Functionalism-Does it still Function?

Functionalism
-Bronislaw Malinowski, The Essentials of the Kula (1922)
-A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, The Mother’s Brother in South Africa. (1924)
-E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Nuer of the Southern Sudan (1940)
-Gluckman, Licence in Ritual (1956)

Is functionalism still influential in anthropological theory today?
How about Malinowski? Is his notion of ethnography still useful?

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  • Merrily  On February 25, 2009 at 8:55 pm

    this excerpt is from our favorite Wikipedia:

    “A joking relationship is a term applied by anthropologists to the institutionalised form of interaction between certain pairs of people in some societies. Analysed by British social anthropologist Alfred Radcliffe-Brown in 1940[1], it describes a kind of ritualised banter that takes place, for example between a man and his maternal mother-in-law in some South African tribal societies. Two main variations are described: an asymmetrical relationship where one party is required to take no offence at constant teasing or mocking by the other, and a symmetrical relationship where each party makes fun at the other’s expense.

    While first encountered by Radcliffe-Brown in the 1920s, this type of relationship is now understood to be very widespread across societies in general.

    This type of relationship contrasts strongly with societies where so-called avoidance speech or “mother-in-law” language is imposed to minimise interaction between the two parties, as in many Australian Aboriginal languages. Donald F. Thomson’s article “The Joking Relationship and Organized Obscenity in North Queensland” [American Anthropologist, 37:3(1) pp. 460-490, 1935] gives in depth discussion of a number of societies where these two speech styles co-exist. Interestingly the joking relationships which are most unconstrained and free are between classificatory Father’s Father and Son’s Son — which appears to be the same situation in the Plains cultures of North America.”

    I have listened to joking relationships all my life, some 64 years of them. First it was my father who used to joke with me, and all the time. We had a few good laughs, although other than a good laugh, there was not much productive value from it, because after the laughter always came the anger. If we shared a laugh, he would always get mad preceding our laughter, and so it went, finally I quit laughing or joking with him, and then he just started getting mad. Now this is all intellectual and psychological, which became warfare of and in the nature of its own right. Since this was a systematic procedure within our family structure his process became part of the institution of his parenting procedures. My fathers system was both personal, familial and social. His task was first to gain admittance to my mind by using the power of laugher and fun and making light jokes about essentially very serious matters. Then he would administer his hammar of justice, his fist or face slap, or even “the whip”. Throughout youth, the joy of a joke quickly died under the duress of pain.

    My only female child followed with her system of relieving family stress with her sense of humor. I graduated from jokes to “humor.” She continues to exude this gift in regal style, however her mode of tale is usually under the influence of some induced substance, stress or a twitch in her funny bone. Again humor was pressed upon my countenance and I laughed, without recieving any disciplinary measures and of course, her reward was my laughter and that was all.

    Some 40 years later, again I am visited by the gift of family humor, in order to relieve stress or simply to fill ones ears with mirth at the perception of others. And now I find myself unearthed by a bubbling anger at the lightness with that which others regard for matters I singularly react with grave seriousness. My fathers systematic process is programmed for recreation in my pathology and my laughter is followed by this old pattern of laughter, and then anger. I wonder why and how this could be happeining.

    What is the point of the joking relationships anyway? According to the On Joking Relationships, (pg 179), by Radcliffe-Brown, it is because, “it is a relation between two person in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instance required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence.”

    To me this reads as though it is some form of jovial bonding whereby the relationships form a hierarchy and in order to seal or cement the social sense of community or affial love, the involved persons make note of certain behaviors of the other person and then relay those behaviors back through words or gesture to the other person. Thus in doing so they get acquainted and teach each other about their likes and their dislikes, their habits or non-habits, their thoughts or feelings or other identifiable characteristics that make them unique or special in the eyes or observations of the family or of their particular culture. This shared knowledge becomes a building block for future communications and future abstractions and it is all based on light hearted observations and keen insights into family or individual behavior or characteristics. If a particular tradition or custom is being taught then a joking relationship can carry the tradition or custom perhaps from one family member to another in a non-threatening and unobstrusive way. Some family members may have unspoken lineage over certain types of information, such that you go to a woman to learn how to cook or sew, or a man to learn how to hunt, but you go to an uncle or grandparent to learn some other specific custom or tradition that you know comes from them and no one else. It is like a lineage or a form of genealogy, only it is the transference of certain particular knowledge that is conveyed in a lighthearted or non threatening manner. Once armed with the information, you, as the recipient will re-enter the hut and will have a sense of knowing about that which once before you were ignorant.

