Theories-1 | UPSC Important Notes & Study Material

Notes By-
Sachin Gupta
Cleared UPSC 2017 with AIR-3



The study of society and culture has always posed a problem as the object of study has
never been clearly defined or understood. Humans had left the study of their own
societies to the last; both sociology and anthropology are relatively new subjects as
compared to the sciences, mathematics and medicine, even geography. As we shall see
in the units that follow, the understanding of what society is, how it came to be and how
it is changing or evolving have all been matters of speculation as well as deep reflection
by scholars over the ages. The theories that have been summarised in this Block also
indicate how human thought is conditioned by the social and political situations and the
historical conditions in which they arise. Thus Anthropology itself is understood as a
colonial discipline that arose when the Europeans in their need to rule over the colonies
wanted to understand them better.

The first unit deals with the classical evolutionary theories which were formulated to
understand not as much the people on the colonies but the past of the Europeans, who
having shed the theological explanations of human origin given in the Bible wanted to
know more about their present civilisation and what led to it.
The second unit reflects on the structural-functional theories that conjured up a vision of
utopian social equilibrium in order perhaps to attain such a condition as a result of
colonial rule. It was also an intellectual effort to get over the racism of those times and
to create a theory of cultural relativism and functionality giving equal importance to all
kinds of cultural traits.

In the development of social theories the role of biology and biological theories were of
great importance as the freedom from theological bondage was achieved with Darwin’s
theory and also the concept of organic analogy that had been introduced even by the
early French social philosophers. The idea of Positivism, the possibility of having a
theory of society was also rooted in Renaissance period of European intellectualism
that was also given energy by the French revolution.

The World Wars led to disillusionment with the concept of equilibrium and a synchronic
view of society. The theory of function was formulated by Malinowski while whiling
away his time in exile in the isolated island of the Trobriand, yet it was a view that was
supported by the illusion of isolation that informed much of early structural –functionalism.
The Europeans had believed that since they were the first white men (only rarely women)
to set foot into many of the societies studies by them, these had been in complete
isolation. Some like Raymond Firth and Edmund Leach (also stranded in Burma during
the Second World War) looked for movements within the structures. This gave rise to
various concepts of social structure that are being explained in unit-III. Thus without
relinquishing the concept of structure they introduced some movements within it. But
the radical critiques of the classical theories came some time later, in the works of
scholars like Eric wolf, who showed that the illusion of people without histories, without
any outside contact was only a European construct.


1.1 Introduction
1.2 Evolutionary Theories of Anthropology
1.2.1 Early Evolutionists
1.2.2 Contributors to the Theory of Evolution: Major Anthropological Works
1.2.3 Criticisms
1.2.4 Neo Evolutionism
1.3 Diffusionism
1.3.1 British Diffusionist School
1.3.2 German Diffusionist School
1.3.3 American Diffusionist School
1.4 School of Historical Particularism
1.5 Summary

Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
It is expected that after reading this unit, you will be able to discuss the:
 classical theories;
 followers of the theories and their approach to the study of human beings;
 criticisms that have followed these theories.


Distant land, society, cultures, customs, rituals etc have always fascinated humankind
as they wanted to know how these came into existence and how they differ from
their own society. In the works of ancient travelers and historians like Heun Sung,
these aspects have been reflected long before Anthropology came up as a subject.
Herodotus (c.484-425 BC) a historian mainly remembered for his history of the
Persian wars wrote detailed accounts of his travels. These early works, although
they contained reflections on society could not be completely termed as
anthropological. Works which focused on human beings and their society basically
belonged to two genres: travelers writing their travel accounts and social philosophers
propounding their theories. Eriksen (2008) has rightly stated that it is only when
travel accounts (data) and philosophical thinking (theory) is integrated, Anthropology
as a subject emerges.

In this Unit the discussion would pertain to some of the works before anthropology
emerged as a theory and then move on to the theories that were being postulated
when Anthropology was emerging as a subject. These theories have been termed
as classical theories as they reflect the era of enlightenment and antiquity. In spite

Anthropological Theories-I

of the criticism these theories have generated, they are an integral part of
Anthropology as they present the perspectives of the early anthropologists who
had envisaged the discipline. Theories of Evolutionism, Diffusionism and Historical
Particularism are some of the classical theories that are being discussed herein.


In the early years of anthropology, the focus revolved around evolution-centering
on the origin and diversification of human culture and society. These theories
focused mainly on evolution of family, marriage, kinship and religion as these were
seen as the basic institutions common to all societies. During this era, most of the
eminent works by lawyers and sociologists were comparative analogs using the
data available from the societies to which Europe was getting exposed as a result
of trade and colonisation.

1.2.1 Early Evolutionists

In the 1700 Scottish thinkers like Adam Ferguson, John Miller, and Adam Smith
reflected that all societies pass through four stages: (i) hunting and gathering, (ii)
pastoralism and nomadism, (iii) agricultural, and finally (iv) commerce. The Scottish
thinkers based their theories of social evolution on the experiences of the union of
Scotland with England in 1707 and the effect it had on its trade. In 1748, Baron
de Montesquieu (1689-1755) published De l’ esprit des loix (The Spirit of Laws)
a comparative cross cultural study of legislative systems. Montesquieu looked at
legal system as an aspect of the wider social system, closely intertwined with other
facets of the society like politics, economy, kinship, family, religion etc. Montesquieu
collected some of the data first hand and supplemented them with second hand
knowledge. He gave the classification of the different stages of the society- Savagery,
Barbarism and Civilisation, later followed by anthropologists like Morgan and

The early works were mostly postulated by lawyers such as J.J. Bachofen, Sir
Henry Maine, and McLennan. These early works have already been discussed in
depth in Block 1, Unit 2 Philosophical and Historical Foundations of Social
Anthropology, hence we would just recapitulate herein and not discuss in depth.
J.J. Bachofen’s contribution lies towards the advocation of mother right. In his
work Das Mutterrecht (Mother Right, 1861), Bachofen associated the rule of
women during the early stages of the development of society which later gave way
to Father right. Sir Henry Maine in his major work Ancient Law, (1861) established
that the laws of the people are integrated with the social heritage particular to a
society and negated the laws of universalism which was being postulated during
the time. Maine based his work on the ancient legal systems of Rome, Islamic law
and the Brahmanical laws. Patriarchy as the norm of society was refelected in
Maine’s work as opposed to Bachofen’s Mother right written during the same
time. While on the other hand McLennan based his work on marriage and his
work Primitive Marriage, (1865) accentuated Bachofen’s view on mother right.

1.2.2 Contributors to the Theory of Evolution: Major Anthropological Works
Herbert Spencer in the early 19th century postulated the theory of cosmic evolution.
His theory showed the progress of societies over time which was accomplished
through competition. The phrase “survival of the fittest” owes its origin in the
writings of Spencer, who emphasised on the process of social selection by which
only those individuals who have merit come up in society. He was against the
notions of social benefits to be given to the poor. His works were developed and
published several years earlier to Charles Darwin’s work on biological evolution
Origin of Species (1856).

In 1890 Sir James Frazer published his voluminous work Golden Bough on the
study of magic and religion in which he gave a detailed description of religious
beliefs of societies and cultures from various parts of the globe. The initial volume
majorly revolved round the customs pertaining to an ancient Italian priesthood
where each priest of the shrine is ritually murdered by his successor. In the later
volumes he added data from across the globe, these accounts were mostly based
on travelogues and oral stories collected from travelers.

Lewis Henry Morgan regarded as the father of American Anthropology lived
among the Iroquois for sometime during the year 1840. He was adopted by one
of the Iroquois clans and named Tayadaowuhkuh ‘he who builds bridges’ (Eriksen,
2008). During the stay, Morgan developed an interest in kinship and later carried
on a comparative study of Native American Kinship. Morgan introduced the
distinction between classificatory and descriptive kinship which is in use till
date. In his work Ancient Society (1877) keeping in line with the evolutionary
stages of the society as propagated by Montesquieu– Savagery, Barbarism and
Civilisation, Morgan explained the changing dimension by introducing three substages
each for savagery and barbarism.
Morgan tried to link the shift from one
stage to the other through technological shifts like the use of fire, bow, and pottery
in the savage period, moving on to domestication of animals, agriculture, metal
working during the barbarian stage and to alphabet and writing in the civilisation
era. Thus, Morgan attributed technological progress as the source behind social
progress and change. In other words, if a change occurs for example in social
institutions, organisations or ideologies, its root can be traced to a technological
change in the society. Morgan’s theories were popularised by Friedrich Engels,
who had used some of Morgan’s theories in his famous work The Origin of the
Family, Private Property and the State (1884). For further reading in Engels
and other Marxists followers of Marxist theory refer to Block 4 Unit 3 of this
Course. Morgan’s theory was important as it supported the conviction that
materialistic factors—economic and technological—are decisive in shaping the
fate of humanity.

In the late 19th century when Anthropology was getting established as a discipline
Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s worked on the theory of evolution of culture. Sir
Edward Burnett Tylor was the first British Professor of Anthropology, at the
University of Oxford (1896). His work Primitive Culture (1871) defined Culture
which till date is regarded as the most complete definition of culture.

“Culture, or civilisation, taken in its broad, ethnographic sense, is that complex
whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom and any other
capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”(Tylor 1958[1871]:1)
Tylor proposed the theory of unilinear universal evolution of society which
stated that culture evolved from simple to complex. He further maintained that all
societies passed through the three stages of development as suggested by
Monstequiue – savagery to barbarism to civilisation. During this period Europe
had explored, conquered and colonised most of the countries across the globe.
Tylor’s theory thus, had a strong foothold, as examples from these colonised areas
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showed the various stages of evolution. Based on the principle of psychic unity
of mankind, Tylor explained the parallel evolutionary stages in different cultures.

Psychic Unity of Mankind: The theory was based on the belief that human beings are
born with similar psychological/mental capabilities that had the same thought process,
so it would progress in the same line. Spencer’s theory of social evolution and survival
of the fittest was accentuated by Tylor’s theory of cultural survivals.
Cultural Survivals: Tylor explained survivals as those processes, customs, and opinions,
which by compulsion of habit are carried forward into a new realm of society, and they
thus continue as living examples of an earlier condition of a culture which at present
has evolved into a new one.

1.2.3 Criticisms

The theory of social evolutionism was denounced by the anthropologists of the
modern and post modern era.
 The followers of the social evolution theory were referred to as “Arm Chair
Anthropologists” by the next generation of anthropologists who emphasised
on primary data collection through field work. Sir James Frazers work Golden
Bough is set as an example by the later anthropologists of arm chair writing
as the work was entirely based on secondary data. Frazer had never conducted
fieldwork nor had any direct interaction with the people under study.
 Anthropologists like Franz Boas, Margret Mead and others of the American
School disapproved of the theory of universal evolution based on psychic
unity of mankind as it failed to take into account the cultural variations.

Herein, Morgan’s theory of evolution based on technological progress came
under the scanner as the examples from the Polynesian cheifdoms, showed
complex political systems, but with no trace of pottery (Eriksen, 2008).
 The comparative method used for these theories merely used the encounter
with the other societies to enhance the greatness of the anthropologist’s own
society. As the reference point was the Civilisation of the Whites, these
theories have been condemned as ethnocentric.

1.2.4 Neo Evolutionism

The early 20th century anthropologists like Leslie White and Julian H. Steward
attempted to overcome the failings of the classical evolutionary theorists by
incorporating the methodology of empiricism and also trying to develop rational
criteria of measuring evolution. They felt that evolution was a real fact and societies
become more complex over time. According to Leslie White, Tylor was correct
in every respect except for his methodology. For Leslie White ‘energy’ was the
key component which human beings learned to harness in the course of cultural
evolution. From the earlier stages when human beings started to harness energy
from the natural resources like water, air and fire, slowly moving towards
domestication of animals and plants, to the invention of the wheel Leslie White
showed how energy conversion spurred cultural evolution. However Leslie White
gave too much emphasis on the material dimensions of life which was later criticised
by Marshall Sahlins.

Sahlins and Service gave a dual theory of evolution in which they distinguished
between general and specific evolution. The former refers to the overall process
of evolution of societies and the latter to the regional and local adaptations of
specific societies. The process of general evolution used the concept of adaptability
as against adaptation. Some traits give to some societies an evolutionary advantage
and they are able to spread across the globe in the process of adaptive radiation.
This adaptive radiation is not necessarily a positive process and often involves war
and violence. Sahlins cites the example of the discovery of gun powder that
enabled European socities to establish control over most ports of the world and
lead to a process of social evolution we today recognise as modernisation.

Julian Steward modified the concept of culture to divide culture into two parts, a
culture comprising of the techno-economic systems that directly interact with the
environment and a peripheral culture that grows by historical and specific conditions
of existence of the culture. The relationship between the culture core and the
environment is both functional and dialectical and establishes the methodology of
cultural ecology.

The specific relationships of core and environment are conditioned by the nature
of the environment and while they establish the direction of evolution of cultures,
they are not universal but follow a multilinear pattern in which each environmental
zone could be expected to have its own mode of evolution and one could generalise
across silmilar environmental zones.

The peripheral culture on the other hand gives to each culture its unique character.
Thus while the culture core of all societies having say, a hunting food gathering
way of life, will be expectedly similar, their peripheral culture like language, art etc.
can be different. The followers of neo-evolutionism also took into account seasonal
migration while acknowledging the similiarities between cultures. The theory of
diffusionism also took into account migration which would be taken up in detail
in the next section.


