Functionalism is a pragmatic – even materialistic – application of the concepts of culture to the physical needs of humans, but it does not address in any way the cultural evolutionary steps espoused by Lewis Henry Morgan, and does not in any way assume that war, hierarchical stratification and class systems are universal in all forms of society. Class struggle and exploitation are contingent and deterministic, not general and ubiquitous phenomena. The idealization of pre industrial societies, so dear to Rousseau and the romantics, was merely a manifestation of support for the postulated evolutionary inevitability of class formation in technologically complex societies. Such support succeeded, for a time, in transforming an academic discipline with philanthropic aims into an arm of European colonialism.
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A preference for “functionalist” explanations dominated the social sciences from the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s, which is to say that anthropologists and sociologists were preoccupied with the purpose of a social act or institution rather than its mechanisms of self-perpetuation. The only strong alternative to that kind of analysis were historical explanations, accounting for the existence of a social fact by stating how it came to be. What came to per understood as social function followed two very distinct trajectories. In England, under the influence of Alfred Raginals Radcliff-Brown, who was in turn a follower of the sociologist Émile Durkheim, it was argued that the goal of anthropology is to extrapolate the collective benefit of any given function. In this view, institutions like marriage and religions are to be explored for what they contribute to the social order and the public good. Radcliffe-Brown has traditionally been called the father of structural functionalism although he never quite saw his theory of befitting that particular theoretical current. He went to great length to distinguish his idea of function from Malinowski’s, who was the greatest proponent of functionalism.
Malinoski’s belief that any social practice exists to satisfy physical and biological needs, Radcliff-Brown adamantly rejected the assertion as devoid of merit and insisted on detaching social practices from biology. Instead, influenced by the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, he claimed that the fundamental units of anthropology were processes of human life and interaction. Because these are by definition characterized by constant flux, what calls for explanation is the occurrence of stability. A popular view in the study of tribal societies had been that all societies follow a unilineal path (“evolutionism”), and therefore “primitive” societies could be understood as manifesting earlier stages along that universal path, and “modern” societies can be observed to contained vestiges of ancestral organization. Another perspective was that social practices tend to develop only once, and that therefore commonalities and differences between societies could be explained by a historical reconstruction of the interaction between societies (‘diffusionism’). According to both of these views, the proper way to explain differences between tribal societies and modern ones was historical reconstruction.
Radcliffe-Brown rejected both of these because of the untestable nature of historical reconstructions. Instead he insisted in attempting to find rugularities in human agglomerates through comparative analysis and assembling a catalogue of truly scientific knowledge of social life. He firmly believed that there was an opening for social anthropology to play a role in what, up until that time, has been the purview of psychology. He didn’t postulate that any conflict would arise because while psychology studied the life of the mind of individuals, social anthropology focused on the interactions between people. In so doing he laid the foundations for an philosophical distinction between psychology and social anthropology the same way distinctions have been made between physiology and biology. Moreover, he claimed that existing social scientific disciplines, with the possible exception of linguistics, were arbitrary and did not have any principled reason to exist; “once our knowledge of society is sufficient”, he argued, “we will be able to form subdisciplines of anthropology centered around relatively isolated parts of the social structure” (Radcliff-Brown 1952). But without extensive scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know where these boundaries will be drawn. He writes: “The very important concepts are social structure and social organization. The concept of structure refers to an arrangement of parts or components related to one another in some sort of larger unity…In social structure the ultimate components are individuals human beings thought of as actors in the social life, that is, as persons, and structure consists of the arrangement of persons in relation to each other.” (Radcliff-Brown 1952).
At the bases of the unilineal theory of culture, which stated that culture developed in the same manner everywhere on the globe. All of the activities in a given society would partake of the same character; some sort of internal logic would cause one level of culture to evolve into the next. This way, society can be thought as a sort of superorganism with many organs working together as organs in a body do (Kroeber, 1917). In contrast, the more influential functionalist school described the satisfaction of individual needs, which is to say what a person derived by participating in a custom.
In the United States, where anthropology was influenced by the German-educated Franz Boas, the preference was for historical accounts. This approach had obvious problems, which Boas promptly admitted. Non-literate cultures cannot possibly produce literary accounts of their history. For this reason, anthropologists are forced to rely on generalized notion of culture such as the one that cultural resemblances are due to some historically unretrievable past interaction between groups. Boas came to believe that no overall pattern in social development could be proven, in his mind there was no single history, only histories as varied as the people who created them. There are three broad choices involved in the divergence of these schools and each had to decide what kind of evidence to use; whether to emphasize the particulars of a single culture or look for patterns underlying all societies; and what the source of any underlying patterns might mean for the definition of a common humanity.
