Functional Explanation in the Social Sciences

The first paper in my second-year module Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy as part of my MA in Philosophy had to address the following question:

‘Functional explanations are essential for the study of evolution. Evolutionary explanation through chance variation and natural selection is a successful explanatory model. So it is surprising that functional explanation in the social sciences should be so contentious.’ Discuss

I am afraid I could not hide my deep disdain for functional explanations which I think don’t explain anything and which remind me more of conspiracy theories than of a scientific approach. So here is my paper:

In any debate – not only – in social or political philosophy, it won’t take long until someone mentions the word “society”. Society seems like a very real force. It seems to exist in the world just like other real things. But when we pause for a moment and look around, we only find human beings in this society, individual human beings. This leads some to go so far as to call society “fiction” or to postulate that “there is no such thing as society”1.

This debate is not only relevant for the normative aspects of social and political philosophy, but also for examining the explanatory approaches to social and political subject matters.

Functional explanation is one of these approaches, partly based on biology2 3 and especially the study of evolution4. This paper seeks to address the question whether functional explanation is an adequate explanation in the social sciences, especially in view of its origin in biology.

I. What is functional explanation in social sciences?

A functional explanation is one in which the existence of an entity or process is explained by the functions it carries out5 6 or by its effect 7, or put the other way round: the function of an institution, activity and so on is what explains its existence8 9.

To illustrate this with an example, the unequal distribution of wealth in a country may be explained by its function of keeping the capitalist system working, by allowing a small group of people who own most of the capital to employ the larger part of the population for wages which are just enough to survive but don’t allow the workers to build up a stock of capital of their own. If this sounds Marxist, it is no surprise because functional explanations are rampant in Marxist social science10 and actually dominated sociology until the 1960s11.

“It’s one big conspiracy.”

For a rather everyday example, I will refer to a variation of an example provided by Matravers and Pike12: Why is there food in my fridge? A functionalist explanation would be: for me to eat it.

One characteristic feature of functionalism is that it postulates a purpose without a purposive actor13 14, just like evolution works without a purposive actor and is guided, if at all, by an “invisible hand“15.

II. Functional explanation in evolution

Some sociologists, like Talcott Parsons16 or Herbert Spencer17, equate sociological knowledge with biology where “the elements of the whole are understood in terms of their relations to the whole”18.

Evolution can be explained without the need for a purposive actor, as it works through chance variation and natural selection19 20. It roughly works like this: some animals of a species have genetic mutations which happen by chance. They have longer necks, stronger muscles, a different colour and so on, just like different human beings have different characteristics. Some of these mutations will be negative, they will make these animals slow or prone to disease. The animals affected in such a way will become extinct (possibly only over many generations) and with them the genetic mutations will die out. Other characteristics will prove to be beneficial by making the animals stronger, faster or give them better mimicry. These animals will live longer, find more mating partners, have more offspring and thus pass on their genetic sequences to far more animals in the next generation(s). This is how an originally arbitrary mutation will prevail over generations until a whole species will slowly have changed.

Don’t let this give you the wrong idea about how evolution works.

Pike describes this mechanism of chance variation and natural selection as leading to a “seemingly purposive result”21. I am not sure I would call it “purposive” because after all, it’s only chance. It is random. Some animals die, some species become extinct. What could be the purpose behind this?

I also find the description of evolution as “purposive” dangerously close to the theory of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck who did indeed argue that animals developed and acquired certain helpful features which were then passed on to the next generation. Since Charles Darwin, we know this theory of “soft inheritance” to be false.

III. Differences between evolution and social sciences

I have strong objections against the use of functionalism in the social sciences based on biological evolution, and I think there are numerous arguments against transferring this theory from the natural world to the world of social science, especially in highly complex societies. I shall address just a few of these arguments here:

  1. The main criticism of functional explanation is its lack of a mechanism22. Without a mechanism that is able to explain cause and effect, there is actually no cause and effect, but only correlation. Correlation can be an indication of causality in some cases, but doesn’t necessarily imply causality.

