Functional explanation and evolutionary social science

From their conception to the present, the social sciences have invoked a kind of explanation that looks suspect by the standards of the natural sciences. They explain why social practices exist by reference to the purpose or needs they serve. Yet the purposes invoked are generally not the explicit purposes or needs of any individual but of society or social groups. For example, Durkheim claimed that the division of labor in society exists in order to promote social solidarity and Marx thought that the state served to promote the interests of the ruling class. Social scientists have found these explanations as irresistible as their critics have found them mysterious. This chapter traces the controversies over these explanations — generally called functional explanations — and argues that they are widespread in some of our best current social science and that they can provide compelling information in some cases, despite the many doubts about them.
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