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The theoretical school of Functionalism considers a culture as an interrelated whole, not a collection of isolated traits. Like a human being has various organs that are interconnected and necessary for the body to function correctly, so society is a system of interconnected parts that make the whole function efficiently. The Functionalists examined how a particular cultural phase is interrelated with other aspects of the culture and how it affects the whole system of the society; in other words, cause and effect. The method of functionalism was based on fieldwork and direct observations of societies. The anthropologists were to describe various cultural institutions that make up a society, explain their social function, and show their contribution to the overall stability of a society. At the same time, this functionalism approach was criticized for not considering cultural changes of traditional societies. The theory of Functionalism emerged in the 1920s and then declined after World War II because of cultural changes caused by the war. Since the theory did not emphasize social transformations, it was replaced by other theories related to cultural changes. Even so, the basic idea of Functionalism has become part of a common sense for cultural analysis in anthropology. Anthropologists should consider interconnections of different cultural domains when they analyze cultures.

There are two schools of thought in functionalism: the bio-cultural approach and the structural-functionalism approach.

Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942, Poland-Britain-The United States)

Bronislaw Malinowski is credited with bio-cultural Functionalism, which explains a culture as an interrelated whole, not a collection of isolated traits. Based on his fieldwork in various areas of the world, particularly the Trobriand Islands in New Guinea, Malinowski established the theory of Functionalism. A culture is composed of many different elements, such as food acquisition, family relationships, and housing. Malinowski believed that all of these elements are connected and work together for one purpose, which is to meet the needs of individuals in the culture. In other words, culture exists to satisfy the basic biological, psychological, and social needs of individuals.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955, Britain)

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown is credited with Structural Functionalism, which analyzes particular social systems in a wider context of many different societies. Radcliffe-Brown was concerned with what keeps societies from falling apart. He identified similar customs in different societies and compared them in order to discover the customs’ inherent functions. Through this comparative method, he attempted to explain underlying principles that preserve the structure of each society.

Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973, Britain)

Edward Evans-Pritchard is known for his approach in analyzing non-western belief systems, especially those in Africa. He believed that anthropologists should analyze societies by considering the local people’s views and should not entirely rely on presupposed ideas about that society. In other words, an anthropologist needs to understand people’s behaviors and thoughts in their own context, which is based on their local reality. Since Evans-Pritchard valued contexts and meanings in cultures, he saw societies as moral systems rather than natural systems. He argued that anthropology should be modeled on humanities, especially history, rather than on science that searches for universal laws. He outlined three steps of anthropological analysis, each with direct parallels in historical methods. First, an anthropologist attempts to understand another society and translate it to his own. The only difference between anthropology and history is that the anthropologist’s data is produced from direct fieldwork while the historian relies on written record. Second, the anthropologist and historian use analysis to transform their raw data into sociological explanations of a society’s structure. Finally, the anthropologist compares the social structure that his analysis has revealed with that of other societies. Prior to Evans-Pritchard, Functionalists such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown had eliminated historical methods from anthropology, in order to make the discipline scientific. However, Evans-Pritchard reintroduced historical thinking back into anthropology by valuing local logic and value systems in his cultural analysis.

Evans-Pritchard and his work have made a great impact on the study of African societies in particular and the study of non-western systems of thought in general. His approach, which forces an anthropologist to step into local people’s shoes, is regarded as necessary by those who study different societies and cultures.

19th-century Evolutionism | Historical Particularism | Functionalism | Culture and Personality | Neoevolutionism | Materialism and NeoMaterialism | Structuralism | Symbolic Anthropology | Postmodernism