Diffusionism theory interpreted the growth of culture in terms of “cultural similarities”,
“mutual contact”, “cultural cradle”, “culture area”, “kulturkreise” (culture circle).
Diffusionists negated the principle of Unilinear Evolution and studied geographical
distribution and migration of cultural traits, and reflected that cultures are patch
work of traits interwoven with numerous histories and origins. According to
diffusionists, various culture complexes develop at various times in different parts
of the world and later on diffuse to other parts of the world mainly due to
migration. They thus, opined that culture has grown in course of history not because
of evolution, but because of transmission of culture due to migration and mutual

Culture Trait: The simplest basic unit into which a culture can be analysed. Such a
trait is a specific entity within the culture. A combination of traits is a culture complex.
A trait may be diffused independently and may join freely with other traits. (Tylor: 540,

Culture Complex: An organically related group of culture traits in a culture area, e.g.,
the cattle complex of East African cultures. In diffusion (q.v), the traits of a culture
complex will probably remain associated. The traits are usually logically associated with
each other. (Tylor: 125. 1991)

Culture Area: A region which has a relatively similar way of living common to its
component socio-economic systems and cultures. The centre of the culture area has
uniform customs but its periphery may be less homogeneous. The concept is more
relevant to material culture than to other aspects of culture. (Tylor: 37, 1991)
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In the early part of the 19th century three main schools of thoughts evolved to
study diffusion;
a) British Diffusionist School
b) German Diffusionist School
c) American Diffuionist School
1.3.1 British Diffusionist School
The British Diffusionst School mainly talked about ancient Egypt as the cultural
cradle of the world. Also known as heliocentric diffusion, the theory was based
on the conviction that culture originated from one culture centre. The most prominent
British “diffusionists” were Grafton Elliot Smith, W.H.R. Rivers and William.James.

Grafton Elliot Smith (1871-1937) the pioneer of the British School advocated that
culture first evolved in Egypt and had spread to the far corners of the world from
about 4000 B.C. He and Perry believed that cultural development had begun
about 6000 years ago. Smith (1928:22) stated that prior to that time, the earth
was inhabited by “Natural Man” who were nomads and lacked domestication of
animals, agriculture, houses, clothing, but religion, social organisation, hereditary
chiefs and formal laws or ceremonies of marriage or burial. In approximately 4000
B.C the inhabitants of the Nile Valley “appreciated the fortunate chance provided
them by a “natural crop” of barley and adopted a settled mode of life (ibid: 32).
Thus, following the matrix of evolution the Egyptians according to Smith invented
pottery, basketry, building houses; started domestication of animals; built towns
and learned to bury their dead in cemeteries and began the worship of deity.

Having accomplished their own civilisation, they set out to explore the world, and
in so doing the Egyptians rapidly spread through diffusion and colonisation. Smith
correlated similarities between Egyptian complex of large stone monuments related
to the sun worship and that of Megaliths of England such as stone hedge. Thus,
arriving at the conclusion that megalithic monuments of England were crude imitations
of Egyptian pyramids and mastabas, as a case of migration, he first published his
views in an article in 1911. Later he studied Maya pyramids, Japanese Pagodas,
Cambodian and Balenese Temples and American burial mounds. Smith published
his Pan-Egyptian theory of diffusion in the book entitled Origin of Civilisation
published in 1928.

W.J. Perry (1887-1949) was an adherent follower of the theory postulated by
Smith, he strengthened the hands of Smith in formulating the school though there
was no specific theoretical contribution on his part. His books The Children of
the Sun (1923) and Gods and the Men (1927) were the major contributions to
the British school of diffuionsim which firmly established Egypt as the centre of

W.H.R. Rivers (1864-1922) The History of the Melanesian Society published
in 1914 leaned heavily on the theory of degeneration. He sought the explanation
of contrasts among Melanesian and Polynesian cultures in terms of original
complexes which had allegedly been spread by successive waves of migration.
Herein, he explained the role of migration, assimilation and acculturation, based on
assumption of how boatloads of men migrated to these islands and married local
women and assimilated with the islanders, barring their original burial rituals. W.H.R.
Rivers was of the opinion that the similarities in cultures could be explained by
closely examining the patterns of imitation and migration. Thus, his summation was
in line with the theory of un-inventiveness put forward by his contemporaries Smith
and Perry.

a) Egypt as the only epicenter of all invention was the greatest flaw that led
other anthropologists to denounce this school as extreme diffusionists.
b) Hypothetical assumption of human beings as un-inventive to explain Egypt as
the only centre of invention was not acceptable to the later anthropologists.
c) Only simple form of diffusion i.e diffusion of culture traits was taken into
account while diffusion of culture complex was not emphasised.
d) Material culture was predominantly explained while non-material aspects of
culture were not taken into account.

The British School of Diffusionism was the last one among the three schools to
emerge and the first one to disappear.
1.3.2 German Diffusionist School
The scholars of the German Diffusionist School were of the opinion that culture
traits and complexes emerged independently in many areas and then dispersed to
other parts of the world. ‘Kulturkries’ or Culture-Circle school of thought as it
is known, differs from the British school of diffusionism in its basic concept of
origin of culture. Kulturkries School attributed development of cultures not to one
particluar place but to several places at several different times. Culture traits and
culture complexes were believed to have originated independently at several parts
of the world from where it was imitated and diffused to other places due to
migration. Thus, according to the German Diffusionist School each culture trait or
culture complex had a circle or district leading to the concept of culture circles.
Thus, we see that the German School of Diffusion did not completely negate the
theory of evolution. The roots of the Kulturkries School can be traced to the
founder of anthrogeography Friedrich Ratzel.

Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), Leo Frobrnius (1873-1938), Fritz Graebner (1877-
1934) and Wilhelm Schmidt (1868-1954) the herbingers of the German Diffusionist
School had followed in the lines of the propogators of the theory of evolution
emphasising the uniqueness of each cultural heritage. While at the same time
argued that cultural evolution was not unilineal thereby denouncing Tylor’s psychic
unity of mankind and reflected that technological development alone cannot judge
the complexity of a particular culture. The diffusionist aimed at a comprehensive
survey of the spread of cultural traits from the earliest times. In this regard Ratzel
using the comparative method traced the similarities of the bow and arrow in his
work The History of Mankind (1896). He studied the similarities in the cross
section of the bow shaft, the material and fastening of the bow string and the
feathering of the arrow of different societies. Based on the study Ratzel concluded
that the bow and arrow of Indonesia and West Africa were related. Using the
same technique Ratzel’s pupil Leo Frobrnius widened the spectrum of the material
culture to masks, houses, drums, clothings and shields to present similarities between
Melanesia, Indonesia and West Africa.

Fritz Graebner who was a museum curator in Germany worked on the culture
circle and culture strata in Oceania and Africa and further developed the idea and
tried to give it a global perspective. In his famous book Methodder Ethnology
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Anthropological Theories-I
(1911) he tried to explain the criteria for identifying affinities and chronologies or
similarities and historical relationships. Based on the reconstruction of chronology
Graebner could identify as many as six historically similar cultural developments
which had counterparts in other parts of the world.

i) Tasmanian culture
ii) Australian boomerang culture
iii) Totemic Hunter culture
iv) Two-class horticulturist culture
v) Melanesian bow culture and
vi) Polynesian Patrilineal culture
Father Wilhelm Schmidt born in Australia was a self proclaimed follower of
Graebner. To understand the cultures of the world, both Graebner and Schmidt
applied two rules as discussed below and divided the world into different strata
and circles (Upadhyay & Pandey: 109).

i) Criteria of Form as called by Graebner and Criteria of Quality as stated by
Schmidt reflected that similarities between two culture elements which do not
automatically arise out of nature, material purpose of traits or objects, should
be interpreted as a result of difussion irrespective of the distance that might
separate the two instances.
ii) Criteria of Quantity stated that the probability of historical relationship between
two items increases as the number of additional articles/items/artifacts showing
similarities increases.
Schmidt distinguished four major grades of culture circles which are till date referred
i) Primitive culture circle
ii) Primary culture circle
iii) Secondary culture circle
iv) Tertiary culture circle
Criticisms of the German Diffusionist School
 Diffusionist school focused on what is diffusion but never explained the causes
of diffusion and how it takes place. The methodology did not take into
account the dynamics of culture change.
 Despite the identification of 4-5 bands with their own migration patterns
being reflected upon yet nothing concrete on culture circles could be
 Diffusionist school also relied heavily on the museum methodologies. The
main component of this school was thus, typology of culture traits rather than
on the explaination of the causes of spread of diffusion.
1.3.3 American Diffusionist School
The American School of Diffusionism picked up the threads of the German School
of Difussionism and tried to explain the causes of the spread of difussion. The
founder of this school was Franz Boas (1858-1942) who was followed by Clark
Wissler (1870-1947) and Albert L Kroeber (1876-1960). The culture area
approach was a significant part of this school while trying to map and classify the
tribal groups of North and South America and show the diffusion of culture traits
and complexes.
Diffusion as a cause for similar traits was explained by the American school as a
result of adaptation and migration. Thus, the culture area approach was used to
show the diffusion of traits among different tribes. The American school divided
the world into different culture areas on the basis of geographical regions. This in
turn led to the listing of traits found in the cultures. The list consisted of traits which
might have been either adapted or migrated due to diffusion. This concept was
emphasised by Wissler while Kroeber, Herskovits and Sapir supported the
approach. Clark Wissler took into account the historical questions and his biggest
contribution was the age-area hypothesis. In an age where radio carbon dating
was yet to appear on the scene, it was difficult to acertain the real age of the
artifacts. Clark at such a juncture came up with the age area hypothesis that
assumed that culture traits tended to spread from the centre towards the periphery
of any culture area. This was also known as the ‘law of diffusion’.
Melville Herskovits during this era gave the explanation of ‘culture trait’ and
‘culture complex’ through his work which is best known as the “Cattle Complex
of East Africa”. While Kroeber’s contribution was immensely seen towards the
theory by listing and generating long list of culture traits. For any particular culture
trait like hunting or fishing, the list ran to many thousands of similar culture traits
across the globe. Franz Boas in following this approach had taken into account
the psychic bases of human beings and thus, the American School did not discard
the theory of Psychic Unity as postulated by the Evolutionist School though it also
took into account the historical aspects. This shift led to the rise of the School of
Historical Particularism.
Franz Boas the founder of the School of Historical Particularism believed that
grand theories of socio-political evolution or diffusion were not provable. He was
of the notion that the theories of all societies as a part of one single human culture
evolving towards a cultural pinnacle were flawed, especially those that promoted
a western model of civilisation as the apex of cultural acheivement. Boas also had
reservations in accepting the theories of multilinear evolution of societies. He
argued that many cultures developed independently, each based on its own particular
set of circumstances such as geography, climate, resources and particular cultural
borrowing. Based on this argument, he postulated reconstructing the history of
individual cultures, through in-depth investigation that compares group of culture
traits in specific geographical areas. The distribution of the culture traits in a
specific area were then plotted and further cultural borrowings determined. This
gives consent to the reconstruction of individual histories of specific cultures and
allows the investigator to draw conclusions as to which cultural elements were
borrowed and which were developed individually. Through historical particularism
Fraz Boas emphasised on the reconstruction of each individual culture to understand
the underlying intricacies and intrinsic value of each culture. Boas theory was
carried forward and developed by his contemporary scholars and students which
include Alfred L. Kroeber, Ruth Benedict, Robert Lowie, Paul Radin and Edward
Sapir. The theory was also borrowed by the anthropologists working in the
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archaeological field as it comprised in-depth study of what had happened in the
The main criticism in Historical Partucularism arose because of the heavy
concentration of the data collection of the past.
 The ethnographers stated that the huge amount of data collected is difficult
for a investigator to sythesize.
 Moreover, the upcoming generations of anthropologists were more interested
in studying the cultural process of the present rather than the past.
The classical theories have their own place of pride in the study of Social
Anthropology. These theories were the starting point from which the emphasis on
theorising a particular event came up. Though these theories are no longer of
prime importance yet they built the foundation for the anthropological thoughts.
These theories brings into focus the society of the victorian era and with the
passage of time the anthropologists have move forward from the speculation on
evolution and the spread of culture (diffusion) to the more relative aspects in the
present era. Herein, we have seen that the history of anthropological theories has
involved transistion from diachronic perspective to synchronic perspective, which
further moved on to interactive perspective. The theories following the classical
theories would be taken up in the upcoming units of this block. Hereafter the
theory of Functionalism, Structural Functionalism and Neo-Functionalism is going
to be discussed.
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Engels, Friedrich. 1884. The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the
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Theories and Theorists. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press. Reprint 1997.
Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1877. Ancient Society. New York: Gordon Press.
Perry, W.J. 1923. The Children of the Sun. London: Methuen.
___________ 1927. Gods and Men. The attainment of immortality. London:
G. Howe ltd.
Ratzel, 1896. History of Mankind. A. J. Butler, trans. London: Macmillan.
River, W.H.R. 1914. The History of the Melanesian Society. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Smith, G. E. 1928. In the Beginning: Origin of Civilisation. New York: Morrow.
Tylor, Edward. B. 1871. Primitive Culture. Abridged edition. New York: Harper.
Reprint 1958.
Tylor, Edward. B. 1990. Dictionary of Anthropology. Delhi: Goyl Saab Publishers
& Distributors. Indian Edition 1991.
Upadhyay, V.S & Gaya Pandey. 1993. History of Anthropological Thought.
New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company. Reprint 2002.
Suggested Reading
Barnard, Alan. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Eriksen, Thomas. H and Finn Sivert Nielsen (ed.) 2008. A History of
Anthropology. Delhi: Rawat Publications.
Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory, A History of Theories
of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The Modern British
School. London: Routledge. Reprint 1996.
Sample Questions
1) Critically discuss the theory of evolution in social anthropology?
2) What is the theory of Diffusionism?
3) Discuss the British School of Diffusionism.
4) Discuss the German School of Diffusionism.
5) Analyse the American School of Diffusionism.
6) Delineate the theory of Historical Particularism.
Classical Theories
2.1 Functionalism
2.1.1 From Positivism to Functionalism
2.1.2 The Premises of Functionalism
2.1.3 Functionalism in Social Anthropology: Radcliffe- Brown and Malinowski Structural-Functional Approach of Radcliffe-Brown Functionalism of Malinowski
2.1.4 Functionalism of Talcott Parsons and Robert K. Merton
2.1.5 Critical Evaluation
2.2 The Thesis of Neo-Functionalism
2.2.1 Neo-Functionalism: Problems that Need to be Surmounted
2.2.2 Merits and Demerits of Neo- Functionalism
2.3 Summary
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
After reading this unit, you would be able to:
 explain the premises of functionalism;
 compare and contrast the theoretical approach of Radcliffe-Brown, Malinowski
and Talcott Parsons;
 explore the major criticisms of the functional theory that led to the rise of the
neo-functional approach; and
 critically evaluate the merits and demerits of neo-functionalism.
Literally, the word ‘function’ (from Latin, fungi, functio, to effect, perform, execute)
means ‘to perform’ or ‘to serve’ (a purpose). As a distinct approach, as a way
of looking at and analysing society, functionalism emerged first in social anthropology
in early twentieth century, and later in sociology, beginning in the 1930s. However,
its roots are as ancient as the concept of organic analogy, used in the philosophy
of Antiquity by Plato (B.C. 428/7-345/7) and Aristotle (B.C. 384-322). The
concept of ‘purpose’ or ‘end’ goes back to Aristotle’s reference to the telos
(purpose) of things as their final cause. The idea of a latent telos is also found
in Adam Smith’s metaphor of the ‘invisible hand’ as the automatic mechanism that
maximises wealth, individual welfare, and economic efficiency through the increase
in labour. It is from telos that the word ‘teleology’ has come, which means that 16

