Understanding the Application of the ‘Structural-Functionalist’ Perspective in the Field of Sociology: Some Examples

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 1980


This paper takes a brief look at the ‘structural-functionalist’ perspective (Hooper, 2013; Erickson & Murphy, 2013) in the field of sociology, a perspective that was widely used in the social sciences in the 20th century, but which has partly fallen out of favour in the field since then. However, it will be argued that the structural-functionalist lens still has much value in the field, and can go some way towards explaining complex social phenomena and the root causes of any social ills. The discourse shall begin by first providing an explanation of the structural-functionalist theoretical lens, how it developed, and how it is used in the field of sociology, before moving on to offer a number of viable examples of how the perspective might be used in the social sciences, and how researchers might be better informed of social phenomena as a result of this perspective. Finally, based upon this discussion, some tentative conclusions will be offered, along with some recommendations moving forwards.

Understanding the Structural-Functionalist Perspective

The structural-functionalist perspective, then, is an approach that is borrowed and developed from the ‘organic analogy’ of Herbert Spencer (Jayapalan, 2001), a nineteenth century sociologist, and one of the pioneers of the field, who compared social problems to the world of biology. So, for example, just as a problem in the human body might be indicative of a problem or issues elsewhere (such as vomiting and fatigue being a symptom of meningitis and a virus that has entered the brain), so too, according to Spencer (cited in Jayapalan, 2001), might a social problem be due to a more underlying problem, that is not immediately apparent. A good example of this then, might be a proliferation of the prison populations being indicative of more underlying problems and issues in society, which might involve economic problems, political problems, or even rising mental health problems. Indeed, the OECD (2021) has recently reported that: “The COVID‑19 crisis has heightened the risk factors generally associated with poor mental health” (n.p.). Thus, some of these factors include financial problems and unemployment, while the usual protective factors, like access to physical exercise, daily routines, and access to healthcare services also declined significantly during the COVID-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures. As such, in such circumstances, it would not be a complete surprise if prison populations started to increase, due to a proliferation of crime, or even to decrease, if the government felt it was a priority to push for more social distancing in prisons, by reducing the prison population, in order to contain the virus. In fact, the Ministry of Justice (2021) has reported on prison statistic trends in England and Wales during the COVID-19 pandemic, stating that from the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, to February 2021, when lockdown ended, there was a reduction of 5,900 prisoners in England and Wales, going down to a total population of 78,000 prisoners. Therefore, in a very simplistic way, from a structural-functionalist perspective, this reduction in the prison population can be attributed not to a decline in crime exactly, but more a result of changes in government policy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a need to facilitate more social distancing in prisons. However, interestingly, it is also noted by the Ministry of Justice (2021) that while the total prison population did reduce during this period, there was an increase in the remand population in England and Wales, which is a trend that is attributed to the challenges that the Crown Court faced in holding trials during the pandemic.

Some Further Examples

Another topical example, that might be used to highlight the usefulness of the structural-functionalist perspective, might be increases in suicide rates, which in recent years has hit a two-decade high in the UK, at 5,691 suicides in 2019 (Butler, 2020). Moreover, Crew (2021) has also said that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted upon suicide rates in the UK, but perhaps not in the way that might be expected, with changes to coroners’ inquests impacting upon suicide statistics. However, it is also interesting to note that the statistic on suicide provided by Crew (2021) shows that males’ suicides in the UK tend to be around three times higher than those of female suicide rates, and so this is an interesting sociological phenomenon that may require more research, and a subject which the structural-functionalist perspective might be applied to. So, there are a number of possible underlying structural issues that might be leading to such gender polarised trends in suicide rates, which might include factors such as employment issues, health, breadwinner pressures, and an unwillingness for men, in general, to talk about their problems compared to women. In fact, Schumacher (2019) has attempted to provide some answers to the question of why more men than women die of suicide in the UK, and it is noted that in countries all around the world (not just the UK), women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and even to attempt suicide, but it is the male suicide rate that is still several times higher than for females. Furthermore, it is noted that: “Suicide is a hugely sensitive, complex issue with a tangled multitude of causes – and the very nature of a death by suicide means we can never fully know the reasons behind it” (Schumacher, 2019). What can be deduced from this though, might be that women are more likely to talk about their depression and feelings with friends and healthcare professionals, and their suicide attempts may be more calls for help, whereas men as less likely to talk about their feelings, and are more likely to follow through on their suicide attempts. Of course, a good deal of in-depth research would be needed in order to verify such a hypothesis. However, if this is the case, then from a structural-functionalist perspective, it might be said that there are some socio-cultural issues in play that might be impacting upon these gender specific suicide rates, and so in order to mitigate this, these cultural gender-specific issues would need to be looked at and addressed, so that there is a more acceptance in the male community of depression and mental health issues.

