Social Functions

Parliaments are examples of political institutions that perform the social function of collective decision making

Parliaments are examples of political institutions that perform the social function of collective decision-making

Within any given social system a number of collective functions need to be performed for the system to be maintained and develop over time, these functions might include, basic biological reproduction of the population, for which we have the institution of the family, or economic functions such as manufacturing products, for which we have businesses, or political functions such as collective social decision making for which we have the institution of government. These social functions are performed through social institutions that have to aggregate individuals, assign functional roles to them, with all of these roles being integrated within some overarching process that take in resources of some kind and performs an operation on them to produce some required output; it is this process that we can define as the social system’s function.1


The division of functional tasks in a social system takes the form of the interaction among heterogeneous specialized positions, what we call roles. A social role defines a set of behaviors and activities of someone who holds a particular social status.  Roles such as mother, manager or teacher constitute a set of, responsibilities, expectations, norms and behaviors that a person has to fulfill in order for the institution to function effectively. Roles define differentiated states that an individual must occupy in order for the organization to fulfill some collective function, as such they typically exist in relation to each other, what are called reciprocation roles, such as the role of doctor and patient, student and teach, father and daughter etc.2


In order to coordinate activity around some common function we need not only roles but some set of relations between these roles that define how they interrelate, doctors and patients, students and teachers know how they should interrelate in order to enable the joint outcome, in larger social systems we have organization charts that define how the different positions relate to each other and within very formal situations they may define specific protocols for interaction, such as a soldier having to solute before interacting with a member of a higher rank or having to call the queen her majesty. But the primary objective here is to automate the interaction between the agents so that it does not have to be renegotiated each time when everyone knows their role, place and how to relate to others within the system, this will enable frictionless processes to take place.

Process & Instructions

In order for the system to perform some collective function we need to define what exactly that function is, if we think about writing a business model, we are really trying to define the functioning of that enterprise by answering the questions of what problem will this business solve, who will it solve it for, and what resources will it use to do that. Systems take in inputs and through some process they perform a set of operations on these inputs to generate some output, we could think about the military as an example, it will take in people, technology, finance and other resources in order to generate the desired functional output of securing a nation.
In order to do this there needs to be some set of rules that define how the whole process should be performed, thus formal social institutions are typically endowed with a set of instructions as to how their function should be conducted. For example, governments have a well-defined set of rules encoded in the constitution and law as to how they should conduct the process of governing a country, how decisions should get made and what they can and can’t do during this process, the same would be true for an institute of education or even religions. These rules might be formal, as in these examples or more informal as we might have best practices within a business, or even within our culture we have constructs of how an ideal family, friend, community etc. should be, which is essentially an informal set of rules as to how to perform that functional role what we might call a norm, the specific cultural expectations for how to behave in a given situation.

Functional & Dysfunctional

Social entropy is a state of maximum disorder within the social system

Social entropy is a state of maximum disorder within the social system

But of course social institutions may also be dysfunctional, political regimes may be corrupted, parents abusive or businesses inefficient. Robert King Merton, a twentieth-century sociologist, introduced the concept of dysfunctionality within social systems. Talking about religion, for instance, he pointed out the dysfunctional features of religion in a multi-religious society. In such a society religion, instead of bringing about solidarity, it could become the cause of disorganization and disunity, as it divides the community up, as such dysfunctionality is also seen to be disruptive to the stability of a social system. According to Wikipedia social entropy is “a macro-sociological systems theory. It is a measure of the natural decay within a social system. It can refer to the decomposition of social structure … Much of the energy consumed by a social organization is spent to maintain its structure, counteracting social entropy, e.g., through legal institutions, education and even the promotion of television viewing. Anomie is the maximum state of social entropy. Social entropy implies the tendency of social networks and society in general to break down over time, moving from cooperation and advancement towards conflict and chaos.3

Dissipative Systems

Because intuitions serve some function we can theoretically reason about the effectiveness with which they achieve this, the social system’s efficiency is how effectively it processes the input of resources to the output of some social function, the lower we turn down the efficiency the more the system is being defined by its consumption of resources as opposed to its function and this consumption of resources within the system generates entropy.  We can describe this more formally with reference to what are called dissipative systems, the idea of a dissipative system was introduced to the scientific literature by the chemist and physicist Ilya Prigogine to describe thermodynamic systems, but it has come to be seen as applicable to all complex adaptive systems.4 Closed systems obey the second law of thermodynamics meaning there is an increase in entropy over time, a natural accumulation of increasing levels of random disorder, dissipative systems and complex adaptive systems like societies and intuitions avoid this natural decay process because they are open systems, they import energy and resources and they export entropy. If they are successful in doing this they will be able to accumulate resources in order to either consume more or develop their internal structure in order to become more functional, like a biological organism, ingesting food to grow larger, equally if they can not export this entropy then their internal structure will be degraded and thus their capacity to function equally degraded. How the social system manages to export entropy is then critical to understanding how it works and why it is the way it is.
But this idea of social entropy is  very abstract in that it represents any form of disorder within a social system, the exporting of entropy then may be an individual’s use of violence against another or corruption that degrades the functionality of the overall organizations. And as we now understand entropy in terms of information, thanks to information theory, it can also be defined as lack of information or not knowing, thus lying to someone, the production of propaganda, manipulating information, these are all examples of exporting entropy, a person’s misunderstanding of their environment can also be considered social entropy.

Formal & Informal

Corruption can be identified as a central sources of disfunctionality within social institutions

Corruption can be identified as a central source of dysfunctionality within social institutions

Social dysfunctionality is closely related to the subject of informal institutions, intuitions can be formal or informal, informal institutions are largely organic meaning they emerge naturally out of some preexisting substrate whenever there is a function to be performed, whereas formal intuitions are typically more artificial being designed by some set of explicit principles. Formal intuitions are made explicit and are socially excepted functions, for example, the family unit is a socially accepted functional unit, which is made formal and explicit by the process of marriage, but we also have functions within society that are not socially accepted and are thus not made formal, but at the same time they do not go away, they simply persist in an informal fashion, prostitution might be an example here, the rules and roles to the workings of that institution are not made explicit and formalized, they remain latent.
Informal intuitions can be used as a course of action which might not be publicly popular, or even legal, and can be seen as an effective way of making up for lack of efficiency in a formal institution. For example, in countries where formal institutions are particularly inefficient, an informal institution may be the most cost effective way of actually carrying out a given task, and this ensures that there is little pressure on the formal institution to become more efficient, our previous example of the government official improvising in offering ‘express service fees’ to stamp the forms may be an illustration of this.
The relationship between formal and informal institutions is often closely aligned and informal institutions step in to prop up inefficient institutions. Thus when analyzing a given social system we should be aware of both the formal and informal intuitions, whereas they will typically present themselves as two contrasting systems, the reality is more often that informal intuitions are created out of the failures of formal intuitions and society’s incapacity to accept and find solutions for integrating them into the overall social system. There is a symbiosis between the two, for example in many countries the law enforcement agencies do not try to remove position or the consumption of cannabis but instead may actively work to maintain them in a particular state. Social institutions have both manifest and latent functions, manifest being those that are made explicit as the function of that institution, latent being those that are performed but not made explicit. For example, universities have the manifest function of teaching students the knowledge and skills necessary for some occupation, but universities also serve the latent function of socialization.5

Cite this article as: Complexity Labs, "Social Functions," in Complexity Labs, May 6, 2016,
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