As the name implies, a functionalist perspective on social institutions emphasizes the functions those institutions serve in society. For example, a functionalist interpretation of religion would emphasize the role played by religion in providing social control, societal norms, and other things that are important for a society. Government would be evaluated in terms of its ability to impose order. Even gender differences might be seen in relation to division of labor or some other function. In some ways, functionalism takes an approach like that of a biologist or an anatomist. The assumption made by early functionalists was that society, like a body or an ecosystem, functioned best in a state of equilibrium.
Rather than evaluating an institution on its own terms, a functionalist analysis allows sociologists to investigate it in a larger, societal context, asking what its effect is on the overall state of equilibrium. Despite the apparently value-neutral nature of functionalism, it can and has been used to illustrate how some institutions function to reinforce the power of elites and power groups, and thus have contributed to movements for social justice. This view, in particular, has been held by sociologist Robert Merton.