Functionalism was the predominant underlying theory in both British Social and U.S./American cultural anthropology from the beginning of the 20th century up through the early post-World War II era. Deriving largely from French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s work, this school of thought saw societies largely through the lens of an organic metaphor, so that societies were believed to be parallel to living organisms, institutions parallel to bodily organs, and individuals parallel to cells. Like any organism, societies must sustain themselves over time, repair any damaged or diseased parts, and reproduce themselves. The functionalist imperative was to study, through proper scientific observation or fieldwork, the different ways that societies and cultures fulfill these necessary functions.
As a result of their reliance on this organic metaphor, functionalists came to their work with a variety of assumptions. The first functionalist assumption is that all healthy societies and cultures are well integrated and in a state of homeostasis. This meant that most functionalists assumed that societies and cultures, if left alone, would not change significantly. Instead, change was driven by outside interference. As a result of this assumption, functionalism as a theoretical paradigm was left without any method for studying change, other than to show the ways that a society regains homeostasis after “damage” is incurred from outside influences.
The second assumption is that societies or cultures are best studied synchronically, in one time period, rather than diachronically, or over time. Instead of relying on comparative work or grand theorizing, functionalism demanded of its practitioners that they engage in long-term participant observation to experience life in the society or culture firsthand. The resulting ethnographic writing produced by most functionalists took a “snapshot” view of the society or culture, primarily written in the present tense, the so-called anthropological present, to illustrate the assumed timelessness of what is being presented.
The third functionalist assumption was that the constituent parts of every society, from individuals to the largest political and social institutions, must be seen as interrelated and from a holistic point of view. While variations on this assumption divided British anthropologists from their U.S./American colleagues (see below), the important methodological ramification of this assumption, holism, remained true on both sides of the Atlantic. In other words, all constituent parts of a society must be seen as interacting with and influencing all others. As a result, it was impossible to study, for example, kinship in this paradigm without also looking at religion, politics, subsistence, and all other aspects of society.
Finally, as the name implies, the primary quest for understanding among functionalists was the search for the biosocial or social structural function of any given institution for maintaining the integrity of society. Functionalists assumed that all social institutions or cultural traits, no matter how obscure or seemingly maladaptive, were somehow integral to maintaining the society or culture within the ecological and social contexts in which it existed. Methodologically, this contributed to the development and refinement of anthropological relativism, the belief that all cultures and societies, as well as their constituent traits and institutions, must be looked at in their own context rather than judged by the values and norms of the anthropologist.
Two different kinds of functionalist theory emerged in anthropology fairly early on and served as the primary split between British Social and U.S./ American cultural anthropology. On the British side, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, proponent of what has been called “structural functionalism,” focused primarily on social structures and their systems of relationships in maintaining a well-integrated society. The structural functionalist school of thought, with contributors such as Meyer Fortes and Sir Raymond Firth, believed that the important level of analysis was society and its constituent institutions and roles. Individuals were seen as largely irrelevant as units of analysis. On the cultural side, Bronislaw Malinowski, one of the earliest functionalist anthropologists, focused his attention on the social and psychological functions of various cultural traits in the reproduction of both individuals and cultures. Malinowski and later U.S./American cultural anthropologists focused primarily on the ways that different cultures fulfilled the biological, psychological, and social needs of individual members, as well as the needs of the cultures themselves to maintain and reproduce themselves. Within cultural anthropology, various forms of functionalism emerged to explore different aspects of these individual and cultural needs, such as cultural ecology and its focus on the adaptation of cultural traits to ecological niches.
Functionalism emerged in reaction to earlier schools of thought in anthropology, primarily those focused on social evolution and the quest for the origins of social institutions and cultural traits, as well as those focused on the spread or diffusion of these institutions and traits. In reaction to the theorizing and historical guesswork of early anthropological work such as that of E. B. Tyler and Lewis Henry Morgan, functionalists abandoned the search for origins and the ranking of all societies in an evolutionary framework. Instead, functionalism developed a mode of synchronic analysis, such that each society or culture was to be studied as bounded and timeless. This move in the discipline coincided with a greater push toward positivism, the belief in value-free scientific method, and the development of the methods of participant observation.
In turn, functionalism has been criticized and largely abandoned in its purest forms, largely because of its inability to deal with change and history. While the synchronic method of analysis contributed many advancements in the field, such as the abandonment of historical speculation, later anthropologists began to seek ways to combine the strengths of synchrony with historical, or diachronic, views and to include change in their theoretical models. In addition, functionalism’s belief in the possibility of a scientific, objective study of human societies and cultures has likewise caused later anthropologists to turn away from its somewhat mechanistic models and assumptions and toward more interpretive, humanistic, phenomenological, and “postmodern” approaches. At the same time, the functionalist imperatives of primary fieldwork, holism, and the “anthropological present” have continued to be cornerstones of most social and cultural anthropological research and writing to this day.
- Durkheim, É. (1965). The elementary forms of the religious life. New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1915)
- Malinowski, B. (1984). Argonauts of the Western Pacific. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. (Original work published 1922)
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1964). The Andaman Islanders. New York: Free Press. (Original work published 1922)