Functionalism – Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Gluckman

This is the link to the Prezi for Functionalism (Addendum)

All subsequent quotes are taken from the associated texts unless otherwise noted.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942)

It is important to remember that Malinowski is a product of his times and those who came before him. His belief that society is a system of “interrelated parts” as well as the thought of the Kula as a physical system directly mirrors Spencer’s “organic analogy.” Though Malinowski was influenced by Durkheim, similar to Radcliffe-Brown; Malinowski studied behavior in cultural context, dissimilar to Radcliff-Brown who observed social structures as an abstract concept that exist separate from the individuals. Malinowski incorporated the Boasian concepts of participant observation and integration of culture in his work,  but he also vehemently opposed Boasian Historical Particularism and Marxist doctrine; respectively, focusing on the “interrelation of elements within a society” instead of the history of the group in question and his having called idea of “the primitive communism of savages” a “widespread misconception.”

A Breakdown of the Reading

 The crux of Malinowski’s discussions pertains to the Kula, which is a more ritualized form of trade that is based on a gift exchange similar to the Native American Potlatch. Unlike the regular trade forms, haggling is not present. With regard to the idea that this ritualized barter, one should not mistake it for a “primitive communism” as it is important to note that the gifts are given in the spirit that the giver intends to make the recipient look bad by giving a better gift than they expect to receive in return. Similarly, Martha said the following with regard to gift giving in her comment on “The Foundations of Sociological Thought”,

“[G]iving as you said doesn’t come out of the goodness of someones heart that there is always gratitude and acceptance from the receiving person… putting it in current context [the concept still holds] true…if you give your friend a super expensive present and she rejects it saying it’s too much…the giver get upset for the rejection causing hostility with that friend because of the rejection. However if the friend does accept the gift…the giver expects the friend to hold her in high regards, not only that but when her birthday comes that the friend do the same…”

There is also a lot to be said with regard the preparations made for the actual Kula. From the manufacture of the canoes to the festival in anticipation of the event, the use of magic is integral to the whole preparatory activities. Spells for the swiftness of the vessels themselves, spells to weaken the hearts of the partners in the Kula, and the like are examples of the magic used to positively influence the outcome in situations where they cannot physically control.

Malinowski was a Polish-born British anthropologist, known for his theories in Psychological Functionalism. He thought that culture and cultural practices fulfilled an individual’s biological needs, therefore concluding that humans can never be without culture because they would not be able to survive. From the book, these biological needs included nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and growth. Without fulfilling these needs, individuals would not help in contributing to a culture’s success. In his research, Malinowski looked into how people pursued their own goals while working within the confines of cultural limitations. How does he view native populations? What were Malinowski’s views on colonialism and racial hierarchy?

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955)

Influenced by some of the same sources as Malinowski, but came to the conclusion that one cannot study culture as a whole, merely this the social structures. Radcliffe-Brown said unlike physical sciences that could look at an object and tell you what thing constituted its make up at the most basic of levels, Anthropology has processes that make up the “fundamental units” of the study.

A Breakdown of the Reading

The topic of this reading as per the title, Joking Relationships. Joking relationships are some of the social relations that form the basis of what Radcliffe-Brown would have anthropologists study. He dichotomizes the joking relations into both the Son-in-Law/Mother-in-Law and the Mother’s Brother.


This is the relationship where both participants in the relationship partake in the joking and teasing equally. Sons-in-Law are often stereotyped as having a certain level of teasing style of discourse with their mothers-in-law. Pauly Shore anyone?


2.)Mother’s Brother

This is the relationship where only one of the participants teases the other, who takes it with little or no protest. This is because the mother’s brother or maternal uncle is usually of a lower social standing than his nephew, and would be socially constrained to accept these abuses.


Radcliffe-Brown was a British anthropologist, known for his theories in Structural Functionalism. He believed that culture and cultural practices creates balanced cohesive society that is always maintained by the individuals within the culture. Our social laws govern our behavior and control how we represent our individualism. His research delved into the interactions between people on different levels in a structure, and how these interactions may lead to a conflict of interests which can create instability. This instability is brought back to equilibrium by what he refers to as “ritualized joking.” What is ritualized joking and how does his work relate to Durkheim’s work?

