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 Anthropology and elsewhere at that time. American anthropologist Ruth Benedict helped develop the Culture and Personality school. She described cultures as being of four types Apollonian, Dionysian, Paranoid and Meglomaniac. Benedict used these types to characterize various cultures that she studied.
The most famous exponent of the school of Culture and Personality is Margaret Mead. Margaret Mead was a student of Franz Boas and Ruth Benedict. Though in the course of her career she would eclipse the fame of her tutors, particularly the latter. Mead’s first field study was on the Pacific Island of Samoa, where she studied the lives of the adolescent girls in that culture. From this field study, she produced her famous work Coming of Age in Samoa (1949). In this work, she investigated the relationship between culture and personality by comparing the lives of adolescents in Samoa to those of American youths. She concentrated particularly on the sexual experiences of the girls she studied in Samoan culture; drawing the conclusion that the sexually permissive atmosphere of Samoan culture produced healthier less “stormy” adolescents than that of her own more repressed American culture.
The theories of Culture and Personality and Functionalism addressed and rebutted many of the more quaint aspects of the Evolutionary and Diffusionist theories of the nineteenth century. The methodology developed by these pioneers is still in use by anthropologists today. That is, participant observation and a complete involvement in the culture and language of the people being studied.
Eric Wolf counters the functionalist position by suggesting that a culture cannot be seen just in relationship to the psychology of the individuals within the culture and the conclusions that might be drawn from that. Wolf sees culture and society as a process of structuring and change. He contends that a society must be seen in its historical context. When Wolf says - The functionalists, in turn, rejected altogether the conjectural history of the diffusionists in favour of the analysis of internal functioning putatively isolated wholes Wolf (1982), he is taking issue with the exclusion of the historical context of a society and the putative isolation of societies. He is contending that a society can be more properly explained as part