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The main premises and limitations of functionalism

The theory I have chosen is functionalism, whose basis is the systemic nature of culture, or what might be most appropriately designated as a “glue” concept of culture. I am however, deeply aware that no theory explains everything and every theory has its limitations, reason why the grand theories all failed: calling for complementarity in the theoretical frameworks and methodological assumptions that informs our research. This fact explains the continuous growth of theory in anthropology from evolutionism with its unilineality to poststructuralist theories today. In what follows, I will explain and illustrate the main premises of functionalism, and highlight the limitations of the functionalist framework.

Functionalism was one of the earliest anthropological theories. Its main theoretical postulate is an analogy of the human organism as a microcosm of society: parts as making up the whole, different individuals playing different roles and having different statuses, although one individual can have different statuses simultaneously. According to this metaphor, the various parts of the human body like the traits and institutions of a culture are interrelated and work together to ensure its proper functioning (see Barth, 1979:20-22). Following one of functionalism’s precursors, Polish-born British anthropologist Malinowski, who is associated with bio-cultural/psychological functionalism, cultural institutions are meant to meet human instrumental needs: economics, social control, education, political organization among others. On the other hand, Radcliffe-Brown who developed the idea of social structure presents human society as based on networks of social relationship and that institutions maintain society as a system. The difference between Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown is that unlike the former who emphasizes the individual, the latter sees the individual as ‘irrelevant’(Goldschmidt,1996:510) As a critique against evolutionism, diffusionism and historicism, functionalism wanted a shift away from speculative history and cultural ‘survivals’ to ahistorical synchronic study of social ‘institutions’ within bounded, functioning societies(Young,1991:445).

The core idea of the functionalists was to look for the reality of events in their present day manifestations. This does not imply a wholesome rejection of history per se but rather, a rejection of what Harris (1968:524) calls ‘pseudo-history’. Methodologically speaking, the functionalists viewed society in systematic terms, parts as being dependent on one another so as to maintain social equilibrium, but they recognized the prospects for internal social conflicts and disequilibrium. The second methodological premise is that of intensive fieldwork through the traditional method of participant observation. It implies in this case, the search for functional relationships among customs and institutions as a useful mechanism of abstracting data. And thirdly, analysis was to be based on short time scale.

As recent advances in anthropological and sociological theory suggests, culture is contestation and we need to write against the whole concept of culture so as to embrace the very dynamism of anthropological fieldwork due to the mobility of subjects owing to globalization. Gupta and Ferguson (1997:4) have rightly called for anthropology to embrace changing trends in contemporary world marked by “people, objects and ideas rapidly shifting”. These shifts; they argue have changed the notion of the “field” as a fixed territorial space and of people as “immobile” and dealt a serious blow to the “traditional” notion of community as bounded. This is quite evident when considering “new tribes” like refugees, migrants, displaced and nomadic communities. They note that culture is not bounded and therefore does not occupy designated spaces. They further note that such conception do not account for people inhabiting borderlands nor do they factor in cultural differences of people occupying the same geographical space. They further assert that post-coloniality and globalization have heralded the idea of hybrid cultures in which concepts like identity and solidarity are no longer based on proximity to marked spaces and contact zones and thus making the case for a radical re-thinking of anthropological models of analysis (Ibid). Following Appadurai, (1991; 191,196), the contemporary world structured by the overarching effects of globalization has become quite “de-territorialized” in ways that have altered the conception of “locality and space”. In the same light, Fox and Gingrich note that “of late, the notion of whole cultures or integrated societies has been questioned and new ideas about globalization, cultural flows, fragmentation and fluid signs have been touted as definitive blows to anthropology’s traditional objects of study: local communities of some order (2002:27). Clifford also observed that ethnographic studies seeking to disassociate themselves from “totalizing anthropology” use “multiple allegories” (1986:103). Against this backdrop, there has been a shift from single to multiple case studies: study individuals both in the “village” and in the “urban milieu” to which they have migrated, from single to multiple case studies, calling for the need to always “extend out” beyond the locale of “natives” and capture the voices of those away from “home” since migration may presuppose a change or modification of values and lifestyle. Multiple case study designs have been variously justified: Ethnographic data from multiple-case studies is often considered more persuasive and thus making the overall study more robust (Yin, 1994:141). A multiple case study exposes regularities through the simultaneous inspection of numerous cases (Eckstein, 2000:137). ‘All other things being equal, a finding emerging repeatedly in the study of numerous sites (‘a multi-site study’) would seem to be more likely to be a good working hypothesis about some yet unstudied site than a finding emerging from just one or two sites’ (Schofield, 2000:79). Such a study is capable of going beneath the political binaries (Burawoy,1998:6) of researcher and subject, local, national and international contexts so as to uncover ‘multiple processes, interests and identities’ ‘since the postcolonial context provides fertile ground for re-condensing these proliferating differences around local, national, and global links’ in view of the fact that various actors and stakeholders are multiply drawn into alliances at all levels (Buroway,1998:11).

