Describe the four essential elements of structural functionalism. 

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Structural functionalism is a theoretical construct associated with early– to mid–twentieth-century British social anthropology. Its overall emphasis is on the structural elements and associated functions of societies. One central element is its holistic perspective, the idea that social institutions work together to constitute the social structure, and society is a well-integrated whole. A second premise is that each institution has specific functions which are not duplicated in any of the others. Closely related is the third idea, that those institutions function together to maintain balance or equilibrium so that the society remains in harmony. The theory emphasizes the importance of kinship, which establishes the preferred relationships among individuals, as the basis of the social structure. A fourth element is the emphasis on permanence and the conviction that culture change is superficial and short-lived and does not substantially affect the underlying structure. The denial of the lasting effects of change and lack of attention to culture are often considered the major shortcomings of this theory.

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The Oxford Dictionary of Politics defines structural functionalism as a type of social system with four interrelated elements:  norms, customs, traditions, and institutions.  It was first developed in the earlier part of the 20th Century by a social anthropologist named A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and later implemented by American sociologist Talcott Parsons.  I will now explain (mostly in my own words) the four elements that make up this system:

Norm: a standard or example that others accept, copy, or imitate.  A key element of a norm is its consistency or constancy.

Custom: a habit that is transmitted from generation to generation.  Some customs are so old no one can remember who started them or why!

Tradition: an established way of doing something that is passed down from one generation to another through stories, songs, legends, and customs.  Not all traditions are old.  New ones come along in societies all the time as new and different ideas are tried out, incorporated, and practiced from then on.


a well-established and structured pattern of behavior or of relationships that is accepted as a fundamental part of a culture.

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