By Eric Porth, Kimberley Neutzling and Jessica Edwards

Basic Premises

Functionalists seek to describe the different parts of a society and their relationship by means of  an  organic analogy. The organic analogy compares the different parts of a society to the organs of a living organism. The organism is able to live, reproduce and function through the organized system of its several parts and organs. Like a biological organism, a society is able to maintain its essential processes through the way that the different parts interact. 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 and elsewhere. Functionalism was a reaction to the perceived excesses and deficiencies 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 (Goldschmidt 1996:510).

Points of Reaction

As a new paradigm, functionalism was presented as a reaction against what was believed to be outdated ideologies. It was an attempt to move away from the evolutionism and diffusionism that dominated American and British anthropology at the turn of the century (Lesser 1935, Langness 1987). There was a shift in focus from the speculatively historical or diachronic study of customs and cultural traits as “survivals” to the ahistorical, synchronic study of social “institutions” within bounded, functioning societies (Young 1991:445).

Functionalists presented their theoretical and methodological approaches as an attempt to expand sociocultural inquiry beyond the bounds of the evolutionary conception of social history. The evolutionary approach viewed customs or cultural traits as residual artifacts of cultural history. That is, the evolutionist school postulated that “an observed cultural fact was seen not in terms of what it was at the time of observation but in terms of what it must stand for in reference to what had formerly been the case” (Lesser 1935:55). From the functionalist standpoint these earlier approaches privileged speculative theorizing over the discovery of facts. Functionalists believed the motive force of events was to be found in their manifestations in the present. Hence, if events were to be understood, it was their contemporary functioning that should be observed and recorded (Lesser 1935:55-56).

Consequently, this led some to interpret functionalism as being opposed to the study of history altogether. Radcliffe-Brown responded to this critique by stating that functionalists did not believe that useful historical information could be obtained with respect to primitive societies; it was not history, but “pseudo-history” to which functionalists objected (Harris 1968:524).

In the “primitive” societies that were assigned to  social anthropology for study, there are few written historic records. For example, we have no written record of the development of social institutions among the Native Australians. Anthropologists, thinking of their study as a kind of historical study, fall back on conjecture and imagination; they invent “pseudo-historical” or “pseudo-casual” explanations. We have had innumerable and sometimes conflicting pseudo-historical accounts of the origin and development of the totemic institutions of the Native Australians. Such speculations have little place in serious anthropological discussion about institutions. This does not imply the rejection of historical explanation, but quite the contrary (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:3).

However, it is equally important to point out the criticisms of this “pseudo-history” reasoning for synchronic analysis. In light of readily available and abundant historical sources encountered in subsequent studies, it was suggested that this reasoning was a rationalization for avoiding a confrontation with the past. Such criticism may have led to efforts to combine diachronic and synchronic interests among later functionalist studies.

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 publication Rethinking 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).

Key Works

  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1940. The Nuer. Oxford. One of the first ethnographic works written by a professional anthropologist. Describes the livelihood of a pastoral people and examines the organization of a society without government and legal institutions.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E. E. 1950. Social Anthropology and Other Essays. London. Contains a critique of Radcliffe-Brown’s functionalism from the perspective of historicism.
  • Firth, Raymond. 1951. Elements of Social Organization. London. Notable for the distinction between social structure and social organization
  • Firth, Raymond. 1957. Man and Culture, An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Provides biographical information, a chronological presentation, and interpretation of Malinowski’s works.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter. 1966. Comparative Functionalism, An Essay in Anthropological Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press. An excellent evaluation of the functionalism paradigm after it had fallen out of favor. Doomed in its effort to revive it.
  • Kuper, Adam. 1977. The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Provides biographical information, a chronological presentation, and interpretation of Radcliffe-Brown’s works.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific, an Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London. A landmark ethnographic study during the beginning of the development of functionalist theory.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1926. Crime and Custom in SavageSociety. London: Routledge.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1935. A Study of the Coral Gardens andtheir Magic. 2 vols. London: Allen.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1944. A Scientific Theory of Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
  •  Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1945. The Dynamics of Culture Change.New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1948. Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays. Glencoe, Ill. Provides his conception of religion and magic as means for making the world acceptable, manageable and right.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1922. The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, IL: Free Press. A classic ethnographic written during the beginning of the development of functionalist theory.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1924. “The Mother’s Brother in SouthbAfrica.” South African Journal of Science, 21:542-55. Examines the contribution of the asymmetrical joking relationship between the mother’s brother and sister’s son among the Bathonga of Mozambique to the maintenance of patrilineages
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1950. African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society. London: Cohen and West. The exemplary work of structural-functionalist theory.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1957. A Natural Science of Society.Glencoe, IL: Free Press.

