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Principal Concepts:

The primary starting points of Malinowski’s theorizing included: 1) understanding behavior in terms of the motivation of individuals, including both rational, ‘scientifically’ validated behavior and ‘irrational’, ritual, magical, or religious behavior; 2) recognizing the interconnectedness of the different items which constituted a ‘culture’ to form some kind of system; and 3) understanding a particular item by identifying its function in the current contemporary operation of that culture (Firth 1957:55).

The inclusiveness of Malinowski’s concept of culture is apparent in his statement:

“It obviously is the integral whole consisting of implements and consumers’ goods, of constitutional charters for the various social groupings, of human ideas and crafts, beliefs and customs. Whether we consider a very simple or primitive culture or an extremely complex and developed one, we are confronted by a vast apparatus, partly material, partly human and partly spiritual by which man is able to cope with the concrete specific problems that face him” (Malinowski 1944:36).

Essentially, he treated culture as everything pertaining to human life and action which cannot be regarded as a property of the human organism as a physiological system. In other words, he treated it as a direct manifestation of biologically inherited patterns of behavior. Culture is that aspect of behavior that is learned by the individual and which may be shared by pluralities of individuals. It is transmitted to other individuals along with the physical objects associated with learned patterns and activities (Firth 1957:58).

As stated in Malinowski’s text The Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays:

  1. Culture is essentially an instrumental apparatus by which man is put in a position to better cope with the concrete, specific problems that face him in his environment in the course of the satisfaction of his needs.
  2. It is a system of objects, activities, and attitudes in which every part exists as a means to an end.
  3. It is an integral in which the various elements are interdependent.
  4. Such activities, attitudes and objects are organized around important and vital tasks into institutions such as family, the clan, the local community, the tribe, and the organized teams of economic cooperation, political, legal, and educational activity.
  5. From the dynamic point of view, that is, as regards the type of activity, culture can be analyzed into a number of aspects such as education, social control, economics, systems of knowledge, belief, and morality, and also modes of creative and artistic expression” (1944:150).

Malinowski considered institutions to be examples of isolated organized behaviors. Since such behavior always involves a plurality of persons, an institution in this sense is therefore a social system, which is a subsystem of society. Though functionally differentiated from other institutions, an institution is a segmentary cross-section of culture that involves all the components included in Malinowski’s definition of culture (Firth 1957:59). Malinowski believed that the central feature of the charter of an institution is “the system of values for the pursuit of which human beings organize, or enter organizations already existing” (Malinowski 1944:52). As for the concept of function, Malinowski believed it is the primary basis of differentiation of institutions within the same culture. In other words, institutions differ because they are organized to serve different functions. He argued that institutions function for continuing life and “normality” of an organism, or an aggregate of organisms as a species (Firth 1957:60). Indeed, for Malinowski, the primary reference of the concept of function was to a theory of the biological needs of the individual organism:

“It is clear, I think, that any theory of culture has to start from the organic needs of man, and if it succeeds in relating (to them) the more complex, indirect, but perhaps fully imperative needs of the type which we call spiritual or economic or social, it will supply us with a set of general laws such as we need in sound scientific theory” (Malinowski 1944:72-73).

Malinowski’s basic theoretical attempt was to derive the main characteristics of the society and its social systems from a theory of the causally pre-cultural needs of the organism. He believed that culture is always instrumental to the satisfaction of organic needs. Therefore, he had to bridge the gap between the concept of biologically basic needs of the organism and the facts of culturally organized behavior. His first major step was to set up the classification of basic needs which could be directly related to a classification of cultural responses which could then in turn be brought into relation to institutions. Next, he developed a second category of needs (derived needs) which he inserted between his basic needs and the institutional integrates of collective behavior (Firth 1957:63).


Functionalists seek to describe the different parts of a society and their relationship through the organic analogy. The organic analogy compared the different parts of a society to the organs of a living organism. The organism was able to live, reproduce and function through the organized system of its several parts and organs. Like a biological organism, a society was able to maintain its essential processes through the way that the different parts interacted together. Institutions such as religion, kinship and the economy were the organs and individuals were the cells in this social organism. Functionalist analyses examine the social significance of phenomena, that is, the function they serve a particular society in maintaining the whole (Jarvie 1973).

Functionalism, as a school of thought in anthropology, emerged in the early twentieth century. Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown had the greatest influence on the development of functionalism from their posts in Great Britain. Functionalism was a reaction to the excesses of the evolutionary and diffusionist theories of the nineteenth century and the historicism of the early twentieth (Goldschmidt 1996:510). Two versions of functionalism developed between 1910 and 1930: Malinowski’s biocultural (or psychological) functionalism; and structural-functionalism, the approach advanced by Radcliffe-Brown.