Max Gluckman (1911-1975)

As an expert in Political Anthropology, Gluckman often wrote on the various customs and political systems found in S. Africa, where the author is from. In opposition to the work of Radcliffe-Brown, Gluckman was an activist in strong opposition to “colonialism and apartheid policies in his native South Africa.” A good analogy for this situation would be the fictional Dr. Grace Augustine from the motion picture Avatar. In opposition to colonial interests of the invading force, she was also very vocal.

A Breakdown of the Reading

Gluckman begins his discussions by introducing the idea of ritualized role reversals as a cultural universal. He uses the Christmas practices of various armed forces( e.g. Boxing Day) where the enlisted personell, who serve their superior officers, are in turn served by the officers, particularly at a meal. Gluckman shows that though these role reversals “obviously include a protest against the established order”, they actually work to strengthen the established social order. The Zulu are Gluckman’s second example, where the women adorn themselves in male clothing and weaponry during the marriage ceremony; other cultures even include lewd behavior in their approximation of the masculine identity basing the need to reverse roles with men for reasons varying from agricultural rites to honor a goddess, or to just pest riddance. Reversals of political position exist as well, and these help to “iron out the kinks” or otherwise diffuse conflict in a way that is non-violent. This is not to say that such rituals are always practiced. Gluckman states that in situations where the relationships are weak, such rituals are not performed, per his discussions regarding the rabbinate of Polish ghettos and boy-kings as well as situations where the social conflicts are irreconcilable.

Gluckman was a South African/British anthropologist and contributed work towards Structural Functionalism. With his experiences in researching colonialism in Africa, he was known for his criticism of colonialism and believed it to be a failed form of integrating culture. He believed that natives and other controlled groups would still keep their culture even when oppressed by opposing culture, and how this created conflict. He also believed that rebelling was more of a way to solve problems and bring a system to balance, rather than rebellion causing instability. What are the gender differences to Gluckman? What are the similarities and differences between individuals and groups in Gluckman’s view?

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  • jesteenburns  On February 12, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    Reading Functionalist work is something we have to appreciate as anthropologists. The works of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown are the counterpart to such authors as Boas, in that the work off of the 19th century evolutionists, (from whom the historical particularist diverged from) however their work also differs greatly from their inspirational predecessors. From these two readings we see something very important, that is that cultures themselves actually take a central role. Unlike Taylor or Durkheim, who mostly wrote about their methods and theories, with Malinowski and Radcliffe- Brown we actually see that they got up out of their arm chairs and actually experienced culture. We see the events and things that they experienced and are explained in a more vivid way where theory is actually being developed. The thoughts and beliefs of some of the 19th century evolutionism is still present, such as Malinowski belief in anthropology as a natural science, and his call for standard measurement tools in evaluating subjects. He also has elements seen in historical particularism, in that he also believes in Cultural relativity and judging cultures on the cultures own terms and not any outside authority’s terms. But the important factor, at least to me, is how much of the published work is details of actual cultures. This is the information that makes all these rules that anthropology directly applicable and understandable. This to me is more important that just sitting around spewing philosophy. Perhaps I am mislead, and others have also done this but it was just not evident in our reading (in the same way that Malinowski’s on theoretical framework was omitted from our reading) however even If it was, it is all second hand information or not completely objectively obtained, since we know that most of the work being done in previous generations was based off of information obtained by colonial leaders and travelers who practiced armature anthropology while exploring ‘savage’ lands. Malinowski’s description of the Kula trade is much more effective in comparison to Mauss’ gift exchange theory. The fact that Malinowski focuses on that culture and gives a more detailed explanation, description, and authority (in that he actually observed this continually over a long period of time) is a great contribution to the field and a very important precedent to set. This is not to say that Mauss and other anthropologist of his time did not cite examples or just blindly produced theories, however it is undeniable that these occurred under very different circumstances.
    We should not bash on the 19th century evolutionist and the generations that directly stemmed from them. At their time anthropology was a new field and a framework of theory was necessary to build. However it is now in Malinowski’s generation we can really begin to appreciate anthropology and what it actually stands for. Through the work of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown we can finally start the golden age of anthropology and practice and fight to understand cultural relativism.

