Chapter 9

Chapter 9:
Structure and Function
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Much as psychological anthropologists dissented from the Boasian “shreds and
patches” metaphor, so did the functionalists. Structural functionalists
subscribed to the Durkheimian “organismic analogy” in which institutions
stand in some functional relationship to one another, much like the organs of
the body. From the 1930s until the1950s, British anthropology centered around
two charismatic scholars: Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.
• The focus of R-B’s structural functionalism was to be a society’s social
structure. This consisted of corporate groups, or entities which persist beyond
the life of any one member; examples might be lineages, voluntary associations,
tribes, etc. Secondly, social structure comprises the rules governing relations
between people in these groups. The assumption was that if people followed
these rules, social structure would be reproduced over time with little or no
change. As if to set himself apart from Malinowski and American
anthropologists, R-B declared that a study of culture was not possible, as he
regarded culture as “thoughts” that could not be observed. What is curious
about this claim is that social structure is also an abstraction that cannot be
observed, but is rather a creation of structural functionalists as a heuristic
device to better understand society.
© 2014 Mark Moberg
• Malinowski, in contrast, examined how cultural practices fulfill what he
believed to be the needs of the individual. While agreeing with R-B that
solidarity is a precondition for social life, he went beyond him by
postulating seven basic human needs that underlie all cultural practices.
The task of the ethnographer was to identify how various practices met
each of these seven needs. This turned out to be a huge undertaking. Under
the basic need of “safety,” for example, the ethnographer might include
how houses are constructed to prevent flooding, the organization of armed
defense, patterns of socialization to turn young men into potential
combatants, and the magical recruitment of supernatural forces for defense
against enemies.
• There have been many criticisms of functionalism since its heyday. These
include its inability to account for change or conflict. Functionalism has
also been criticized for its conservatism and defense of the status quo: i.e.
the implication that all cultural practices serve an essential need, and any
alteration in them is likely to be disruptive. Such assumptions were
altogether ill-suited to a rapidly changing research context as the British
Empire began to dissolve in the years after WWII.
© 2014 Mark Moberg

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