‘everything is determined by a purpose’ and the scholars should find out what that
purpose is.
2.1.1 From Positivism to Functionalism
The thesis of functionalism lies in the philosophy of positivism. Comte who had
postulated positivism, also makes use of the analogy of society as an organism.
While in the study of social facts, sociologists offer what Durkheim calls ‘sociological
explanations’. Each sociological explanation is consisted of two parts: to quote
Durkheim (1895: 123) here: ‘…to explain a social phenomenon the efficient cause
which produces it and the function it fulfills must be investigated separately.’ The
first component of the sociological explanation is the ‘causal-historical explanation’:
to delineate the cause(s) which produce a phenomenon by examining historical
sources rather than indulging in what Radcliffe-Brown calls ‘conjectural history’.
The second component is ‘functional’, i.e., the contribution that a part makes to
society ‘in the establishment of…general harmony’ (Durkheim 1895: 125).
Durkheim’s definition of function has tremendously influenced the writings of later
functionalists, both in social anthropology and sociology. For him, function is the
‘contribution’ a part makes to the whole for its ‘maintenance and well being’.
Thus, function is a ‘positive contribution’: it is inherently good for society (the
whole), for it ensures its continuity and healthy maintenance. By making its
contribution, each part fulfills one of the needs or needs (besoin) of society. Once
needs have been fulfilled, society will be able to survive and endure. Durkheim
applies this framework of social function in all his studies.
For instance, in his doctoral work, which was on the division of labour, Durkheim
(1893) rejects Darwin’s idea that once the size of a human population increases,
there will be a struggle for existence and those who happen to be fit will survive,
while the rest will be eliminated. Instead of lending support to the theory of
competition, conflict and elimination, Durkheim shows that as human population
increases, society becomes more and more differentiated with the division of
labour moving towards the specialisation of jobs.
Durkheim also rejects the explanations of the division of labour that economists
and psychologists had advanced. For him, the function of the division of labour
is sociological: it contributes to social solidarity. Modern industrial society is
integrated because of the interdependence that comes into existence with the
specialisation of jobs. In his study of Australian totemism, he shows that the
function of religion is to produce solidarity in society, ‘to bind people in a moral
community called church’ (Durkheim 1915).
Durkheim is particularly interested in showing that the function of social facts is
moral. Social institutions work to produce the goal of integration. With this
perspective, he is able to account for the phenomena that to many may appear
‘unhealthy’ for society. For example, he regards crime as a ‘normal’ and ‘healthy’
feature of all societies, because it reinforces collective sentiments and works towards
the evolution of morality and law.
2.1.2 The Premises of Functionalism
Durkheim is not a ‘functionalist’ in the sense in which this term has come to be
used for the approach that the British social anthropologists, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown
(1881-1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884-1942), have espoused. Durkheim
does not use the term ‘functionalism’, although he defines the concept of social
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
function, as we noted previously, and the second part of his sociological explanation
deals with the functional explanation. For instance, in his celebrated study of
religion, he begins with a consideration of Australian totemism as the most elementary
form of religious life, but he does not start speculating it as the earliest form and
then, as his predecessors had done, offering theories to explain it. He is rather
more concerned with the structure and function of totemism and how its study can
help us in understanding the place of religion in complex societies. This emphasis
on the study of synchronous (or ‘present’) societies exerted a tremendous impact
on later scholars.
The beginning of the twentieth century saw the continuation of the old evolutionary
approach and also, its gradual decline. It also witnessed the rise of functionalism.
Adam Kuper (1973) thinks that 1922 was the ‘year of wonder’ (annus mirabilis)
of functionalism, for in this year were published two monographs that substantiated
the functional approach. One was by Brown (who later became Radcliffe-Brown)
titled The Andaman Islanders, and the other, by Malinowski, titled Argonauts of
the Western Pacific. The impact of anthropological functionalism was felt in other
disciplines, particularly sociology. As a result of the writings of these people,
functionalism emerged as an extremely important approach, holding its sway till the
late 1960s and the early 1970s. In its history of about 150 years, first in the
positivism of Comte, then in the ‘sociologistic positivism’ of Durkheim, and then,
in the works of the twentieth-century functionalists, functionalism has come to
comprise a number of variants and foci. Society (or culture) is a system like any
other system, such as solar system, mechanical system, atomic system, chemical
system, or organic system.
1) As a system, society (or culture) consists of parts (like, institutions, groups,
roles, associations, organisations), which are interconnected, interrelated, and
2) Each part performs its own function – it makes its own contribution to the
whole society (or culture) – and also, it functions in relationship with other
3) A change in one part brings about a change in other parts, or at least influences
the functioning of other parts, because all the parts are closely connected.
4) The entire society or culture – for which we can use the term ‘whole’ – is
greater than the mere summation of parts. It cannot be reduced to any part,
or no part can explain the whole. A society (or culture) has its own identity,
its own ‘consciousness’, or in Durkheim’s words, ‘collective consciousness’.
2.1.3 Functionalism in Social Anthropology: Radcliffe-Brown
and Malinowski
Both the founders of the British functional approach (Radcliffe-Brown and
Malinowski) were vehemently critical of the nineteenth-century evolutionism.
Radcliffe-Brown (1952) said that it was based on ‘conjectural history’, and not
‘authentic history’.
The scholars who later came to be known as ‘functionalists’ sought to shift the
focus of their study from ‘what society was’ to ‘what society is’, and this study
should be carried out not by speculative methods, but by living with people in their
natural habitats and learning from them, from the field.
19 Structural-functional Approach of Radcliffe-Brown
Abandoning the search for origins and the pasts of institutions, and the ways in
which cultural traits have diffused from one part of the world to the other, RadcliffeBrown
(1952: 180) defines each society as a ‘functionally interrelated system’ in
which ‘general laws or functions operate’. He accepts that Durkheim offered the
first systematic formulation of the concept of function and that this concept is
based on an ‘analogy between social life and organic life’. However, with reference
to Durkheim’s use of the term ‘need’ for the conditions that must be satisfied for
a system to continue, Radcliffe-Brown thinks that this term would direct us towards
a postulation of ‘universal human or societal needs’. As a consequence, the theory
according to which events and developments are meant to fulfill a purpose and
happen because of that will trap us. Known as the theory of teleology, as we said
earlier, Radcliffe-Brown suspects that functionalism might become teleological. He
thus substitutes for the word ‘need’ the term ‘necessary conditions of existence.’
He believes that the question of which conditions are necessary for survival is an
empirical one
Radcliffe-Brown disliked the use of the word ‘functionalism’, which Malinowski
propagated with enthusiasm. His objection was that ‘-isms’ (like functionalism)
are ideologies, schools of thought, philosophies, and realms of opinions. Science
does not have either of them.
Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown also looks at the distinction between an organism and
society. For instance, an organism dies, but a society continues to survive over
time, although it may be changed and transformed. An organism can be studied
even when its parts have stopped working. In other words, the structure of an
organism can be studied separately from its function, which is not the case with
society. He writes (1952: 180):
The concept of function…involves the notion of a structure consisting of a set of
relations amongst unit entities, the continuity of the structure being maintained by
a life-process made up of the activities of the constituent units.
Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functional approach comprises the following
1) A necessary condition for survival of a society is a minimal integration of its
2) The concept of function refers to those processes that maintain the necessary
integration or solidarity.
3) And, in each society, structural features can be shown to contribute to the
maintenance of necessary solidarity.
For Durkheim, the central concept is of solidarity, while for Radcliffe-Brown, it is
the ‘structural continuity’ of society. For example, in an analysis of the lineage
system, according to Radcliffe-Brown, one must first assume that some minimal
degree of solidarity must exist for it to continue. Then, one must examine the
processes associated with the lineage system, assessing their consequences for
maintaining social integration. One of the processes the investigator would come
across is the role of lineage systems in adjudicating conflicts in societies where
they are land-owning groups. They define who has the right to land and through
which side of the family it would pass. In these societies, lineage is a ‘corporate
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
group’. Descending through these steps, one will explain the integration of the
economic system. Then, one will move to the other systems of society, analysing
at each level the contribution a part will make to the structural continuity of the
whole. Functionalism of Malinowski
By comparison to Radcliffe-Brown, it is Malinowski who claims the creation of
a separate ‘school’, the ‘Functional School’. The aim of functional analysis for him
(1926: 132) is to arrive at the
“explanation of anthropological facts at all levels of development by their function, by the
part they play within the integral system of culture.”
He (1926: 132-3) assumes that
“in every civilisation every custom, material object, ideas and belief fulfills some vital
function, has some task to accomplish, represents an indispensable fact within a working
Whereas Radcliffe-Brown begins with society and its necessary conditions of
existence (i.e., integration), Malinowski’s starting point is the individual, who has
a set of ‘basic’ (or ‘biological’) needs that must be satisfied for its survival. It is
because of the importance that Malinowski gives the individual that the term
‘psychological functionalism’ is reserved for him, in comparison to Radcliffe-Brown’s
approach which is called ‘sociological functionalism’ because in this, society, is the
key concept.
Malinowski’s approach distinguishes between three levels: the biological, the social
structural, and the symbolic (Turner 1987: 50-1). Each of these levels has a set
of needs that must be satisfied for the survival of the individual. It is on his survival
that the survival of larger entities (such as groups, communities, societies) is
dependent. Malinowski proposes that these three levels constitute a hierarchy. At
the bottom is placed the biological system, followed next by the social-structural,
and finally, by the symbolic system. The way in which needs at one level are
fulfilled will affect the way in which they will be fulfilled at the subsequent levels.
The most basic needs are the biological, but this does not imply any kind of
reductionism, because each level constitutes its distinct properties and needs, and
from the interrelationship of different levels that culture emerges as an integrated
whole. Culture is the kernel of Malinowski’s approach. It is ‘uniquely human’, for
it is not found to exist among sub-humans. Comprising all those things – material
and non-material – that human beings have created right from the time they separated
from their simian ancestors, culture has been the instrument that satisfies the
biological needs of human beings. It is a need-serving and need-fulfilling system.
Because of this role of culture in satisfying biological needs that Malinowski’s
functionalism is also known as ‘bio-cultural functionalism.’
One more difference between Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski may be noted
here. A concept fundamental to Malinowski – the concept of culture – is a mere
epiphenomenona (secondary and incidental) for Radcliffe-Brown. He believes that
the study of social structure (which for him is an observable entity) encompasses
the study of culture; therefore, there is no need to have a separate field to study
culture. Further, whilst social structure is concerned all about observations, what
anthropologists see and hear about the individual peoples, culture is in the minds
of people, not amenable to observation in the same way as social structure is.
Radcliffe-Brown wants to make social anthropology a branch of natural science,
which would be possible when there is an empirically investigable subject matter.
The basis of Malinowski’s approach is a theory of ‘vital sequences’, which have
a biological foundation and are incorporated into all societies. These sequences
number eleven, each composed of an ‘impulse’, an associated physiological ‘act’,
and a satisfaction which results from that act (see Table 1).
Impulse Act Satisfaction
1. Drive to breathe;
gasping for air.
2. Hunger
3. Thirst
4. Sex appetite
5. Fatigue
6. Restlessness
7. Somnolence
8. Bladder pressure
9. Colon pressure
10. Fright
11. Pain
Intake of oxygen
Ingestion of food
Absorption of liquid
Escape from danger
Avoidance by effective act
Elimination of CO2 in tissues
Restoration of muscular and
nervous energy
Satisfaction of fatigue
Awakening with restored
Removal of tension
Abdominal relaxation
Return to normal state
Permanent Vital Sequences Incorporated in All Culture
For instance, the impulse of somnolence accompanies the act of sleep, resulting
in satisfaction by ‘awakening with restored energy’ (Malinowski 1944: 77; Barnard
2000: 68). Malinowski follows this eleven-fold paradigm with a set of seven
biological needs and their respective cultural responses (see Table 2).
Table 2
Basic Needs Cultural Responses
1. Metabolism
2. Reproduction
3. Bodily comfort
4. Safety
5. Movement
6. Growth
7. Health
For example, the first need is of food, and the cultural mechanisms are centered
on the processes of food getting, for which Malinowski uses the term ‘commissariat’,
which means the convoy that transports food. Similarly, the second need is of
reproduction (biological continuity of society) and the cultural response to which
is kinship concerned with regulating sex and marriage. From this, Malinowski goes
on to four-fold sequences, which he calls the ‘instrumental imperatives’, and
associates each one of them with their respective cultural responses. The four-fold
sequence is of economy, social control, education, and political organisation. From
here, he shifts to the symbolic system – of religion, magic, beliefs and values –
examining its role in culture.
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
2.1.4 Functionalism of Talcott Parsons (1902-1979) and
Robert K. Merton (1910-2003)
In 1975, in an important article, Parsons labels his student, Robert Merton and
himself ‘arch-functionalists’. He also explains here why he has abandoned the term
‘structural functionalism’, which, at one time, he used for his approach. For him,
structure refers to ‘any set of relations among parts of a living system’. On empirical
grounds, he says, it can be assumed or shown that these relations are stable over
a time period. By process, which is the correlative concept with structure, one
refers to the ‘changes’ that occur in the state of the system or its relevant parts.
With respect to structure, the key concept is of stability, and with respect to
process, it is of change. Thus, by structure, we refer to a pattern of relationships
in a social system, and process refers to the changes occurring in that system. A
significant characteristic of ‘structural functionalism’ has been that it has stressed
‘structure’ more than ‘process’.
In the article mentioned above, Parsons states that the concept of function stands
at a ‘higher level of theoretical generality’. It is far more analytical than the concept
of structure, or even process, although function encompasses the latter. It is because