Malinowski suggested that individuals have physiological needs (reproduction, food, shelter) and that social institutions exist to meet these needs. There are also culturally derived needs and four basic “instrumental needs” (economics, social control, education, and political organization), that require institutional devices. Each institution has personnel, a charter, a set of norms or rules, activities, material apparatus (technology), and a function. Malinowski argued that uniform psychological responses are correlates of physiological needs. He argued that satisfaction of these needs transformed the cultural instrumental activity into an acquired drive through psychological reinforcement (Goldschmidt 1996:510; Voget 1996:573).

Radcliffe-Brown focused on social structure rather than biological needs. He suggested that a society is a system of relationships maintaining itself through cybernetic feedback, while institutions are orderly sets of relationships whose function is to maintain the society as a system. Radcliffe-Brown, inspired by Augustus Comte, stated that the social constituted a separate “level” of reality distinct from those of biological forms and inorganic matter. Radcliffe-Brown argued that explanations of social phenomena had to be constructed within the social level. Thus, individuals were replaceable, transient occupants of social roles. Unlike Malinowski’s emphasis on individuals, Radcliffe-Brown considered individuals irrelevant.

Leading Figures:

E.E. Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973) studied history at Oxford and anthropology at the University of London. He was considered one of the most notable British anthropologists after the Second World War. While Evans-Pritchard’s research includes numerous ethnic groups, he is best remembered for his work with the Nuer, Azande, Anuak and Shilluk in Africa. His publication Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande (1937) was the first ethnography of an African people published by a professionally trained anthropologist. Equally influential was his work among the Nuer, who presented him with the opportunity to study the organization of a society without chiefs. In addition to his work on political organization, his work on kinship aided in the shaping political theory. Later in his career, Evans-Pritchard emphasized the need for the inclusion of history in the study of social anthropology. In opposition to Radcliffe-Brown, Evans-Pritchard rejected the idea of social anthropology as a science and viewed it, rather, as a comparative history. Though he contributed greatly to the study of African societies, his work neglects to treat women as a significant part of the social whole. Although he began as a functionalist, Evans-Pritchard later shifted to a humanist approach (Beidelman 1991).

Sir Raymond Firth (1901-2002) was a social and economic anthropologist. He became interested in anthropology while doing his post-graduate work at the London School of Economics. Firth conducted research in most areas of social anthropology, in addition to intensive fieldwork in Tikopia. Perhaps his greatest contribution to the functionalist paradigm is his distinction between social structure and social organization (see Principal Concepts for a definition of the distinction between the two) (Silverman 1981, Watson-Gegeo 1991:198). “Firth’s most significant contribution to anthropology is his development of a theoretical framework emphasizing choice, decision, organization and process in social and institutional behavior” (Watson-Gegeo 1991:198).

Meyer Fortes (1906-1983) was originally trained in psychology and was working in London as a clinical psychologist when he met Seligman and Malinowski at the London School of Economics in 1933. They persuaded him to undertake psychological and anthropological fieldwork in West Africa. His writing is heavy with theoretical assertions as he argued that empirical observation and analysis must be linked if social anthropology was to call itself a science (Barnes 1991).

Sir Edmund Leach (1910-1989) was very influential in social anthropology. He demonstrated the complex interrelationship of ideal models and political action within a historical context. His most influential ethnographic works were based on fieldwork in Burma, Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and Sri Lanka. Although his initial theoretical approach was functionalist, Leach then shifted to processual analysis. Leach was later influenced by Claude Levi-Strass and adopted a structuralist approach. His 1962 publicationRethinking Anthropology offered a challenge to structural-functionalism (Seymour-Smith 1986:165).

Lucy Mair (1901-1986) received her degree in Classics in 1923. In 1927 she joined the London School of Economics in the Department of International Relations. Mair’s fieldwork was in Uganda and her first studies focused on social change. She was an advocate of applied anthropology and argued that it was not a separate branch of the anthropological discipline. Mair was very concerned with public affairs, including the contemporary processes of colonization and land tenure (Davis 1991).

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942) was one of the founding fathers of British social anthropology. He received his doctorate with highest honors in mathematics, physics and philosophy from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. However, Malinowski’s interests turned to anthropology after reading Frazier’s The Golden Bough. In 1910 he enrolled in the London School of Economics to study anthropology.

With Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski pushed for a paradigm shift in British anthropology; a change from the speculative and historical to the ahistorical study of social institutions. This theoretical shift gave rise to functionalism and established fieldwork as the constitutive experience of social anthropology (Kuper 1973, Young 1991). Malinowski’s functionalism was highly influential in the 1920s and 1930s. As applied methodology, this approach worked, except for situations of social or cultural change. While elements of Malinowski’s theory remain intact in current anthropological theory, it has changed from its original form with new and shifting paradigms (Young 1991:445).

