Practice Question: What, according to Merton, is the difference between ‘unanticipated consequences’ and ‘latent functions’ ? Give examples to elaborate. (10 Marks) (UPSC 2019)

Approach: Introduction; Briefly mention Merton’s functionalism; Mention Manifest and Latent functions, Draw out difference between unanticipated consequences and latent functions with help of examples; Conclusion.



Robert King Merton (1910-2003) is a self-styled “Durkheimian,” writing very much in the functional tradition. In conceiving of society as a system it becomes natural to see it, like other systems, as composed of parts that are interrelated and whose operations have consequences on the whole. For example, when examining a simple system like the human body it becomes readily apparent that the various organs are interrelated and impact the overall health of the body. So is it with sociocultural systems. Functional analysis is a consequence of thinking of society as a total system. Functionalism is the analysis of social phenomena in terms of their effect on other phenomena and on the sociocultural system as a whole.



As Merton says, there are generally five connotations assigned to the word ‘function’. First, function often refers to some public gathering or festive occasion, usually conducted with ceremonial overtones. And as Merton says, and you too may well anticipate, this popular usage of function does not have the slightest similarity with the sociological concept you are dealing with. Secondly, the term is often equated with occupation. But this is not what a sociologist is interested in. Thirdly, function is often used to refer to the activities assigned to the
incumbent of a social status. Fourthly, function has got a mathematical meaning. It refers to a variable in relation to one or more variables in terms of which it may be expressed. The fifth connotation, which is central to functional analysis. The inspiration behind this usage has been the biological sciences, where the term function is used to refer to these ‘vital or organic processes which contribute to the maintenance of the organism’.



Merton argues that society is divided into groups and sub-groups and what is functional for a particular group may be dysfunctional for others. Moreover, nothing is indispensable; there
are always functional alternatives and equivalents.

Postulate of Functional Unity

his 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.

Postulate of Universal Functionalism

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.

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.



Manifest functions are the consequences that people observe or expect. It is explicitly stated and understood by the participants in the relevant action. The manifest function of a rain dance, used as an example by Merton in his 1957 Social Theory and Social Structure, is to produce rain, and this outcome is intended and desired by people participating in the ritual. Latent functions are those that are neither recognized nor intended. A latent function of a behavior is not explicitly stated, recognized, or intended by the people involved. Thus, they are identified by observers. In the example of rain ceremony, the latent function reinforces the group identity by providing a regular opportunity for the members of a group to meet and engage in a common activity.

Manifest function Vs Latent function

While manifest functions are consciously and deliberately intended to produce beneficial outcomes, latent functions are neither conscious nor deliberate but also produce benefits. They are, in effect, unintended positive consequences. Sociologists recognize that social institutions produce latent functions in addition to manifest functions. Latent functions of the institution of education include the formation of friendships among students who matriculate at the same school; the provision of entertainment and socializing opportunities via school dances, sporting events, and talent shows; and feeding poor students lunch (and breakfast, in some cases) when they would otherwise go hungry. The first two in this list perform the latent function of fostering and reinforcing social ties, group identity, and a sense of belonging, which are very important aspects of a healthy and functional society. The third performs the latent function of redistributing resources in society to help alleviate the poverty experienced by many.



Merton’s terminology of latent and manifest function was unfortunate given that his concern was to distinguish between latent function and manifest motive. It encouraged critics in their view that sociological functionalism neglected agency, just when agency was being identified as a central concern. More importantly, his proposed codification of social inquiry in terms of an analytical distinction between subjective motive and objective function was also the solution that Parsons had proposed. It is this that takes
functionalism in the direction of an all-inclusive unified theory away from the middle-range.






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