One further example of how the structural-functionalist perspective might be useful comes in the form of rises in child sex abuse cases. The study of child abuse and neglect is well documented (May-Chahal & Cawson, 2005), with prevalence levels being an omnipresent concern. However, in recent years, there have been a number of investigations and media reports detailing how child abuse, and particularly child sex abuse, has been on the rise (Laville, 2015), with this creating much public concern. Indeed, a spate of high profile child sex abuse cases in the UK, involving leading celebrities such as Rolf Harris, Jimmy Savile, and Fred Talbot, to name just a few, has exacerbated such concern. Moreover, it seems as though as more of these cases come to light, even more people are coming forward with accusations of historical child sex abuse, which is in turn leading to even more cases coming to light. Thus, from a statistical vantage point, it could look as if child sex abuse is very much on the rise, with convictions for such crimes proliferating. However, by delving a little deeper, it may be the case that most of these crimes are historical ones that are coming to light many years or decades later and actual child sex abuse cases might in fact, in real terms, be decreasing. Indeed, this would make sense, as crime is very much a risk-reward scenario, and if the perceived risk of being caught is deemed to be higher than the reward of committing a crime, then there is less chance of such a crime being committed. Thus, as more and more cases come forward and are documented in the media, what could happen is that such crimes actually decrease. Of course, there may be deeper, more insidious reasons as to why such crimes rise or fall during certain periods. For example, organisational cultures at television studies may have been conducive to such crimes being committed and covered up during the 1970s and 1980s, or beyond, and the police may not have taken such accusations as seriously as they now do. Moreover, it could also be the case that in the past, there may have been less awareness about such crimes, and so victims might have been less likely to come forward with a statement, perhaps believing that they might get in trouble, or be publically humiliated. Thus, from the structural-functionalist perspective, there are a multitude of reasons that come to light to help to explain a phenomenon, with the first and most obvious explanation not always being correct, and there being a plethora of possible root causes of any social phenomenon (in fact, it is more likely that there are multiple causes of a particular phenomenon, and this is why the structural-functionalist perspective is so useful – to uncover some of these causes). However, the structural-functionalist perspective is by no means the only theoretical lens and perspective that can be drawn upon in the social sciences, and in the field of sociology more specifically, and so it is important to choose the most applicable lens when studying social phenomenon.


In conclusion then, several examples have been provided, in prison population changes, suicide rates, and the prevalence of child sex abuse, to demonstrate how the structural-functionalist perspective can be useful in sociological analyses. As such, although this is an approach that has fallen out of favour a little since the twentieth century, it is still a lens and a perspective that has much value in the field of sociology, and can be used to inform a better understanding of the root causes of social phenomena. As such, it is recommended that this perspective continues to be utilised in fields such as sociology, criminology, international relations, and politics, in order to better understand social phenomena and to help to identify the root causes of any social trends. Although it is an approach that has fallen out of favour among social scientists in recent years, it has been argued that this approach still has much value, and much to offer sociologists and criminologists. Nevertheless, this is an approach and a perspective that is very much a means to an end, and so should be used as so.


Butler, P. (2020) ‘Male suicide rate hits two-decade high in England and Wales’, The Guardian [online], https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/sep/01/male-suicide-rate-england-wales-covid-19, Date accessed 20/10/2021.

Crew, J. (2021) ‘Registered suicide rate returns to pre-pandemic level after inquest disruption’, Evening Standard [online], https://www.standard.co.uk/news/uk/ons-england-government-samaritans-wales-b954050.html, Date accessed 20/10/2021.

Erickson, P.A. & Murphy, L.D. (2013) A History of Anthropological Theory, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Hooper, L. (2013) Structural-Functionalism, E-book: GRIN.

Jayapalan, N. (2001) Sociological Theories, Delhi: Mehra Offset Press.

Laville, S. (2015) ‘1,400 investigated in child sex abuse inquiry, including politicians’, The Guardian [online], https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/may/20/1400-suspects-operation-hydrant-politician-and-celebrity-child-sex-abuse-inquiry, Date accessed 20/10/2021.

May-Chahal, C. & Cawson, P. (2005) ‘Measuring child maltreatment in the United Kingdom: A study of the prevalence of child abuse and neglect’, Child Abuse & Neglect, Vol. 29, No. 9, pp. 969-984.

Ministry of Justice (2021) ‘HM Prison and Probation Service COVID-19 Official Statistics’, Ministry of Justice [online], https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/968562/HMPPS_COVID19_Feb21_Pub_Doc.pdf, Date accessed 19/21/2021.

OECD (2021) ‘Tackling the mental health impact of the COVID-19 crisis: An integrated, whole-of-society response’, OECD [online], https://www.oecd.org/coronavirus/policy-responses/tackling-the-mental-health-impact-of-the-covid-19-crisis-an-integrated-whole-of-society-response-0ccafa0b/, Date accessed 19/21/2021.

Schumacher, H. (2019) ‘Why more men than women die by suicide’, BBC Future [online], https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women, Date accessed 19/21/2021.

Cite this page

Choose cite format:
Online Chat Messenger Email
+44 800 520 0055