However, Malinowski made his greatest contribution as an ethnographer. He emphasized the importance of studying social behavior and social relations in their concrete cultural contexts through participant-observation. He considered it crucial to consider the observable differences between norms and action; between what people say they do and what they actually do. His detailed descriptions of Trobriand social life and thought are among the most comprehensive in world ethnography and his Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) is one of the most widely read works of anthropology. Malinowski’s enduring conceptual contributions lay in the areas of: kinship and marriage (e.g., the concept of “sociological paternity”); in magic, ritual language and myth (e.g., the idea of “myth as social charter”); and in economic anthropology (notably the concept of “reciprocity”) (Young 1991:445).

Robert K. Merton (1910-2003) attempted to clarify the concept of function by distinguishing latent and manifest functions. Latent functions are those objective consequences of a cultural item which are neither intended nor recognized by the members of a society. Manifest functions are those objective consequences contributing to the adjustment or adaptation of the system which are intended and recognized by participants in the system (Kaplan and Manners 1972:58).

Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), a sociologist who contributed to the structural-functionalist school conceptualized the social universe in terms of four types and levels of “action systems,” (culture, society, personality, and organismic/behavioral) with each system having to meet four functional needs (adaptation, goal attainment, integration, and latency). He analyzed the operation and interchanges of structures and processes within and between system levels taking into consideration these basic requisites (Turner and Maryanski 1991).

A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) was a founding father of functionalism associated with the branch known as structural-functionalism. He attended Cambridge where he studied moral science, which incorporated philosophy, economics and psychology. It was during this time that he earned the nick-name “Anarchy Brown” because of his political interests and affiliations. After completing his degree in 1904, he conducted fieldwork in the Andaman Islands and Western Australia. Radcliffe-Brown’s emphasis on examining the contribution of phenomena to the maintenance of the social structure reflects the influence of French sociologist Emile Durkheim (Winthrop 1991:129). He particularly focused on the institutions of kinship and descent and suggested that, at least in tribal societies, they determined the character of family organization, politics, economy, and inter-group relations (Winthrop 1991:130).

Audrey Richards (1899-1984) conducted her ethnographic research among the Bemba and in Northern Rhodesia. Her major theoretical interests included economic and political systems, the study of colonial rule, and anthropological participation, social change and the study of ritual (Seymour-Smith 1986:248).




Principal Concepts:


Folk stories, religious stories, and fairy tales were the principle subject matter for structuralists because they believed these made manifest the underlying universal human structures, the binary oppositions.  For example, in the story of Cinderella, some of the binary oppositions include good versus evil, pretty versus ugly (Cinderella versus her two stepsisters), clean versus dirty, etc.  Because of this focus, the principle methodology employed was hermeneutics.  Hermeneutics originated as a study of the Gospels, and has since come to refer to the interpretation of the meaning or written works.


Though there are few anthropologists today who would declare themselves structuralists, structuralism was highly influential.  Work of the poststructuralist Pierre Bourdieu, particularly his idea of the habitus, laid the groundwork for agency theory.  Structuralism also continued the idea that there were universal structuring elements in the human mind that shaped culture.  This concept is still pursued in cognitive anthropology which looks at the way people think in order to identify these structures, instead of analyzing oral or written texts.

Leading Figures:

Claude Lévi-Strauss: (1908 to 2009) “Father of Structuralism;” born in Brussels in 1908. Obtained a law degree from the University of Paris. He became a professor of sociology at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil in 1934. It was at this time that he began to think about human thought cross-culturally and alterity, when he was exposed to various cultures in Brazil. His first publication in anthropology appeared in 1936 and covered the social organization of the Bororo (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). After WWII, he taught at the New School for Social Research in New York. There he met Roman Jakobson, from whom he took the structural linguistics model and applied its framework to culture (Bohannan and Glazer 1988:423). Lévi-Strauss has been noted as singly associated for the elaboration of the structuralist paradigm in anthropology (Winthrop 1991).

Ferdinand de Saussure: (1857 to 1913) Swiss linguist born in Geneva whose work in structural linguistics and semiology greatly influenced Lévi-Strauss (Winthrop 1991; Rubel and Rosman 1996).  Widely considered to be the father of 20th c. linguistics.

Roman Jakobson: (1896 to 1982) a Russian structural linguist.  Was influenced by the work of Ferdinand de Saussere and worked with Nikolai Trubetzkoy to develop techniques for the analysis of sound in language.   His work influenced Lévi-Strauss while they were colleagues at the New School for Social Research in New York.

Marcel Mauss: (1872 to 1952) French sociologist.  His uncle was Emile Durkheim.  He taught Lévi-Strauss and influenced his thought on the nature of reciprocity and structural relationships in culture (Winthrop 1991).

