Robert K Merton – Latent and Manifest Functions



Latent functions: Functional consequences that are not intended or recognized by the members of a social system in which they occur.

Manifest functions: The functions of a type of social activity that are known to and intended by the individuals involved in the activity.


Until the 1960s, functionalist thought was probably the leading theoretical tradition in sociology, particularly in the United States. Talcott Parsons (1902- 79) and Robert K. Merton (1910-2003), who each drew extensively on Durkheim, were two of its most prominent adherents. Merton’s version of functionalism has been particularly influential.

Robert Merton, pursued a version of Parsons’s functionalism, but did so in a much more critical way. Merton saw that while many sociological studies focused on either the macro-level of society as a whole or the micro-level of social interactions, this polarization had failed to ‘fill in the gaps’ between macro- and micro-levels. To rectify this, Merton argued for middle range theories in particular areas or on specific subjects. Merton criticized some of the more extreme and indefensible aspects of structural functionalism. But equally important, his new conceptual insights helped give structural functionalism a continuing usefulness.

Although both Merton and Parsons are associated with structural functionalism, there are important differences between them.

  • While Parsons advocated the creation of grand, overarching theories, Merton favoured more limited, middle range theories.
  • Merton was more favourable toward Marxian theories than Parsons was.


Merton criticized what he saw as the three basic postulates of functional analysis as it was developed by anthropologists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.

The first is the postulate of the functional unity of society. This postulate holds that all standardized social and cultural beliefs and practices are functional for society as a whole as well as for individuals in society. This view implies that the various parts of a social system must show a high level of integration. However, Merton maintained that although it may be true of small, primitive societies, this generalization cannot be extended to larger, more complex societies. Merton argues that functional unity is a matter of degree. Its extent must be determined by investigation rather than simply beginning with the assumption that it exists.

The second postulate is the universal functionalism. That is, it is argued that all standardized social and cultural forms and structures have positive functions. Merton argued that this contradicts what we find in the real world. It is clear that not every structure, custom, idea, belief, and so forth, has positive functions. He suggests that functionalist analysis should proceed from assumption that any part of society may be functional, dysfunctional or non-functional. For example, poverty may be seen as dysfunctional for the poor but functional for the non-poor and for society as a whole.

The third is the postulate of indispensability. The argument here is that all standardized aspects of society not only have positive functions but also represent indispensable parts of the working whole. This postulate leads to the idea that all structures and functions are functionally necessary for society. Functionalists have often seen religion in this light. For example, Davis and Moore claim that religion plays a unique and indispensable part in the society. Merton questions this assumption of indispensability and argues that the same functional prerequisites may be met by a range of alternative institutions. For example a political ideology like communism can provide a functional alternative to religion.

Merton’s position was that all these functional postulates rely on no empirical assertions based on abstract, theoretical systems. At a minimum, it is the responsibility of the sociologist to examine each empirically. Merton’s belief that empirical tests, not theoretical assertions, are crucial to functional analysis led him to develop his “paradigm” of functional analysis as a guide to the integration of theory and research.


Functions, according to Merton, are defined as “those observed consequences which make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system”.


However, there is a clear ideological bias when one focuses only on adaptation or adjustment, for they are always positive consequences. It is important to note that one social fact can have negative consequences for another social fact. To rectify this serious omission in early structural functionalism, Merton developed the idea of a dysfunction.  Just as structures or institutions could contribute to the maintenance of other parts of the social system, they also could have negative consequences for them.


Merton also posited the idea of non-functions, which he defined as consequences that are simply irrelevant to the system under consideration. Included here might be social forms that are “survivals” from earlier historical times. Although they may have had positive or negative consequences in the past, they have no significant effect on contemporary society.

Merton added the idea that there must be levels of functional analysis.  Functionalists had generally restricted themselves to analysis of the society as a whole, but Merton made it clear that analysis also could be done on an organization, institution, or group.


Merton also introduced the concepts of manifest and latent functions. These two terms have also been important additions to functional analysis. In simple terms, manifest functions are those that are intended, whereas latent functions are unintended. The manifest function of slavery, for example, was to increase the economic productivity of the South America, but it had the latent function of providing a vast underclass that served to increase the social status of southern whites, both rich and poor.

This idea is related to another of Merton’s concepts— unanticipated consequences.  Actions have both intended and unintended consequences. Although everyone is aware of the intended consequences, sociological analysis is required to uncover the unintended consequences; indeed, to some this is the very essence of sociology.

Peter Berger has called this “debunking”, or looking beyond stated intentions to real effects.   Merton made it clear that unanticipated consequences and latent functions are not the same. A latent function is one type of unanticipated consequence, one that is functional for the designated system. But there are two other types of unanticipated consequences: “those that are dysfunctional for a designated system, and these comprise the latent dysfunctions”, and “those which are irrelevant to the system which they affect neither functionally nor dysfunctionally“.


As further clarification of functional theory, Merton pointed out that a structure may be dysfunctional for the system as a whole yet may continue to exist. One might make a good case that discrimination against blacks, females, and other minority groups is dysfunctional for society, yet it continues to exist because it is functional for a part of the social system; for example, discrimination against females is generally functional for males. However, these forms of discrimination are not without some dysfunctions, even for the group for which they are functional. Males do suffer from their discrimination against females. One could argue that these forms of discrimination adversely affect those who discriminate by keeping vast numbers of people underproductive and by increasing the likelihood of social conflict.

Merton contended that not all structures are indispensable to the workings of the social system. Some parts of our social system can be eliminated. This helps functional theory overcome another of its conservative biases. By recognizing that some structures are expendable, functionalism opens the way for meaningful social change. Our society, for example, could continue to exist (and even be improved) by the elimination of discrimination against various minority groups.

Thus, Merton’s clarifications are of great utility to sociologists who wish to perform structural-functional analyses.


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