  • kmgalvez  On February 13, 2012 at 9:15 am

    Gluckman’s implication that- in certain societies- every “ritual is socially valuable”, even the ones that seem to be done as a form of protest against the “established order”, is interesting. One of these rituals is the Swazi military ritual. During the ritual, many of the songs sung proclaim the hate that the Swazi feel for the king. Such phrases inlcude: “You hate the child king”; “Those and those they hate him, They hate the king”; and “King, they reject thee” (189). Even though the resentment toward the king is publicized during the ritual, the ritual is actually meant to strengthen the feeling of loyalty toward the nation and encourage its success. This is because the kingship is seen as something sacred. Therefore, all Swazi support the kingship. For this reason, the ritual is seen as a time when all Swazi can “let out their feelings”; but because the Swazi truly beleive that the kingship is sacred, it is known that no rebellion will come out of the resentment expressed during the ritual. At the conclusion of the ritual, all Swazi return to fully supporting the kingship; thus, the feeling of “nation” is preserved.
    Gluckman also states that rituals in which the social order is protested can only occur in societies that are durable. This means “groups which endure despite the life and death of members, or their geographical movements” (191). Under this criteria, our society should be able to endure these types of rituals. But Gluckman goes on to say that “the licensed ritual of protest and of rebellion is effective so long as there is no querying of the order within which the ritual of protest is set, and the group itself will endure” (191). In our society, we have fragmented relationships. We are loyal to many groups, and have many different identities. Different situations will activate different idenities. Therefore, rituals that protest the established social order will never be effective.
    According to him, our society is constantly changng; and this belief goes back to the argument of static-versus-changing societies. Those socieites that are supposedly not changing can endure these rituals, while those that are changing cannot.

  • Dale H  On February 13, 2012 at 12:32 pm

    There will never be an opportunity or situation where we can determine exact origins and specifications of a cultures’ thought, meaning, and behavior using what may be referred to as a “pure society”. That would take thousands of years of participant observation from a cultures’ very inception. Nor has there ever been nor will there ever be an anthropologist who goes to work without any thought, meaning, and behavior of his/her own, after all, that would be impossible! 🙂 Sorry about the following large quote from the book p 153 but it has two purposes: the first one is best explained by the first and last sentence of the quote. The second is it makes my posting look larger!

    “We stated in the first section of this book that scientific theories are a product of the social and cultural context in which they are conceived. Functionalism was conceived and practiced largely by European anthropologists in territories that were European colonial possessions such as the Trobriand Islands, Australia, India, and East Africa. Given this context, it is surely no accident that these thinkers studied the function of cultural institutions in relation to the maintenance of social order and the smooth working of society. This focus was precisely the aspect of non-Western societies in which colonial governments were most interested.”

    The book goes on to explain how “the relationship between anthropology and colonialism is highly equivocal” and how it is certain that these guys (these guys meaning British anthropologists as a whole during the time functionalism became popular) wanted to be useful to the British or western governments (except Max Gluckman). I wonder if functionalism would have come about if colonialism didn’t exist. At the same time, the controlling governments were suspicious of anthropologists, after all they were considered “ungentlemanly” by their peers and some were even Jewish! (p 151)

    I have spent a lot of time so far copying out of the book so here is my take on things. Divisions are necessary to make sense out of reality. So far in this class, we are getting an understanding of the history of anthropological thought and how “our founders” made sense of things. As I have understood it, a natural progression (or evolution) has occurred in the reasoning and understanding when trying to answer the question: why different cultures exist “differently”. A large flaw for me with functionalism is that they “typically were only marginally interested in history.” p 154 I think history should contribute more. At the same time, as the large quote from p 153 leads me to believe, maybe these functionalists weren’t interested in history because they wanted to please and contribute to the British ruler’s control of possessions, all for their own purposes. After all, if we are looking at societies and the different theories regarding how to describe and understand them, it makes sense to me to make an attempt to try and understand why certain anthropologists may have come up with the ideas they did. Our book has done a good job in this regard with the introductions to each weekly section.

