Note: This writeup uses the international relations student's definition of functionalism, not the anthropology or sociology definition. For more information, consult an IR textbook or a boring second year introductory IR course.

Functionalism is a doctrine that looks at organizations in terms of their function; also, it focuses on the way individuals and groups work together. Common interests and needs are seen to forge connections and foster co-operation in a way not dissimilar from constructivism (though Functionalism does not necessarily set out the direction which the norms being constructed will take). Functionalists assume that international co-operation fosters links that temper state sovereignty, that understanding arises from that co-operation, and that these effects reduce global conflict and reduce poverty. All three of these assumptions are flawed.

Firstly, it does not follow logically that co-operation diminishes sovereignty. The individual in society, whose position is rife with interaction with others, is just as much an individual as the hermit living off in the wild. co-operation is born both from a self interested drive for the gains that arise from joint effort and from a general human longing to be part of a group. While this does, to an extent, mean that some limits to sovereignty will be accepted, it does not follow that deepened co-operation will in any way limit or undermine sovereignty. Supranatural organizations, such as the United Nations or the World Bank, have, in many ways, less credibility than their domestic counterparts. They lack democratic legitimacy and power of enforcement of their decisions. As such they have a power to foster co-operation when that is a mutually desired end, but less power to compel states operating outside of international norms, or against the functionalist goals of reducing global conflict and poverty, to do so.

The second faulty assumption, or perhaps oversimplification, is that co-operation necessarily leads to understanding. Now, much depends upon the definitions of ‘co-operation’ and ‘understanding’ that are used, but it should be evident from history that just because nations, or individuals, co-operate, they do not necessarily become more amiable towards one another or even more likely to consider one another worthy, respectable beings.

Finally, and most importantly, functionalists assume that the growing co-operation internationally will lead to particular outcomes, namely peace and poverty reduction. It is not clear, however, that this is so. For example, regional military pacts could arise from international co-operation but serve to increase the likelihood of conflict. Also, arms sales between countries would fall under the banner of international co-operation (at least bilaterally), but it cannot easily be said that they will create peace in and of themselves. Also, international vehicles could be created that serve to entrench poverty rather than reduce it. There is no guarantee that any international agreement will serve to benefit the least advantaged.

Other critiques of Functionalism relate to its failure to take into account the effects of intergovernmental organizations(a critique countered by neo-functionalism), it’s failure to consider the origins of conflict (which go far beyond simple lack of co-operation or understanding), and its failure to explain situations of divergence in international relations. In summary, Functionalism is a potentially useful doctrine of limited scope that may offer some insight into the process of globalization but fails to account adequately for the nuances of international relations.

Functionalism, more broadly defined, is based on the idea that all aspects of society – institutions, roles, norms, etc – serve a purpose and that all are indispensable for the long-term survival of the society. This doctrine, which arose from sociology in the 19th century, can also be challenged today on the basis of just how much society has changed. The rise of the state after the industrial revolution was followed by the relative decline of the state brought about by the rise of neo-liberalism and non-state actors (including multinational corporations). There are constant needs in need of being fulfilled, but the organizations that fill them are ever-evolving. This fluidity contradicts the functionalist view, insofar as international relations are concerned, that international co-operation necessarily leads to the achievement of certain objectives.