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[1]Table of Contents




Main points


     Functionalism as a whole seeks to discover newly formed connections in and in between societies, hoping to shape a greater understanding of the word “interconnectedness”. In 1922, Bronislaw Malinowski, the father of structural functionalist sociology, released his book called Argonauts of the Western Pacific, introducing a new form of anthropology: Ethnography. Ethnography, as opposed to the basic concept of anthropology (or the study of human kind), seeks to identify the sociological aspect of anthropology; and with ethnography comes a different understanding of how to collect field data. Field studies are something anthropologists rely heavily upon, a collaboration of their daily research that further leads to connective patterns. By using Ethnography's as part of their field data, anthropologists can record the emic perspectives of a community. In Malinowski’s theory of functionalism, it’s extremely crucial for a cultural anthropologist to utilize this method of “participant-observation", by which field workers attempt to achieve ethnographic understanding through an artful synthesis of 'insider'..observation”[2], i.e., to locate a significant figure within the community, for instance a story teller, a chief, etc.; this enables the researcher to fully comprehend how and why a community works together and functions.


     In any community, enculturation defines how a child learns his/her culture; in an abstract sense, anthropologists learning about a new culture take a step back into adolescence, becoming once again naive instead of experienced. The lifestyle, culture and societal norms of a culture can be drastically different from your own. Enculturation proves to be a critical element to an anthropologists path in understanding the bigger picture.

Key Terms and Definitions

     Functionalism is a complex subtopic of cultural anthropology encompassing many broad terms and definitions. Bronislaw Malinowski, the founder of functionalism coined the basic strand of functionalism opposing evolutionism and historical particularism. Malinowski used the term needs functionalism, believing that “humans had set of universal biological needs, and that customs developed to fulfill those needs.”[3] His form of functionalism focused on the individual and satisfying the basic seven needs of humans which include nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, movement, health, and growth.[4]

     An example of functionalism operating in a way to satisfy the need of nutrition is the way in “which food was grown or prepared, where the food was consumed, the economic or social distribution of goods, the rules that ensure the steady production of food, and the authority that enforces those rules.”[5]Thus, the idea that different customs develop to fill the simple basic need of nutrition can be seen.

     Malinowski also proposed the method of fieldwork which is the retrieving of data usually by first-hand observation in the social and cultural context which is being studied.[6] Ethnography is a further branch of Malinowski’s idea of fieldwork, which is the account of a culture or community.[7] Malinowski also stressed the interrelation of customs and that practicing field work or ethnography would lead one to examine the entirety of society.[8] For example, Malinowski in his study of the Trobriand Islanders, acknowledged the magic rituals of the tribe, which they then used when fishing, leading him to study the entire social and economic aspects of the community.[9]

     In further study of the Trobriand Islanders, Malinowski theorized the kula ring, which was a form of economic exchange between the islanders. In this exchange necklaces were exchanged clockwise and armshells counter-clockwise.[10] This exchange highlighted Malinowski’s proposal indefinitely in that society is filled of individuals operating in their own way to have a fully functional society. Functionalism studies societies at one time which is known as synchronic, rather than diachronic, or across time.[11]  Malinowski saw society as an organism, a term heborrowed from Durkheim’s organic solidarity, which is a system that functions as one with each part of the system operating on its own performing its own special role.[12]

Method of Functionalism


     The main method for functionalism is fieldwork.  Malinowski is considered the “father of fieldwork” due to his in depth description of how to properly go about participant-observation and ethnography in Argonauts of the Western Pacific.  In the first chapter of the book, Malinowski rails against earlier accounts of native life for being etic: based on the outsider's point of view or the strictly external perspective.[13] He champions a new method of collecting data in native cultures that is ultimately emic: focused on the indigenous and internal perspective of individuals within the culture.[14]