    I think functionalism definitely has a contribution to make but, from my perspective, it is only an example of one measurement or approach that makes a contribution toward answers we want or need to know. Just like shoe size (an arbitrary division necessary to make sense when buying shoes) is only a part of something and does not tell us everything about a person or about a “people”, functionalism makes sense of some things sometimes, but falls far short of explaining everything.

  • Martha T.  On February 13, 2012 at 7:29 pm

    Malinowski makes several good points about common difficulties encountered while doing ethnography. He highlights the slow and pain-staking work involved and shows us how we cant get the whole picture from asking the individuals you’re studying. They are restricted by their individual perspective from their position within the Kula. Malinowski writes of “long inquiries and laborious inductions” and rampant misconception. Anthropologists must seek the answers to the unknown through the known.

    This article makes us question our western definitions of “trade”, “ceremony” and “ownership”. How do the meanings connected with these terms/ideas translate (well or poorly) from culture to culture? It gives us a fresh look at materialism; Malinowski points out that all humans instinctively want things and crave ownership, but in the Kala the cultural rules regarding exchange outweigh these instincts. Thus, whatever a member of the Kala receives they must not keep indefinitely, and pass on to one of the few members they interact with within the Kala. The max time a member may keep an item is a year, and there are stigmas against members who are “slow” in the Kala.

    This shows another form of gift exchange within a culture, as we have seen, there is no such thing as a “free gift”. everything comes with an obligation, if you receive a gift and don’t reciprocate with an equal value item, then there will be repercussions within your relationships and community. This seems to be universal across cultures.

    • virender  On February 26, 2017 at 11:48 pm

      I am also agree with u and this article also

  • Roxie  On February 14, 2012 at 9:22 pm

    I agree with the postings that are above.
    Ok, well moving on to my actual posting. This section was the begining of what I would consider actually applying anthropology rather than sitting around, thinking and coming up with some sort of idea(s). Malinowski belived that culture is collective habits. The question that I have is culture a human need? Looking and thinking about it I would have to say yes, there is something about culture that we all need.
    Malinowski, integrated the application of the methods science to the data that he collected. He integrated science into study of human behavior, culture in the society that was being observed.
    Looking on the work he did with the Kula, the gift exchange, helps us understand what Mauss, (from the previous reading), was conveing. That gift giving,is the fundamental glue in these societies for the maintenance of social structures.
    Through gift giving social bonds are created, individuals are joined, sharing with each other the back and forth of the social power that is associated with the gifts exchanged. Is this something that is still going?

  • EarlP  On February 14, 2012 at 9:35 pm

    Malinowski is an interesting character. Jesteen explained in her post on how that Malinowski was a pioneer on the ethnography and the ethnographic process. I can understand the primitive techniques that he might have instituted, but I have to say that his process was very ethnocentric and primal. He used terms like “savage trade,” “surreptitious,” and “precarious” to describe their system of trade. I felt that while he used these terms to describe something, it was still in a colonialist view. He had to be thinking that he way was the right way. The Kula where studied and viewed in an etic aspect. The combination of the etic view and his ethnocentric view really tainted the outcome of his research. I understand that he was a product of his time, so I can’t bash on him too much. I also understand that he was a leading researcher in the field of ethnography and gave us a “real” account of mysterious cultures, but he also gave us in my opinion the wrong state of mind going into his research. The key to an Anthropologists success is to have that open mind about everything. His early works, I feel gave us the more redefined ethnography rules and ethics due to his ethnocentric views.

