Society is a highly complex system, and many theories are dedicated to the study of the relationships between and within different societies and their fundamental components. Structural functionalism, as a school of thought in social sciences, provides a framework for identifying and understanding various features and structures of society necessary for its survival (Majumdar, 2021). This school of thought assigns functions to different societal processes and defines them from the point of view of these processes. Thus, the structural-functionalist perspective and its terms, such as manifest function, latent function, and dysfunction, can be applied to the system of education in order to better understand its role in society.
The manifest function is the primary function of a feature or process in society. It can be defined as an intended and expected consequence widely recognized by all participants in the system (Taylor, Taylor-Neu, & Butterwick, 2018). The manifest function can also be viewed as the expected outcome of engagement in the system or process. There are several manifest functions associated with formal education. The leading expected outcome is the transmission of knowledge and society’s culture, customs, and traditions to the next generation. It can be argued that the socialization of students and their ability to secure and improve their standing in society or social mobility also present crucial manifest functions of education. Overall, the educational system is characterized by manifest functions aimed at preparing students to be functional members of society.
Social processes and institutions are often designed to benefit society intentionally. However, they can also present unintended functions that are not always apparent to the system’s participants. Thus, a latent function is an unintended outcome of a social feature or process that is not widely recognized or acknowledged by its members (Taylor, Taylor-Neu, & Butterwick, 2018). The educational system has various unintended outcomes of its operation in society. It can be contended that through daily communication of students of the same age, peer groups are established, contributing to developing a generation gap characterized by the establishment of new behavioral norms and new beliefs. In addition, numerous skills acquired at an educational institution can be viewed as latent functions of formal education. For example, time management and teamwork skills developed in school are the latent functions of the educational system. Thus, education as a social process educates students and prepares them for a life in society in a variety of ways.
Manifest and latent functions of a system being achieved should be considered the ideal outcome for society. However, they are not always realized, and the failure of a process to produce both intended and unintentional consequences beneficial for society is a dysfunction. In social structuralism, dysfunction is an outcome that disrupts social stability (Majumdar, 2021). Within the educational system, adverse outcomes for individual students and students as a group can be viewed as dysfunctions. For instance, students consistently getting bad grades and failing to graduate is a dysfunction of education as a process. Absenteeism, antisocial behavior, hostility towards teachers and other students, and failure to find employment after completing the education are also examples of dysfunction.
In summary, the structural functionalism school strives to describe social institutions and phenomena from the point of view of their functions in society. As a social institution, the educational system is represented by a variety of manifest and latent functions, including the transmission of culture and knowledge, socialization, generation gap establishment, and skill acquisition. In cases when these functions are not fulfilled, dysfunction occurs, threatening social stability and society as a whole.
Majumdar, A. (2021). The Nature of Functionalism in Social Science. Academia Letters, 1–3. doi:10.20935/al1236
Taylor, A., Taylor-Neu, R., & Butterwick, S. (2018). “Trying to square the circle”: Research ethics and Canadian higher education. European Educational Research Journal, 19(1), 56–71. doi:10.1177/1474904118785542