Herbert Spencer: Functionalism
We have considered Spencer's emphasis that changes in structure cannot occur without changes in functions and that increases in size of social units necessarily bring in their wake progressive differentiations in social activities. Indeed, much of Spencer's discussion of social institutions and their changes is expressed in functional terms. In these analyses Spencer's point of departure is always the search for the functions subserved by a particular item under analysis. "To understand how an organization originated and developed, it is requisite to understand the need subserved at the outset and afterwards." Spencer analyzed social institutions in relation to the general matrix in which they were variously embedded. He expressed the conviction "that what, relative to our thoughts and sentiments, were arrangements impracticable." He warned against the common error of regarding customs that appeared strange and repugnant by contemporary standards as being of no value to particular societies. "Instead of passing over as of no account or else regarding as purely mischievous, the superstitions of primitive man, we must inquire what part they play in social evolution."
In his discussions of social institutions, Spencer makes great efforts to show that they are not the result of deliberate intentions and motivations of actors--he had a very acute sense for the unanticipated consequences of human actions--but that they arise from functional and structural exigencies. "Conditions and not intentions determine . . . . Types of political organization are not matters of deliberate choice." Spencer enjoins us to study institutions under the double aspect of their evolutionary stage and of the functions they subserve at that stage.
From Coser, 1977:97-98.