  • rosalva  On February 15, 2012 at 7:51 pm

    Malinowski established ethnography and from that many anthropologist had build on this and have made improvements over the years. I do agree with Jesteen that he actually went out there and did field work and was not just seating around waiting to come up with some ideas to write his theory. Ethnographers can never be one hundred percent objective they still hold some of their personal feelings such as the ones Dale mention. I could see how the Kula ring exchange of articles ties with Mauss gift exchange. These articles had to be received and passed on in a certain way such as the North and the East giving arm shells and the South and the West giving necklaces but the same articles could not be exchange. When they exchange these articles they also had to be of equal value so there would be equilibrium between the people and this is an ongoing cycle.

  • Arlyne Boyer  On February 17, 2012 at 11:36 am

    …picking up where our class lecture left off today (Friday)… Malinowski and the discovery of his bad diaries… Why was this such a huge blow for anthropologists?
    It’s only in hindsight that we can make any sense of it and I am inclined to put Malinowski in the same category as the wizard (from the Wizard of Oz). When you pull back the curtain its just a man standing there – complete with all the faults and imperfections humans are famous for.
    I have Alfred Kroeber in this category also (and President Clinton too, but that’s another story). Kroeber had to face his own anthroplogical demons when Ishi died, but unlike Malinowski, Kroeber was able to do that while he was still alive. He was able to reflect on his role in Ishi’s life and I beleive this caused him great pain, pain great enough to alter the way he moved forward in his career.
    But this is about Malinowski, not Kroeber. Why such a huge blow? I suppose because of all the up and coming anthropologists who hit the fields running, ready to jump right in with the whole ethnographic game plan modeled after Malinoski’s research methods. The post-mortem discovery of the his diaries rendered Malinowski speechless. I wonder what he would have said in his own defense, if given the chance.
    On that note, what if your own diaries and journals were somehow discovered generations later. What would your great-children be saying about your private thoughts in relation to your everyday struggles? Would that change the way they think of you?
    Maybe it would provide enlightenment about the person you really are (or where) and those descendants might gain strength from your battles and be open to the idea that in spite of the pain and hardships you endured you were still a tower of strength, worthy of praise for the obstacles you seemingly overcame. Does it make your accomplishment any less significant? I hope not.
    I admit I would have had a severe knee-jerk reaction to the diaries and the exposure of Malinowski’s prejudices and have been really angry at the perceived betrayal but I like to think that I would have found a way to step back and maybe viewed the forest in spite of the trees… his personal issues do not negate the fact that he left a lasting impression on anthropology and his work was quite valuable even if he did not actually enjoy the process.

    In closing, I should say right now – if any of my diaries or journals are ever discovered after my death (horrors!), please… be kind. Given the environment and the era (I am a child of the 60s – the last of the baby boomers), I did the best I could and I always made the effort to check my bias’s at the door…

  • CorrinaC  On April 7, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    While reading Ortners paper, I do share the same sentiments that women are physiologically structured different than men and are perhaps even “enslaved” to the species than male are, but that would mean that the functions of being a woman is a sort of imprisonment.

    On the contrary, I do find it interesting that women who are carriers of descendents are regarded to be inferior than men. Ortner points out that often men activities usually involve with the “destruction of life”, but are given more prestige than women who are “creators of life”. I think this shows that humans are a bloodthirsty lot in a sense showing humanities ability to also self destroy. It doesn’t show how unique humans are compared to various other animals species when primal instincts kick when threatened.

    It seems to me men are given prestige in a constructed output because of their social activities. Nothing they do is remarkably biologically noting, but woman carry offspring and are creating a new life naturally subjecting their bodies to pain and alteration. Their worth value should be seen to be higher if not equal to men, but they are viewed prestigious from a biologically standpoint. Even the aesthetic beauty of a female is designed to attract a mate and increase the fitness of their future (just like chimps!). It also seems because social behavior of men can be seen in a destructive light it might also show that they can protect their kin and resources thus protecting their “culture” and ensuring its survival. Apparently, women giving birth is regarded as a normal enough state of “womanhood,” maybe perhaps the thought is that women can’t stop having children so it is not such a remarkable function? Hmm, I assure you, my friend, that women can indeed stop having babies if they choose to. Simultaneously , that is improbable.


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