Category Archives: 04 – Functionalism


Bronisław Malinowski


Malinowski is considered to be one of the “fathers of anthropology” and a leading innovator in what came to be known as “functionalism.” Born in Kraków, Austro-Hungary (now in Poland,) Malinowski spend many of his early years studying theories of exchange at the London School of Economics. Because of his Austro-Hungary citizenship, he was considered an enemy agent of the British when World War I began in 1914.

Initially in British-controlled Papua New Guinea during the outbreak of the war, he was not allowed to return to London. However, Malinowski was allowed to travel to the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia, where he conducted extensive studies of indigenous customs. Malinowski’s interest in exchange theory led him to take particular interest in the Kula Ring ceremony. During a certain time of year, groups from the various islands of the “ring” would travel around and give gifts to show their wealth and strengthen alliances. These observations would later influence French Sociologist Marcel Mauss’ The Gift, which proposed that there was no such thing as a “free gift.”

During his time on the Tobriand Islands, Malinowski lived among the people he studied and took part in their daily lives. Malinowski contributed to the role of participant observation among British anthropologist the same way Franz Boas and his students did here. Malinowski was surprisingly modern in his approach to understanding his subjects, wishing: “to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.” His interest was in understanding the individual and his perception of his society. Malinowski combined this “data” with his own “analysis,” the outsider’s objective understanding of society as a whole. The methods of participant observation described in his introduction to Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922) remain central to modern ethnographers.

Equally important was Malinowski’s contribution to the theory of functionalism. Functionalism is, by its very simplest definition, the theory that social institutions in any given culture serve some purpose for the betterment of the individual. In essence, it is the idea that everything has a purpose. In the example of the Kula Ring, Malinowski observed natives giving gifts to people on other islands. He postulated that these “presents” served to show the wealth and generosity of the giver as well as cementing bonds between the islands. The functionalist theory has been used to explain the purpose of countless religious, political and social institutions since its foundation by Malinowski.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown


Malinowski’s functionalism must be contrasted with his contemporary, the Englishmen Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. Radcliffe-Brown is considered the father of a powerful competing theory: structural functionalism. Radcliffe-Brown, an admirer of the work of Durkheim, believed that human societies functioned as “organism” through which the individual was the “cell.” This put him at odds with Malinowski, who believed that it was through the satisfaction of individual needs that societies function. Radcliffe-Brown’s beliefs on the matter can be succinctly identified in the following quote:

“Malinowski has explained that he is the inventor of functionalism, to which he gave its name. His definition of it is clear; it is the theory or doctrine that every feature of culture of any people past or present is to be explained by reference to seven biological needs of individual human beings. I cannot speak for the other writers to whom the label functionalist is applied by the authors, though I very much doubt if Redfield or Linton accept this doctrine. As for myself I reject it entirely, regarding it as useless and worse. As a consistent opponent of Malinowski’s functionalism I may be called an anti-functionalist.”

-A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1949. ‘Functionalism: A Protest, American Anthropologist 51(2): 320–321.

Like his rival, Radcliffe-Brown was also instrumental in expanding our understanding of anthropological theory. However, Radcliffe-Brown was far more focused on the group than Malinowski. This interest in the “societal organism” led him to focus on patterns of kinship which may be observed cross-culturally. Radcliffe-Brown would also later come to influence Lévi-Strauss through his work in analyzing myth structurally.


Read the following quote:

“Yet it must be remembered that what appears to us an extensive, complicated, and yet well ordered institution is the outcome of so many doings and pursuits, carried on by savages, who have no laws or aims or charters definitely laid down. They have no knowledge of the total outline of any of their social structure. They know their own motives, know the purpose of individual actions and the rules which apply to them, but how, out of these, the whole collective institution shapes, this is beyond their mental range. Not even the most intelligent native has any clear idea of the Kula as a big, organized social construction, still less of its sociological function and implications….The integration of all the details observed, the achievement of a sociological synthesis of all the various, relevant symptoms, is the task of the Ethnographer… the Ethnographer has to construct the picture of the big institution, very much as the physicist constructs his theory from the experimental data, which always have been within reach of everybody, but needed a consistent interpretation.”

Who said it? 

Read The Introduction to Malinowski’s (1932) Argonauts

Outdated and racist terminology aside, what point is this author trying to make?

Think of instances in your own daily lives, do you ever notice examples of this?

How does this concept of the individual clash with the “super-organic” proposed by other theorists?

Quotes to Ponder

An animal organism is an agglomeration of cells and interstitial fluids arranged in relation to one another not as an aggregate but as an integrated living whole. The system of relations by which these units ate related is the organic structure. As the terms are here used the organism is not itself the structure; it is a collection of unites (cells or molecules) arranged in a structure, i.e., in a set of relations; the organism has a structure. The structure is thus to be defined as a set of relations between entities. Over a period its constituent cells do not remain the same. But the structural arrangement of the constituent units does remain similar.

Who said this?

How can you apply the relevance of this author’s theoretical approach to a contemporary issue or problem?


A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1965b [1935]:178-179)

Radcliffe-Brown was an English social anthropologist who developed the theory of Structural Functionalism and studied anthropology at Cambridge under Haddon and Rivers. Radcliffe-Brown carried out extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, and elsewhere. On the basis of this research, he contributed extensively to the anthropological ideas on kinship. Radcliffe-Brown argues that by studying kinship than individuals in a society it is more useful because the structure of kinship remains the same from generation to generation. Radcliffe-Brown argues that structural relations between people in certain positions in kinship systems lead to conflicts of interest. It is solved by joking or avoidance in relationships.


Why would Radcliffe-Brown argue that, “studying kinship in a society more prevalent than studying individuals in the same society”? And why is that “joking” a way of avoiding conflict from certain relationship?

Max Gluckman

Max Gluckman was a South African and British social anthropologist and was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is known for his analysis of political systems among different groups of Africa, especially the functions of feuds and conflicts. In his studies of South and Central African societies he realized how deeply the colonial regimes and the global economy affected every aspect of peoples’ lives.  In the “Licence in Ritual,” describes how ritualized reversals of social roles, seemingly acts of rebellion, act instead to support a society’s of social order and political systems (McGee and Warms: 153).


Does our modern society exercise African rituals?

Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski was born in Krakow, Poland on April 7, 1884 and became influential in British anthropology and is the founder of Functionalism. His first field study came in 1915-18 (Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea in the southwest Pacific). He used a holistic approach in studying the native’s social interactions including the annual Kula Ring Exchange, (to be associated with magic, religion, kinship and trade). He died in 1942.

Functionalist approaches understand society and culture to be like living organisms. Parts of a culture can only be studied adequately as they function within the whole. At the same time, elements of culture are assumed to be part of deeper processes and systems that need to be uncovered if the individual elements themselves are to be properly understood.

Presentation Slides

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?

Joshua Liggett’s Wonderful World of Prezi

Here are some great examples of what you can do to spread the noble word of anthropological theory:

Functionalism – Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, & Gluckman, sans Evans-Pritchard:

 Historical Particularism – Eighteen Professions – A.L. Kroeber:

Structuralism – Levi-Strauss and Ortner

Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral Ecology – Wilson & Barkow

Rousseau’s “Emile” mkII (this last one is only tangentially applicable but good none-the-less)

by Joshua Liggett

Functionalism-Does it still Function?

-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?