the concept of function is concerned with the ‘consequences’ of the existence and
the nature of structures that can be empirically described. And, it is also concerned
with the processes that take place in these systems. Parsons thinks that his original
formulation under the rubric of ‘structural functionalism’ tends to analyse society
as if it is static, but the new formulation, where stress is laid on the concept of
function than structure, in the name of functionalism, takes much more account of
change and evolution.
Parsons’ functionalism is best known in terms of the ‘functional imperatives’, the
essential conditions required for the enduring existence of a system (Parsons 1951).
Also known as the ‘AGIL model’ (based on the first letters of the four functions
that Parsons has devised) or the ‘four-function paradigm’, it evolved from Parsons’
collaborative work with Robert F. Bales in experiments on leadership in small
groups (Rocher 1974). These four functions help us to explain how a state of
balance (i.e. equilibrium) emerges in a system. Parsons explores the role of these
four functions in giving rise to equilibrium in a system.
In the case of society, Parsons submits that the institutions (or structures) maintain
(or re-establish) equilibrium by fulfilling the ‘needs’, which must be satisfied if the
system has to persist. Institutions (or structures) also solve the recurring problems
in a manner similar to the way in which the units of the organism comparable to
the institutions (or structures) of societies do in their natural environment. The
system ensures that these institutions (or structures) work appropriately on everyday
basis, satisfying the needs. For achieving equilibrium, society requires the processes
of socialisation, the internalisation of societal values, and the mechanisms of social
control so that deviance is checked.
All ‘action systems’ – and society is one of them – face four major ‘problems’ (or
have four major ‘needs’), namely Adaptation (A), Goal Attainment (G), Integration
(I), and Pattern Maintenance, or, as Parsons later renamed it, Latent Pattern
Maintenance—Tension Management, or simply, Latency (L). Parsons pictures
society (or the social system) as a large square, which he divides into four equal
parts. These parts are the four functional problems, represented by the acronym,
AGIL (see Diagram 1). The underlying idea is that all systems need to accomplish
these four functions in order to survive. The meaning of these four ‘functional
imperatives’ is as follows:
1) Adaptation: By this is meant the problem of securing sufficient resources
from the society’s external environment and distributing them throughout the
system. Each society needs certain institutions that perform the function of
adaptation to the environment – which is an external function. Adaptation
provides the means – the instrumental aspects – to achieve goals. Biological
organism performs the function of adaptation in the general system of action.
In the context of society, economic institution performs this function.
2) Goal Attainment: This function is concerned with the need of the system to
mobilise its resources to attain the goals and to establish priorities among
them. It mobilises motivations of the actors and organises their efforts. In the
general system of action, personality performs this function, while in case of
society this task is given to the political institution, because power is essential
for implementation and decision-making. Goal attainment is concerned with
ends – the consummatory aspects. Since goals are delineated in relation with
the external environment, it is, like adaptation, an external function.
3) Integration: It is regarded as the ‘heart’ of the four-function paradigm
(Wallace and Wolf 1980: 36). By integration is meant the need to coordinate,
adjust, and regulate relationships among various actors (or, the units of the
system, such as the institutions), so that the system is an ‘ongoing entity’.
According to the general theory of action, the social system performs this
function, whereas in society, legal institutions and courts are entrusted with
this task. Integration is concerned with ends, and the internal aspects of the
4) Latency (Pattern Maintenance and Tension Management): This function
pertains to the issues of providing knowledge and information to the system.
In the general theory of action, culture – the repository of knowledge and
information – accomplishes this function. Culture does not act because it
does not have energy. It lays hidden, supplying actors (who are high in
energy) with knowledge and information they require for carrying out action.
Because culture exists ‘behind’ the actions of people, it is called ‘latent’.
Integration takes care of two things: first, it motivates actors to play their
roles in the system and maintain the value patterns; and second, to provide
mechanisms for managing internal tensions between different parts and actors.
The problem that every society faces is of keeping its value system intact and
ensuring that the members conform to the rules. It will be possible when
societal values are properly transmitted and imbibed. The institutions that
carry out this function are family, religion, and education. Latency gives means
to achieve ends; it is internal to the system.
Diagram 1
AGIL Model
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
External A
Internal L
Means (Instrumental) Ends (Consummatory)
Adaptation Goal attainment G
Latency (pattern
maintenance and
Anthropological Theories-I
General Level of Action Theory
Organism Personality
Culture Social System
AGIL Functions in the Social System
Economy Polity
Fiduciary System Societal Community
For the purpose of analysis, Parsons identifies sub-systems corresponding to the
AGIL model in all systems and their sub-systems (see Diagram 1). As we have
seen, at the general level of action theory, the biological organism performs the
function of adaptation, the personality system, the function of goal attainment, the
social system integrates different units, and the cultural system is concerned with
pattern maintenance. Then, the social system is broken down into the four AGIL
functions. We noted earlier that economy performs the function of adaptation,
whereas, polity (or political institution), the function of goal attainment. For the
sub-system that carries out the function of integration, Parsons uses the term
‘societal community’, which reminds one of Ferdinand Tönnies’s ideas of
gemeinschaft (‘community’). ‘Societal community’ produces solidarity, unity,
cohesiveness, and loyalty to norms, values, and institutions. The function of pattern
maintenance, Parsons says, is the task of what he calls the ‘fiduciary system’,
which pertains to the nature of a trust or a trusteeship. This system produces and
legitimises moral values, beliefs, and expressive symbols.
Each of the sub-systems of the system can be taken up for analysis by treating it
as a ‘system’, and then, breaking it down into four parts looking for its components
that respectively perform the functions of adaptation, goal attainment, integration,
and latency. This way of analysing society is known as the systemic approach.
Parsons’s AGIL model is an ideal type, applicable more to differentiated societies
than simple societies. In the latter case, institutions may collapse into one, with the
result that the same institution may perform different functions. The example of
family may be cited here, which carries out economic, political, and religious
functions, in addition to the functions traditionally assigned to it, like socialisation
of the young. In communist societies, the party may decide the aspects of economy
– the processes of production and distribution – and thus, adaptation and goal
attainment may appear indistinguishable.
Parsons’ theory is popularly known as a ‘grand theory’ – an all-encompassing,
unified theory – which is believed to have a large explanatory power. However,
Parsons’ student, Robert Merton, is skeptical of such a theory, for it is too general
to be of much use (Merton, 1957). Instead, he expresses his preference for mid-
level (middle-range) theories, which cover certain delimited aspects of social
phenomena (such as groups, social mobility, or role conflict). Partially because of
this middle-range strategy, Merton’s functionalism is quite different from that of
For instance, Merton abandons the search for any functional prerequisites that will
be valid in all social systems. He also rejects the idea of the earlier functionalists
that recurrent social phenomena should be explained in terms of their benefits to
society as a whole. For criticism, Merton identifies the three postulates of earlier
functionalists given below:
1) Postulate of the functional unity of society. It is an assumption that there is
unity in society, which comes about because of the contributions that parts
make to the whole.
2) Postulate of the universal functionalism. It is an assumption that all social or
cultural forms have positive functions, which are for the maintenance and well
being of society.
3) Postulate of indispensability. It is an assumption that the function that a social
or cultural form performs is an indispensable precondition for the survival of
Merton notes that none of these postulates are empirically justifiable. For instance,
there is no reason to suppose that particular institutions are the only ones to fulfill
the functions. Empirical research shows that there may be a wide range of what
Merton has termed ‘functional alternatives’ that may be able to perform the same
With a critical look, Merton tries to attempt what he calls a ‘codification of
functional analysis in sociology’, a functional paradigm (or perspective) (which is
not a grand theory) that takes into consideration the actual dimensions of social
reality, of conformity and deviance, understanding and explaining them. Like other
functionalists, he views society as a system of interconnected parts, where the
functioning of a part has implications for the functioning of other parts and the
entire system. Like his predecessors, he is interested in the concepts of equilibrium
and integration, and the contribution of customs and institutions to the persistence
of societies. His definition of function is also in terms of the ‘positive contribution’
of a part to the whole: functions are those contributions or consequences that
‘make for the adaptation or adjustment of a given system.’ For the working of
society and its institutions, it is important that all share a set of common values and
norms, which is another distinguishing property of functionalism.
While agreeing with other functionalists on certain points stated above, Merton has
made a distinct contribution to a set of two typologies, namely, the distinction
between ‘function’ and ‘dysfunction’, and between ‘manifest’ and ‘latent’ functions.
Most functionalists think that all contributions are inherently good or ‘functional’
for society, a proposition Merton finds difficult to accept. He thinks there are acts
that have ‘consequences which lessen the adaptation or adjustment of the system’.
The distinction between manifest and latent functions has its roots in the writings
of the founders in sociology. In his study of religion, for example, Durkheim
(1915) makes a distinction between ‘what people do of which they are aware’
and ‘what emerges from their collective acts which they had not intended and
anticipated.’ When people assemble for collective totemic rituals, their explicit aim
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and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
is to honour their totem, but what these rituals produce is a sense of we-ness,
which is an unintended, unrecognised, and unanticipated consequence. Following
this, one can say that manifest functions are those consequences people observe
or expect, while latent functions are those consequences that are neither recognised
nor intended.
Merton was able to advance four types of explanations in terms of the two
dichotomies (function and dysfunction; manifest and latent functions). The earlier
functionalists put forth only one explanation and that too with respect to latent
functions. Merton’s conceptual scheme guided empirical research, rather than
remaining a theory with several explanatory claims, like the ‘grand theory’ of
2.1.5 Critical Evaluation
Without exaggeration, one may say that in the history of social anthropology and
sociology, no theory has generated so much of interest, enthusiasm, and response
as did functionalism. Known by different names (such as ‘functional approach’,
‘structural-functional approach’, ‘structural-functionalism’, ‘Functional School’, etc.),
functionalism emerged as some kind of a unified methodology and theory in the
1930s. Earlier, right from the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was a body
of scattered ideas and propositions. Until the 1960s, its reputation was unassailable,
as its adherents were scholars of outstanding merit, who were known (and are still
known) for various other contributions besides developing it both in terms of
theory and method. For example, Talcott Parsons is well known for his contribution
to family sociology, the school as a social system, role analysis in medical institutions,
professions and problems of the blacks, evolutionism, etc. Similarly, Robert Merton’s
contribution to social structure and anomie, deviance and conformity, dysfunctions
of bureaucracy, sociology of science, survey methods, role-set, etc, will always be
During this period from the 1930s to the 1960s, when functional approach was
virtually unchallenged in the United States of America and the other parts of the
world, some of its criticisms were undoubtedly surfacing. For instance, the British
social anthropologist, Sir E.E. Evans-Pritchard, rejected the idea of social
anthropology as a science (held by the protagonist of the structural-functional
approach, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown) and viewed it rather as a ‘comparative history’.
Although Evans-Pritchard began as a functionalist, he transformed into a humanist.
Sir Edmund R. Leach also started his career in social anthropology as a functionalist,
he then moved to the ‘processual analysis’, i.e., looking at society as a ‘process
in time’, as it is evident from his 1954 book on political systems. Later, under the
influence of Claude Lévi-Strauss, he became a structuralist, and came to be
known as a neostructuralist (Kuper, 1973). His 1961 publication of Rethinking
Anthropology offered a challenge to structural-functionalism. In spite of these
criticisms, functionalism continued to survive with glory.
But by the end of the 1960s and the beginning of the 1970s, the criticisms of the
functional theory increased manifold. Parsons’s attempts to merge theories based
on action with those based on structures were unconvincing to many critics. The
rehabilitation of Marxian approach in sociology and the successful emergence of
the conflict theory was a big blow to functionalism. Several new theories and
approaches, each trying to bring in the aspects that functionalism had ignored,
became the focal points. It seemed clear to many critics that sociology had entered
a post-functional, a post-Parsonian phase in its development.
One of the main criticisms of functionalism is that it does not adequately deal with
history. In other words, it is inherently ahistorical (but not antihistorical). It does
not deal with the questions of past and history, although the advocates of
functionalism have considered evolution and diffusion as important processes of
change. Functionalism in social anthropology in the 1930s emerged as a reaction
to the nineteenth century ‘pseudo-historical’ and ‘speculative’ evolutionism and
diffusionism. It also tried to overcome the ethnocentric biases of the earlier
approaches, which regarded the contemporary pre-literate societies, popularly
known as ‘primitive societies’, and certain customs and practices found among
them as remnants of past. Edward Tylor unhesitatingly regarded the ‘contemporary
primitives’ as ‘social fossils’ and ‘survivals’ of the past, assuming that their study
would guide us to an understanding of the cultural traits of the societies of prehistoric
times (Harris 1968: 164-5). This would help us in reconstructing the history of
Closely related with this is another criticism of functionalism: it does not effectively
deal with the contemporary processes of social change. Thus, in essence, because
it is neither able to study the pasts of societies nor the contemporary change
process, it is more suited to the study of ‘contemporary static structures’, if there
are any. Or, perhaps, it portrays the societies it studies as if they are static, which,
in reality, may not be so. The picture of a society that functionalists present is like
the picture of a ‘frozen river’ that tells nothing about its ebb and flow. By analogy,
functionalists ‘freeze society’ in the same manner as a still camera ‘freezes’ people
and locations in its frame.
