Functionalism, as a method of study in social anthropology – Essay

He concludes by saying that the overwhelming method of study, both for sociology and social anthropology, has been function­alism. Functionalism has come through the works of Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) and Malinowski (1884-1942). They are regarded as the first functional methodologists of modern anthropology. Malinowski’s functionalism has emerged out of his classical study in the Trobriand Islands of New Guinea.

His fieldwork lasted for more than two years between 1915 and 1918. There, he came in close contact with the local community. He emphasized the importance of studying the interrela­tionships of varying aspects of society, and therefore, held that long field study was absolutely necessary.

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Radcliffe-Brown, a contemporary of Malinowski, was influenced by Durkheim. He studied the Andaman islanders (1922) and social or­ganization of Australian tribes (1931).

He has established through fuctionalism that societies are integrated. Robert K. Merton has devel­oped sociological functionalism after improving the anthropological functionalism propounded by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. Mer­ton has given three major postulates of anthropological functionalism as under:

(i) Functional Unity of Society:

According to this, the society is held together by the functions per­formed by different institutions of the society. Each society has its systems of family, kin, clan, politics, economy, etc.

These parts of so­ciety fulfill the social needs which are required by the members. The contributions of these different institutions make up the functional unity of society. Radcliffe-Brown, while explaining the functional unity of society, argues that a social system “has a certain kind of unity, which we may speak of as a functional unity.

We may define it as a condition in which all parts of the social system work together with a sufficient degree of harmony or internal consistency that is without producing persistent conflicts which can neither be resolved nor regulated.”

In short, functional unity of society means: (i) each part of society has its functions; (ii) these functions work together to establish con­sensus in society; and (iii) the result is some kind of unity.

(ii) Universal Functionalism:

Radcliffe-Brown further argues that each society has its social or cul­tural forms which are standardized; these are accepted by all. This aspect of functionalism is also advocated by Malinowski. In his words:

The functional view of culture insists, therefore, upon the principle that in every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function.

What Malinowski wants to stress is that there is some functional view or utility for all surviving forms of culture. In other words, no culture forms survive unless they constitute responses which are adjective or adaptive in some sense.

Actually, the idea of universal functionalism gains importance because of the fact that the social and cultural forms of a society have survived because they have some posi­tive functions to perform.

(iii) Indispensability:

This is the third characteristic of anthropological functionalism. Ex­plaining this part of functional indispensability, Malinowski says:

In every type of civilization, every custom, material object, idea and belief fulfils some vital function, has some task to accomplish, and repre­sents an indispensable part within a working whole.

What Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski believe is that there are certain functions which are indispensable in the sense that unless they are performed, the society will not persist.

The anthropological functionalism, as presented by Radcliffe:

Brown and Malinowski, has been drawn out of the study of simple so­cieties. It argues that a society is holistic in its structure. It fulfills the needs of the people. One part of society is related to other parts through functional analysis. In fact, functionalism is a method which studies one part with reference to other parts of the society and the whole society.