Jacques Derrida: (1930 to 2004) French social philosopher and literary critic who may be labeled both a “structuralist’ and a “poststructuralist” and was the founder of deconstructionism.  Derrida wrote critiques of his contemporaries’ works, and of the notions underlying structuralism and poststructuralism (Culler 1981).

Michel Foucault: (1926 to 1984) French social philosopher whose works have been associated with both structuralist and poststructuralist thought, more often with the latter. When asked in an interview if he accepted being grouped with Lacan and Lévi-Strauss, he conveniently avoids a straight answer: “It’s for those who use the label [structuralism] to designate very diverse works to say what makes us ‘structuralists’” (Lotringer 1989:60). However, he has publicly scoffed at being labeled a structuralist because he did not wish to be permanently associated with one paradigm (Sturrock 1981). Foucault deals largely with issues of power and domination in his works, arguing that there is no absolute truth, and thus the purpose of ideologies is to struggle against other ideologies for supremecy (think about competing news networks, arguing different points of view). For this reason, he is more closely associated with poststructuralist thought.

Structuralism was predominately influenced by the schools of phenomenology and of Gestalt psychology, both of which were fostered in Germany between 1910 and the 1930s (Sturrock 2003: 47).  Phenomenology was a school of philosophical thought that attempted to give philosophy a rational, scientific basis.  Principally, it was concerned with accurately describing consciousness and abolishing the gulf that had traditionally existed between subject and object of human thought.  Consciousness, as they perceived, was always conscious of something, and that picture, that whole, cannot be separated from the object or the subject but is the relationship between them (Sturrock 2003: 50-51).  Phenomenology was made manifest in the works of Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre among others.

Gestalt psychology maintained that all human conscious experience is patterned, emphasizing that the whole is always greater than the parts, making it a holistic view (Sturrock 2003: 52).  It fosters the view that the human mind functions by recognizing or, if none are available, imposing structures.

Structuralism developed as a theoretical framework in linguistics by Ferdinand de Saussure in the late 1920s, early 1930s.  De Saussure proposed that languages were constructed of hidden rules that practitioners known but are unable to articulate.  In other words, though we may all speak the same language, we are not all able to fully articulate the grammatical rules that govern why we arrange words in the order we do.  However, we understand these rules of an implicit (as opposed to explicit) level, and we are aware when we correctly use these rules when we are able to successfully decode what another person is saying to us (Johnson 2007: 91).

Claude Levi-Strauss (1908 to 2009) is widely regarded as the father of structural anthropology.  In the 1940s, he proposed that the proper focus of anthropological investigations was on the underlying patterns of human thought that produce the cultural categories that organize worldviews hitherto studied (McGee and Warms, 2004: 345).  He believed these processes were not deterministic of culture, but instead, operated within culture.  His work was heavily influenced by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss as well as the Prague School of structural linguistics (organized in 1926) which include Roman Jakobson (1896 to 1982), and Nikolai Troubetzkoy (1890 to 1938).  From the latter, he derived the concept of binary contrasts, later referred to in his work as binary oppositions, which became fundamental in his theory.

In 1972, his book Structuralism and Ecology was published detailing the tenets of what would become structural anthropology.  In it, he proposed that culture, like language, is composed of hidden rules that govern the behavior of its practitioners.  What made cultures unique and different from one another are the hidden rules participants understood but are unable to articulate; thus, the goal of structural anthropology is to identify these rules.  He maintained that culture is a dialectic process: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.  Levi-Strauss proposed a methodological means of discovering these rules—through the identification of binary oppositions.

The structuralist paradigm in anthropology suggests that the structure of human thought processes is the same in all cultures, and that these mental processes exist in the form of binary oppositions (Winthrop 1991). Some of these oppositions include hot-cold, male-female, culture-nature, and raw-cooked. Structuralists argue that binary oppositions are reflected in various cultural institutions (Lett 1987:80). Anthropologists may discover underlying thought processes by examining such things as kinship, myth, and language. It is proposed, then, that a hidden reality exists beneath all cultural expressions. Structuralists aim to understand the underlying meaning involved in human thought as expressed in cultural acts.

Further, the theoretical approach offered by structuralism emphasizes that elements of culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to the entire system (Rubel and Rosman 1996:1263). This notion, that the whole is greater than the parts, appeals to the Gestalt school of psychology. Essentially, elements of culture are not explanatory in and of themselves, but rather form part of a meaningful system. As an analytical model, structuralism assumes the universality of human thought processes in an effort to explain the “deep structure” or underlying meaning existing in cultural phenomena. “…[S]tructuralism is a set of principles for studying the mental superstructure”



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