     Malinowski's systematic approach to field work seeks to bring the method of hard science to ethnography.[15] In Argonauts, he states the "principles of [his] method can be grouped under three main headings:"[16]First, the anthropologist conducting field work must have scientific goals and values.[17]Secondly, the best and perhaps only way to competently study another culture is to actually live in it.[18]And third, a researcher must "apply a number of special methods of collecting, manipulating and fixing his evidence."[19]

     The method Malinowski proposes has three basic tenets, which he describes in anatomical terms. The first ideal for an ethnographer is to learn as much as possible, from many different viewpoints, about how a culture stuctures itself as a whole.[20] In the interest of outlining all the interactions of a given society, Malinowski is a proponent of anthropologists taking continual, detailed, field notes regarding all activities in the culture, from the most basic everyday events to the fanstastic.[21]  The "rules and regularities of tribal life" as they are observed create "the firm skeleton" of the culture.[22] 

      The second standard of functionalism is seeking out a clear picture of the individual reality of living within a given cultural skeleton.[23] Malinowski calls this “the imponderabilia of actual life…the subtle yet unmistakable manner in which personal vanities and ambitions are reflected in the behavior of the individual and in the emotional reactions of those who surround him.”[24]  For Malinowski, the “real substance of the social fabric” is what creates the “flesh and blood” of a society.[25]

     Malinowski’s third aim in anthropologic study is to make a clear record of the spirit of the society.[26] This tenet describes a method to record the inner dialogue of individuals who live in a given culture corpus inscriptionum: exact phrases and descriptions of feelings and thoughts as they were conveyed to the researcher, in the native language.[27]

     Thus, we have the three steps to Malinowski’s field work. 1) describe and detail the structure of a society (skeleton); 2) fill in the ways in which this structure is inhabited by the individual lives within the culture (flesh and blood); and 3) through exact transcription, give an account of how it feels to live that life (spirit).[28] “These three lines of approach lead to the final goal, of which an Ethnographer should never lose sight.  This goal is, briefly, to grasp the native’s point of view, his relation to life, to realize his vision of his world.”[29]

     Prior to Malinowski’s functionalist movement, anthropology was done from a distance. His theories and methods showed how a true researcher cannot hope to understand a culture and its individuals without learning the language and living the life of the subjects.  By immersing himself in another culture, Malinowski was able to conceive the interconnectedness of a society. His work showed how “living in the village with no other business but to follow native life” can lead to a rich understanding of a very different society and its individuals.[30]



Key Figures


        (Bronislaw Malinowski[31])                (Alfred Radcliffe-Brown[32])


     Two British social anthropologists, Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown championed Functionalist theory in the first half of the 20th century.[33]  Although both functionalists, Malinowski's theory focuses on how culture meets the needs of individuals, while Radcliffe-Brown's theory, known as structural functionalism, focuses on how culture meets the needs of society. Even though the two argued about theoretical particularities of functionalist thought, their work grounded British anthropology in the practice of empirical research and the active formulation of theory using fieldwork.[34][35]  This page focuses primarily on the Functionalism of Bronislaw Malinowski.