For evolution, we know this mechanism (but only since Charles Darwin): chance variation and natural selection. This is a logical mechanism, supported by ample evidence and meanwhile accepted by the overwhelming majority of natural scientists. – In the social sciences however, in the absence of a plausible mechanism, nothing is explained23.

  1. Evolution is an inappropriate comparison to apply to social sciences because of the different time spans and the different subjects involved.

a. Life on earth began to evolve approximately 3.7 billion years ago. Mammals came into existence about 129 million years ago, modern humans only about 250,000 years ago.

These are obviously immense time spans over which no single scientist could observe much in the way of evolution. Even a scientist who would become very old and who would study one species all his lifetime could not determine the function or the purpose of a change in that species, if he could even detect any change at all. The “purpose” of an evolutionary change only becomes clear in hindsight.

In social science, we don’t have that much time. Changes happen much quicker, and we want answers much sooner. 23 years ago the world was divided in East and West, in a constant fear of a nuclear worldwide war. Just one and a half years ago we had dictatorships all over North Africa and no hope for change. Today, the world is completely different. Last year, during the London riots, a substantial part of society seemed to have changed within two days (and for not much longer).

A theory grounded in a science where developments can only be observed tens of thousands of years in hindsight is not suitable to social sciences.

b. Humans are not animals. Animals are an object of evolution, they do not think, they don’t make rational decisions, they follow instincts24.

Humans on the other hand are not only objects, but subjects. They think, they try to be rational, they have several choices, they make decisions, they correct these decisions, they talk to other humans about what to do jointly.

c. In addition to this rationality, humans are also blessed with (or plagued by) psychology. Evolution and the functional explanation of evolution doesn’t need to take account of psychology.

d. Humans – and other social actors like companies or government or armies – are much more different from each other than animals are.

A crocodile is a crocodile is a crocodile. At least for crocodiles of the same age, length and sex we pretty much assume that it will behave exactly the same way as any other crocodile with the same attributes.

Not so with humans: A 6-year old school girl in Kenya is completely different from one in Korea. A farmer in Iowa is completely different from one in Islamabad. Even if the economic and political situations were more or completely similar, people in different societies, countries or regions will still have different moral values, different priorities, different beliefs out of which they will act differently.

Evolution and the functional explanation derived from it is far too simplistic for the world as we know it.

IV. Conclusion

Functional explanation is at best at the stage at which the study of evolution was at the time of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and before Charles Darwin25: it may be true that a certain function is helpful in explaining the existence or development of a (social) phenomenon, but we cannot say for certain, we cannot say anything about the mechanism and we can neither prove nor disprove it (yet).

The hunches that functionalists have may well be right. But it is still no more than speculation26. It is not science.

I will return to the very simple example of paragraph I., about the food in my fridge, to illustrate another point why I think that functional explanations are logically not sustainable. A functional explanation would explain the presence of the food by its purpose, i.e. to feed me. However, if I look into my fridge now, it is empty. Yet, I am hungry. What is the function of the absence of food or of the emptiness of the fridge? There is none that is discernible. Functional explanation cannot explain social phenomena that don’t have a function. But because functions are debatable – one person may see a function in something, the other may not – this leaves social science open to the kind of endless argument that is not worthy of the term “science”.

And the same applies to issues of more interest to social and political philosophers: if the function of the Arab Spring was to get rid of dictatorships, then surely this function would also have been fulfilled if the Arab Spring had happened two years earlier. Why didn’t it happen? The function, the goal, the effect would have been the same.

“I told you so.”

To me, this makes clear that there is no better explanatory method than methodological individualism which is based on the realisation that all actions are the actions of flesh-and-blood individuals and not of some overarching invisible hand27 28 29 and that rejects “all attempts to explain social … phenomena … unless they are couched wholly in terms of facts about individuals”30. As Karl Popper wrote: “All social phenomena … should always be understood as resulting from the decisions, actions, attitudes, etc. of human individuals, and … we should never be satisfied by an explanation in terms of so-called ‘collectives’.”31

Sticking to the example of the Arab Spring, some of the protesters may have been motivated by anger, some of them by poverty, some of them by ideas about liberal democracy, some of them by women’s rights, some of them just wanted to join their friends, some of them maybe craved the excitement and the action, some of them wanted to jump on the bandwagon in due time before the regimes fell. It may well be that there are almost as many motives and explanations as there were agents. But these explanations at the individual level can still be put together again to form a larger picture and then truly explain social change. This methodology will be more descriptive than functionalism, but it will stick to the facts and observations of researchable data instead of what will have to remain speculations about the function of a process which might end up having a completely different result once it will be completed in a few years, forcing us to change our view of the function altogether32.