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 that cannot be regarded as a property of the human organism considered 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).

Malinowski clearly states his view of a functionalist approach to understanding culture in his posthumously published 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 (in the sense of ‘bounded’) 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).


Basic Needs (Individual)

Direct Responses (Organized, i.e., Collective)

Instrumental Needs

Responses to Instrumental Needs

Symbolic and Integrative Needs

Systems of Thought and Faith

Nutrition (metabolism)


Renewal of cultural apparatus


Transmission of experience by means of precise, consistent principles



Marriage and family





Bodily comforts

Domicile and dress

Characters of behavior and their sanctions

Social control




Protection and defense



Means of intellectual, emotional, and pragmatic control of destiny and chance



Systems of play and repose

Renewal of personnel





Set activities and systems of communication






Training and Apprenticeship

Organization of force and compulsion

Political organization

Communal rhythm of recreation, exercise and rest


(SOURCE: Malinowski’s Basic Human Needs as presented in Langness 1987:80)

Radcliffe-Brown’s emphasis on social function is derived from the influence of the French sociological school. This school developed in the 1890s around the work of Emile Durkheim who argued that “social phenomena constitute a domain, or order, of reality that is independent of psychological and biological facts. Social phenomena, therefore, must be explained in terms of other social phenomena, and not by reference to psychobiological needs, drives, impulses, and so forth” (Broce 1973:39-40).

Emile Durkheim argued that ethnographers should study the function of social institutions and how they function together to maintain the social whole (Broce 1973:39-40). Radcliffe-Brown shared this emphasis of studying the conditions under which social structures are maintained. He also believed that the functioning of societies, like that of other natural systems, is governed by laws that can be discovered though systematic comparison (Broce 1873:40). It is important to note here that Firth postulated the necessity of distinguishing between social structure and social organization. Social structure “is the principle(s) on which the forms of social relations depend. Social organization refers to the directional activity, to the working out of social relations in everyday life” (Watson-Gegeo 1991:198).

Radcliffe-Brown established an analogy between social life and organic life to explain the concept of function. He emphasized the contribution of phenomena to maintaining social order. However, Radcliffe-Brown’s disregard for individual needs was apparent in this analogy. He argued that as long as a biological organism lives, it preserves the continuity of structure, but not preserve the unity of its constituent parts. That is, over a period of time, while the constituent cells do not remain the same, the structural arrangement of the constituent units remains similar. He suggested that human beings, as essential units, are connected by a set of social relations into an integrated whole. Like the biological organism, the continuity of the social structure is not destroyed by changes in the units. Although individuals may leave the society by death or other means, other individuals may enter it. Therefore, the continuity is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of individual human beings and of organized groups into which they are united. The social life of a community is the functioning of the social structure. The function of any recurrent activity is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and thereby, the contribution it makes to structural continuity (Radcliffe-Brown 1952:178).


Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski formulated distinct versions of functionalism, yet the emphasis on the differences between them obscures their fundamental similarities and complementarily. Both viewed society as structured into a working unity in which the parts accommodate one another in a way that maintains the whole. Thus, the function of a custom or institution is the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the entire system of which it is a part. On the whole, sociocultural systems function to provide their members with adaptations to environmental circumstances and to connect them in a network of stable social relationships. This is not to say that functionalists failed to recognize internal social conflict or other forms of disequilibrium. However, they did believe that societies strongly tend to maintain their stability and internal cohesion as if societies had homeostatic qualities (Broce 1973:38-39).

The functionalists also shared an emphasis on intensive fieldwork, involving participant-observation. This methodological emphasis has resulted in a series of excellent monographs on native societies. In large part, the quality of these monographs may be attributed to their theoretical framework, since the investigation of functional interrelationships of customs and institutions provides an especially fruitful perspective for the collection of information.

In their analysis, the functionalists attempted to interpret societies as they operated in a single point in time, or as they operate over a relatively short period of time. This was not because the functionalists opposed, in principle, the study of history. Instead, it was a consequence of their belief that very little reliable information could be secured about the long-term histories of primitive peoples. Their rejection of the conjectural reconstructions of the evolutionists and the diffusionists was based largely on this conviction (Broce 1973:39).


By the 1970’s functionalism was declining, but its contributions continue to influence anthropologists today. Functional analysis gave value to social institutions by considering them not as mere custom (as proposed by early American ethnologists), but as active and integrated parts of a social system (Langness 1987). Though Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown differed in their approaches to functional interpretation, they both contributed to the push for a “shift in the assumptions of ethnology, from a concern with isolated traits to the interpretation of social life” (Winthrop 1991:130).

This school of thought has contributed to the concept of culture that traditional usages, whatever their origin, have been shaped by the requirement that human beings must live together in harmony. Therefore the demands of interpersonal relationships are a causative force in culture (Goldschmidt 1967:17-18).
Despite its theoretical limitations, functionalism has made important methodological contributions. With its emphasis on intensive fieldwork, functionalism has provided in-depth studies of societies. Additionally, the investigation of functional interrelationships of customs and institutions provides a ready-made framework for the collection of information.

Its theoretical difficulties notwithstanding, functionalism can yet be fruitful. Such statements as, “all societies are functionally cohesive,” are too vague to be refuted easily. However, these statements can be refuted if they suggest that societies do not change or disintegrate. Therefore, such theories can be considered uncontroversial tautologies. It could be said that functionalism is the integration of false theory and trivially true tautology into a blueprint for fieldwork. Accordingly, such fieldwork can be thought of as empirical attempts to refute such ideas that savages are simple-minded, that savage customs are superstitious, and that savage societies are chaotic, in essence, that savage societies are “savage.”


Functionalism became an important paradigm in American theory in the 1950s and 1960s. With time, criticism of this approach has escalated, resulting in its decline in the early 1970s. Interactionist theorists criticized functionalism for failing to conceptualize adequately the complex nature of actors and the process of interaction. Marxist theory argued against functionalism’s conservativism and the static nature of analysis that emphasized the contribution of social phenomena to the maintenance of the status-quo. Advocates of theory construction questioned the utility of excessively classificatory or typological theories that pigeonholed phenomena in terms of their functions (Turner and Maryanski 1991). Functional theory also has been criticized for its disregard of the historical process and for its presupposition that societies are in a state of equilibrium (Goldschmidt 1996:511).

Logical problems of functional explanations also have been pointed out, namely that they are teleological and tautological. It has been argued that the presence of an institution cannot precede the institution’s existence. Otherwise, such a teleological argument would suggest that the institution’s development anticipated its function. This criticism can be countered by recognizing an evolutionary or a historical process at work; however, functionalism specifically rejected such ideas. Functional analysis has also been criticized for being circular: needs are postulated on the basis of existing institutions which are, in turn, used to explain their existence. This criticism can be countered by establishing a set of universal requisite needs, or functional prerequisites. It has been argued that to account for phenomena by showing what social needs they satisfy does not explain how it originated or why it is what it is (Kucklick 1996:250). Furthermore, functionalism’s ahistorical approach made it impossible to examine social processes, rejection of psychology made it impossible to understand attitudes and sentiments and the rejection of culture led to a lack of recognition of the ecological context (Goldschmidt 1996:511).