Bronislaw Malinowski


     Bronislaw Malinowski is considered the creator of the school of functionalist thought, as well as one of the first anthropologists to encourage personal contact and highly detailed field work. Born into an upper-class family in Krakow, Poland on April 7, 1884, Malinowski was encouraged to follow scholarly pursuits by both of his well-educated and cultured parents, Lucyan and Jezefa.[36]  In 1908, he received his PhD from the University of Krakow in mathematics and physical science, and later spent two years in advanced study at Leipzig University.[37]  It was there that he met the highly regarded scholar, Wilhelm Wundt who turned Malinowski's interest in a more anthropological direction. In 1910, Malinowski began his post graduate studies at the London School of Economics where he studied under C.G. Seligman, a member of the Cambridge University expediation to Torres Straits in 1898 that first introduced structured field research techniques to British anthropology, his influence further encouraged an interest in social anthropology.[38]  So much so, in fact, that in 1916 Malinowski received a Doctorate in Anthropology from the University of London. Malinowski got his first opportunity to do fieldwork when he was hired as a secretary under anthropologist R.G. Marett and traveled to Australia. Personal circumstances with onset of World War I led him to Papua. As a citizen of the Austrian Empire, he was considered an enemy to Australia and given the choice to become imprisoned or spend the duration of the war in Papua.[39]  In 1914 he began his field work with the Motu in Papua which, though important, was not the research that would inspire his major works. It was between 1915-1918, when Malinowski spent more than two years working with the Trobriand Islanders, that he would gather the bulk of his research for his developing theories and ethnographic reports. The most famous of his writings, based on his work with the Trobriand people, is Argonauts of the Western Pacific, published in 1922.[40][41]  Shortly after his return to Australia, Malinowski married Elsie Rosaline Massion in March of 1919 with whom he had three daughters, Jezefa, Wanda, and Helena. He moved back to London in 1924 where he served as a reader of social anthropology and later as a professor at the University of London.[42]  He also visited the United States many times, living and teaching in California in 1926, visiting Cornell University in 1933, and becoming the Bishop Museum Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Yale in 1939. After the death of his first wife in 1935, Malinowski married Anna Valetta Swan in June of 1940, they were married until he died on May 16, 1942 at the age of 58.[43]  At the time of his death he was a professor of cultural anthropology at Yale University.[44] 


      The importance of Malinowski's work is immense and heavily influenced by his broad experiences with other cultures. Traveling all over the world throughout his lifetime, Malinowski spoke many languages, including English, French, German, Italian, Polish, Russian, Spanish, Motuan and Trobriand, and lived everywhere from Arizona with a Hopi Indian Tribe, to the Canary Islands, and all over Europe.[45]  Malinowski is known as the first practitioner of participant observation in fieldwork which warrants an understanding of culture using a combination of subjective and objective observation.[46]  It was his vast knowledge of the similarities and differences in many cultures that led him to develop his way of anthropological thinking.


Other Key Figures Of Note

     Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, also a functionalist, was born in Britain in 1881.[47]  His fieldwork in the Andaman Islands and in Australia, and his development of Structural Functionalism was much more influential to American Anthropology than the Functionalism of Malinowski.[48]  This is especially true when considering his influence on American Boasian anthropologist Fred Eggan.[49]  A contemporary of Radcliffe-Brown, Edward Evans-Pritchard, an American anthropologist, made important changes and contributions to Radcliffe-Brown's science-oriented theory of Structural Functionalism as he moved it in a more cultural direction by including interpretations of historical and cultural meaning into functionalist ethnography.[50]

     Students and contemporaries of both men include anthropologists Evans-Pritchard, Fortes, Leach, Gluckman, Firth, Douglas, and Turner. Each of these worked to incorporate the basic notions of functionalist theory into changing discourses about the aspects of cultural systems to come to more innovative notions about how societies operate.[51]



Key Texts




Argonauts of the Western Pacific, An account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea (1922)



     Argonauts of the Western Pacific was written by Bronislaw Malinowski in 1922, the book chronicles his work with the Trobriand people of the Kiriwina Islands northeast of Papua New Guinea. The book provides ethnographic studies of the indigenous peoples during the beginning of the development of his functionalist theories. It is the first book published in a trilogy of ethnographic field studies on the Trobriand people by Malinowski. The book mainly focuses on exchange systems of the Trobriand Islands, including observations on social organization, folklore, magic and general ways of life of the Trobriand people. 


Detailed Look at Chapter One

     In Chapter One, Bronislaw Malinowski provides the reader with a detailed account of his ethnographic study of the native population who inhabit the Trobriand islands. This introduction provides the audience with a frame of reference to follow, which includes the subject, the methodology and an overall conceptualization of his inquiry. Malinowski states from the beginning that he “possess in professor Seligman’s book an excellent description of the subject, especially of the nearer trade routes between the various islands inhabited by the Southern Massim." [53] Professor Seliman’s study observed a highly complex trading system thus enabled Malinowski to take notice of the Kula trading system and is the subject of his inquiry, which eventually led him to unravel the “economic phenomenon of considerable theoretical importance." [54] 

     A detailed description is provided of the methods applied for generating his qualitative data.  Malinowski stresses the importance for science to provide a detailed account for the reasoning behind each step, the tools utilized, the precise procedures applied for observation and how measurements are derived.  “I consider that only such ethnographic sources are of unquestionable scientific value, in which we can clearly draw the line between…the results of direct observation, and of the native statements and interpretations [and] the inferences of the author, based on his common sense and psychological insight." [55]  This observational account occurs when the researcher describes the facts from a personal acquaintance generated from the natives and their lifestyles.


