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Encyclopedia > Structural functionalism

The term structural functionalism has origins in British anthropology and USA sociology. In Britain, the collected essays of Alfred Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) were published in 1952 [1] as "Structure and Function in Primitive Society". In the United States, Talcott Parsons published The Social System in 1951 [2],in which he wrote that "the systematisation of theory in the present state of knowledge must be in structural-functional terms". [3]

It could be argued that the term "structural functionalism" emerged as a retrospective description of the theories of the British anthropologists and as a description of the emerging sociological research paradigm in the United States. In "Social Theory and Social Structure" (1949/1957) [4] Robert Merton called this "A Paradigm for Functional Analysis in Sociology". His analysis of it, in terms of function and structure, drew examples from the British anthropologists.

Structural functionalism, also known by the names social systems paradigm addresses what functions various elements of the social system perform in regard to the entire system. This theory was developed in the interwar period by Talcott Parsons. Social structure (also referred to as a social system) is a system in which people forming the society are organized by a patterns of prelationships. ... Since the late 1800s, the word paradigm (IPA: ) has referred to a thought pattern in any scientific discipline or other epistemological context. ... The Interwar period was the time between World War I and World War II, ergo the 1920s and 1930s. ... Talcott Parsons (December 13, 1902-May 8, 1979) was the best-known sociologist in the United States, and one of the best-known in the world for many years. ...

Theoretical background

drew its inspiration primarily from the ideas of Emile Durkheim, BronisÅ‚aw Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. Durkheim was concerned with the question how societies maintain internal stability and survive over time. He sought to explain social cohesion and stability through the concept of solidarity. In "primitive" societies it was mechanical solidarity, the fact that everybody performed similar tasks, that held society together. Durkheim proposed that such societies tend to be segmentary, being composed of equivalent parts that are held together by shared values, common symbols, or, as his nephew Mauss held, systems of exchanges. In modern, complex societies members perform very different tasks, meaning that a strong interdependence develops between them. Based on the metaphor of an organism in which many parts function together to sustain the whole, Durkheim argued that complex societies are held together by organic solidarity. He espoused a strong sociological perspective of society which was continued by Radcliffe-Brown, who, following Auguste Comte, believed that the social constituted a separate "level" of reality distinct from both the biological and from inorganic matter. Explanations of social phenomena therefore had to be constructed within this social level, with individuals merely being transient occupants of comparatively stable social roles. David Émile Durkheim (April 15, 1858 - November 15, 1917) is known as the founder of modern sociology. ... BronisÅ‚aw Kasper Malinowski (April 7, 1884 – May 16, 1942) was a Polish anthropologist widely considered to be one of the most important anthropologists of the twentieth century because of his pioneering work on ethnographic fieldwork, the study of reciprocity, and his detailed contribution to the study of Melanesia. ... Solidarity in sociology refers to the feeling or condition of unity based on common goals, interests, and sympathies among a groups members. ... Auguste Comte Auguste Comte (full name Isidore Marie Auguste François Xavier Comte) (January 17 (recorded January 19), 1798 - September 5, 1857) was a positivist thinker and came up with the term of sociology to name the new science made by Saint-Simon. ...

Radcliffe-Brown held that unilineal forms of organisation are efficient mechanisms to transmit social status as well as rights and duties between generations independent of the individuals within them, thus ensuring social stability and the continuous reproduction of the social system. Consequently, he proposed that most stateless "primitive" societies that lack strong centralised institutions or government are based on an association of such corporate descent groups. Structural-functionalism also took on Malinowski's argument that the basic building block of society is the nuclear family, and that clans are therefore an outgrowth of families, not vice versa (Barnard, 2000; Layton, 1997; Kuper, 1988).

The central concern of structural-functionalism was a continuation of the Durkheimian task of explaining the apparent stability and internal cohesion of societies which are necessary to ensure its continued existence over time. Societies are seen as coherent, bounded and fundamentally relational constructs, who function like organisms, with their various parts (social institutions) working together to maintain and reproduce them. The various parts of society are assumed to work in an unconscious, quasi-automatic fashion towards the maintenance of the overall social equilibrium. All social and cultural phenomena are therefore seen as being functional in the sense of working together to achieve this state and are effectively deemed to have a "life" of their own. They are then primarily analysed in terms of this function they play. Individuals are significant not in and of themselves but in terms of their status, their position in patterns of social relations, and their role, the behaviour(s) associated with their status. The social structure is then the network of statuses connected by associated roles (cf. Layton, 1997:37-38).

Structural functionalism and unilineal descent

In their attempt to explain the social stability of African "primitive" stateless societies where they undertook their fieldwork, Evans-Pritchard (organised around unilineal descent groups. Such groups function like "corporate groups", meaning that they are stable and lasting social groups with clear rules of membership and an internal structure that regulates each member's relation to other members through the assigning of statuses and roles. Corporate groups are characterised by common purposes, such as administering property or defending against attacks; they form a permanent social structure that persists well beyond the lifespan of their members. In the case of the Tallensi and the Nuer, these corporate groups were based on kinship, or more specifically, on unilineal descent; consequently Evans-Pritchard's and Fortes' model is called "descent theory". Moreover, in this African context territorial divisions were aligned with lineages; descent theory therefore synthesised both blood and soil as two sides of one coin (cf. Kuper, 1988:195). Affinal ties with the parent through whom descent is not reckoned, however, are considered to be merely complementary or secondary (Fortes created the concept of "complimentary filiation"), with the reckoning of kinship through descent being considered the primary organising force of social systems. Because of its strong emphasis on unilineal descent, this new kinship theory came to be called "descent theory". Sir Edward Evan (E. E.) Evans-Pritchard (September 21, 1902 - September 11, 1973) was a British anthropologist instrumental in the development of social anthropology in that country. ... The Tallensi are a tribal people of northern Ghana, numbering a few tens of thousands. ... The Nuer are a confederation of tribes Southern Sudan and western Ethiopia which together form one of the largest ethnic groups in East Africa. ...


Before long, descent theory had found its critics. Many African tribal societies seemed to fit this neat model rather well, although Africanists, such as Richards, also argued that Fortes and Evans-Pritchard had deliberately downplayed internal contradictions and overemphasised the stability of the local lineage systems and their significance for the organisation of society (cf. Kuper, 1988:196, 205-6). However, in many Asian settings the problems were even more obvious. In Papua New Guinea, the local patrilineal descent groups were fragmented and contained large amounts of non-agnates. Status distinctions did not depend on descent, and genealogies were too short to account for social solidarity through identification with a common ancestor. In particular, the phenomenon of cognatic (or bilateral) kinship posed a serious problem to the proposition that descent groups are the primary element behind the social structures of "primitive" societies.

Leach's (1966) critique came in the form of the classical Malinowskian argument, pointing out that "in Evans-Pritchard's studies of the Nuear and also in Fortes's studies of the Tallensi unilineal descent turns out to be largely an ideal concept to which the empirical facts are only adapted by means of fictions." (1966:8). People's self-interest, manoeuvring, manipulation and competition had been ignored. Moreover, descent theory neglected the significance of marriage and affinal ties, which were emphasised by Levi-Strauss' structural anthropology, at the expense of overemphasising the role of descent. To quote Leach: "The evident importance attached to matrilateral and affinal kinship connections is not so much explained as explained away." (ibid.).. Structural anthropology had its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. ...



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