Like any other theoretical perspective, functionalism has received its own share of criticisms. Among these is the fact that the presence of an institution cannot precede its existence usefully suggesting that functionalist explanations carry a ‘hardened’ notion of culture which is obviously not the case because historical processes are always at work. It is further assumed not to be concerned with social processes and to negate cross-cultural comparison because it sees every institution insitu.

As one of the earliest anthropological theories, its forerunners suffered from lack of historical data in so-called ‘primitive societies’ which might have greatly inhibited the quality of the data they obtained and therefore the type of analysis and theory they eventually came to construct. Secondly, ‘proto-anthropology’ was begun by non-professionals: missionaries, travelers, and colonial administrators who wrote mostly to exoticize the communities they had come in contact with and to entertain people. First hour anthropologists were therefore partly preoccupied with making sense of these societies from the standpoint of the ‘natives’ through participant observation. They were further preoccupied with particular questions, particular institutions, how societies that were presumed to have no ‘histories’ and other institutions were capable of meeting particular cultural needs. Generally, they adopted an encyclopedic tradition, trying unlike today to study and grasp the functional relevance and interrelationships of every institution to the other within a given culture. E.E. Evans-Pritchard’s (1940) classic study of the Nuer for instance, shows how an understanding of social structure is important to grasping the overall functioning of Nuer acephalous society. He does this using his concepts of fussion and fission, segmentation and combination with segments of the same order. By so doing, he demonstrates that in politics there are no permanent enemies. Malinowski’s study of the Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea and the ceremonial annual kula Ring exchange shows its association with magic, religion, kinship and trade. In the same light, in Argonautes of the Western Pacific (1922), he paints a total picture of the people’s life through participant observation detailing among others, their technology, sexual life, everyday life and conflict resolution.

One way of going beyond the limitations of these studies would have been to see these societies in historical context, as dynamic over time since the overall vision of the functionalist was not to negate history but rather, only to explain the present. Such a view will reconceptualize culture, not as based on consensus but rather as renegotiated by stakeholders in the light of changing circumstances. They dealt with circumscribed field sites and therefore did not go beyond local or how extra-local forces affected individuals in the societies that they studied. It is true from the history of sociological theory that every theoretical perspective has its shortcomings, calling for the need for complementarity. This is even more accentuated because social phenomena are multifaceted- different causal factors might explain the existence of a particular phenomenon. For instance, the classic example of Durkheim’s suicide based on observation may not be tenable today because of changes in social structures. Theories are rooted in particular historical epochs. Time changes and certain explanations become untenable, calling for more research and the need to reformulate old theories or discard them totally. This further demonstrates the spatio-temporal relativity of truth. There are of course, no universal truths despite the existence of ‘cultural universals’. Functionalist theories emerged as a response to the crisis of social order, seemingly the outcome of two developments. The first was industrial society with its loss of community, poor working conditions and increase in crime. The second was the French revolution with its ideals of equality, happiness and freedom of the individual. These two events were influential in the development of the ‘consensus’ theory, although this theory fails to address conflict.

Often times, some studies are replicated using different theoretical assumptions over time demonstrating that no theory is capable of explaining every aspect of human society. This explains why some anthropologists return to their field sites several years later so as to map the various changes that have taken place after their fieldwork. The dilemma with grand theories such as functionalism is their claim of attempting to explain every known phenomenon in the universe. The Durkheimian theory on suicide for example, seems to present a unilineal view of culture- some social groups and people with a protestant religious ethos are more prone to commit suicide than others. But even within a group, the group’s values are constantly being contested and each group in reality might have multiple identities. Culture is actually a constant field of contest, negotiation and constant renegotiation.

In summary, functionalism was geared towards investigating particular phenomenon using particular theoretical assumptions and methodological approaches. The authors were preoccupied with particular questions which largely determined their theoretical assumptions and above all, these theories were imbricated in particular historical moments and with changing times, some of their assumptions have been shown to be faulty.

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