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Functionalism is a theory of international relations that arose during the inter-War period principally from the strong concern about the obsolescence of the State as a form of social organization. Rather than the self-interest of nation-states that realists see as a motivating factor, functionalists focus on common interests and needs shared by states (but also by non-state actors) in a process of global integration triggered by the erosion of state sovereignty and the increasing weight of knowledge and hence of scientists and experts in the process of policy-making (Rosamond, 2000). Its roots can be traced back to the liberal/idealist tradition that started with Kant and goes as far as Woodrow Wilson's "Fourteen Points" speech. (Rosamond, 2000)

Functionalism is a pioneer in globalisation theory and strategy. States had built authority structures upon a principle of territorialism. State-theories were built upon assumptions that identified the scope of authority with territory (Held 1996, Scholte: 1993, 2000, 2001), aided by methodological territorialism (Scholte 1993). Functionalism proposed to build a form of authority based in functions and needs, which linked authority with needs, scientific knowledge, expertise and technology, i.e. it provided a supraterritorial concept of authority.

According to functionalism, international integration - the collective governance and 'material interdependence' (Mitrany, 1933:101) between states - develops its own internal dynamic as states integrate in limited functional, technical, and/or economic areas. International agencies would meet human needs, aided by knowledge and expertise. The benefits rendered by the functional agencies would attract the loyalty of the populations and stimulate their participation and expand the area of integration. There are strong assumptions underpinning functionalism: 1) That the process of integration takes place within a framework of human freedom, 2) That knowledge and expertise are currently available to meet the needs for which the functional agencies are built. 3) That states will not sabotage the process.



Neofunctionalism reintroduced territorialism in the functional theory and downplayed its global dimension. Neofunctionalism is simultaneously a theory and a strategy of regional integration, building on the work of David Mitrany. Neofunctionalists focused their attention in the process of integration among states, i.e. regional integration. Initially, states integrate in limited functional or economic areas. Thereafter, partially integrated states experience increasing momentum for further rounds of integration in related areas. This "invisible hand" of integration phenomenon was termed "spill-over." by the neofunctionalist school. Although integration can be resisted, it becomes harder to stop integration's reach as it progresses.[1]

According to neofunctionalists, there are two kinds of spillover: functional and political. Functional spillover is the interconnection of various economic sectors or issue-areas, and the integration in one policy-area spilling over into others. Political spillover is the creation of supranational governance models, as far-reaching as the European Union, or as voluntary as the United Nations.

One of its protagonists was Ernst B. Haas, a US-political scientist. Jean Monnet's approach to European integration, which aimed at integrating individual sectors in hopes of achieving spill-over effects to further the process of integration, is said to have followed the neofunctional school's tack. Unlike previous theories of integration, neofunctionalism declared to be non-normative and tried to describe and explain the process of regional integration based on empirical data. Integration was regarded as an inevitable process, rather than a desirable state of affairs that could be introduced by the political or technocratic elites of the involved states' societies. Its strength however was also its weakness: While it understood that regional integration is only feasible as an incremental process, its conception of integration as a linear process made the explanation of setbacks impossible.

Comparing Functionalism to Realism

John McCormick compares functionalism's fundamental principles with realism's thus (comments added to emphasise key distinctions) :

  Realism Functionalism Comments
Dominant goals of actors Military security Peace and prosperity security through: Power vs collaboration
Instruments of state policy Military force and economic instruments Economic instruments and political acts of will State policy of assertion vs negotiation
Forces behind agenda formation Potential shifts in the balance of power and security threats Initial emphasis on low politics, such as economic and social issues Agenda sought: maintenance of position vs reaching consensus
Role of international organizations Minor; limited by state power and the importance of military force Substantial; new, functional international organizations will formulate policy and become increasingly responsible for implementation International involvement: minimal vs substantial

Further reading

  • Caporaso, J. 1998: "Regional integration theory: understanding our past and anticipating our future." Journal of European Public Policy, 5(1):1-16.
  • Haas, Ernst B. (1958). The Uniting of Europe; Political, Social, and Economic Forces, 1950-1957. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Haas, Ernst B. (1964). Beyond the Nation-State: Functionalism and International Organization. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
  • Held, D. (1996) Models of Democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge.
  • Keohane, R. O. and S. Hoffmann 1991: The New European Community: Decision-making and Institutional Change. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press.
  • McCormick, John. The European Union. Westview Press. January 1, 1999. ISBN 0-8133-9032-X
  • Mitrany, D. (1933) The Progress of International Government. New Haven: Yale university press.
  • Mitrany, D. (1965) "The Prospect of European Integration: Federal or Functional", Journal of Common Market Studies
  • Mitrany, D.(1966) A Working Peace System. Chicago: Quadrangle books.
  • Mitrany, D.(1976) The Functional Theory of Politics. New York: St. Martin's Press.
  • Rosamond, B. (2000) Theories of European integration, Macmillan ; New York : St. Martin's Press, Basingstoke.
  • Scholte, J. A. (2000) Globalization: a critical introduction, St. Martin's Press Inc., New York.
  • Scholte, J. A. (2001) In The Globalization of World Politics, The globalization of world politics, (Eds, Baylis, J. and Smith, S.) Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 13-34.
  • Scholte, J. A. (1993) International Relations of Social Change, Open University Press, Buckingham.
  • Wallace, William (ed.) 1990: The Dynamics of European Integration. London: Pinter Publishers.

External links


  1. ^  McCormick pp. 13.
  2. ^  McCormick pp. 14.

See also



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