Manifest Function and Latent Function are two sociological concepts given by Robert King Merton in his book ‘Social Theory and Social Structure’ published in 1949.
‘Function’ simply means ‘purpose’. Let’s now differentiate between manifest and latent functions.
What is Manifest Function?
A manifest function is, basically, the consequence or result of any social behavior, activity, institution that is intended or expected.
For example, the manifest function of educational institutes is the provision of education to children. The ultimate purpose of schools is that they will educate children. Education is thus the manifest function of schools. Similarly, the manifest function of the courts is to provide justice to the individuals of society.
Thus, the manifest function is the intended purpose, target, consequence, or result of the social behaviors that society recognizes.
In his book, Merton has given the following example to understand this concept:
The manifest function of the rain dance (a weather modification ritual practiced in North America) is to invoke rain.
What is Latent Function?
Any consequence or result of the action or social behavior other than the manifest function that is not intended or sought is called the latent function.
For example, schools reinforce group identity among students. Moreover, students make new friends there generating ‘we feeling’ among them. Thus, these are the latent functions of schools that are not their intended results. As these are positive results, thus usually go unnoticed and unrecognized.
Similarly, Muslims pray 5 times a day. The intended purpose of prayer is to worship God (Allah). However, other consequences of praying regularly are; it makes a man disciplined and provides the best physical exercise. These are the latent functions of prayers that are neither intended nor recognized by the Muslims.
The latent functions are always present but not obvious. Moreover, they can be positive or negative. The above-cited examples are the positive latent functions of social activities.
In case the latent function is positive, it usually goes unnoticed and unrecognized by people. If the latent function is negative and is harmful to society, it is called dysfunction.
The negative latent functions are noticed and recognized by society. These are usually called ‘Dysfunctions’.
Dysfunctions are the undesirable consequences or results that come with the manifest functions of social events, institutes, behaviors, or actions. They are unintended and have a negative effect(s) on society.
For example, the purpose or intended function of bureaucracy is to complement the work of government and make it function smoothly and efficiently. But, somehow the complex structure of bureaucracy and red-tapism often make the decision-making by government slower that becomes its negative latent function or dysfunction.