1Interview of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on 23 September 1987

2Elster 1982: 30

3Cohen1982: 41

4Other sources are the Christian theodicies: Elster 1982: 23

5Matravers/Pike 2003: 8

6Macionis/Plummer 2012: 38

7Cohen 1982: 41 and 43

8Matravers/Pike 2003: 8

9Cohen 1982: 41

10Elster 1982: 29

11Macionis/Plummer 2012: 39

12Matravers/Pike 2003: 8

13Elster 1982: 23

14Pike 2005: 18

15Elster 1982: 23

16Cuff/Sharrock/Francis 2006: 91

17Macionis/Plummer 2012: 38

18Cuff/Sharrock/Francis 2006: 91

19Pike 2005: 21

20Cohen 1982: 48

21Pike 2005: 21

22Pike 2005: 18

23Pike 2005: 18

24Elster 1982: 30

25Cohen 1982: 48 thinks this is sufficient to justify the theory

26Elster 1982: 23

27Pike 2005: 22

28Matravers/Pike 2003: 10

29Wright/Sober/Levine 1987: 56

30Lukes 1973: 12

31Popper, The Open Society, Vol. II, p. 98; quoted according to Lukes 1973: 13-14

32Elster 1982: 28 states that functionalism is „arbitrary, because [of] the manipulation of the time dimension“



Cuff, E.C., Sharrock W.W. And Francis, D.W. (2006) Perspectives in Sociology (5th edition), Abingdon, Routledge

Macionis, John J. and Plummer, Ken (2012) Sociology – A Global Introduction (5th edition), Harlow, Pearson

Matravers, Derek and Pike, Jon (2003) (editors) Debates in Contemporary Political Philosophy – An Anthology, Abingdon, Routledge


Cohen, G.A. (1982) “Reply to Elster on ‘Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory”, Theory and Society 11 (reprinted in Matravers/Pike [2003] and quoted by the pages of the reprint)

Elster, Jon (1982) “Marxism, Functionalism and Game Theory”, Theory and Society 11 (reprinted in Matravers/Pike [2003] and quoted by the pages of the reprint)

Lukes, Steven (1973) Individualism, pp. 110-24 (reprinted as Methodological Individualism in Matravers/Pike [2003] and quoted by the pages of the reprint)

Wright. E.O., Sober, E. and Levine, A. (1987) “Marxism and Methodological Individualism” New Left Review I/162 (reprinted in Matravers/Pike [2003] and quoted by the pages of the reprint)

Study material

Pike, Jon (2005) The Philosophy of Social Explanation, A851 Issues in Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy, Chapter 1, pp. 15-26, Milton Keynes, The Open University

The internet

Margaret Thatcher Foundation,

The next paper, due on 4 May 2012, is about egalitarianism and sufficiency criteria which should be a bit more interesting.

About Andreas Moser

Travelling the world and writing about it. I have degrees in law and philosophy, but I'd much rather be a writer, a spy or a hobo.
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16 Responses to Functional Explanation in the Social Sciences

  1. Pingback: MA Philosophy at the Open University | The Happy Hermit

  2. I feel like your reliance on what you call “methodological individualism” has an effect of flattening some of the socio-cultural depth to events such as the Arab Spring. Sure, you can say there are many reasons for people to protest, but that, to me, seems to try to hide the question of why all of those various interests converged at one particular point in time, with a (purportedly) particular adversary. Maybe one of the ways to sidestep this functionalism/individualism binary is to try to interconnect more social phenomena. So the functional reason for something doesn’t have to be one thing that you can specifically name, but it’s also hard to deny that there is some kind of unifying or synthesizing direction that revolutionary movements today are headed in. Similarly, people absolutely do have different interests from other people, but there are things that they collectively are working towards. Not only that, but you can’t reduce a person to having just one interest. Many people are willing to speak against financial inequality, sexual inequality, student loan debt etc. and I think it would be small minded to try to think of each of these causes as contained and discrete. -Zak

  3. Lillian Smith says:

    So you do not think that ‘herd’ behaviour exists in humans?