There are two views on this issue. First, the problem is believed to lie with the
theory of functionalism, because when the parts of a society are seen as reinforcing
one another as well as the system, when each part fits well with the other parts,
then it is difficult to explain how these parts can contribute to change (Cohen
1968). Or, why should the parts change or contribute to change when they are
all in a state of harmony? The second opinion is that there is nothing in functionalism
which prevents it from dealing with the issues of history and change. For instance,
Parsons’s book titled Societies: Evolutionary and Comparative Perspectives
(1966) reflects the ability of structural-functionalism to handle the dimensions of
change. So does Smelser’s work of 1959 on industrial revolution. The problem
lies, according to some, not with the theory of functionalism, but its practitioners,
who rarely address the issues of change and even when they do, it is in developmental
and adaptive terms than in revolutionary (Turner and Maryanski 1979). Whether
the problem of functionalism has to do with the theory or its practitioners, ‘the fact
remains that the main contributions of structural functionalists lie with the study of
static, not changing, social structures’ (Ritzer 2000: 115).
Another criticism of functionalism is that it is unable to deal effectively with conflict.
Functionalists have overemphasised harmonious relationships. They tend to
exaggerate consensus, stability, equilibrium, and integration, disregarding the forces
of conflict and disorder, and changes emerging from them. For them, conflict is
necessarily destructive and occurs outside the framework of society.
In the words of Robert Redfield (1955), the traditional societies were ‘pastoriented’
in comparison to modern societies which were ‘future-oriented’. The
‘past-oriented’ societies were proud of their tradition, which for them was
sacrosanct; they wanted to keep it intact and therefore, any attempt to assail it
was strongly dealt with. The ‘future-oriented’ societies were not satisfied with their
lot; they looked forward to changing their lifestyles, technology, and norms and
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
values. Since the substantiation of anthropological functionalism came from the
empirical study of ‘past-oriented’, technologically simpler, pre-literate, and noncivilised
societies, it was obvious that the characteristics of these societies would
find their conspicuous presence in the theory.
The conservative bias in functionalism is not only because of what it ignores
(history, change, conflict, disorder) but also what it emphasises (society ‘here and
now’, norms and values, consensus, order). Functionalists are overwhelmingly
preoccupied with the normative order of society.
The individual in functionalism is devoid of dynamism and creativity. He is simply
a product of society and its forces constrain him at every juncture. The opposite
view is that it is the individual who in fact initiates change in society. Individuals
as much use the system as the system uses them. Those who subscribe to the
interactional approach argue that functionalism has failed to conceptualise adequately
the complex nature of actors and the process of interaction. One of the reasons
of why functionalism ignored the role of the individual in society was that it was
solely interested in explaining the survival of society. It was interested in the
‘collectivity’ and not the ‘individual’.
In addition to these, there were some important methodological and logical
criticisms of functionalism. The belief of functionalism that there is a ‘single theory’
that could be used in all situations was an illusion. Many scholars found that it was
difficult to apply functionalism to complex societies, which were not only fast
changing but were also conflict-ridden. The ideas of relativism – i.e., things are
meaningful in their respective cultural contexts — to which functionalists gave
support, made a comparative analysis difficult.
One of the important criticisms of functionalism is that it is inherently teleological,
i.e., explanations are given in terms of ‘purposes’ or ‘goals’. With respect to this,
Turner and Maryanski (1979) submit that teleology per se is not a problem. As
a matter of fact, social theory should take into account the ‘teleological relationship
between society and its component parts’ (Ritzer 2000). The problem comes
when teleology is stretched to unacceptable limits, when it is believed that only the
given and specific part of society can fulfill the needs. Teleology becomes illegitimate
when it fails to take into consideration the idea that a variety of alternative structures
can fulfill the same needs.
Functionalism has also been criticised for making explicit what is implicit in the
premise; the technical term used for this kind of reasoning is ‘tautology’. For
example, if religion exists, it must be functional, otherwise, it will cease to exist,
and its function must be to contribute to social solidarity, because without it,
society will not be able to survive. Many critics have pointed out that functionalism
suffers from ‘globular or circular reasoning’. Needs are postulated on the basis of
the existing institutions, that are, in turn, used to explain their existence.
A revival of interest in Parsons’s work, first in Germany and then, the United
States of America, led to the emergence of neo-functionalism. The basic aim has
been to merge certain aspects of functionalism, those which have withstood the
test of time, with other paradigms that have developed better critical perspectives.
Those associated with neo-functionalism in Germany are Niklas Luhmann and
Jürgen Habermas, who initially collaborated on a theory of social engineering in
modern society, but later worked separately. Parsons placed emphasis on value
consensus, also believing that because the social system penetrates the personality
system, the options available to the individual for social relationships and behaviour
are limited. But that is, Luhmann thinks, not simply correct. He moves the individual
out of the social system into the ‘society’ — what may be termed the ‘societal
environment’ — which is far more complex and less restrictive. It accords people
more freedom, especially freedom for carrying out ‘irrational and immoral behaviour’
(Abrahamson 2001: 148). Abrahamson says that if Luhmann moved from Parsons,
and then discovered the problems with the concept of value consensus, Habermas
moved toward Parsons. Habermas’s early writings were strongly critical of Parsons,
but later, he accorded a place to cultural, social, and personality systems in his
theory. His conceptualisation of the relationship between these systems was quite
consistent with Parsons’s views. He also gave place to Parsons’s concept of ‘selfregulating
system’, which comes into existence when societies become complex as
a consequence of which structural systems are separated from ‘lifeworld’, i.e., the
inter-subjective realm for experiencing and communicating about culture, society,
and personality (2001: 148).
The main spokespersons of neofunctionalism in America are Jeffrey Alexander and
Paul Colomy. In one of their joint publications of 1985, they define neofunctionalism
as ‘a self-critical strand of functional theory that seeks to broaden functionalism’s
intellectual scope while retaining its theoretical core’ (p. 118). Under the rubric of
‘neo-functionalism’, they have made an effort to extend structural functionalism by
overcoming its difficulties.
Alexander and Colomy think that the deficiencies of structural functionalism are
not irreversible. Its synthetic orientation can be recaptured. The concepts of conflict
and subjective meaning can be introduced. One can regard the integration of the
system and the interpenetration of its various subsystems as a ‘tendency’, to be
investigated rather than as a ‘given’ or ‘assumed’ fact.
2.2.1 Neo-Functionalism: Problems that Need to be
In neo-functionalism, the problems that need to be surmounted are:
1) Anti-individualism — the individual in structural functionalism is passive and
lacks creativity, and is simply a product of the social forces, which he neither
checks nor controls.
2) Antagonism to change — structural functionalism is a theory of social order
rather than of change.
3) Conservatism — structural functionalism has worked toward offering a
justification of the system and its practices, often justifying inequality,
exploitation, and oppression.
4) Idealism — structural functionalism speaks in terms of an ideal society, where
everything is in order and stability.
5) Anti-empiricist bias — structural functionalism is more concerned with abstract
social systems instead of real societies.
2.2.2 Merits and Demerits of Neo-Functionalism
Although some of the traits of what has come to be called ‘neo-functionalism’ are
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
found in the German interest in Parsons’s works, this theoretical ‘tendency’ is
principally associated with an American sociologist, Jeffrey C. Alexander, and
later, his younger collaborator, Paul Colomy. A restricted use of the term ‘neofunctionalism’
is also found in ecological studies where it basically means assigning
primary importance to techno-environmental forces in an analysis of the processes
of cultural adaptation.
Alexander does not seem to be happy with the use of the term ‘neofunctionalism’.
Alexander (1985) also thinks that notwithstanding the inappropriateness of the
term ‘functionalism’, Parsons’s sociology will be known in future by this name.
Instead of being a unified theory, neofunctionalism is a ‘tendency’, characterised
by the following propositions (Alexander 1985: 10):
1) An open and pluralistic description of society as a whole.
2) An even-handed apportionment when it comes to action vs. structure (or
action vs. order).
3) Integration is viewed as a possibility; deviance and social control are considered
4) Discernment between personality, culture, and society.
5) Differentiation is viewed as the central driving force producing social change.
6) The development of concepts and theory is considered to be independent of
all the levels involved in sociologic analysis.
Post-positivism submits that a theory can be discussed, examined, verified, and
elaborated with reference to other theories rather than empirical research. In other
words, the referent for a theory might be another theory rather than an ensemble
of facts. Theories are viewed as if they represent the ‘empirical observations’.
Alexander is critical of empirically-based inferences in social sciences. One of the
fundamental differences between social sciences and natural sciences is that
theoretical perspectives always permeate every work that social scientists do.
Sociological theory, therefore, can be scientifically significant irrespective of its
ability and capacity to explain empirical observations.
The early nineteen century saw the rise of the functional theory and by the 1960’s
it was at its pinnacle represented by scholars’ of outstanding merit of that time. But
the approach was also levied with criticisms as the functional approach was
inherently teleological, i.e., explanations are given in terms of ‘purposes’ or ‘goals’.
The method emphasised more on society here and now- ‘collectivity’ and did not
call attention to the ‘individual’. Neo-functionalism worked on the aspects that
were not considered by the followers of the functional approach. The neofunctionalism
school also has its share of criticisms as it has been termed as
conservative and antagonistic to change, as it emphasis is on social order rather
than on change.
Abrahamson, Mark. 2001. ‘Functional, Conflict and Nonfunctional Theories’. In
George Ritzer and Barry Smart (eds), Handbook of Social Theory. Sage
Publications (pp. 141-51).
Alexander, Jeffrey C. 1982. Positivism, Presuppositions and Current
Controversies. Theoretical Logic in Sociology. Vol. 1. Berkeley: University of
California Press.
_________________ 1998. Neofunctionalism and After. London: Blackwell.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. (ed). 1985. Neofunctionalism. Beverley Hills, CA: Sage.
Alexander, Jeffrey C. and Paul Colomy. 1985. Toward Neo-functionalism.
Sociological Theory, 3: 11-23.
Barnard, Alan. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Cohen, Percy. 1968. Modern Social Theory. New York: Basic Books.
Davis, Kingsley. 1959. ‘The Myth of Functional Analysis as a Special Method in
Sociology and Anthropology’. In American Sociological Review. 24: 757-72.
Durkheim, Émile. 1893. The Division of Labour in Society. Glencoe: The Free
—————————— 1895. The Rules of the Sociological Method. New
York: The Free Press.
—————————— 1915. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life.
London: Allen and Unwin.
Giddens, Anthony. 1973. The Class Structure of the Advanced Societies. London:
Gouldner, Alvin W. 1973. For Sociology. London: Allen Lane.
Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory, A History of Theories
of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The Modern British
School. London: Routledge.
Levy, Jr., Marion J. 1968. ‘Functional Analysis: Structural-Functional Analysis’. In
International Encyclopedia of Social Sciences. McMillan Co. and Free Press.
Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1922. Argonauts of the Western Pacific. London: George
Routledge & Sons.
—————————————— 1926. ‘Anthropology’. Encyclopedia
Britannica. First Supplementary Volume.
—————————————— 1944. A Scientific Theory of Culture and
Other Essays. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Merton, Robert K. 1957. Social Theory and Social Structure. New York: The
Free Press (Revised and Enlarged Edition).
Parsons, Talcott. 1951. The Social System. New York: The Free Press.
—————————— 1975. ‘The Present Status of Structural-Functional
Theory in Sociology’. In Lewis A. Coser (ed), The Idea of Social Structure:
Papers in Honour of Robert K. Merton. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Functionalism, StructuralFunctionalism
and NeoFunctionalism
Anthropological Theories-I
Parsons, Talcott and Gerald M. Platt. 1973. The American University. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.
Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1922. The Andaman Islanders. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
—————————————— 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive
Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West.
Redfield, Robert. 1955. Peasant Society and Culture. Chicago: Chicago University
Rocher, Guy. 1974. Talcott Parsons and American Sociology. London: Nelson.
Ritzer, George. 2000. Modern Sociological Theory. McGraw Hill Higher
Smelser, Neil. 1959. Social Change in the Industrial Revolution. Chicago:
University of Chicago press.
Turner, Jonathan and A. Z. Maryanski. 1979. Functionalism. Mento Park,
California: Benjamin/Cummings.
Turner, Jonathan H. 1987. The Structure of Sociological Theory. Jaipur: Rawat
Wallace, Ruth A. and Alison Wolf. 1980. Contemporary Sociological Theory.
Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Suggested Reading
Barnard, Alan. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory, A History of Theories
of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The Modern British
School. London: Routledge.
Sample Questions
1) Discuss the premises of Functionalism.
2) Compare and contrast the works of Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski in
relation to the functional theory.
3) Discuss the works of Talcott Parsons and Robert k. Merton in functionalism.
4) Critically evaluate the functional theory.
5) Discuss the problems that needs to be addressed in neo-functionalism.
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Social Organisation and Social Structure
3.3 Dynamic Theories of Structure
3.3.1 Social Structure is a Reality: A.R. Radcliffe-Brown’s Contribution
3.3.2 George Peter Murdock’s view on Social Structure
3.3.3 Social Structure is a Model: Contribution of Claude Lévi-Strauss
3.3.4 A Synthesis of Structural Functionalism: Contribution of S.F Nadel
3.3.5 Edmund Leach on Social Structure
3.3.6 Raymond Firth on Social Structure
3.3.7 Contribution of Meyer Fortes
3.3.8 Social Structure Refers to Relations between Groups: The Contribution of E.E.
3.3.9 Talcott Parsons on Social Structure
3.3.10 Emile Durkheim on Social Structure
3.3.11 Rodney Needham on Social Structure
3.4 Summary
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
After going through this unit, you will be able to:
 define Social Organisation and Social Structure;
 describe about the dynamic theories of social structure; and
 indicate the importance underlying these theories from an anthropological
In this lesson we are going to try and understand about ‘Social Organisation and
Dynamic Theories of Structure.’ The term ‘structure’ (Latin structura from struere,
to construct) has been applied to human societies since the 19th century. Before
that time, its use was more common in other fields such as construction or biology.
The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1999) gives three meanings of the

