imperfect system means that not all of the parts function to strengthen the whole system. Many patterns and behaviours contribute nothing to the general welfare of the society, rather serving the interests and needs of individuals or constituent groups—some of whom have more social, political, and economic power than others. Therefore, not all needs are addressed equally. The fact that society is an imperfect system also means that conflict is a normal feature of all societies. However, it is still a sociocultural system, and as such there must be enough co-operation among the members of the society for the system to maintain itself.

Sociocultural systems consist of three types of phenomena: material, structural, and ideational. Material phenomena have a physical presence that can be readily observed: they consist of such observable facts as the physical environment, population and its characteristics (size, age and sex ratios, birth and death rates), and the technologies used to exploit the physical environment or to control population growth and level. Social structural phenomena refer to all human groups and organizations. At a broad level of abstraction, examples of social structure include government, economic, and family systems. At a level closer to home, social structure refers to observable groups such as families, corporations, educational institutions, the military, and community organizations. Finally, ideational components of the sociocultural system comprise the values, norms, ideologies, religious beliefs, and other symbolic items present in all societies. I often think of such cultural items as the (mostly) shared sense of reality that members of a sociocultural system have about the world and their role in it. The basics of this symbolic map of reality that each of us carries in our head are developed in our early socialization and are continually refined and shaped throughout our lives in interaction with others. All human societies—prehistorically, historically, and in the present—are made up of these three components. All three affect one another as well as the overall sociocultural system.

Functional analysis is a natural consequence of thinking of society as a system. It is simply the analysis of sociocultural phenomena for their effects on other phenomena and on the sociocultural system as a whole. The functional orientation has long been implicit in biology and physiology, whose practitioners also see their subject matter in systemic terms. Within biology, for example, part of the study of an individual animal species includes its function in the entire ecological system—its impact on the environment, competing species, and predators. Social scientists as seemingly diverse as Malthus, Spencer, Marx, Durkheim, and Weber have also engaged in functional analysis in describing the interrelationships among sociocultural phenomena. Malthus wrote of the relationship of sexual mores and marriage patterns to population pressures; Marx, of the control of production resources and its relationship to exploitation, dominant ideologies, and eventual revolution; Weber, of the relationship between the rise of the Protestant ethic and the origins of capitalism;3 and Durkheim, of the overall functions of criminal behaviour. Spencer ([1876] 1967, 8) was clearest about the necessity of functional analysis in the opening lines of his Principles of Sociology: “There can be no true conception of a structure without a true conception of its function. To understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards.” Contemporary macro theorists continue to write in functional terms, exploring ways in which social phenomena affect one another and the whole.

Contemporary functional analysis does not hold that all prevalent activities relate positively to the social whole.4 Many cultural items can have positive functions for some groups within a socio-cultural system and negative functions (called “dysfunctions”) for others. There are power differentials in all societies, and sociocultural forms that benefit powerful groups (or elites) may well have dysfunctions for other groups within the system—or even negative consequences on the system as a whole. In practice, many items have multiple consequences—both negative and positive—for the system as a whole and for groups within the system. While it is likely that all widespread and persisting sociocultural phenomena have a net balance of positive functions for the whole or for elite groups, this is an empirical question and not a theoretical given. In functional analysis, it is important to specify the groups for which a given sociocultural item is functional.

While the concept of “function” allows the analyst to focus on issues of stability and the status quo—on how a given cultural item is related to the maintenance and preservation of the system or its parts—the concept of “dysfunction” allows the analyst to focus on issues of change. Dysfunctions are those consequences that often lead to stress, contradictions, and pressure for change within the system. The dominant orientation of the sociocultural system is stability and resistance to change. Institutional structures and ideas are interrelated and predominantly mutually supporting, and the most likely outcome of any change introduced into the system is resistance to that change in other parts of the system. Such resistance seeks to extinguish or minimize that change, but resistance is not always successful, and the accumulation of stress and resulting conflict often causes systemic change. One of the primary goals of functional analysis is to examine a part of the system in its relationships to other parts and to the whole, to identify both functions and dysfunctions for various groups within the system, and then to map out patterns of change.

