Several anthropological theories emerged during the early twentieth century. Arguably, the most important of these was Functionalism. Bronislaw Malinowski was a prominent anthropologist in Britain during that time and had great influence on the development of this theory. Malinowski suggested that individuals have certain physiological needs and that cultures develop to meet those needs. Malinowski saw those needs as being nutrition, reproduction, shelter, and protection from enemies. He also proposed that there were other basic, culturally derived needs and he saw these as being economics, social control, education, and political organization Malinowski proposed that the culture of any people could be explained by the functions it performed. The functions of a culture were performed to meet the basic physiological and culturally derived needs of its individual constituents.
A. R. Radcliff-Brown was a contemporary of Malinowski’s in Britain who also belonged to the Functionalist school of thought. Radcliff-Brown differed from Malinowski quite markedly though, in his approach to Functionalism. Malinowski’s emphasis was on the individuals within a culture and how their needs shaped that culture. Radcliff-Brown thought individuals unimportant, in anthropological study. He thought that the various aspects of a culture existed to keep that culture in a stable and constant state. Radcliff-Brown focused attention on social structure. He suggested that a society is a system of relationships maintaining itself through cybernetic feedback, while institutions are orderly sets of relationships whose function is to maintain the society as a system. Goldschmidt (1996): 510
At the same time as the theory of Functionalism was developing in Britain; the theory of Culture and Personality was being developed in America. The study of culture and personality seeks to understand the growth and development of personal or social identity as it relates to the surrounding social environment. Barnouw (1963): 5. In other words, the personality or psychology of individuals can be studied and conclusions can be drawn about the Culture of those individuals. This school of thought owes much to Freud for its emphasis on psychology (personality) and to an aversion to the racist theories that were popular within Anthropology and elsewhere at that time. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict helped develop the Culture and Personality school. She described cultures as being of four types Apollonian, Dionysian, Paranoid and Meglomaniac. Benedict used these types to characterize various cultures that she studied.
The most famous exponent of the school of Culture and Personality is Margaret Mead. Margaret Mead was a student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Though in the course of her career she would eclipse the fame of her tutors, particularly the latter. Mead’s first field study was on the Pacific Island of Samoa, where she studied the lives of the adolescent girls in that culture. From this field study, she produced her famous work Coming of Age in Samoa (1949). In this work, she investigated the relationship between culture and personality by comparing the lives of adolescents in Samoa to those of American youths. She concentrated particularly on the sexual experiences of the girls she studied in Samoan culture; drawing the conclusion that the sexually permissive atmosphere of Samoan culture produced healthier less “stormy” adolescents than that of her own more repressed American culture.
The theories of Culture and Personality and Functionalism addressed and rebutted many of the more quaint aspects of the Evolutionary and Diffusionist theories of the nineteenth century. The methodology developed by these pioneers is still in use by anthropologists today. That is, participant observation and a complete involvement in the culture and language of the people being studied.
Eric Wolf counters the functionalist position by suggesting that a culture cannot be seen just in relationship to the psychology of the individuals within the culture and the conclusions that might be drawn from that. Wolf sees culture and society as a process of structuring and change. He contends that a society must be seen in its historical context. When Wolf says - The functionalists, in turn, rejected altogether the conjectural history of the diffusionists in favour of the analysis of internal functioning putatively isolated wholes Wolf (1982), he is taking issue with the exclusion of the historical context of a society and the putative isolation of societies. He is contending that a society can be more properly explained as part of an expanded community and in a historical context. He has been against functionalism, viewing society as a bounded system of ordered relations and structured entity. Wolf views society as heterogeneous, interacting across boundaries, more interpenetrating, more interdigitating, and more complex and interconnecting. Wolf (1988): 753) Wolf is paying attention here to history and its importance in explaining a society. He is also paying attention to societies on a grand scale; where previously, cultures had been studied in isolation or compared as entirely separate entities. Now, a society can be examined as a part of a big picture and in its historical context.
On the opposing schools of thought, Carrithers says this about the school of Culture and Personality – On this theory the human world is composed of separate, distinguished entities: one society and culture might be dominant, but it is still only one separate variant among equals. Carrithers (1992): 12-33. About Funtionalism’s Radcliff-Brown Carrithers says – He is interested in an ‘arrangement of persons’, a ‘social structure’, and as he reveals elsewhere, his conception of a social structure concentrates on ‘the political institutions, the economic institutions, the kinship organization, and the ritual life. Carrithers (1992): 12-33. However, Carrithers thought that Radcliff-Brown “displayed an orientation to diversity which in important respects is fundamentally similar to Benedict’s”. Carrithers (1992): 12-33. They both ‘took the natural sciences as a model of knowledge’ and thought that such knowledge could be applied to a culture occurring any place or any time in history. Carrithers goes on to note that Benedict, representing the school of Culture and Personality and Radcliff-Brown representing the Functionalists had their work criticized, and built upon by later generations of anthropologists. Eric Wolf’s criticisms of the functionalist approach can be seen as building upon the body of knowledge accumulated up to that time.
Anthropology 103 Text. 2000. Unpublished: University of Otago, Dunedin.
Abbink, Jan & Hans Vermeulen eds. 1982 History and Culture: Essays on the Work of Eric R. Wolf. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.
Barnouw, Victor (1963) Culture and Personality.
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