Structural Functionalist Theory Approach in Political Science

Almond’s Model: Structural Functionalism - Definition, Features Merits & Criticism

Structural functional theory refers to the structures that are found in any system and the functions performed by these structures. Thus, the political system is defined as the various structures and institutions in society that perform political functions or that bear on political decision-making.

The political system is just like all other systems—economic, legal, social, and cultural—it constantly interacts with other systems in an all-inclusive manner to produce results. Prof. Eme Awa clearly defines a political system as "the peculiar structures in any particular system performing political functions.".

Functions are observable consequences that flow from roles. Therefore, if the structures are there, the functions performed by them can be fished out. In Nigerian society, for instance, some political structures are the presidency, national assembly, house of assembly, local government council, INEC, PDP, APP, AD, etc. Functions performed by these structures include the budget, foreign policy, university economy, elections, mass transit, tuition-free federal universities, the minimum wage, and distance learning.

Theories of Integration

Integration concerns regional, not national; it is integration between two or more sovereign states, e.g., the EU, ECOWAS, and SADC.

World politics has long been considered state-centered, conflict-oriented, and defense-oriented. The greatest critics of the security/conflict conception of international politics are the functionalists. Functionalism is an operative philosophy that would lead to a peaceful, unified, and cooperative world through integration. The three theories of integration are: functionalism, federalism, and communications.

1. Functionalism

David Mitrany argued that functionalism would be the best framework for a new international order because it would overcome the forces of nationalism and ideology. Federalism, sovereignty, national exclusivism, and wars are viewed as anachronistic and dangerous. Even if a number of federal units were constructed, this would leave the world still divided on a competitive basis. Peaceful change would come not through a shift in national boundaries but by means of action taken across them.

Functionalist strategy consists of developing non-political organizations that are established most effectively at the regional level in the economic, technical, scientific, social, and cultural sectors. These sectors are functional.

It is easier to establish functional organizations in sectors such as energy, transportation, trade, science and technology, labor, and customs unions than to develop political institutions that jeopardize the national sovereignty of member states. Governments find it difficult to oppose functional organizations since they are mutually advantageous to the participating states.

The steady growth of functional organizations will trigger the "spill-over" effect, or what economists call the demonstration effect. For example, cooperation in steel and coal production (as in Europe) may attract governments to enter into cooperative ventures in related areas such as transportation, environmental control, and labor legislation. It thus leads to incremental cooperation and eventually to political implication.

The successful performance of functional activities by bodies that had taken over specific tasks and authorities from governments would bring nations together and build a common interest across national boundaries. A transformation in both national attitudes and institutions will take place. Ultimately, transnational and supranational attitudes and institutions will transcend nation-states.

Neo-functionalism In the 1950s, Ernst Haas developed a modified version of functionalism named neo-functionalism. According to Haas, the essence of functionalism or integration is that step-by-step economic decisions are superior to political decisions. Cooperation in economic welfare would ultimately bring about the establishment of a new supranational authority, regardless of the wishes of individual states.

Ernst Haas' functionalism, i.e., neo-functionalism, assumes that economic self-interest is more important than political commitment and that unforeseen consequences and incremental decision-making are more effective in bringing about integration than purposeful behavior and grand designs.

Co-operative decision-making processes and elite attitudes towards integration are more effective instruments for assessing the progress of integration. Given these conditions, "the progression from a politically inspired common market to an economic union and finally to a political union among states is automatic.".

The development of European supranationality symbolizes "the victory of economics over politics." Common values of economic and social expansion hold sway over those of national interest and ideology. The preponderance of economic self-interest over ideology brought about economic ties across national boundaries. Thus, a natural economic progression has led the six European countries of the E.C.C. from their initial co-operation in coal and steel production to refrigerators, tariffs, and then chickens, to monetary policy, and to co-operation in the business cycle.

Besides cooperative decision-making processes, the attitudes and ideologies of the elite are important. As pressure groups begin to organize across national boundaries in order to influence policy decisions that were once the monopoly of national governments but now come under the purview of supranational institutions, group pressures spill over into them and add to the integrative process. Economic activities in industry and agriculture would grow. A supranational bureaucracy will develop and will be granted more supranational powers. Political loyalties following the path of economic interest will gradually attach themselves to the new supranational bureaucracy.

Ultimately, as a result of a shift in economic management and welfare functions, political integration will occur. A supranational body thus supplants the nation-states as the object of secular loyalties.

Hence, Haas definition of integration is "the process whereby political action in several discrete national settings is persuaded to shift their loyalties to a new center whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over the pre-existing national states.".

2. Federalism

Federalism as a theory of integration conceives of integration in legal and situational terms. For federal scholars, integration is an end product rather than a process. The path to political community is by means of constitutional measures.

Federalism serves as a political union among previously sovereign and independent states. It regards the creation of federal institutions, such as military and police forces, and a common legal system as the best method of uniting people with some common features, such as language, culture, or land proximity, but who live in separate states.

A federal arrangement is said to exist when a set of political communities are united in a common order. In Switzerland, common institutions are established to promote the growth of common attitudes and a sense of community, different forms and representative institutions, and the division of powers between federal, national, and local levels. Federalism seeks to adopt institutions that operate successfully at a national level and a common government for use on a regional basis.

In general, structural functionalism is concerned with the nature of the functions that are performed in a political system, and the structures which perform them. It asks what functions are required that the system may survive? to be performed in order survive.

Merits of Structural Functionalist Theory

  • Like the systems approach, the structural- functionalist approach facilitates comparison among political systems. If political systems- whether village or industrialized- required the same basic functions to survive they can be compared if these functions are identified.
  • Although the approach emphasizes the structures in a system, it is more interested in the behaviour of these structures. Specifically, it focuses on what structure do rather than on what their characteristics. In other words, it wants to find out what the behaviour is and why it is important. By so doing, we come to know that some structures perform other functions apart from the manifest ones.

Criticisms of the Structural Functionalist Theory

  • Like the systems approach, its emphasis on system-maintenance makes it ideological apposed to revolutionary change. In fact, as is the case with the systems approach, it seems to counter Marxism. As W.G. Runciman has argued, "functionalism can indeed be interpreted as a conscious alternative to Marxism. Some of its writers have wanted to interpret it as a political ideology conditioned by the structure of American capitalism".
  • The approach relies heavily on national political systems, thereby suggesting that politics does not take place outside of the state realm. In addition, it does not actually specify what political activities are.
  • By placing a lot of emphasis on functions and functional behaviour, the approach diverts attention away from the institutions/structures themselves which are then taken for granted because they are assumed to exist simply because they perform certain functions.
  • The laudable abstract analysis of functions has not been matched by an equal concern with or linkage to the concrete structures.

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