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Friday, November 25, 2005

‘The whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ -
Functionalism & Structural-Functionalism in Britain

Welche Hauptfragen und -anliegen kennzeichnen den Funktionalismus eines Malinowski oder den Strukturfunktionalismus eines Radcliffe-Brown? Diskutiere die Beiträge in Theorie und Methode, die die beiden Gründerfiguren der britischen Anthropologie in die Wissenschaftstradition einbrachten.

In the early twenties of the last century a radical shift occurred in anthropological theory and methodology: from the evolutionary paradigm of Tylor, Morgan and Frazer to functionalism and s structural functionalism – a shift heralded by the publication of Bronislaw Malinowski´s “The Trobriand Islands” and A.R.Radcliffe-Brown´s “The Andaman Islanders”.
I want to begin this essay by outlining their basic concepts and methods and point out the similarities and differences between Malinowski´s functionalism and Radcliffe-Brown´s structural functionalism. In the last paragraph I will refer to the criticisms they were confronted with and why this mode of thought remains relevant for contemporary anthropology.

The idea of functionalism was first articulated by the famous French sociologist Émile Durkheim in his book “Rules of the Sociological Method” at the end of the 19th century and was later taken up by nearly all human sciences – in sociology and anthropology it was the dominant mode of thought for some decades until it was heavily criticised in the 50s and 60s.
Functionalism combined the humanitarian and scientific approach of society, because it aimed at understanding it in its own context and explaining society through functionalist laws (Fischer und Beer, 2003).
Durkheim claimed that every social and cultural phenomenon fulfilled a certain function, namely the function to maintain a particular social order.
Although Durkheim integrated historical references in his analyses,
the anthropologists who took up his ideas were more radical and dismissed history and only investigated society in its present conditions.

In British anthropology these ideas were taken up by Bronislaw Malinowski and, in particular, by Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. They also emphasised that all parts of society were interconnected with each other and that therefore, culture had to be studied as a whole, in great detail and from ‘within’. It was necessary to go out into the field and spend some time among the peoples one was studying. This signified a great break with past anthropologists, the so-called armchair-anthropologists, who relied on accounts of missionaries, travellers and colonial administrators.
Malinowski claimed it should be anthropology´s duty “to grasp the native´s point of view, his relation to life, to realise his vision of his world” (Malinowski, quoted in Barth, 2005). This could be obtained by participant observation while conducting fieldwork, whereby the researcher should engage in everyday life, learn the local language and document every observation in detail. However, the anthropologist should not ‘go native’, but maintain a certain distance to his subjects of study, in order to produce an objective ethnographic account. This new methodology, inspired by W.H.R.Rivers´ accounts of the Torres Straits Expedition, was Malinowski´s greatest contribution to anthropology and has remained a dominant practice in research until today, even in many other natural and social sciences.
Malinowski conducted his first and second research on the Trobriand Islands and published two famous books “The Trobriand Islands” and “Argonauts of the Western Pacific” - books that would remain his point of reference for many other studies.
The latter account is particularly well-known, as Malinowski gives a detailed description of the kula trade in Papua New Guinea, a non-commercial form of trading, based on reciprocity. Two other works worth mentioning are “The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia” and “The Father in Primitive Society”, where Malinowski investigates the validity of Freud´s ‘Ödipuss Komplex’.
His books turned out to be very popular, due to Malinowski´s vivid style and the great range of topics he covered.

While Malinowski was famous for his many talents, his excellent empirical work and for being a very outgoing, self-made man, Radcliffe-Brown was a rather reserved personality. He did not engage in fieldwork a lot and therefore concentrated on anthropological theory, evaluating a concept that was quite different to Malinowski, but very close to Durkheim´s theory of social organisation.
To Malinowski the function of social institutions consisted of satisfying the needs of individuals, whereby social structure only provided the necessary frame for individual actions; Radcliffe-Brown, however, did not put a lot of emphasis on the acting individual itself, but regarded social institutions as extremely important for the maintenance of the social order.
In addition, Malinowski was never interested in finding general theories, while Radcliffe-Brown aimed at a comparative approach, claiming that

“‘the method of natural science rests always on the comparison of observed phenomena’, and the aim of comparison is ‘to discover the universal, essential characters which belong to all human societies […]’’’
(Carrithers, 1993).

Because of this tendency to explain cultural phenomena through the functioning of social structure, Radcliffe-Brown´s mode of thought was called structural-functionalism.