  • Kathryn Pesch  On February 26, 2009 at 4:13 am

    The subject of On Joking Relationships is how certain societies and relationships joke with others to show the different behavior of groups. The article provides many examples of joking relationships and uses different societies all over the world to prove his point that they exist and how they come about.
    He starts by explaining what a joking relationship is and who uses them. He then goes on to explain how they are used in family and kinship ways with husbands and wives families or other family members. Different societies groups have different joking relationships. The author tries to show the reader what they are and how they are used. He doesn’t seem to try to solve a specific problem rather than just show that the behavior exists and is prevalent today.
    The reading fits very well into Anthropology because it is trying to prove that Anthropology should be a science and it can have different laws and principles to prove it as a science. The topic on the syllabus is Functionalism and the reading fits well into that category because it shows how societies are fitted and keeps the maintenance of social order. He uses actual contact with the societies to prove his points and he uses other authors’ anecdotes to show the relationships.
    He uses a lot of other author’s writings as examples to prove his own, when he says things about his writings but never uses examples from them. He tends to state the fact that they have been written but uses someone else’s ideas to prove his points. He is very similar to Durkheim’s views that Anthropology should be a science and how society is developed and maintained. He uses and lot of Marcel Mauss and Durkheim as evidence. His evidence supports his argument.
    He proves that joking relationships are all over the world but with different motives and actions behind them. Whether it is to other family members, friends, or in-laws it exists in ever culture from Africa, Asia, Australia, and North America.

  • Jamie San Andres  On February 26, 2009 at 9:27 pm

    “it is a relation between two person in which one is by custom permitted, and in some instance required, to tease or make fun of the other, who in turn is required to take no offence.” Radcliff-Brown
    In response to the “On Joking Relationships,” by Radcliffe-Brown, there is definitely much to be interpreted when a there is a necessary dominant-subordinant relationship to exist in order for the joke to exist. In this, I’m referring to racial, sexist jokes, where there have been obvious former dominant-subordinant relationships. For example, a white male tells a black male a derogatory joke, the white man would expect some laughter, and would probably not like it if the black male would answer with a derogatory comment towards him. There are some things that can be joked about and other not. There is something awfully wrong and disgusting when joking relationships require no offense taken. I come from a family where the jokes/fun exist when the second party (person being teased) is expected to have a come-back; and it is supposed to turn into a competition. But never are the jokes about rich-poor, master-slave, man-woman, etc..

    Regarding functionalism:
    In Radcliff-Brown’s article, even though the relationships are supposed to create equilibrium, the truth of the matter is that it is not. Although the mother and sister bring tenderness qualities to the men, “the father (and therefore all male/paternalistic figures) is to be feared,” hence, no equilibrium of status. Although Radcliff-Brown’s quote “the social values current in a primitive society are maintained by being expressed in ceremonial or ritual customs” (pg 181) is meant to emphasize the fact that society creates the individual (its values) I also think that the individual is capable of modifying it. I think that Malinowski’s theory is definitely useful. The kula system is a bartering system much to be learned from, for aspects of it can maintain peace between different communities. I think that humans definitely contribute to the values society has, and can hence change those values to focus on other areas. For example, the environmentalist movement is a movement to change how society perceives their environment and themselves, and how they can change their lifestyles to ensure a safe, sustainable, and yet still comfortable future. We live in a corporate world where world market prices dominate but the kula [although many men gain prestige from it] or some other exchange or bartering system can bring the positive values that come with simpler lifestyles. The individual is capable of modifying society, despite the fact that society creates the individual.

  • Felicia  On February 26, 2009 at 10:16 pm

    Functionalism is still influential in anthropological theory today because it studies the correlation between an individual and a society. Functionalism can be objective, in other words, functionalists study individuals and societies by what is “objectively real.” Research is often conducted by interviews and surveys rather then through observations of natural interactions among individuals in a society.

    Society functions in a way that it has to satisfy an individual’s needs. Malinowski suggested this idea of psychological functionalism, in which cultural institutions functioned to satisfy individual needs. His notion of ethnography is still useful; however, it can not be applied when there is a social or cultural change because if the cultural is shifting it is hard to tell by what means is it shifting. Psychological functionalism is useful because it breaks up the social system. Culture as whole is very complex, but if the culture can be broken down with the idea that it was built up by an individual organism, we can hope to understand functions and development in each social system.

