Functionalism is one methodology used by certain anthropologists, a methodology by which they explain the data they gather on different cultures. The functionalists have contributed much to the field of anthropology, and they have also addressed certain specific issues identified with their approach to the study of human cultures. Among the more important functionalist-oriented anthropologists are Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown. The nature of functionalism will be considered in terms of its main concepts, current issues debated by scholars using this theoretical orientation, and problems addressed by the functionalists, all with an eye to assessing the value of this particular theoretical approach.
The social anthropologists took a different tack from the existing theoretical structure in the 1920s. Anthropologists at the time considered certain elements to be characteristic indicators of primitive societies, such as strange kinship practices, magic, and witchcraft. The debate was never clear-cut and developed over many years. Earlier anthropologists such as Sir James George Frazer in his Golden Bough saw the contrast between primitive and civilized as resting on a presumed difference in the mental type of the individual, while the new sociological thinkers saw the difference in the type of society into which the individual happened to be born (Leach, 1982, p. 22).
Between 1926 and 1945 the labels "social anthropology" and "functionalist anthropology" were virtually synonymous, and both terms carried both positive and negative implications:
Functionalist anthropologists concerned themselves with the interdependence of institutions within a limited context of time and space; conversely they did not concern themselves with the speculative reconstruction of historical process (Leach, 1982, p. 28).
There were different types of functional anthropologist, however, and their writings often diverge as much ...