Why Does Merton Think Making a Distinction Between Manifest and Latent Functions Matters?
A large topic in sociology is the concept of manifest and latent functions; a manifest function is simply the known or anticipated results of an action, while a latent function is the unknown (at the time) and unanticipated results of the action. To make it really simple say I ate twelve cookies. Why? Because I like the flavor and expect them to taste yummy (manifest function), but I did not intend on getting a stomach ache afterwards (latent function). There are manifest and latent functions for everything that we do in life, but what are the manifest and latent functions for taking Introduction to Sociology with Dr. Weber at 10:05 A.M. every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday until February?
As has been implied in earlier sections, the distinction between manifest and latent functions was devised to preclude the inadvertent confusion, often found in the sociological literature, between conscious motivations for social behavior and its objective consequences. Our scrutiny of current vocabularies of functional analysis has shown how easily, and how unfortunately, the sociologist may identify motives with functions. It was further indicated that the motive and the function vary independently and that the failure to register this fact in an established terminology has contributed to the unwitting tendency among sociologists to confuse the subjective categories of motivation with the objective categories of function. This, then, is the central purpose of our succumbing to the not-always-commendable practice of introducing new terms into the rapidly growing technical vocabulary of sociology, a practice regarded by many laymen as an affront to their intelligence and an offense against common intelligibility. As will be readily recognized, I have adapted the terms "manifest" and "latent" from their use in another context by Freud (although Francis Bacon had long ago spoken of "latent process" and "latent configuration" in connection with processes which are below the threshold of superficial observation). Since the occasion for making the distinction arises with great frequency, and since the purpose of a conceptual scheme is to direct observations toward salient elements of a situation and to prevent the inadvertent oversight of these elements, it would seem justifiable to designate this distinction by an appropriate set of terms. This is the rationale for the distinction between manifest functions and latent functions; the first referring to those objective consequences for a specified unit (person, subgroup, social or cultural system) which contribute to its adjustment or adaptation and were so intended; the second referring to unintended and unrecognized consequences of the same order. Clarifies the analysis of seemingly irrational social patterns. In the first place, the distinction aids the sociological interpretation of many social practices which persist even though their manifest purpose is clearly not achieved. The time-worn procedure in such instances has been for diverse, particularly lay, observers to refer to these practices as "superstitions," "irrationalities," "mere inertia of tradition," etc. In other words, when group behavior does not-- and, indeed, often cannot--attain its ostensible purpose there is an inclination to attribute its occurrence to lack of intelligence, sheer ignorance, survivals, or so-called inertia. Thus, the Hopi ceremonials designed to produce abundant rainfall may be labelled a superstitious practice of primitive folk and that is assumed to conclude the matter. It should be noted that this in no sense accounts for the group behavior. It is simply a case of name-calling; it substitutes the epithet "superstition" for an analysis of the actual role of this behavior in the life of the group. Given the concept of latent function, however, we are reminded that this behavior may perform a function for the group, although this function may be quite remote from the avowed purpose of the behavior.
The manifest functions of education include cultural transmission; social integration; student assessment; the promotion of personal growth and development; and the dissemination, preservation, and creation of knowledge (Shepard 368-369). In particular, education enables students to assimilate a society’s culture by instilling in the students the society’s attitudes, beliefs, norms, and values. It is also through education that a diverse population is transformed into a community with a single identity. This becomes possible when the students learn an official language, share in patriotic and national history themes, and are exposed to similar information sequences that foster a shared identity. On the other hand, students are assessed to gauge their abilities and also to enable the determination of the career paths that would be best for them. Moreover, the school provides students with opportunities for discovering and developing their creativity and skills. As well, schools use various media for instruction, enable the preservation of knowledge through works such as manuscripts and artifacts, and enable students to innovate. The latent functions of education, on the other hand, are less intended and recognized but remain to be among the benefits that education provides (Shepard 369). These functions include the inculcation of discipline, athletic training, prevention of delinquency, and the matching of marriage partners. These functions are seen as both positive and negative, depending on the reference point.
By and large, an example of inquiry which implicitly uses the notion of latent function will illustrate the sense in which "paradox"--discrepancy between the apparent, merely manifest, function and the actual, which also includes latent functions tends to occur as a result of including this concept. Thus, to revert to Veblen's well-known analysis of conspicuous consumption, it is no accident that he has been recognized as a social analyst gifted with an eye for the paradoxical, the ironic, the satiric. For these are frequent, if not inevitable, outcomes of applying the concept of latent function (or its equivalent).
Shepard, Jon. Sociology. 11th ed. Independence, KY: Cengage/Wadsworth Publishing.