In light of such criticisms, some anthropologists attempted functional explanations that were not constrained by such narrow approaches. In Clyde Kluckhohn’s functional explanation of Navaho witchcraft, he avoided tautology by positing a social need (to manage hostility), thereby bringing a psychological assumption into the analysis. He demonstrated that more overt means of managing hostility had not been available due to governmental controls, thereby bringing in historical and ecological factors (Goldschmidt 1996:511).

Comparative functionalism attends to the difficulties posed by Malinowski’s argument that every culture can be understood in its own terms; every institution can be seen as a product of the culture within which it developed. Following this, a cross-cultural comparison of institutions is a false enterprise in that it would be comparing phenomena that could not be compared. This is problematic since the internal mode of analysis cannot provide either a basis for true generalization or a means of extrapolation beyond the local time and place (Goldschmidt 1966:8). Recognizing this “Malinowskian dilemma,” Walter Goldschmidt argued for a “comparative functionalism.” This approach recognizes the universality of functions to which institutions are a response. Goldschmidt suggested that problems are consistent from culture to culture, but institutional solutions vary. He suggested starting with what is problematical in order to discover how institutional devices provide solutions. In this way, he too sought to situate his explanations in a broader theoretical framework (Goldschmidt 1996:511-512).

Neofunctionalism is a revision of British structural-functionalism that experienced renewed activity during the 1980s. Some neo-functionalists, influenced by Parsons, analyze phenomena in terms of specific functional requisites. Others, although they place less emphasis on functional requisites and examine a variety of phenomena, also share similarities with functionalism by focusing on issues of social differentiation, integration, and social evolution. Finally, some neo-functionalists examine how cultural processes (including ritual, ideology, and values) integrate social structures. Generally, there is little emphasis on how phenomena meet or fail to meet system needs (Turner and Maryanski 1991).

Neofunctionalism differs from structural-functionalism by focusing on the modeling of systems-level interactions, particularly negative feedback. It also emphasizes techno-environmental forces, especially environment, ecology, and population, thereby reducing culture to adaptation (Bettinger 1996:851). Both neofunctionalism and structural-functionalism explain phenomena with reference to the needs they fulfill. They consider problematic cultural behaviors to result largely from benefits they generate that are essential to sustaining or improving the well-being of larger systems in which they are embedded, these systems being cultures in the case of structural-functionalism and ecosystems in the case of neo-functionalism (Bettinger 1996:851).

Structural-functionalists believe these benefits are generated by behaviors that reinforce group cohesion, particularly ritual, or that provide the individual with effective mechanisms for coping with psychological threatening situations by means such as religion or magic. Neofunctionalists, on the other hand, are concerned with issues that relate directly to fitness similar to that in evolutionary biology (Bettinger 1996:852).

These emphases correspond to the kinds of groups that preoccupy structural-functional and neofunctional explanation. Structural-functional groups are culturally constituted, as cultures, by group-reinforcing cultural behaviors. Rather than separating humans from other animals, neofunctionalists focus on groups as biologically constituted populations aggregated in cooperative social alliances, by which self-interested individuals obtain fitness benefits as a consequence of group membership (Bettinger 1996:852).

Since obviously rational, beneficial behaviors require no special explanation, structural-functionalism and neofunctionalism focus on finding rationality in seemingly irrational behaviors. Neofunctionalism, with economic rationality as its basic frame of reference, believes that what is irrational for the individual in the short run may be rational for the group in the long run. Therefore, neofunctionalist explanation seemed to provide a bridge between human behavior, which frequently involves cooperation, and natural selection, where individual interaction involves competition more than cooperation. Additionally, this type of argument was traditional in that it emphasized cultural behaviors whose stated purpose (manifest function) concealed a more important latent function. However, evolutionary theorists suggest that group selection occurs only under rare circumstances, thereby revealing the insufficiency of fitness-related self-interest to sustain among groups of unrelated individuals over any extended period (Bettinger 1996:853).