The Book’s Legacy

     Despite having his functionalist theories being later dis-regarded, Malinowski’s “painstaking, long-term ethnographic fieldwork among the Trobriand Islanders continues to be the paradigmatic model for all graduate students heading ‘into the field.’" [56] Erickson also states that this book has established a unique style of data analysis and collection as literary genre that has permanently influenced the writings of sociocultural anthropology researchers. [57]


Criticisms of the Book

     It’s been said that Malinowski’s observations of the Trobriand Islanders extrapolated from the islanders to traditional societies in general. His thoughts moved on only two levels, that of the islanders and the abstract, general case of Man and Society, which he tied very closely to be the same as the Trobrianders. [58]


The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia (1929)


     This is the second book in Malinowski’s trilogy on the Trobrianders. It contains ethnographic field studies proving that Freud’s theory on the Oedipus complex could not be applied universally. It details the social organization of sexuality among the Trobriand people, social rites, partners, etc, tracing Trobriand life cycles from birth through puberty, marriage, and death. [59]


Coral Gardens and their Magic: A Study of the methods of Tilling the Soil and of Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands (1935)


     This is the final book in Malinowski’s trilogy on the Trobriand peoples. It focuses mainly on the cultivation practices that the Trobrianders use to grow yams, taro, bananas, and palms, detailing the gardens and the religious aspects of growing food. [60]





     Functionalism, while very influential in the world of anthropology, is not seen as an entirely credible theory. There are many points within functionalism that have come under critique since the introduction of the theory.




     Functionalism is a synchronic theory, meaning it focuses on one point in time within a given society, but most societies are shaped by their history. Within Malinowski’s hierarchy of needs, the needs are met in different ways depending largely upon past events; but his focus is placed only on the current process of culture, rather than historical changes. For example, in the United States of America, our safety needs changed drastically after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Flying both intra- and internationally required much stricter forms of security that have become engrained into our society. The focus is mainly on those parts of society that stay relatively stable, however, it is often changes within a society that largely define what a society is becoming and where it is going.  Societies are not always in a state of equilibrium, as functionalism suggests.  When China instated the one-child policy it drastically changed Chinese culture and created many problems that were not present prior to the political decision.  Since the policy has been instated percentages of males amongst the population has increased dramatically because of Chinese parents desire to birth a son.  Chinese culture has much family influence and puts great preference towards the oldest son.  Now that Chinese couples can only have one child drastic measures are taken, including abortions and abandonment, to assure the bringing of a son to the family. "Furthermore, functionalism's anti-historic approach made it impossible to examine social processes" (Goldschmidt 1996:511).


Differences within a society


     Functionalism can also be critiqued for its overly harmonious view on society; it completely disregards cultural differences within single societies. In his works, Malinowski talks about the negative opinion "the white men" had with the "natives" in the South Sea Islands; while they live in virtually the same area and interact with one another regularly, there is a vast difference between the way both parties live their lives.[61]Functionalism over generalizes to the point of exclusion of some certain societal norms. There will always be more than one way needs are met within a society and based on culture, some peoples’ needs may not always be fulfilled by the society they live in.  How would functionalism account for foreign aide?  In the past quarter century small loan systems in Bangladesh have created a small business sector that did not exist half a century ago.  Economic changes and changes in lifestyle (such as Bangladeshi woman running small businesses opposed to performing rural practices) are both factors that help shape culture.  Functionalism does not recognize the changes only the present situations.  