Students are often confused about the distinction between functions and motives. Functions are the ways in which a sociocultural trait contributes toward the maintenance or adaptation of the socio-cultural system; dysfunction refers to a trait’s impact on the system that lessens adaptation. Motives are the subjective orientations of the individuals engaged in behaviour. Functions and motives are often (though not always) very different. For example, I was once in a group discussing homosexuality with Marvin Harris in the mid-1980s. Harris was claiming that one of the reasons why homosexuals were more open and political about their sexual orientation than they had been in the recent past was because increasing population pressure and the consequent rise in the competition for resources was leading to a relaxation of the prohibitions on non-procreative sex. Because the condemnation from the dominant society was lessening, he went on to say, many homosexuals were emboldened to declare that they were gay and to openly advocate for acceptance and equality. Within our small group, one young woman strongly disagreed, claiming that the reason she came out of the closet had nothing to do with babies, population pressure, or the relaxation of society’s condemnation but rather with her pride in who and what she was. Harris was speaking the language of functions; the young lady was speaking of personal motives.

Several other points of interest about Harris’s example touch upon the nature of functional analysis. By discussing the relationship between population pressure and attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality, Harris was not commenting on the morality of homosexuality or on the fairness of the laws condemning the practice; rather, he was claiming only that there is a functional relationship between population level and prohibitions against homosexuality. Nor was Harris saying that population pressure was the only cultural item affecting attitudes and laws regarding homosexuality. As a systems theorist, he was well aware of multiple relationships within sociocultural systems that included material, structural, and ideational forces. Nor was Harris saying that population pressure was uppermost in the minds of opinion makers in motivating them to ease up on restrictions on and condemnation of homosexuality; he was simply arguing that the functional relationship between population pressure and homosexuality created a climate in which a relaxation of the prohibitions fit with other system changes. Finally, it should be noted that while attitudes and laws condemning homosexuality were once functional for the entire sociocultural system in the West, they were dysfunctional to a significant portion of the population, thus creating strain (tension, contradictions), and ultimately overt conflict, within the system. Population pressure, then, had little to do with the motivation of homosexuals to come out of the closet and openly advocate for equal rights, but it had much to do with the success of this movement. It was when the prohibition was no longer functional for the system as a whole—no longer in the interest of elites to promote population growth or for the masses to have large numbers of children—that the conflict became active and the relaxation of the prohibitions began.5

There are times, however, when functions and motives are one and the same, and this seems especially true when government is consciously considering reform. Manifest functions are those objective consequences that are intended by the participants in the system. Latent functions are those consequences that are unintended and often unrecognized by participants. It is through the concept of latent functions that one can begin to understand the seemingly irrational and non-rational qualities of many social practices. Robert Merton ([1948] 1968, 118) uses the Hopi rain dance as an example in this regard. From all outward appearances, the rain dance is a non-rational ceremony whose manifest function, to bring rain to a given area, is clearly not achieved.

Thus, the Hopi ceremonials designed to produce abundant rainfall may be labeled a superstitious practice of primitive folk and that is assumed to conclude the matter. It should be noted that this in no sense accounts for the group behavior. It is simply a case of name-calling; it substitutes the epithet “superstition” for an analysis of the actual role of this behavior in the life of the group. Given the concept of latent function, however, we are reminded that this behavior may perform a function for the group, although this function may be quite remote from the avowed purpose of the behavior.

If the ceremony is unconnected to its avowed purpose of bringing rain, why then does it persist in Hopi culture? What latent functions does it serve for the group? Merton answers (in the tradition of Émile Durkheim) that the dance serves group unity: it fulfills “the latent function of reinforcing the group identity by providing occasion on which the scattered members of a group assemble to engage in common activity” (118–19).

In chapter 2 of this book, we will examine the functions of a growing gross domestic product in a society. The two primary manifest functions, of course, are to provide ever greater material wealth to the elites in a society and, through the presumed “trickle down” process, creature comforts to the masses. The latent functions and dysfunctions, as we will see, are legion.

