Assessing Functional Explanations in the Social Sciences

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Citation: Kincaid, H. (1990) Assessing Functional Explanations in the Social Sciences. PSA: Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association (RSS)
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Assessing Functional Explanations in the Social Sciences


Kincaid discussed and evaluated functionalism used in social science. As a special sociological theory, functionalism explains social phenomena by its function. Functional explanation consists of two claims: one is there are some specific effects of practice or institution; another is this practice exists to promote those effects. However, functionalism was criticized for little statistical evidence, lack of mechanism connecting practices with their persistence, and inappropriate adoption of natural selection.

Before evaluating these critics, Kincaid explained what is functionalism in social sciences. He pointed out some basic principle of functionalism. First, explanation is a straightforward form of causal explanation, which explains causes by their consequences. For the problem of functionalism, he thinks there is no clear correlation between effect and existence of specific practice or institution. In other words, we need a specific mechanism to explain the function.

Thus, Kincaid suggested that we need to test the claims of functionalism to give better explanation. The testing should confirm that A exists in order to fulfill its function B. Based on this principle of testing, there should be two premises: 1.when A exists, it has the function B; 2. A persists because of the effect of function B. Kincaid proposed that we can adopt the concept of trait-environment correlation from biologists to social science. For example, we can examine the correlations between social environment and traits of social organization.

Based on above concepts, Kincaid discussed a procedure to test the functional explanation: 1. Trait of the type A would be the best solution to environmental problem 2. Selection of traits would lead to the establishment of optimal trait 3. The observed trait is of type A. Thus, we can confirm the function of the trait. However, Kincaid also recognized the real functional processes might be complicated, so we need more sophisticated models or statistical techniques to test. He proposed we can eliminate spurious causation by controlling the possible causes that might lead to the correlation between effect and persistence. Therefore, functional explanation is testable and the concept of selection can be used in social science.