    What is your take on the ‘meme’ ?

    • Herd behaviour exists, but it is still due to individual decisions by individual agents who may all have very different motives. After all, there are also a number of people who resent being in the herd. And somebody is starting it.
      The herd behaviour can be observed, but it doesn’t ‘explain’ anything. The explanations are to be found at the individual level.

  4. Lillian Smith says:

    Do you think that an outside agency, like for instance a PR firm can influence and manipulate people to do certain actions and not others? Can subliminal messages broadcast to people unawares influence their collective behaviour? I am interested to know what you think for this topic that has been studied by the US intelligence agencies and even in the old USSR. Certainly, Joseph Goebbels believed in propaganda and was very successful at it. What about religious indoctrination that lasts throughout a lifetime – would you call that the action of an individual or the action of a programmed individual? And if you have a whole nation that has been programmed by religious indoctrination, you could very well predict what their views and actions would be in certain circumstances. So I do not really think that humans are really free to act as individuals in the true sense of the word – for they have been programmed by Church, State. Schools and if you believe the “meme’ theory, by social memes.

    A good book for your list is Edward Bernays (Sigmund Freud’ nephew) “Propaganda”. It is worth reading.

    • Of course people can be influenced, and you don’t even need to revert to these subliminal messages. People are also openly influenced by what they read, by discussions, by good arguments, by example from parents or role models, by their partners because they want to please them.
      But some people are not influenced or swayed by the same subliminal messages or by equally good arguments. Also, in very religious societies, you have many people who remain sceptical or opposed or indifferent.

      In the end, it’s an individual decision.

      And correlation is not causation, as always. You mention Nazi propaganda and call it “successful”. I think that’s jumping to a conclusion. It may well be that most Germans participated in the Nazi regime not because of the propaganda, but out of fear of being sent to a concentration camp. In fact, I believe that this is probably a stronger influence than a speech in a stadium. Or they were motivated out of greed, because many were happy to pick up that Jewish neighbour’s house or furniture or paintings at cheap prices at an auction or to have a professional competitor less. The “effective propaganda” was a welcome excuse for Germans after 1945 to explain, rationalise or apologise for their actions.
      Again, the point of the paper is that we have to look at the motivation of many, preferably all, individuals involved in order to ‘understand’ a social or historical phenomenon that we otherwise just ‘observe’.

    • Shawn Tham says:

      i think if people are not influenced or swayed by the same subliminal messages or by equally good arguments, it is because they already have an opinion or a belief in their head. I mean there is a reason why they are not swayed right? and i think that is because they have already formed their opinions or beliefs in their head which is probably caused by something. it could be a past experience or the same subliminal messages or by another equally good arguments. Therefore, i don’t believe it is down to the individual ultimately. okay i am not sure what i am saying but ye. i am really bad at putting my thoughts down into words.

  5. Lillian Smith says:

    Re the Arab Spring.

    Some say the prime motivators behind this was the Muslim Brotherhood and tacit Western support for their part in the rebellion. It is not unheard of in Muslim countries that after Friday prayers the people who have been roiled up by the Imam rush out en mass to protest and mob.

    • The Arab Spring started in Tunisia because one vegetable vendor set himself on fire. This in turn led many other young Tunisians to think about their situation and to realise “we have nothing more to lose” which gave them the courage to take on a regime that had been in power for 24 years.

      Only after the revolution in Tunisia was successful did it pick up in Egypt, then in other countries, while we also have to note the stark differences in each of these countries’ situation.

      The Muslim Brotherhood had been opposed to autocratic regimes – except when it is the autocratic regime itself, like Hamas in Gaza – for more than 70 years. So, its existence does not explain anything. In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood was noticeably absent from the revolution in the beginning. Like many others in and outside of the Arab Spring countries, including the Western world, it had not expected such a broad, strong yet non-organised movement coming together from many different corners of society without any coordination.