Circular logic


     Malinowski’s functionalist theory revolves around circular logic. It is like the classic question: what came first, the chicken or the egg? Functionalism states that society functions for the sake of meeting individual needs. Malinowski's theory centers around a strict set of needs which include physical, psychological, and social needs.[62] The idea of social needs begs the question, was society created as a means for meeting needs, or were needs created as a response to society and how it provided for its members? This particular point is never clearly addressed in the works of Malinowski and other functionalists.  In society institutions exist to help humans meet their needs.  Functionalism does not ask how, when or why these institutions came to be.  Functionalism only accepts these institutions as a way for humans to meet their needs.  Looking at the United States we see an already large and growing number of women in the workforce.  Church attendance has also declined along with a rising in divorce rate.  A functionalist would observe these trends and figure that they are normal for the society and their culture.  Functionalism is criticized because it does not ask how or why these trends came to be.  In many cases political influence can create change that does not represent cultural preferences.          


Cultural Isolation


     Functionalist theory suggests that society is formed to specifically meet the needs of the individuals participating in that society. This would mean that cultures would never crossover or affect one another. It is well known that it is nearly impossible to have a completely isolated society, so culture sharing is quite common. In Malinowski's work, he goes into great depth in particular about the trading pattern of the people of the South Sea Islands.[63] these people traveled very far to trade with people from other places; thus disproving the idea that cultures are completely isolated from one anther and share no commonalities.  As globalization has and continues to reshape the way the world works, functionalism becomes less and less legitimate.  How can functionalism describe specialization or comparative advantage?  



  1. Paul A. Erikson and Liam D. Murphy, "A History of Anthropological Theory", edited by Betsy Struthers (Broadview Press 2008), pg. 126.
  2. Conrad Phillip Kottak, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity, New York: The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2011, p. 65
  3. Moore, Jerry.  2009.  Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition).  Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press, p. 141.
  4. Visions of Culture, p. 141
  5. Visions of Culture, p. 137
  6. Cultural Anthropology, p.9.
  7. Cultural Anthropology, p.65.
  8. http://www.nndb.com/people/320/000099023/ accessed 8 September 2010.
  9. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy.  2008.  A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition).  Toronto: University of Toronto Press, p. 126.
  10. Cultural Anthropology, p.65.
  11. 10 Visions of Culture, p. 51.
  12. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 01 Sept 2010.
  13. Lecture, Professor Carole Mc Granahan, ANTH 2100 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 01 Sept 2010
  14. Bronislaw Malinowski,"Argonauts of the Western Pacific,Prospect Heights,IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 1922, p.2-3.
  15. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.6
  16. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.6
  17. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.6
  18. Malinowski," Argonauts," p.6
  19. Malinowski," Argonauts," p.10
  20. Malinowski," Argonauts," p.11-22
  21. Malinowski," Argonauts," p.11
  22. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.17
  23. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.18-19
  24. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.19,22
  25. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.22
  26. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.23-24
  27. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.24
  28. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.25
  29. Malinowski, "Argonauts," p.18
  30. http://www.balam-ix.com accessed September 13, 2010
  31. http://www.ildiogene.it accessed September 13, 2010
  32. Kottak 65.
  33. Moore 139.
  34. Erikson 132.
  35. Murdock, George Peter. American Anthropologist 45:441-451. 1943. p.1
  36. Moore 135.
  37. Moore 135.
  38. Moore 136.
  39. Erikson 126.
  40. http://www.aaanet.org/, accessed 12 September 2010.
  41. Murdock 1.
  42. Moore 141.
  43. Murdock 1.
  44. Murdock 1.
  45. Erikson 126.
  46. Colombia Electronic Encyclopedia 6th ed. 12/1/2009 p.1
  47. Erikson 126.
  48. Erikson 132.
  49. Erikson 128.
  50. Erikson 134.
  51. http://kamep.homeip.net/, Accessed 19 September 2010
  52. Bronislaw, Malinoski. Argonauts Of The Western Pacific: An Account Of Native Enterprise And Adventure iIn The Archipelagoes Of Melanesian New Guinea. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc, pp (3,5,6,11). Print.
  53. Malinowski 3
  54. Malinowski 3
  55. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy.  2008.  A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition).  Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  56. Erickson 134
  57. Moore, Jerry.  2009.  Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition).  Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press.
  58. Notes for sessions six and seven on the background and world of Malinowski by William W Kelly
  59. Notes for sessions six and seven on the background and world of Malinowski by William W Kelly
  60. Malinowski, 5-6.
  61. Moore, 139.
  62. Malinowski, 1.