The most important advantage to the distinction between latent and manifest functions is that it encourages systemic thinking. Most people seem to think in linear terms: A causes B, and perhaps goes on to affect C. Life, however, is rarely that simple. We live in a world of systems—physiological, psychological, sociocultural, biological, and physical: systems that have many parts that not only affect one another and the whole but also interpenetrate and affect one another. Functional analysis is the elaboration of the systemic character of social life; it is an attempt to account for the web of the world and the influence of this web on social behaviour. Functional analysis is an invaluable tool in policy analysis as well. Through functional analysis, lawmakers (and, more importantly, their staffs) as well as pundits and other political observers can anticipate the consequences—manifest and latent, functional and dysfunctional—of laws and social programs.

The relevance of functional analysis to governance and self-determination can be seen in the great health care debates in the United States in 2009–10. The functions and dysfunctions—latent and manifest—of the various parts of the health care system have been analyzed and widely discussed in terms of their impacts on one another and on the total sociocultural system. The present system functions to the great benefit of a few providers, insurance companies (particularly executives), politicians (in the form of campaign contributions), and those wealthy enough to buy into the system, but it has many negative consequences, or dysfunctions, on industry, government, and consumers who must absorb the ever rising costs of care, as well as on individuals who simply are not covered. Because of these dysfunctions, there has been growing pressure within the system for change; because the present system benefits many elite groups, however, there is also great resistance to change. Consequently, various proposals have been made to restructure the entire medical care system so that incentives are created for preventive medicine, people have broader access to health care, and costs are redistributed and contained. Functional analyses were performed not only on the existing system but also on many of the proposed reforms. What functions and dysfunctions would a widely available government insurance option have for the rest of the system and on specific organizations and groups? Many groups and organizations are promoting, and others resisting, changes through direct coercion on politicians who would institute the changes or through indirect persuasion of these government officials via advertising and other forms of propaganda. As of this writing, it is unclear whether substantial change will be achieved; much depends on the weight of evidence behind the functional analysis of health care, but even more depends on the political and economic power of the groups who are promoting and opposing the reforms.


The fact that almost all macrosociologists root their analyses in material conditions is often overlooked. While their theories frequently focus on stability and change in social structures, as well as on the influence of social structure on ideas and behaviour, the founders generally view social structure and changes in that structure as ultimately the product of material circumstances. For example, Durkheim ([1893] 1997, 336–37) argues that cultural advancement (“civilization”) results from the increased specialization made possible by the division of labour, which is itself caused by changes in the “volume” and “density” of societies—that is, by population pressure:

Civilization is itself the necessary consequence of the changes which are produced in the volume and in the density of societies. If science, art, and economic activity develop, it is in accordance with a necessity which is imposed upon men. It is because there is, for them, no other way of living in the new conditions in which they have been placed. From the time that the number of individuals among whom social relations are established begins to increase, they can maintain themselves only by greater specialization, harder work, and intensification of their faculties. From this general stimulation, there inevitably results a much higher degree of culture. From this point of view, civilization appears, not as an end which moves people by its attractions for them, not as a good foreseen and desired in advance, of which they seek to assure themselves the largest possible part, but as the effect of a cause, as the necessary resultant of a given state. It is not the pole towards which historic development is moving and to which men seek to get nearer in order to be happier or better, for neither happiness nor morality necessarily increases with the intensity of life. They move because they must move, and what determines the speed of this march is the more or less strong pressure which they exercise upon one another, according to their number.

Herbert Spencer, of course, built most of his evolutionary theory around increases in population level through either natural population growth or conquest. Marx’s historical materialism is also widely known in the sociological literature, as expressed in his well-known maxim: “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence determines their consciousness” (Marx [1859] 1911, 11–12). Marx’s primary causal variables are subsumed under his concept of “mode of production,” which appears to include both the “forces” of production (technology and division of labour, which are material factors) and “relations” of production (economic relations, such as feudalism or capitalism, which are structural). With few exceptions, macrosociologists very quickly recognized that material factors are the necessary foundations of sociocultural systems. Max Weber is, unfortunately, often perceived to be one of the exceptions.

Weber is known as an idealist in many quarters, since he asserts that ideas (such as the Protestant ethic and rationalization) are primary causes of structural and material changes. This, however, is misleading, for Weber is a systems theorist who always traces a web of multiple causation, giving significant weight in his historical analysis to institutional, ideational, and