      Again, I do not deny the existence of social phenomena or of groups. I just argue that their existence does not ‘explain’ anything, especially not a causality. I don’t see how you can try to explain an action with the existence of a group that has existed since 1928 without explaining at the same time why this group’s existence did not lead to the same result in 1928, 1929, 1930, …, 2009, 2010.
      It’s like saying “it snowed today because it’s cold”. This is not a sufficient explanation because it does not address why it doesn’t snow on other days that are equally cold.

    • AFC says:

      I just want to point out a certain fact: that the Arab Spring protests did not come out of nowhere, like a big surprise. Instead, they were the culmination of intense protest that had been going on for many years. It’s true that before the Arab Spring, very few people in Europe and the USA were paying any attention to what was going on over there. But it was still going on.

      Finally, to add another fact, or perhaps it is just speculation: what seemed to cause the Arab Spring protests to jump to such enormous size, so that seeming “everyone” all joined at the same time, was actually the introduction of personal communications technology into those societies, so that news was spreading at a much faster rate, and reaching many more people, and coming from many more sources (not just “official” sources). This altered the tactical situation, so that the people became capable of “swarming” in a way that they could not before. That was the big change, the difference between then, and ten years before then.

      Of course, it’s true that certain events in the news triggered the events in Tunisia; and that the events in Tunisia triggered hope and action elsewhere. But in my mind it must be the case that there had been many other such triggers in the last decades, which failed to spread to the people so quickly and so widely, because the technological situation was very different a decade ago.

  6. Lillian Smith says:

    Thanks Andreas for those erudite replies. While I may not agree completely with your explanations (for example I have seen film of the rapturous crowds at Hitler’s meetings and cannot imagine they were there because of fear of being sent to the Concentration Camps), I think that you have made some valid points. In fact it is true in any given population, there is always a minority that seems to see beyond or is immune to propaganda and can and do think for themselves.

    However, most people (and I know this empirically) seem to be on autopilot and just consume and believe whatever TV and the Media tells them to. I have tried to engage colleagues at work to talk about subjects in a manner different then what is being portrayed to them on the news etc. but to no avail. One therefore should never overestimate people’s abilities to think for themselves or outside of the box.

    At the end, unless we completely trust these entities we will always have that little nagging doubt as to whether our actions are really our own.

  7. Lillian Smith says:

    Andreas, if you like Thatcher then you might also like the views of Ayn Rand and the cult of individualism.

    This started to be taught in schools in the 80’s and since, being revived by the Reagan and Thatcher administrations.

    I personally think it is a load of crock that goes against the core teachings and tenets of both Christianity and Judaism. I also find it odd that while they preach individualism to the masses, they, that is the Corporate Elite are busy merging and consolidating their powers and assets and creating trans-national cabals/consortiums and Right-Wing think tanks, such as the Fraser Institute & the Cato Institute and others too numerous to mention. They (JP. Morgan, Rockefeller et al) also created the CFR in the beginning of the twentieth century largely to further the interest of big banks and big business., In fact we can see the fruits of their labour everywhere because when you examine most any product category from chocolate to computers you will find that though there are a lot of brands they are all owned by a handful (usually less than 5) of players in each sector.

    It is not by coincidence that the ‘fascia’ the Roman emblem of strength through unity, is also the emblem of the Fascists or as they are known today, the Conservative/Republicans or just plain the “Right”.

    • I don’t ‘like’ Thatcher, I just included her quote.
      I did enjoy Ayn Rand’s “Anthem”, but wouldn’t want to take the time to plough through “Atlas Shrugged”.

  8. I’m not an expert in social sciences, I guess. But I’m into medicine and biology. It looks to me as you have two pretty common misconceptions about evolution. First common misconception: You seem to think that evolution always needs millions or thousands of years and can not be observed. Second common misconception: You seem to think that the theory by Lamarck is dead. I might as well write a long-planned article about this.

  9. Pingback: Equality versus Sufficiency | The Happy Hermit

  10. Pingback: Who Kills all the Old People? | The Happy Hermit

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