What is Functionalism ?

David Mitrany, the most prominent proponent of the functionalist school of thought, is accredited with fashioning this alternative view of international politics in response to the security/conflict conception of the Realist and Neo-realist scholars. Mitrany argues that greater interdependence in the form of transnational ties between countries could lead to peace. He is of the view that cooperation should be arranged by technical exports and not by politicians. Some of the other important functionalists like Joseph Nye, Ernst Haas, J.P Sewell, Paul Taylor, and A.J.R. Groom. John Burton and Christopher Mitchell have immensely contributed to the Functionalist tradition of international relations theory.

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Functionalism is presented as an operative philosophy that would gradually lead to a peaceful, unified, and cooperative world. Functionalism is widely regarded as the most insightful critique of the Realist framework of international politics. The main concern of the functionalist is to develop piecemeal non-political cooperative organizations, which will not only help establish peace and secure prosperity but also render the practice of war obsolete eventually. However, this may not be fourth coming as long as the international system continues to be founded on suspicion and anarchy and war is accepted as an established means of setting international disputes. The institution of nation-states is considered to be the biggest obstacle in the path of fostering peace and prosperity. Aware of the fact those governments have vested interests and that nation-states will not be dismantled voluntarily, the functionalists advocate a gradual approach toward regional or global unity. This, they believe, might eventually help isolate and render obsolete the rigid institutional structures of nation-states.

But, how do the functionalists propose to go about it?


As noted above, the functionalists’ prime concern is with developing piecemeal cooperative organizations at the regional level in non-political areas like economic, technical, scientific, social and cultural sectors where the possibility of forging effective cooperation among the states appears to be highly practical. These apparently non-political sectors are collectively referred to, in the Functionalist literature, as functional sectors where the possibility of opposition or resistance appears minimal. This is based on assumption that efforts to establish functional organizations at the micro level in non-political sectors such as energy production and distribution, transportation and communication control, health protection and improvement, labor standards and exchanges etc. are least likely to be met with opposition. There is a greater possibility of successful functioning of such non-political functional organizations as these can be of mutual advantage to the participating states. The possibility of a higher success rate of such functional bodies gets further enhanced by the fact that they do not appear to pose any challenge, at least apparently, to the national sovereignty of the participating states.

One of the most important assumptions of the Functionalist school is based on the concept of what is called “spillover” effect. The concept of spillover is similar to that of “demonstration” effect as used in the discipline of economics. The underlying belief of the spillover concept is that cooperation in one area would open new avenues for similar cooperation in other areas. For example, successful forging of cooperation in the area of coal and steel production would spill over into other functional areas like transportation, pollution control etc. Such a process of cooperation, the functionalists argue, would eventually lead to political unification of a given region.

The strength of the functionalist school of thought lies in the fact that they tend to emphasize cooperative aspect of international behavior and sidestep conflictive aspects. In contrast to the realists who look at the world in terms of politics of conflict and irrationality, the Functionalists view the world through the prism of cooperation and reason. The functionalists believe that the accumulation of the process of functional organizations would not only help link people and their interests across national boundaries but world also eventually relegate the nation-states to the “museum of institutional curiosities”.

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