Comments (5)

Rob Irvin said

at 11:32 am on Sep 13, 2010

As stated in Malinowski’s text The Scientific Theory of Culture and Other Essays:
Culture is essentially an instrumental apparatus by which man is put in a position to better cope with the concrete, specific problems that face him in his environment in the course of the satisfaction of his needs.
It is a system of objects, activities, and attitudes in which every part exists as a means to an end.
It is an integral in which the various elements are interdependent.
Such activities, attitudes and objects are organized around important and vital tasks into institutions such as family, the clan, the local community, the tribe, and the organized teams of economic cooperation, political, legal, and educational activity.
From the dynamic point of view, that is, as regards the type of activity, culture can be analyzed into a number of aspects such as education, social control, economics, systems of knowledge, belief, and morality, and also modes of creative and artistic expression" (1944:150).


Rob Irvin said

at 11:33 am on Sep 13, 2010

Critiques of Functionalism There are many criticisms of functionalism and their theories: Functionalist ideas almost portray humans as being autonomous and that only socialization determines our lives. They do not really see humans as the unpredictable creatures they are, not possible to stray away from the predictable ideas that functionalists have of people. Too much stress is placed on harmony and the potential for conflict and its affects are generally ignored. There is no recognition of difference by class, region or ethnic group. The functionalist picture is simply reflective of happy middle-class American families. In particular with Durkheim's work, it is too optimistic and maintains the idea of social solidarity as the main theme, and simply believes pathologies can be solved through simple social reform, ignoring any problems or conflict and the affects.


Rob Irvin said

at 11:36 am on Sep 13, 2010

Functionalism became dominant in American theory in the 1950s and 1960s. With time, criticism of this approach has escalated, resulting in its decline in the early 1970s. Interactions theorists criticized functionalism for failing to conceptualize adequately the complex nature of actors and the process of interaction. Marxist theory argued against functionalism's conservatives and the static nature of analysis that emphasized the contribution of social phenomena to the maintenance of the status quo. Advocates of theory construction questioned the utility of excessively classificatory or typological theories that pigeonholed phenomena in terms of their functions (Turner and Maryanski 1991). Functional theory also has been criticized for its disregard of the historical process and for its presupposition that societies are in a state of equilibrium (Goldschmidt 1996:511).

Rob Irvin said

at 11:37 am on Sep 13, 2010

Since obviously rational, beneficial behaviors require no special explanation, structural-functionalism and neofunctionalism focus on finding rationality in seemingly irrational behaviors. Neofunctionalism, with economic rationality as its basic frame of reference, believes that what is irrational for the individual in the short run may be rational for the group in the long run. Therefore, neofunctionalist explanation seemed to provide a bridge between human behavior, which frequently involves cooperation, and natural selection, where individual interaction involves competition more than cooperation. Additionally, this type of argument was traditional in that it emphasized cultural behaviors whose stated purpose (manifest function) concealed a more important latent function. However, evolutionary theorists suggest that group selection occurs only under rare circumstances, thereby revealing the insufficiency of fitness-related self-interest to sustain among groups of unrelated individuals over any extended period (Bettinger 1996:853).

Economic changes especially with the increased income of woman have lessons the legitimacy of functionalism in present times.

Tori.Gavito@Colorado.EDU said

at 8:52 am on Sep 20, 2010

Thank you whoever fixed the formatting!!!!

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