It will surprise no one to hear that universities believe that they exist to teach students, advance research and foster learning.
I know. Captain Obvious here.
While it is true that there are things organizations do because they intend to do them. I want to suggest that it’s interesting to ask about the things that the organization does that it isn’t telling itself that it does. For the sociology nerds out there, this is what Merton calls latent functions, the former being manifest functions.
For instance, many people find their mate during their college years, but rarely does a university advertise this as a reason to go to college. Can you imagine the university putting this in promotional materials? Instead of online dating, come to City University and take a few classes, maybe you too will find romance while studying for your first exam on structural functionalism. Universities might celebrate those stories after they happen with Valentine’s Day photos of couples that have been married 50 years, but it’s a byproduct, not an intended outcome (even if it happens all the time).
Another example: colleges and universities, particularly those with a large percentage of students in fraternities and sororities, create environments where rape, sexual assault, hazing, binge drinking, racism and eating disorders are common. No university would say that they support such activities and they often talk at length about their frustration and irritation with being unable to prevent these things. Yet time after time, we hear how commonplace it is and how little can be done about it.
If we let go of the value judgement briefly, we can ask what it is about the organization that makes the latent function possible. That’s when you can actually get somewhere.
- What is it about the university that creates an environment where students find a romantic partner that they want to marry?
- What is it about the university that creates an environment conducive for sexual assault? rape? hazing? eating disorders?
Rather than saying “it’s just the way it is”, calling it a latent function turns the responsibility back on the organization to examine what conditions create this result. Just like creating conditions where students find mates, the university may not explicitly intend to create a place where there women are routinely sexually assaulted and raped, racism is tolerated, students are hazed, and eating disorders are commonplace, but it doesn’t change that it is happening.
It turns out that researchers can answer questions like this. We can compare environments and determine the differences. A great example is research which tells us that there are certain types of fraternity parties that are more conducive to sexual assault than others.