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The ‘structural-functionalist’ school defined British social anthropology for the first half of the twentieth century.



The structure and function of structural-functionalism

Structural-functionalism held sway as a theoretical paradigm for decades during the twentieth century, and is still influential today.

Why so exciting? What are its main features? What do the concepts reveal about the nature of social activity? Trajectories - from Radcliffe-Brown’s initial formulation of the model through to its deployment by Evan-Pritchard, Fortes, the Manchester School, and ‘native anthropologists’ from West Africa to Israel.

General introductions to the structural-functionalist school:

Malinowski style functionalism

Malinowski Bateson Evans - Pritchard 1937 Audrey Richards Isaac Schapera

Radcliffe-Brown style functionalism

EEP Fortes Radcliffe-Brown Forde

Tribe (in functionalism) - identified by distinct language, territory, political/social organisation. Individuals constrained in their social role.

EEP & Fortes, eds. African Political Systems - Functionalist account. make distinction between primitive states and stateless societies. Critique : overly reductionist.

Structural-functionalism in context: reviews of anthropology in specific locations / institutions:

The living death of structural-functionalism

Few theories have been as widely pilloried as structural functionalism, with critiques being directed from a number of fronts. The lecture explores why anthropologists in the latter half of the twentieth century rejected the paradigm so strongly, and evaluates the extent to which these critiques were really fair. Finally, we will address the question of the ways in which such a “dismissed” perspective continues to be influential today. Are the critiques that defeated the theory within anthropology forty years ago no longer being heeded, or no longer relevant? Are contemporary versions of ‘structural functionalism’ really the same thing as older forms? What might we learn about each from a comparison between them?

Johannes Fabian 1983 Time and the Other - good critique of SF.

Evaluations of structural-functionalism from a variety of perspectives

The most relevant sections of these works of Leach’s are all reprinted In Hugh-Jones & Laidlaw (eds) The essential Edmund Leach volume 1 – if using this source, also check out the book reviews on pp 74-79

Postcolonial critiques of structural-functionalism

On more recent deployments of structural-functionalist perspectives


1. Compare and contrast the ways in which any three or more structural-functionalist authors have dealt with individual psychology in their analyses of ‘social structure’. Answer with detailed reference to their ethnographic works.

2. ‘Has the too narrow pursuit of Radcliffe-Brown’s principles led to a dead end?’ (LEACH). Through reference to specific ethnographies, outline what you consider to be the key steps in the development of the structural-functionalist paradigm. Does your account indicate that Radcliffe-Brown’s principles were indeed followed ‘too narrowly’?

3. Explain some of the theories, methodologies, or analytical approaches that critics of structural-functionalism would prefer to have seen used instead. Then, with reference to at least two ethnographies, discuss the competing merits of these approaches for making sense of the material at hand.

4. Why do some contemporary writers continue to draw inspiration from structural/functionalist ideas?

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