Anthropological Theories-I
term structure: (i) the way in which something is organised, built, or put together
(e.g., the structure of the human body); (ii) a particular system, pattern, procedure,
or institution (e.g., class structure, salary structure); and (iii) a thing made up of
several parts put together in a particular way (e.g., a single-storey structure).
In Social anthropology a study on structure will encompass all the three meanings.
The term structure, will thereby imply an ‘interconnectedness’ of parts, i.e., the
parts of a society are not isolated entities, but are brought together in a set of
relationships. Spencer developed the organic analogy, believing that this analogy
will be greatly valid if we are able to show not only that society is like an organism
but also that ‘organism is like society’ (see Barnes, H.E. 1948; Harris 1968). Why
organic analogy is used more than other analogies such as of the solar system, and
later, of atomic and chemical systems – is because an organism is far more
concrete than other systems, and is easy to understand, comprehend, and explain.
This analogy was basic to the understanding of the concept of social structure, a
term used for the first time by Spencer.
For those who regard structure as an important analytical concept, the world is
an organised entity; it comprises interconnected parts, where each part is to be
studied in relationship with other parts. Thus, ‘Structure refers to the way in which
the parts of an entity are interconnected so that the entity emerges as an integrated
whole, which for the purpose of analysis can be broken down into individual
‘Social organisation’ has tended to be used loosely to refer to the sum total of
activities performed in a given social context. So we must understand that social
organisation which defines the roles individuals play in relation to one another is
mainly concerned with social action whereas social structure which defines the
statuses of actors performing such roles are more concerned with the formal
relations between people. We are all aware of the fact that all human groups of
a society are organised and the individual components function through interrelation
and interaction. Social organisation implies some degree of unification, a putting
together of diverse elements into common relation. To do this, advantage may be
taken of existing structural principles or variant procedures may be adopted. This
involves the exercise of choice, the making of decisions.
Herbert Spencer who used the term ‘function’ for the analytical study of society
perceived close parallels between the human society and biological organism. He
believed that just like the interrelated parts of a machine function to keep the
machine working in a similar fashion there is functional dependence of different
parts of the society for maintaining the integrity of the society. Durkheim tried to
explain this concept with social phenomenon. Malinowski used the term social
organisation and tried to define it in terms of purposive manner in which people
acted upon their environment to satisfy their needs thereby putting forward what
is called the theory of functionalism. However Radcliffe-Brown later modified
Malinowski’s concept, emphasising upon distinguishing the structural function from
the function of Malinowski. Brown has made a clear cut distinction between social
structure and social organisation. According to him, social structure refers to
arrangement of persons, whereas social organisation refers to arrangement of
activities of two or more persons which are adjusted to give a united combined
activity. He perceived social organisation as the arrangement of ‘roles’ associated
with ‘statuses.’, which ultimately constitute social structure. Levi-Strauss, and many
other anthropologists, have consistently employed the term ‘social structure’ for
what Radcliffe-Brown called ‘structural form’. Lévi-Strauss even uses ‘social
structure’ to refer to a still higher degree of abstraction—the structure of social
relations in all societies, as well as that within a particular society.
Parsons’ view of the relation between social organisation and social structure
(1951) was essentially the same as that of Radcliffe-Brown, but in addition he
posited the idea of the social system, which comprises both. Parsons distinguished
four levels of this system: social values, institutional patterns, specialised collectivities
(groups), and roles performed by individuals in these collectivities or groups. To
complicate things further, Murdock’s (1949) famous book by the title Social
Structure seems to suggest a very wide meaning of ‘social structure’, one which
bears little relation to the more precise formulations of other theorists, though it
probably comes closer to the usual meaning of ‘social organisation’.
‘Social structure’ has usually been employed for the social context itself, or more
precisely for the set of social relations which link individuals in a society. Writers
who are mainly concerned with social action tend to concentrate on social
organisation which defines the roles individuals play in relation to one another.
Those who are concerned more with the formal relations between people tend to
concentrate on social structure, which defines the statuses of actors performing
such roles. Thus, social organisation is of greater interest to Malinowskian
functionalists, and to some extent processualists, notably Raymond Firth (1951).
Social structure is of greater interest to those whose approaches are descended
from classic structural-functionalist and structuralist traditions.
According to Raymond Firth (1951) the arrangement of parts or elements constitutes
social structure how people in the society get things done constitutes social
organisation. The concern of structural studies will be to outline the fundamental
social constituents that are revealed in the forms of basic social relations. Structural
elements give shape to the society just like the anatomical framework give shape
to human body. The study of social structure is indispensable to delineate the
functions of the society to understand the continuity of social life.
Social Organisation, on the other hand is not limited to the ideal pattern of social
relations. It indicates the factors to change i. e, the extent to which the social
standard deviate as an influence of different external factors. Therefore if social
structure is conceived as a model of action, the social organisation will be the
reality. According to Firth, a structural analysis alone can not interpret social
change. Analysis of the structural aspect necessitates the analysis of the organisational
Social organisation can be explained by the examples of social groups, industrial
groups, and sport groups. When we think about the organisation of work in
factory, we understand that there are managers, foreman and other workers who
tend to carry out different activities for the functioning of the factory as a whole.
This arrangement of activities reveals the organisational aspect of the factory. In
a similar manner, social structure can be explained by the examples of army and
tribal groups, which reveal arrangement of persons in institutionalised form. Thus,
an organisation is arrangement of relationship within the total activities of an
institution. For example, activities of various members of household may be subject
to some regular arrangement, and arrangement of these activities is its organisation.
Social Organisation and
Dynamic Theories of
Anthropological Theories-I
The arrangement of activities of one family may differ from another household,
which is structurally of the same order. Radcliffe-Brown makes this distinction
clear by stipulating that ‘when we are dealing with structural system, we are
concerned with a system of social positions .While in an organisation, we deal with
a system of roles.’ In the study of social structure, we deal with total network of
social relationships, and not such relationship themselves.
For a clear understanding of the terms social structure and social organisation, let
us take into consideration the Garo society which is a matrilineal tribe inhabiting
basically in the state of Meghalaya. The Garos follow matriliny in descent and
inheritance and their residence is matrilocal. They also have a distinct dialect of
their own. All these features give the Garo society a typical structure. An
Organisational study on the other hand will encompass the study of the various
traditional aspects of Garo social life i.e., family types, clans kinship, marriage,
political system, educational system, religious beliefs and practices coupled with
the significant changes in traditional Garo society due to their conversion to
Christianity and contacts with other contemporary Indian societies. The total study
of a society including the structural aspect is what we call an organisational study.
As we go further into the unit we will as students of anthropology be able to
understand how the theory of social structure has attracted the attention of these
scholars whose findings, interpretations and analysis of the elements of social
structure has revealed the dynamic nature of social structure. This section will deal
with examining the contributions of Radcliffe-Brown, G. P. Murdock, Levi-Strauss,
S.F. Nadel, Edmund Leach, Raymond Firth, Meyer Fortes, Evans-Pritchard,
T.Parsons, Emile Durkheim and Rodney Needham to the understanding of the
dynamic theories of social structure.
3.3.1 Social Structure is a Reality: A. R. Radcliffe-Brown’s
When we speak of social structure, we must remember as said earlier that Spencer
who coined the term social structure did not offer a theoretical perspective on it.
However his analogy between societies and organisms influenced later scholars in
developing the concepts of structure and function. For instance, Émile Durkheim
(1938 [1895]), although a staunch critic of Spencer, was inspired by his organic
analogy, and used the term ‘social morphology’, by which he meant what we
mean by the term ‘social structure’. Durkheim’s sociology exercised an indelible
impact on the British social anthropologist, A. R. Radcliffe–Brown, the chief pioneer
of British School of Structuralism. Besides his contribution to what he called the
‘structural-functional approach’, one of his important contributions was to the
understanding of the concept of social structure. He used the concept of social
structure for the first time as early as 1914, while delivering his presidential address
to Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain.
Radcliffe-Brown (1952) who believes that social phenomena are investigated by
methods similar to those used in natural and biological sciences makes an important
distinction between an ‘individual’ and a ‘person’. As an individual, ‘he is a
biological organism’ which keeps on carrying out a multitude of physiological and
psychological functions till the time he is alive. As a ‘person’, the human being is
a ‘complex of social relationships’. It is the unit of study for sociologists and social
anthropologists. Radcliffe-Brown uses the term ‘social personality’ for the ‘position’
a human being occupies in a social structure. It however does not imply that the
position remains the same throughout the life of an individual, for it changes over
time. We study persons in terms of social structure and we study social structures
in terms of persons who are the unit of what it is composed. So we need to
understand that society is not a ‘haphazard conjunction of persons’, rather an
organised system where norms and values control the relationships between persons.
According to Radcliffe-Brown all social relations of person to person, i.e.,
interpersonal relations (for example, the kinship structure of any society) and the
differentiation of individuals and of classes by their social role (for instance, the
relation between men and women, employers and employees, etc,) are in fact
concerned with relations between persons, which norms and values of that society
Radcliffe-Brown further stated that social structure is that concrete reality that
comprises the ‘set of actually existing relations at a given moment of time, which
link together certain human beings.’ We can conduct direct observation on social
structure – we can see the ‘actually existing relations’, describe and classify them,
and understand the relations of persons with others. Social structure is observable,
empirical, and fully amenable to study by methods of natural and biological sciences.
According to Radcliffe-Brown both the social structure and organism are prone
to change yet they are stable. Social structure continues over time, a kind of
continuity that Radcliffe-Brown calls ‘dynamic continuity’. It is like the ‘organic
structure of a living body’. By change he means that organs of both the structure
are liable to development and destruction As a living body constantly renews itself
by replacing its cells and energy level, in the same way, the actual ‘social life
renews the social structure.’ Relations between people change over time. While
the social structure changes over time, there remains an underlying continuity and
relative constancy, which designates its structural form. This certainly does not
imply that the structural form is static — it also changes, sometimes gradually,
sometimes with suddenness, as happens in cases of revolution. But even then,
some kind of a continuity of structure is maintained. Our job as sociologists and
social anthropologists is to discover the structural form of society. It is to move
from particular to general, or in the language of Radcliffe-Brown, from ‘ideographic’
to ‘nomothetic’.
Reflection and Action
What does Radcliffe-Brown mean by dynamic continuity?
Radcliffe-Brown’s attempt was praiseworthy, for it was the first rigorous attempt
to define the concept of social structure, rather than just taking its meaning for
granted. However, it led to many questions and confusions. If social structure is
a collectivity of interpersonal relations, real and observable, then what is society?
Do we study society and find its structure?
These questions clearly show that while there is no confusion between the categories
of particular and general, confusion prevails with respect to the distinction between
‘society’ and ‘social structure’, ‘social life’ and ‘social structure’, and the ‘structural
form’ of a social structure and the ‘structural form’ of social structures. One more
observation: what Radcliffe-Brown understands by the term ‘structural type’ is
what many understand by the term ‘social structure’. And, what Radcliffe-Brown
calls ‘social structure’ is what many would call ‘society’.
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3.3.2 George Peter Murdock’s view on Social Structure
Murdock like the other American anthropologists of his times has been more
critical in their acceptance of pure functionalism. i.e., synchronic functionalism..
His book ‘Social Structure’ was most explicit on the point of functionalism. He
tried to form a harmonious synthesis of cross cultural comparisons by combining
the historical, functional, psychological and statistical methods.
3.3.3 Social Structure is a Model: Contribution of Claude
Perhaps the most provocative and debatable contribution to the concept of social
structure was that of Claude Lévi-Strauss, the French structuralist, who is famous
for his ingenious cross-cultural analysis of myths and kinship systems. Levi-Strauss
believes that structure of society is but a surface manifestation of fundamental
mental processes. If for functionalism, society is a ‘kind of living creature’, consisting
of parts, which can be ‘dissected and distinguished’, for structuralism, it is the
analogy from language that helps us in conceptualising society. From the study of