Sources and Bibliography

  • Barnard, Alan. 1991. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Barnes, J.A. 1991. Meyer Fortes. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Barth, Fredrik, Andre Gingrich, Robert Parkin and Sydel Silverman. 2005. One Discipline, Four Ways: British, German, French and American Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Beidelman, T.O. 1991. E.E Evans-Pritchard. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Bettinger, Robert. 1996. Neofunctionalism. In Encyclopedia ofCultural Anthropology, Vol. 3. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
  • Broce, Gerald. 1973. History of Anthropology. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company.
  • Comaroff, Jean, John L. Comaroff and Isaac Schapera. 1988. On the Founding Fathers, Fieldwork and Functionalism: A Conversation with Isaac Schapera. American Ethnologist 15(3):554-565.
  • Davis, John. 1991. Lucy Mair. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Douglas, Mary. 1980. Edward Evans-Pritchard. New York. Viking Press.
  • Ellen, Roy, ed. 1988. Malinowski Between Two Worlds: The Polish Roots of an Anthropological Tradition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1974. A Bibliography of the Writings of E.E. Evans-Pritchard. Thomas O. Beidelman, ed. London: Tavistock Publications.
  • Evans-Pritchard, Sir Edward. 1981. A History of Anthropological Thought. Andre Singer, ed. New York. Basic Books.
  • Firth, Raymond. 1957. Man and Culture. An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
  • Fortes, Meyers. 1949. Social Structure. Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Oxford: Clarendon Press.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter. 1966. Comparative Functionalism in Anthropological Theory. Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter.1967. Cultural Anthropology. The American Library Association.
  • Goldschmidt, Walter.1996. Functionalism. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol 2. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory. A History of the Theories of Culture. New York: Columbia University.
  • Hart, Keith. 2003. British Social Anthropology’s Nationalist Project. Anthropology Today 19(6):1-2.
  • Jarvie, I. C. 1965. Limits to Functionalism and Alternatives to it in Anthropology. In Functionalism in the Social Sciences: The Strength and Limits of Functionalism in Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, and Sociology. (ed) Don Martindale Monograph 5 in a series sponsored by the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  • Jarvie, I. C. 1973. Functionalism. Minneapolis: Burgess Publishing Company.
  • Kaplan, David and Robert A. Manners. 1972. Cultural Theory. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. 1991 The Savage Within: The Social History of British Anthropology, 1885- 1945. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. 1996. Functionalism. In Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, eds. New York: Routledge.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. 1996. Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian Biogeography and British Anthropology. American Ethnologist 23(3):611-638.
  • Kuklick, Henrika. 2008. The British Tradition. In A New History of Anthropology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub.
  • Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology. New York: Pica Press.
  • Kuper, Adam. 1977. The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London, Henley and Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
  • Langness, L.L. 1987. The Study of Culture-Revised Edition. Novato, California: Chandler & Sharp Publishers, Inc.
  • Leach, Edmund R. 1984. Glimpses of the Unmentionable in the History of British Social Anthropology 13:x+1-23.
  • Lesser, Alexander. 1985. Functionalism in Social Anthropology. In History, Evolution, and the Concept of Culture, Selected Papers by Alexander Lesser (ed) Sidney W. Mintz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Liscombe, Rhodri Windsor. 2006. Modernism in Late Imperial British West Africa: The Work of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, 1946-56. The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 65(2):188-215.
  • Lutkehaus, Nancy. 1986. She Was “Very” Cambridge”: Camilla Wedgewood and the History of Women in British Social Anthropology. American Ethnologist 13(4):776-798.