  • sunshinebtfly (Jennifer)  On February 27, 2009 at 12:26 am

    Participant observation as described by Malinowski implies that he was quite interested in the society he was studying. It is easy to deceive the public, and create a false impression of people, but without the background of the ethnographer, it is impossible to know whether the observations are valid. The theory behind the observations in Malinowski’s case was valid.
    Far from closing the book on whether to participate or not, it still remains the same: you cannot become part of the community you are studying. As an “other” the consistency of being an outsider will always influence the observation’s validity. It will never 100% show what someone who is indigenous to a community experiences.
    Functionalism in general says that a societal problem is solved in ways that make a particular item in the society function for the benefit of those in the community. This completely discounts the idea of symbolism. But symbollic interactionism can be integrated into a more holistic view of societies. It is strange to me to divide the theories, or decide that you agree with one particular theory, because they may all be valid and have uses, and they don’t necessarily have to cancel each other out. I am just as much a functionalist as a symbolic interactionist as a Boasian particularist.
    Colonial possessions of the time influence where anthropology is practiced, also. Places where Europeans had commonwealths or territories tended to be studied more often than those of (for ex.) Remote Oceania.

    Radcliffe Brown’s approach to discussing interrelationships with tribes described the four modes of alliance as intermarriage, by exchange of goods or services, by blood-brotherhood or exchangges of names or sacra, and by the joking relationship. Reciprocal altruism occurs between tribes or non-relative kinsman, while true altruism occurs within blood-brotherhood. The blood relationships seem to be stronger, but a relationship of reciprocal altruism can strengthen ties with other tribes and allows for more harmonious relationships. Altruism assumes a contractual type of relationship, while a relative tends to do things for the good of the tribe/family. Radcliffe illustrated this point quite well.
    Ethnographies are helpful tools for the anthropologist to become a “participant observer” in tribal activities, but there will always be drawbacks when oral traditions, religious beliefs, and other tribal customs are attempted to be translated by someone from outside the tribe. Interpretations are never as good as the original format.
    I do think functionalism is valuable in evaluating the way a tribe views material aspects of their culture, as well as various other aspects. Without knowing an objects importance, knowing how it’s used can tell us at least part of why that object is valuable.

  • theanthrogeek  On February 27, 2009 at 1:02 am

    Jennifer,
    when you say:”It is strange to me to divide the theories, or decide that you agree with one particular theory, because they may all be valid and have uses, and they don’t necessarily have to cancel each other out. I am just as much a functionalist as a symbolic interactionist as a Boasian particularist.” what you may not realize it that these theories are often mutually exclusive. For example, if you are emphasizing the symbolic importance of things, it is difficult to emphasis the material importance of things.

  • theanthrogeek  On February 27, 2009 at 1:14 am

    Merrily brings up an important point by illustrating that joking achieves some sort of social function beyond the obvious. For some it relieves stress or breaks tension, for others it may index proximity (e.g., you only use ironic humor like “look what the cat dragged in” with close friends). I often do that with folks I’m not that close with and they take offense.

  • brandi  On February 27, 2009 at 2:06 am

    Functionalism is still influential in anthropology because it focuses on the people being studied instead of trying to make a generalization of cultural progress. Malinowski’s belief that culture is meant to “…satisfy seven basic human needs…” while making a generalization about culture, it does not restrict his theory to the point where it will have to overlook cultural deviations or similiarties in order for it to be acceptable. Since its focus is culture’s purpose rather than progression, the individual cultures could be looked at within their own context rather than from a preset notion, which would make his notion still useful.

  • Maia  On March 3, 2009 at 6:33 am

    Just dropping by.Btw, you website have great content!