a given piece of language, the linguist tries to arrive at its grammar, the underlying
rules which make an expression meaningful, although the speakers of that language
may not know about it. Similarly, the structuralist tries to infer its underlying
structure from a given piece of social behaviour. In structuralism, the shift is from
observable behaviour to structure, from organic analogy to language (Barnard
2000). Further, structuralism submits that the set of relations between different
parts can be transformed into ‘something’ that appears to be different from what
it was earlier. It is the idea of transformation — of one into another that lies at
the core of structuralism, rather than the quality of relations.
Lévi-Strauss says that social structure is not a field of study; it is not a ‘province
of enquiry’. We do not study social structure, but it is an explanatory method and
can be used in any kind of social studies. Here, Lévi-Strauss distinguishes the
concept of social structure from that of social relations. The latter are the ‘raw
data of social experience’ – they are the relations between people, empirical and
observable. It is from social relations that models comprising the social structure
are built. Although the models are built from raw, empirical reality, they cannot be
reduced to it. The ensemble of social relations in a given society can be described,
but social structure is an anthropologist’s construction, built for the purpose of
Reflection and Action
How does Levi-Strauss distinguish between the concept of social structure and social
Lévi-Strauss claimed that social structure and the social relations that are its
constituents are theoretical constructions used to model social life. He believed
that a major goal of social anthropology was to identify social structures and
formal relationships between them and that qualitative or discrete mathematics
would be a necessary tool to do this. He makes three distinctions: first, between
observation and experimentation on models; second, the conscious and unconscious
character of the models; and third, between mechanical and statistical models. The
observation of social relations and the construction of models after these facts
need to be distinguished from ‘experiments’ on models. By experimentation, LéviStrauss
means the ‘controlled comparison’ of models of the same or of a different
kind, with an intention to identify the model that accounts best for the observed
facts. In a structural analysis, the first step is to observe the facts without any bias,
then to describe them in relationship to themselves and in relation to the whole.
From this, models are constructed, and in the final analysis, the best model is
chosen. This distinction is with reference to the anthropologist who studies society.
By comparison, the distinction between conscious and unconscious models is
made with reference to the society under study.
Conscious models are the “insider’s models”: according to which the society
views itself. Underneath these models are ‘deeper structures’, the unconscious
models, which the society does not perceive directly or consciously. Anthropologists
principally work with the models that they construct from the deeper lying
phenomena, rather than with conscious models. It is because, Lévi-Strauss says,
the aim of conscious models is to ‘perpetuate the phenomena’ and not to ‘explain’
Let us now come to the last distinction. The classic formulation of mechanical
models is that they are those models which lie on the same scale as the phenomenon
is. And, when they — the model and the phenomenon — lie on a different scale,
they are called statistical models. Unfortunately, as critics have noted, Lévi-Strauss
does not explain the meaning of the ‘same scale’. But from the example he has
given, it seems that he is concerned with the quantitative differences between
‘what people say’ and ‘what they do’. To make it clear, Lévi-Strauss gives the
example of the laws of marriage. When there is no difference between marriage
rules and social groupings — the two are placed on the same scale — the model
formed will be mechanical. And when several factors affect the type of marriage
and people have no option but to deviate from the rule, the model formed will be
statistical; like the difference between the prescriptive and preferential systems of
3.3.4 A Synthesis of Structural Functionalism: Contribution
of S.F. Nadel
Nadel developed the theory of social structure in his posthumously published
book entitled The Theory of Social Structure (1957). Nadel’s central argument
was simply that the structuralist orthodoxy was inadequate by itself – it has to be
wedded to a functionalist perspective.
Nadel disagrees with Radcliffe-Brown’s idea that social structure is an observable
entity, but an abstraction from it. At the same time, he rejects Lévi-Strauss’s view
that social structure has nothing to do with empirical reality. From RadcliffeBrown,
he borrows the idea that each person occupies a position in the social
structure, but from an empirical level of inter-personal interaction, he moves to a
level of abstraction where the person becomes the actor who plays a role with
respect to the others. This abstraction, however, does not imply that it loses touch
with reality. Nadel (1957: 150) writes: I consider social structure, of whatever
degree of refinement, to be still the social reality itself, or an aspect of it, not the
logic behind it…
We must therefore understand that for Nadel, the components of social structure
are roles and the pattern (or design) of interconnected roles constitutes the social
structure of a society. His definition of social structure is as follows (1957: 12):
‘we arrive at the structure of a society through abstracting from the concrete
population and its behaviour the pattern or network (or ‘system’) of relationships
obtaining ‘between actors in their capacity of playing roles relative to one another’.
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Nadel feels that when describing structure, we abstract relational features from the
totality of the perceived data, ignoring all that is not in order or arrangement in
brief, we define the positions relative to one another of the component parts.
Structures can be transposed irrespective of the concrete data manifesting it;
differently expressed, the parts composing any structure can vary widely in their
concrete character without changing the identity of the structure.
Nadel now translates all this into the language appropriate to the analysis of
societies. To begin with societies are made up of people; societies have boundaries
people either belonging to them or not and people belong to a society in virtue
of rules under which they stand and which impose on them regular determinate
ways of acting towards and in regard to one another. For determinate ways of
acting towards or in regard to one another we usually say relationships and we
indicate that they follow from rules by calling them institutionalised or social
relationships. We identify the mutual ways of acting of individuals as relationships
only when the former exhibit some consistency and uniformity since without these
attributes they would merely be single or disjointed acts. Most relationships lack
this simple uniformity. Rather the concrete behaviour occurring in them will always
be diversified and more or less widely variable intentionally changing with the
circumstances it will be constant or consistent only in its general character in its
capacity to indicate a certain type of mutuality or linkage.
Nadel concludes that we arrive at the structure of a society through abstracting
from the concrete population and its behaviour, the pattern or network of
relationships obtaining between actors in their capacity of playing roles relative to
one another.
Reflection and Action
What does Nadel imply by a synthesis of structural functionalism?
Nadel has tried to explain in this definition that structure refers to a definable
articulation, an ordered arrangement of parts. Nadel therefore says that structure
indicates a transportable being, relatively invariants, while the parts themselves are
variable. According to him, there are three elements of society: (i) a group of
people, (ii) institutionalised rules according to which members of the group interact,
(iii) an institutionalised pattern or expression of these interactions. The institutionalised
rules or patterns do not change easily and this creates orderliness in society. These
rules determine the status and roles of the individuals. There is an order among
these rules and status also which provide an ordered arrangement of human beings.
According to Nadel there are three dichotomies to resolve which are aspects of
structure: (i) structure as opposed to function, (ii) structure as opposed to qualitative
character and (iii) structure as opposed to process. Unless we resolve these
dichotomies, we are unable to give a satisfactory account of social structure.
Social behaviour which is institutionalised involves relatively determinate ways of
action within and between groups over periods of time. The institutionalised
behaviour characterised by consistency of the relationships may not always be
concrete behaviour. It varies in detail according to occasion and circumstances but
its general characters which allows it to be subsumed in an identical category of
relationship are clearly bound by the convention of a particular society. What we
mean to say is that all these contain an element of abstraction; they are all categories
which we infer from a number of observed sequences or actions. Therefore the
problem is to find a way of expressing the relationship between individuals acting
as individuals and as their acting as part of a social network.
3.3.5 Edmund Leach on Social Structure
The British anthropologist, Edmund Leach who disliked synchronic functionalism
also made significant contribution to the idea of social structure as a model,
although there are many significant differences between the approaches of LéviStrauss
and Leach to structuralism. Leach has dealt with change without abandoning
the useful notions of structure and function. For instance, whereas Lévi-Strauss is
interested in unearthing the ‘universal structures’ – structures applicable to all
human societies at all point of time — Leach applies the method of structuralism
to understand the local (or regional) structures. Because of this, some term Leach’s
approach ‘neo-structural’ (Kuper 1996 [1973]). Leach has formulated a conception
of social structure that is “essentially the same as Lévi-Strauss’s” (Nutini 1970:
76). Like Lévi-Strauss, Leach divides the‘social universe’ into different
epistemological categories: the raw data of social experience (i.e., social relations)
and the models that are built from it. Models are not empirical; they are the
‘logical constructions’ in the mind of the anthropologist. Like Lévi-Strauss, Leach
also arrives at the distinction between the mechanical and statistical models, i.e.,
models built respectively on ‘what people say’ and ‘what people do’, but he calls
mechanical models ‘jural rules’ and statistical models ‘statistical norms’. The
meaning Leach gives to ‘jural rules’ and ‘statistical norms’ is essentially the same
which Lévi-Strauss gives to mechanical and statistical models.
But two important differences stand out. First, for Lévi-Strauss both mechanical
and statistical models are of roughly equal analytical value and they complement
each other. For Leach, jural rules and statistical norms should be treated as
separate frames of reference. In an analysis, the statistical norms should have
priority over the jural rules. We should begin our study with the actual behaviour
of people, the deviations that occur and the conformity they achieve. Second,
Leach points out that mechanical models or jural rules are qualitative rules of
behaviour. Sanctions support them and they have the power of coercion. Statistical
models or norms are only ‘statistical averages of individual behaviour’. They do
not have any coercive power.
In his hands, functionalism became dynamic and diachronic. The best known critic
of Radcliffe-Brown’s type of structuralism is E.R Leach. He contends that the aim
of social anthropology should be generalisation rather than comparison and
challenges Radcliffe-Brown’s conception of social structure and the comparative
3.3.6 Raymond Firth on Social Structure
Raymond Firth also disliked synchronic functionalism and like Leach dealt with
dynamic or diachronic functionalism. Raymond Firth was concerned with the nature
of individuals and the choices they make. As mentioned earlier he focuses on
observed activities as he sets out his impressions on structural-functionalism. He
made distinction between social structure and social organisation. While the
arrangement of parts or elements constitutes social structure how people in the
society get things done constitutes social organisation.
Firth in his book Elements of Social Organisation (1951) emphasises the necessity
to distinguish between social structure and social organisation and says that the
more one thinks of the structure of a society in abstract terms as of group relations
or of ideal patterns the more necessity it is to think separately of social organisation
in terms of concrete activity. Firth sums up –the fulfilment of the moral obligations
laid down by structural requirements is conditioned by individual interests.
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3.3.7 Contribution of Meyer Fortes
In his article The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups (1953) Fortes has
analysed the African kinship groups. His analysis of the lineage organisation has
come mainly from Radcliffe Brown’s formulation of the structural principles found
in all kinship groups. According to Fortes the social structure should be thought
of in terms of levels of organisation. He says that we can investigate the total social
structure of a given community at the level of local organisation at the level of
kinship at the level of corporate group structure of government and at that of ritual
institutions. These levels are connected in some sort of hierarchy. It is important
to perceive and state the fact that all levels of structure are involved in every social
relationship and activity.
Fortes believes that the study of the unilineal descent groups as a part of total
social system means studying its functions in the widest framework of social structure
and that of the political organisation. He shows that descent is fundamentally a
jural concept. He sees its significance in the connecting link between the external
political or legal aspect of unilineal descent groups and the internal or domestic
aspect. The dynamic character of lineage structure can be seen most easily in the
balance that is reached between its external relations and its internal structure.
Maintaining the stable condition in the social structure is one of the chief functions
of lineage systems.
3.3.8 Social Structure Refers to Relations between Groups:
The Contribution of E.E. Evans-Pritchard
Evans-Pritchard’s description of the elements of Nuer Society (1940) and their
interrelationship guided him to the concept of social structure. Instead of beginning
with the idea of person, as did Radcliffe-Brown, he began with viewing social
structure in terms of groups. To quote him (1940: 262): By social structure we
mean relations between groups which have a high degree of consistency and
constancy. The processes of life and death condition individuals, but the structure
of society endures. It is clear that for Evans-Pritchard, social structure deals with
units which are largely invariant, i.e., groups. What Radcliffe-Brown means by
‘structural form’ is what Evans-Pritchard means by ‘social structure’. The groups
considered for describing social structure may be called ‘structural groups’ – the
