From Unilineal Cultural Evolution to Functionalism

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From Unilineal Cultural Evolution to Functionalism

Several anthropological theories emerged during the early twentieth century. Arguably, the most important of these was Functionalism. Bronislaw Malinowski was a prominent anthropologist in Britain during that time and had great influence on the development of this theory. Malinowski suggested that individuals have certain physiological needs and that cultures develop to meet those needs. Malinowski saw those needs as being nutrition, reproduction, shelter, and protection from enemies. He also proposed that there were other basic, culturally derived needs and he saw these as being economics, social control, education, and political organization Malinowski proposed that the culture of any people could be explained by the functions it performed. The functions of a culture were performed to meet the basic physiological and culturally derived needs of its individual constituents.

A. R. Radcliff-Brown was a contemporary of Malinowski’s in Britain who also belonged to the Functionalist school of thought. Radcliff-Brown differed from Malinowski quite markedly though, in his approach to Functionalism. Malinowski’s emphasis was on the individuals within a culture and how their needs shaped that culture. Radcliff-Brown thought individuals unimportant, in anthropological study. He thought that the various aspects of a culture existed to keep that culture in a stable and constant state.

Radcliff-Brown focused attention on social structure. He suggested that a society is a system of relationships maintaining itself through cybernetic feedback, while institutions are orderly sets of relationships whose function is to maintain the society as a system. Goldschmidt (1996): 510

At the same time as the theory of Functionalism was developing in Britain; the theory of Culture and Personality was being developed in America. The study of culture and personality seeks to understand the growth and development of personal or social identity as it relates to the surrounding social environment. Barnouw (1963): 5. In other words, the personality or psychology of individuals can be studied and conclusions can be drawn about the Culture of those individuals. This school of thought owes much to Freud for its emphasis on psychology (personality) and to an aversion to the racist theories that were popular within A...

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...ture’, and as he reveals elsewhere, his conception of a social structure concentrates on ‘the political institutions, the economic institutions, the kinship organization, and the ritual life. Carrithers (1992): 12-33. However, Carrithers thought that Radcliff-Brown “displayed an orientation to diversity which in important respects is fundamentally similar to Benedict’s”. Carrithers (1992): 12-33. They both ‘took the natural sciences as a model of knowledge’ and thought that such knowledge could be applied to a culture occurring any place or any time in history. Carrithers goes on to note that Benedict, representing the school of Culture and Personality and Radcliff-Brown representing the Functionalists had their work criticized, and built upon by later generations of anthropologists. Eric Wolf’s criticisms of the functionalist approach can be seen as building upon the body of knowledge accumulated up to that time.


Anthropology 103 Text. 2000. Unpublished: University of Otago, Dunedin.

Abbink, Jan & Hans Vermeulen eds. 1982 History and Culture: Essays on the Work of Eric R. Wolf. Amsterdam: Het Spinhuis.

Barnouw, Victor (1963) Culture and Personality.
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