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  • Madoka  On February 9, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    I believe functionalism is still influential in anthropological theory today. Functionalist theory is the basic metaphor of society as a living organism, which includes several subject parts and categories, grouped and organized into a system. Functionalism analyses and examines the various social phenomena. The idea helps a particular society in maintaining the whole structure of that society. Functionalism in anthropology has two kinds of thought. The first kind of thought is psychological functionalism. This is where cultural institutions are needed to meet the basic physical and psychological needs of a society, for instance: food, water and medicine. The second thought is structural functionalism and it is used to understand how cultural institutions maintain a balance and are related to society. It is similar to laws developed in society today. These notions are still related to today’s anthropology.
    Also, I believe we still use Malinowski’s notion of ethnography. Malinowski’s ethnography was founded on the idea that humans are best understood through field study today, including the places where they live, the improvements they’ve made to that place, how they are making a living and providing food, housing, energy and water, what their marriage customs are, and what language(s) they speak. Actually, many cultural anthropologists think ethnography is the essence of field study today. In my experience, people in my country drive on the left side, but here in America, people drive on the right side of the road. I believe Malinowski’s ethnography is an effective method that applies to anthropology today.

  • Adrianna Salinas  On February 15, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Bronislaw Malinowski had the right idea in terms of conducting extensive field work on foreign cultures. He saw the value in having contact with the locals and learning the language in order to gain a better understanding. Most ethnographers prior to him did not necessarliy know the local language and relied greatly on translators, as we are aware of, things are lost in translation.
    Concerning functionalism, Malinowski believed that culture existed to satisfy its individuals psychological needs. As long as this need was met society would appease itself and run smoothly. Due to this, he de-emphasized conflict amongst the islanders almost as though it does not exist. Like most anthropologists of his time he recorded information that supported his ideals and down played the importance of those that did not.

  • megsatron  On February 16, 2010 at 8:46 am

    Functionalism and Malinowski easily tie in together since Malinowski used what he called psychological functionalism. He believed that every human, no matter the race, culture, religion, etc., has a set of seven basic needs. And to get to those needs the cultural institutions existed to satisfy them. I think that both of these things are still prevalent in anthropology as well as society in general today. Malinowski said that the seven needs are: nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and growth. Now, I’m not sure if I actually believe that each of these seven things is a basic need, but many are. Things like nutrition and growth certainly are. As humans, we try to keep ourselves fed so that we may grow. We work to earn money to eat.

    The idea of psychological functionalism is also useful today because we can use it to study cultures and societies through anthropology. How does a certain culture exist to provide these seven basic needs to its people? Do they have a set of hunting rules established? Are there supermarkets? Does the man of the house find the food or does the woman or do both? What is it in the way the particular society has been rooted that ties it in to the psychological functionalism? Functionalism is interesting because we can look at individual societies to try and find out how they function toward the individual needs of the members.

  • Megan Scholl  On February 16, 2010 at 8:48 am

    Oops. Forgot I was signed in to my own WordPress. Reposting under my name for this class!

    Functionalism and Malinowski easily tie in together since Malinowski used what he called psychological functionalism. He believed that every human, no matter the race, culture, religion, etc., has a set of seven basic needs. And to get to those needs the cultural institutions existed to satisfy them. I think that both of these things are still prevalent in anthropology as well as society in general today. Malinowski said that the seven needs are: nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and growth. Now, I’m not sure if I actually believe that each of these seven things is a basic need, but many are. Things like nutrition and growth certainly are. As humans, we try to keep ourselves fed so that we may grow. We work to earn money to eat.

    The idea of psychological functionalism is also useful today because we can use it to study cultures and societies through anthropology. How does a certain culture exist to provide these seven basic needs to its people? Do they have a set of hunting rules established? Are there supermarkets? Does the man of the house find the food or does the woman or do both? What is it in the way the particular society has been rooted that ties it in to the psychological functionalism? Functionalism is interesting because we can look at individual societies to try and find out how they function toward the individual needs of the members.

  • Mansione  On February 16, 2010 at 7:09 pm

    Functionalism is still influential in anthropological theory today. It limits generalizations of a culture and allows for more “openmindedness” in observation. Although it allows for these things how is it that Malinowski’s method was to collect evidence to support his theoretical position, does that not influence results? Am I oversimplifying or did I miss something? Hmm…

  • Jason McClung  On February 17, 2010 at 1:10 am

    Many others have come before me listing the Seven Needs of Malinowski, so I’ll requisition that to the back burner. What gets me thinking are the latter three mentioned by Megan: Relaxation, Movement, and Growth.

    I don’t deny that comfort and “Progress” are typically good things, but are they essential? Several cultures, such as those who farm terraces in extremely hilly areas (such as Peru) wouldn’t consider their job comfortable compared to a modern mechanized Western farm, but they stick to it for ulterior reasons. Labeling everything here “needs” is a misnomer; perhaps “wants” or “goals” would be better.