examples of which among the Nuer are territorial groups, lineages and age-sets.
Evans-Pritchard does not consider the family as a ‘structural group’ but he does
acknowledge the fact that family is essential for the preservation of structure
Reflecting on the example of the Nuer, Evans-Pritchard says that the tribe is not
a haphazard congregation of residential units. Thus, structure is a ‘relation between
To sum up: for Evans-Pritchard, the parts of social structure, among which structural
relations are to be described, are groups that endure over time. Social structure
is not an empirical entity for him. Therefore, social structure is an anthropologist’s
abstraction from the existing reality. It should be kept in mind here that for EvansPritchard
(1951), social anthropology is not a branch of natural science, as it is
for Radcliffe-Brown, but it is a kind of historiography. Its kinship is with history,
and not natural and biological sciences.
3.3.9 Talcott Parsons on Social Structure
Talcott Parsons like his British counterparts also emphasised the importance of
roles in defining social structure and the problem of how to relate the static
concept of structure to the dynamic aspects of social change. According to Parsons,
social structure is a term applied to the particular arrangement of the interrelated
institutions, agencies and social patterns as well as the status and roles, which each
person assumes in the group. He emphasised that all the units of social structure
i.e. institutions, agencies, social patterns, status and roles are invisible and intangible
and hence are abstract. Customs, traditions and conventions of society determines
the status and role of individuals which finally leads to the formation of different
agencies, institutions and patterns. The social structure of a society is built when
all these institutions, agencies and patterns are interrelated and organised in a
particular manner. Social structure is concerned with the interrelationships between
these units which constitute the society. The ordered arrangement between this
units is what Parsons calls social structure.
What is being said is that the structure of a social system is defined with respect
to the ‘institutionalised patterns of normative culture’. All these when interrelated
and organised in a particular manner will build the social structure of society.
3.3.10 Emile Durkheim on Social Structure
The concept of structure and function also appeared in the writings of French
anthropologist, Emile Durkheim in his books Division of Labour (1893) and
Rules of Sociological Method (1895). He has also treated society like an organism.
He opines that as an organism makes the body alive through fulfillment of essential
needs, the society also tends to exist through fulfillment of essential needs. He uses
the term function to refer to the activities by which the essential needs of the
society are fulfilled. According to Durkheim, the structural units of a society such
as family, religion, kinship, political and economic organisation contribute valuable
function for maintaining the order of society.
Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski were influenced by Durkheim’s concept of
Functionalism. Brown refers to Durkheim’s definition of function which states that
‘the function of social institution is correspondence between it and the needs of
the social organism.’Durkheim thus made a systematic formulation of the analogy
between society and organic life, As the life of an organism is considered to be
the functioning of its organic structure, therefore social life is conceived by Durkheim
to be the functioning of social structure.
3.3.11 Rodney Needham on Social Structure
Rodney Needham was one of the leading British social anthropologists of his
generation. Together with Sir Edmund Leach and Mary Douglas, he brought
structuralism across the Channel and anglicised it in the process. In the early
1950s, the structural-functionalist approach which had made British anthropology
a world leader was beginning to languish from its rigorous but over-extended
empiricism. By chance, Needham spotted a copy of Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Les
Structures élémentaires de la Parenté (1949) in Blackwell’s the week before he
went on fieldwork to Borneo. Primed by his knowledge of Dutch structural
anthropology, he quickly realised its significance and its concern with conceptual
structure over social organisation.
Structuralism thus provided him with a radically new interpretation of kinship
systems, the bedrock of social structure in small-scale societies. Back in Oxford,
he industriously put this approach into practice in a series of brilliant papers in
which he emphasised the importance of alliance, through marriage, over that of
descent, through lineages. Never scared of fomenting lively debate, his first great
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work, Structure and Sentiment (1962), demonstrated devastatingly the power of
structuralist approaches over psychological ones.
But in 1969 Lévi-Strauss somewhat unfairly attacked Needham’s interpretation of
his work in the preface to the English edition of his kinship work, which Needham
as his leading British disciple had so carefully translated, as The Elementary
Structures of Kinship. From then on, Needham ploughed his own structuralist
path producing central work on systems of classification, cognitive universals,
indigenous psychologies, and kinship theory. His first theoretical interest was the
extremely complex systems of kinship and marriage known as “prescriptive alliance”.
In these, a man has to marry a relative in a certain category, such as the mother’s
brother’s daughter, and it was as an expert in the very demanding analysis of these
systems that he first made his professional mark with a short but devastating
monograph, Structure and Sentiment. This refuted the claim that the rules of
these systems could be explained by the particular feelings that people would have
towards different categories of relative.
Needham strongly agreed with Evans-Pritchard that British social anthropology
could benefit from the ideas of Durkheim, Mauss, Hertz and others of the Année
Sociologique school. He took a leading part in translating and introducing this, and
also translated some work of German and Dutch scholars into English.
As mentioned earlier Structure and Sentiment had been a defense of LéviStrauss,
and Needham organised the translation of his Elementary Structures of
Kinship; but in the course of the word-by-word analysis of the text that this
involved he became increasingly critical of what he saw as Lévi-Strauss’s casual
and inaccurate handling of his data. But although he came to regard Lévi-Straussian
structuralism itself as banal and empty, certain elements of structuralist thinking,
especially the importance of binary opposition, remained crucial to Needham’s
He believed that the global comparisons made by social anthropologists reveal
that there are only very limited numbers of ways in which kinship systems and
marriage rules can be constituted. So too, underlying all the diversity of myth,
ritual, and social organisation there are a fairly limited number of what Needham
called “primary factors”; these are found all over the world, if not in every society
then regardless of language or historical associations.
Examples are the same three colours of black, white and red, which also tend to
have similar associations; sacred numbers, almost always below 10; the association
of the right hand with men, the sun, odd numbers, and hardness, and the left hand
with female, the moon, even numbers, and softness; the use of percussive sounds
to mark a transition between two states, such as a new moon or a wedding; a
distinction between sacred and secular authority, and so on.
These symbolic elements occur in a limited number of relations, in particular:
opposition, exchange, alternation, reversal, inversion, and transition across a
boundary. So archetypal figures such as the witch, and the half-man (with one eye,
one arm, and one leg, all on the same side), are complexes made up of these
primary factors, which are also the basic building blocks of a great deal of myth
and ritual, and of important aspects of social organisation. In Needham’s view,
these are not “beliefs” that have been consciously formulated, nor are they the
expressions of any discernible inner states, but are direct expressions of the working
of the human brain, which is why they are independent of language and culture.
The concept of social structure has been a ‘pleasant puzzle’, to remember the
words of A.L. Kroeber (1948), to which, at one time, almost every anthropologist
and sociologist tried to make a contribution, either by drawing attention to the part
(or parts) of society that seemed important to the author, or by lending support
to an already existing idea or theory of social structure. As noted in the beginning,
the debate concerning social structure has centered around two issues: (i) among
whom parts of society are there structural relations? and (ii) is social structure
‘real’ or a ‘model’ which the investigator constructs? Of the two major opinions
on social structure, Lévi-Strauss’s is closely connected to his method of structuralism
– social structure is a ‘model’ devised for undertaking the study of social behaviour
(relations and experiences). Thus Levi-Strauss’s structuralism has become concerned
with understanding cultural and social patterns in terms of the universal mental
processes that are rooted in the biochemistry of the human brain. For RadcliffeBrown,
social structure is an ‘empirical’ entity, constituting the subject matter of
social anthropology and sociology. Murdock like the other American anthropologists
of his times has been more critical in their acceptance of pure functionalism. i.e.
synchronic functionalism. S.F.Nadel however proposes to combine the views of
both Radcliffe-Brown and Levi-Strauss. Nadel has tried to explain in this definition
that structure refers to a definable articulation, an ordered arrangement of parts.
He has emphasised that social structure refers to the network of social relations
which is created among human beings when they interact with each other, according
to their status in accordance with the patterns of society. E.R.Leach who disliked
synchronic functionalism dealt with change without abandoning the useful notions
of structure and function is considered as the best known critic of RadcliffeBrown’s
type of structuralism. Leach applies the method of structuralism to
understand the local (or regional) structures. Because of this, some term Leach’s
approach ‘neo-structural’ (Kuper 1996 [1973]). Raymond Firth also disliked
synchronic functionalism and like Leach dealt with dynamic or diachronic
functionalism. He equally proposed that variations of actual behaviour should be
observed and recorded in order to discover the process of change. Meyer Fortes
regarded social structure as not only an aspect of culture but the entire culture of
a given people handled in a special frame of theory. Evans-Pritchard’s description
of the elements of Nuer society and their interrelationship guided him to the
concept of social structure. Instead of beginning with the idea of person, as did
Radcliffe-Brown, he began with viewing social structure in terms of groups. What
Radcliffe-Brown means by ‘structural form’ is what Evans-Pritchard means by
‘social structure’. Durkhiem, who made a systematic formulation of the analogy
between society and organic life thinks that just like the life of an organism is
considered to be the functioning of its organic structure, social life is conceived by
him to be the functioning of social structure. Rodney Needham who was initially
fascinated by structuralism and inspired by linguistics, attempted to explain the
diversities of human culture by a few basic and universal structures of the brain.
Barnard, Alan. 2000. History and Theory in Anthropology. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Barnes, H. E. 1948. Historical Sociology: Its Origins and Development. New
York: Philosophical Library.
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Dynamic Theories of
Anthropological Theories-I
Barnes, R.H. 2001. ‘Structuralism’. In N.J. Smelser and P.B. Baltes (eds),
International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.
(pp. 15222-15225).
Evans-Pritchard, E.E. 1940. Nuer Society. Oxford: Clarendon.
________________________ 1951. Social Anthropology. London: Cohen &
Durkheim, Emile. 1893. Division of Labour. New York. Free Press.
____________________1895. Rules of Sociological Method. Ed. by George
E.G Catlin, Eight Edition. 1938. New York: Free Press.
Firth, R. 1951. Elements of Social Organisation. London: Watts.
Fortes, Meyer. 1953. ‘The Structure of Unilineal Descent Groups’. American
Anthropologist. New Series Vol. 55 No-1 Jan-Mar. Blackwell Publishing.
Harris, Marvin. 1968. The Rise of Anthropological Theory, A History of Theories
of Culture. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company.
Kroeber, A .L. 1948. Anthropology. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The Modern British
School. London: Routledge. Reprint 1996.
Kuper, Adam (ed.). 1977. The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London:
Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Leach, Edmund R. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma. Boston: Beacon
_________________ 1961. Rethinking Anthropology. London: Athlone Press.
_________________ 1968. ‘Social Structure’. In International Encyclopedia
of Social Sciences. Volume 14. McMillan Co. and Free Press (pp. 482-489).
Lévi-Strauss, C. 1953. ‘Social structure’, in A.L. Kroeber (ed.) Anthropology
Today: An Encyclopedic Inventory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
___________________1949. Elementary Structures of Kinship. Revised edition
1969. London: Tavistock.
Murdock, G.P. 1949 Social Structure, New York: The Free Press.
Nadel, S.F. 1957. The Theory of Social Structure. London: Cohen & West Ltd.
Needham, Rodney. 1962. Structure and Sentiment. A Test Case in Anthropology.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nutini,Hugo G.1970. ‘Some Considerations on the Nature of Social Structure and
Model Building: A Critique of Claude Levi-Strauss and Edmund Leach’. In E.
Nelson Hayes and Tanya Hayes (eds.), Claude Levi- Strauss, The Anthropologist
as Hero. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press. (pp 70- 122).
Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. 1999. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Parsons, T. 1951. The Social System. New York: The Free Press.
Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society.
London: Cohen & West.
——[1953] 1977. ‘Letter to Lévi-Strauss’, in A.Kuper (ed.) The Social
Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Roy Basu, Indrani. 2005. Anthropology the Study of Man. New Delhi: S. Chand
& Company Ltd. (pp 521-522).
Suggested Reading
Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The Modern British
School. London: Routledge. Reprint 1996.
Radcliffe-Brown, A.R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society.
London: Cohen & West.
——[1953] 1977. ‘Letter to Lévi-Strauss’, in A.Kuper (ed.) The Social
Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Upadhyay, V.S. & Gaya Pandey.1990. History of Anthropological Thought.
New Delhi: Concept Publishing House. (pp 233- 298).
Sample Questions
1) Define Social Organisation and Social structure.
2) Critically examine the contributions of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, G.P. Murdock,
Levis-Strauss, Leach, Firth, Meyer Fortes, T. Parsons, Nadel, Needham,
Durkheim and Evans-Pritchard to the dynamic theories of social structure.
Social Organisation and
Dynamic Theories of