The famous ethnographer Bronislav Malinowski, which studies the Trobriand Islanders of northwest Melanesia in 1929, noticed that children were raised without adult coercion, something that appeared to the western world to be unnatural and immoral. Children were allowed to explore their sexual curiosity without fear or shame. Furthermore, women and men were free to engage in unrestricted sexual activity before marriage without fear of ostracization. Women were able to combine both productive work (aimed at the creation or provision of goods) and reproductive work (aimed at the upkeep of previously existing items) because such societies did not make much of a distinction between them (Malinowski 1922). This has served as a launching platform for feminist anthropologists to claim that in many pre-class societies, sexual relations were treated more freely, often without the jealousy, possessiveness and objectification that is associated with sexual relations in contemporary western society. The rise of class division has been attributed with adversely effecting the status of women in society, and such class division can be traced back directly to the new implements of agricultural production. The invention of the heavy plow and the domestication of animals brought that about. Men became the primary agricultural laborers and, because of their traditional role as hunters, were also in charge of animal domestication. Men, came to dominate the sphere of production and became therefore the owners of society surplus wealth. Or at least some men, for the rise of class society and the State, as Engels pointed out, did not only represent the world “historic defeat of the female sex” (Engels 1884), it also represented the economic subordination of a majority of men to a tiny minority of wealthy men. With the development of agriculture and animal domestication came private property. Women – and most men – unlucky enough to be serfs became subordinate to a new ruling class.
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Malinowski is also notorious for being the first to create a comprehensive theory of data collection during fieldwork. His ethnography of the Trobriand Islands described the complex institution of the Kula ring, and became foundational for subsequent theories of reciprocity and exchange. He was also widely regarded as an eminent fieldworker and his texts regarding the anthropological field methods laid the foundations for early anthropology, let alone coining the now revered technique of “Participatory Observation”. His approach to social theory was a brand of functionalism emphasizing how social and cultural institutions serve basic human needs, a perspective opposed to Radcliffe-Brown’s social functionalism that emphasized the ways in which social institutions function in relation to society as a whole. In 1920, he published a scientific article on the Kula Ring, perhaps the first documentation of generalized exchange. In 1922, he earned a doctorate of science in anthropology and was teaching at the London School of Economics. That year his book Argonauts of the Western Pacific was published. It was widely regarded as a masterpiece, and Malinowski became one of the best-known anthropologists in the world. For the next two decades, he would establish the London School of Economics as Europe’s main center of anthropology. He became a British citizen in 1931.
Some of his observations became pivotal in being able to record thoroughly and accurately what the ethnographer sees and hears. He notes “If in making a daily round of the village, certain small incidents, characteristic forms of taking food, of conversing, of doing work are found occurring over and over again, they should be noted down at once. It is also important that this work of collecting and fixing impressions should begin early in the course of working out a district. Because certain peculiarities, which make an impression as long as they are novel, cease to be noticed as soon as they become familiar. Other again can only be perceived with a better knowledge of the local conditions.” (Malinoswki 1922)
The Manchester School was also partly a cultural product of the work of Marx and Engels and and other economists and sociologists and focused on issues pertaining to social justice such a apartheid and conflict. Recurring themes included issues of conflict and reconciliation in small-scale societies and organizations, and the tension between individual agency and social structure. The original founder in 1947 and one of the most prominent scholars of the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester was Max Gluckman. This department placed a special emphasis on “case studies”, training which Gluckman derived from his earlier training in Law. The case method involved detailed analysis of particular instances of social interaction to infer rules and assumptions. Gluckman was a political activist, openly and forcefully anti-colonial. He engaged directly with social conflicts and cultural contradictions of colonialism, with racism, urbanization and labor migration. Gluckman combined the British school of structural-functionalism with a Marxist focus on inequality and oppression, creating a critique of colonialism from within structuralism. In his research on Zululand in South Africa, he argued that the African and European communities formed a single social system, one whose schism into two racial groups formed the basis of its structural unity. In stressing the role of conflict in social life and in taking into account the role of colonialism and race relations in modern African societies, Gluckman moved social anthropology in Britain in a Marxist direction. Yet he never completely abandoned the more traditional British interest in societies as stable self-regulating systems. His ethnographic analyses were distinguished by the use of a detailed single case study to illustrate general structural principles. Moreover, Gluckman and his students refined the use of statistics in the analysis of social structure and the introduction of historical materials as evidence for the contrast between periods of social stability and change. In all his work, Gluckman insisted on the highest standards of scholarship.
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