    As for the Functionalism itself (explaining actions in the language of Economic Interest), I think it’s quite valid. Some cultures tend to hide the true nature of things (for example, the Second Iraqi War was ‘sold’ as for freedom, when other interests were the chief motivator for action), and actors in the culture may not be aware of this duality. Understanding the lower-level gearworks of a society through Functionalism can see past this veil.

    – Jason

  • pachia  On February 18, 2010 at 8:31 pm

    To answer the question; yes i do believe that functionalism serves quite useful in theories today. Radcliffe-Brown and his observation of the joking relationship proves that there are certain rules or policies that we cannot see as a society but yet we do our part of the duty to maintain that systematic way of how our culture runs. like Mullooly has mentioned before, even if he doesn’t feel like dressing up to go outside, but he does it anyway because there’s a certain policy not visible to the eye that makes him feel like he can’t go outside nude for the day. Brown’s structuralism is even present in what we call the hidden curriculum in grade school. in grade school we are not required to be quiet and sit down all the time to earn our grades, it is a curriculum that is taught by the teacher to help us learn. therefore we as grade school students thinks we have to do certain things like be courteous to other students and sit still in classrooms.

    as for Malinowski, i think his notions of ethnography are still useful as well. many of us individuals has our own different views and i’m pretty sure Malinowski will agree that in our democratic system, our motto says it all. the people are the ones that matter today. if the people are not happy,then we can’t say that America is happy.well at least that’s what i think.

  • yer vue  On February 18, 2010 at 9:23 pm

    I do think that functionalism still contribute to anthropology theroies today because it shows that thier are still certain rules or restriction that all tribes around the world still maintain to keep a functional society. Radcliffe-Brown’s observation and theories behind joking relationship shows that thier are actually restrictions within clans or tribes that uses specific rules to maintain a social enviroment within families. For an example, where a son-in-law who marrries the daughter cannot have a joking relationship with the mother, due to the fact that thier might be wither positive or negative tension. As for the younger brothers of the wife, her can have a mutaul and normal joking relationship with them without offending them or them having to feel like they need to retaliate. Throught the article, Brown gave numerous examples of a joking relationship showing us that this system that is being used around the world does not only have to be between families but can be between friends, familes and tribes. He gave a good a thorough explanation how this sytem is used to maintain a society and thier values.
    As for for Malinowski he believes that culture meets seven basic needs, nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and growth. To me i would consider that these are a basic needs to us but i wouldnt firmly say that its the standard requirement that culture meets. To me personally i would think that these would meet the standards for culture but what happens to role play. I think that this plays a big part in culture becasuse this influence a society to gain the skills that they need inorder to have a functional and systematic socity so that everyone would know thier place.

  • Charon193 (Christina Knapp)  On February 20, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    I would say that Malinowski’s principles of functionalism is still being used today. I mean, come on. He’s the guy who practically invented field work, afterall. Plus, Malinowski focused on how a people’s culture provided for what he termed the seven universal needs, and not just in an outsiders perspective. In his “The Essentials of the Kula”, he mentions how the belief in magic provides safety for the people of the Trobriand Islands. He took their cultural view into consideration, something still used by anthropologists today.

  • Nicole Giglio  On February 21, 2010 at 2:44 pm

    I do find that the “Seven Basic Needs” aren’t exactly required for a society or individual to function. As with all anthropology, I find it hard to place any particular guidelines on a culture as none are exactly the same. There are many commonalities but calling anything a need demands that it is required for survival. I think they may just strive for these seven principles, and SOME are biologically important to a culture.

    Who knows, maybe I’m putting my foot in my mouth, as I’ve never been in the field or studied a culture. I just find it best to avoid a strict set of “rules” when it comes to the diversity of this world’s peoples.

  • Pirate Kim (Jill)  On March 4, 2010 at 6:21 pm

    Functionalism is influential for the most part today due to the focus it places on the culture itself that is being studied rather than just making generalizations, which had been the case earlier in the thought processes of anthropologists. While Malinowski’s work appeared to be more psychological in respect with the Kula, his ethnographic field work raised the bar so to speak in the study of culture within their own environments. Ethnographical work along with participant observation are the keys needed to understand other cultures, which gives the anthropologist a wide view into their world.

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