  • Mahner, Martin and Mario Bunge. 2001. Function and Functionalism: A Synthetic Perspective. Philosophy of Science 68(1):75-94.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1926. Myth in Primitive Psychology. New York. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1926. Crime and Custom in SavageSociety. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, Inc.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melaneisa; An Ethnographic Account of Courtship, Marriage and Family Life Among the Natives of Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea. New York: Halcyon House.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1939. “Review of Six Essays on Culture by Albert Blumenthal.” American Sociological Review, Vol. 4, pp. 588-592.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1944. A Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1944. Freedom and Civilization. New York: Roy Publishers.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1954. Magic, Science and Religion, and Other Essays. Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday.
  • Malinowski, Bronislaw. 2001. Sex and Repression in Savage Society. New York: Routledge.
  • Martindale, Don . 1965. Introduction. In Functionalism in the Social Sciences: The Strength and Limits of Functionalism in Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, and Sociology. Monograph 5 in a series sponsored by the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  • Maryanski, Alexandra and Jonathan H. Tuner. 1991. The Offspring of Functionalism: French and British Structuralism. Sociological Thoery 9(1):106-115.
  • Pearson, Roger. 1985. Anthropological Glossary. Malabar: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1933. The Andamen Islanders. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. and Daryll Forde, eds. 1950. African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. London: Oxford University Press.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen and West.
  • Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1958. Method in Social Anthropology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  • Rex, John. 1961. Key Problems of Sociological Theory. New York: Humanities Press.
  • Riviere, Peter. 2007. A History of Oxford Anthropology. New York: Berghahn Books.
  • Seymour-Smith, Charlotte. 1986. Dictionary of Anthropology. Boston: G.K. Hall and Company.
  • Silverman, Sydel. 2004. Totems and Teachers, Perspectives on the History of Anthropology. 2nd edition. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Spencer, Jonathan. 2000. British Social Anthropology: A Retrospective. Annual Review of Anthropology 29:1-24.
  • Spencer, Robert F. 1965. The Nature and Value of Functionalismin Anthropology. In Functionalism in the Social Sciences: The Strength and Limits of Functionalism in Anthropology, Economics, Political Science, and Sociology. Monograph 5 in a series sponsored by the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science.
  • Spiro, Melford 1987 Social Systems, Personality, and Functional Analysis. In Culture and Human Nature Theoretical Papers of Melford Spiro. Benjamin Kilborne and L. L. Langness, eds. Pp. 109-144. Chicago and London. University of Chicago Press.
  • Stanner, W.E.H. 1968. Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Vol 13. David L. Sills, ed. MacMillian and Company.
  • Stocking, George W. Jr. 1984 Functionalism Historicized. Essays on British Social Anthropology. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Stocking, George W. Jr. 1995. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888-1951. Madison:University of Wisconsin.
  • Turner, Jonathan H. and Alexandra Maryanski. 1991. Functionalism. In Encyclopedia of Sociology, Vol 2. Edgar F. Borgatta, ed. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company.
  • Urry, James 1972. “Notes and Queries on Anthropology” and the Development of Field Methods in British Anthropology, 1870-1920. Proceedings of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 1972:45-57.
  • Voget, Fred. 1996. Functionalism. In Encyclopedia of Cultural Anthropology, Vol 2. David Levinson and Melvin Ember, eds. New York: Henry Holt and Company.
  • Watson-Gegeo, Karen Ann . 1991. Raymond Firth. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • White, Leslie A. 1945. History, Evolutionism, and Functionalism: Three Types of Interpretation of Culture. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 1(2):221-248.
  • Winthrop, Robert H. 1991. Functionalism. In Dictionary of Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Greewood Press.
  • Young, Michael W. 1991. Bronislaw Malinowski. In International Dictionary of Anthropologists. Christopher Winters, ed. New York: Garland Publishing.
  • Young, Michael W. 1998. Malinowski’s Kiriwina: Fieldwork Photography, 1915-1918. Chicago:University of Chicago Press.