IB Cultural Anthropology/The Nature of Culture/Functionalism

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The Functionalist school of anthropological thought was created by Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. The doctrine of functionalism states that all cultural traits arise as human adaptations to survive in a particular environment. So, any trait can be analyzed to find a function related to the survival of the individual or society.

Survival Needs[edit]


Culture must meet the survival needs of the individual and of the society. Needs of the individual are:

  • Method for getting food
    • This is perhaps the most important function of culture. Without a method of getting food, social structure falls apart.
  • Tools
    • This is often related to the other survival needs, but is necessary nevertheless.
  • Safety
  • Relations to other humans
  • Medical Needs
  • Fear / Stress


Needs of the society are:

  • Reproduction
    • Children also need to be socialized
  • Production and distribution of resources
  • Maintenance of order
    • Gossip is predominantly used in preliterate societies


To accomplish these needs of both individual and society cultures generally have certain institutions (among others):

  • Kinship
  • Government
  • Law
  • Economy
  • Religion

Above all, a culture must motivate humans to survive. Cultures must provide humans with a meaning in life at some level that wills them to put the effort into survival. Without this fundamental motivation, humans would not perform the work needed to continue their existence and the culture would become extinct.

Actually, both Radcliff-Brown and Malinowski is credited with fuctionalism. Radcliff-Brown developed a brach called structural-functionalism.

Radcliffe-Brown vs. Malinowski[edit]

Two interpretations of the functionalist school of thought exist: that of Radcliffe-Brown, and that of Malinowski. Alfred Radcliffe-Brown is associated with Structural Functionalism arguing that all of culture serves to support the social structure of the group. The needs of the group must first be met before the needs of the individual can be addressed. Bronislaw Malinowski, however, is associated with Psychological Functionalism which states that all behaviors primarily support the needs of the individual. Any support to the social structure as a whole merely grows out of those behaviors that are advantageous to an individual.


In both interpretations, functionalists analyze culture in three categories:

  • Structure
  • Function
  • Organization


The structure of a culture is a general description of the culture itself. It consists of the rules and principles that govern behavior and thought. Institutions of the culture such as the kinship or economic system are described under the structure of the culture. The structure of a culture is what allows social order to exist. Structure is what maintains relationships among individuals and groups.


The function of various cultural traits could be described closely, but not quite correctly as the ‘purpose.’ Function is the way that the structure of a culture serves individual and group needs. Function often describes the integration of a culture by relating one trait of a culture indirectly involved with survival to another one more directly involved with survival.

Often cultures might have the same institution, yet for different reasons. Functionalism is well suited for analyzing these cultures because it provides clear reasons as to why subtle differences between the two structures exist. Functionalism becomes cumbersome, however, in analyzing cultures in which the function is the same but the structure is radically different. In other words, functionalism cannot provide for variation between cultures.


A culture often provides an individual with several choices of behavior in a given situation. These choices are called one’s agency. Agency can be thought of as a restricted free will. One has a range of choice, but these choices are strongly constrained by the bounds of one’s culture. Regardless of the actual situation or choices, however, the agency will always promote self-interest and the interest of the group.

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