Sociological functionalism is closely related to the structural-functionalist approach in anthropology, which tries to explain the various social forms found in tribal societies in terms of their contributions to social cohesion.
The followers of this perspective focus on the understanding of the ‘ordering’ and ‘patterning’ of the social world. Their focus of attention is mainly the ‘problem of order’ at a societal level. Their theoretical and empirical analyses have generally been based on the assumption that societies can be seen as persistent, cohesive, stable, generally inherited wholes differentiated by their culture and social structural arrangements.
They even pose the questions: How did various institutions or customs originate? How does it fill in the broader context? How does the part relate to the whole? Regarding this perspective, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown says that the total social structure of a society, together with the totality of social usages, constituted a functional unity, a condition in which all parts work together with a sufficient degree of harmony or internal consistency, that is, without producing persisting conflicts which can neither be resolved nor regulated. Further, to explain any belief, rule, custom or institution demanded an analysis which linked the elements functionally with the structure of the culture as a system.
This perspective of society stresses the element of harmony and consistency not those of conflict and contradiction. The functional unity of a system is defined in terms of social order. In defining society in holistic terms, structural-functional implies that as everything within the system is necessarily functional for the whole.
They are the believers of the fact that society is a relatively persisting configuration of elements and consensus is a ubiquitous element of the social system. It treats changes as a slow, cumulative process of adjustment to a new situation. Its explanation consists essentially of pointing out how the different types of activity fit on top of one another, and are consistent with one another, and how conflicts are contained and prevented from changing the structure.
M.N. Srinivas is to be credited for initiating the new line of structural-functional analysis in sociological and social anthropological research in India. Structural-functionalism is brought into sociology by borrowing concepts from biological sciences. Structure in biology refers to organisms meaning a relatively stable arrangement of relationships between different cells and the consequences of the activity of the various organs in the life process of the organism as their function.
Spencer goes further and points out that not only analogy exists between the body social and body human but the same principle and the same definition of life is applied to both. Durkheim insisted on the importance of structure over elements. He has pointed to the importance of social morphology or structure.
A new departure was marked in the thirties of the 19th century by the works of a number of British social anthropologists (Srinivas, 1964). Evans-Pritchard describes social structure in terms of persistent social groups and Radcliffe-Brown indicates that social structure is based on network of relations of person to person through genealogical connections.
According to Srinivas, “In the recent British social anthropology, the two important concepts — structure and function — imply that every society is a whole and that its various parts are interrelated. In other words, the various groups and categories which are part of a society are related to each other” (Srinivas, 1964).
The structural-functional perspective relies more on the field work tradition for understanding the social reality so that it can also be understood as ‘contextual’ or ‘field view’ perspective of the social phenomena. The important followers of this perspective are M.N. Srinivas, S.C. Dube, McKim Marriott, I.P. Desai, D.N. Majumdar and others. In this section, we would discuss the structural-functional approach adopted by M.N. Srinivas, S.C. Dube and McKim Marriott in the study of Indian society.