Unfortunately, at that time, anthropology was still far from being a properly established discipline in Britain, dominated by the Oxbridge universities – this depressing reality made Radcliffe-Brown spend many years overseas, during which he also taught anthropology in South Africa and Sydney and conducted fieldwork on the Andaman Islands and in Western Australia.
His three main areas of interest are society, structure and function, and kinship.
Supporting leftist political ideas, Radcliffe-Brown rejected Hobbes ideas that mankind was evil and needed a ruling authority and proved that there existed several stateless societies in Africa that were not determined by a “bellum omnia contra omnes”. His investigations showed that societies that had no central administration, could be divided into smaller segments, communities, which kept up the egalitarian structure.
Within these segments kinship relations were responsible for maintaining the natural balance.

Meanwhile, Malinowski was relishing his years of celebrity at the London School of Economics, attracting students from different parts of the country to his prominent lectures.
This came to an end, however, when he decided to spend some time in the USA and died there in 1942. “Out of sight, out of mind”, the focus of British anthropology shifted to Radcliffe-Brown, who had returned to UK to take up the chair of anthropology at the University of Oxford. However, Malinowski´s functionalist conceptions, despite some minor changes, were further integrated by his students M. Fortes and E.E.Evans-Pritchard in their investigations.

In the 50s and 60s severe criticism began to surface. Functionalism was criticised for being an ideology of the status quo (Barnard and Spencer, 2004), implying that societies were static and did not change – an assumption that was later countered by Edmund Leach.
The functionalist ahistorical approach, particularly associated with Radcliffe-Brown´s comparative studies, was denounced for ignoring any historical developments, most importantly the influences of colonialism, in their analyses.
He was also criticised for his generalising and reductionist tendencies, leaving out phenomena that did not fit into the neat picture of social organisation.
In addition, both Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were under attack for being biased by ethnocentric views.
This was also the time when Malinowski´s private diaries were published, which he revealed Malinowski´s ambivalent relationship to the Trobrianders. It suddenly turned out that the master of fieldwork, who always affirmed that it was essential to study a culture in its own terms, and who always stressed the good relations he maintained to the people he studied, described these same people as “niggers” (Barnard and Spencer, 2004) and “unwashed savages” in his diary (Eriksen, 2001).
How these writings should be assessed is open to discussion, but they certainly evoked some turmoil among anthropologists in Britain.
In the 1980s and 1990s, fundamental ideas of functionalism, for example that there existed a coherent social order, were put into question, since social scientists shifted their focus on the differences, instead of similarities, between individuals that constituted social reality and the social order (Barnard and Spencer, 2004).

Concluding, one can sum up, that Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown both examined the basic functions of social phenomena, whereby the former concentrated on the function of satisfying individual needs, while the latter paid more attention to how these phenomena contributed to social order.
Despite all the harsh criticism, the two founding fathers of modern British anthropology have remained extremely influential for contemporary anthropology.
As mentioned above, participant observation is still a major research technique in many human sciences, particularly in anthropology. But also the theoretical framework of functionalism proved to be relevant for contemporary studies, albeit not in the radical form advocated by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.


Barnard, Alan and Jonathan Spencer (eds., 2004,1996): Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. New York, London: Routledge.

Barth, Fredrik (2005): “Britain and the Commonwealth”. In: Fredrik Barth, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin and Sydel Silverman: One discipline, four ways: British, German, French and American Anthropology, pp.3-60. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Carrithers, M. (1993): “The great arc”. In M.Carrithers: Why humans have cultures, pp. 12-33. Oxford: Oxford UP.

Eriksen, Hylland Thomas (2001,1995): Small Places, Large Issues. An Introduction to Social and Cultural Anthropology. London: Pluto Press.

Gingrich, Andre (1999): “Wege zur transkulturellen Analyse. Über die Paradigmenwechsel euro-amerikanischer Sozial- und Kulturanthropologie“. In: Andre Gingrich: Erkundungen, Kap.11, S.176-203. Wien: Böhlau.

Stagl, Justin (2003, 1983): „Die Entwicklung der Ethnologie“. In: Fischer, Hans und Bettina Beer (Hg., 2003,1983): Ethnologie. Einführung und Überblick. Berlin: Dietrich Reimer Verlag.

[o.A.]: Bronislaw Malinowski. 26.10.2005.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malinowski [Zugriff: 24.11.2005].

[o.A.]: Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. 31.5.2005.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radcliffe-Brown [Zugriff: 24.11.2005].

Thursday, November 24, 2005