Functionalism in Anthropology: The Works of Durkheim and Malinowski

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  • 0:01 Definition of Terms
  • 0:58 Comparisons & Examples
  • 2:35 Malinowski
  • 3:50 Durkheim &…
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will be an overview of the theoretical perspective of functionalism. It will highlight the works of Malinowski and Durkheim as well as the theory of structural-functionalism.

Definition of Terms

When we study the different theories of anthropology, things can get a bit difficult to understand. Actually, unless you have a minor in one of the social sciences, I'd go as far as to say things can be downright confusing!

Keeping this in mind, today's lesson on the theoretical perspective of functionalism will be very elementary indeed. Our goal will be to get ourselves to the place where we can define functionalism and identify some of its leading proponents. If we can accomplish this, we'll call it a good day!

Let's start with the definition, and then we'll get to its supporters. According to the work of leading anthropologists Carol and Melvin Ember, functionalism is the theoretical orientation that looks for the function that a certain aspect of culture or social life plays in maintaining a cultural system. It's the idea that the function of everything we do is to support ourselves or our society.

Comparisons & Examples

Let's break it down a bit more. A common way to do this is to compare functionalism in anthropology to functionalism in biology. Think of it this way: our bodies have many organs; the function of each organ is to keep us alive. The heart doesn't just pump blood for its own sake; its 'function' is to bring blood to the rest of our systems so that we stay alive. In the same manner, the lungs don't just process oxygen for their own sake, they 'function' so we might live.

In the same manner, functionalism asserts that the function of all aspects of culture, or the learned behaviors and ideas that are characteristic of a particular people group, is to keep its people and its society alive and kicking! To give a tangible example, let's look at religion.

A staunch functionalist would probably claim that religion is just a man-made part of culture that functions to keep society ticking. To explain: humans have anxiety; in turn, they need some sort of stability. Enter religion, a way for man to explain unexplained things, an anchor for man to hold on to when things seem out of control.

Therefore, as a part of culture, religion's function, according to a functionalist, is to take care of man's need for security. Like the heart pumps the body with blood to keep it going, religions pump man with hope to keep him moving along. Restating our definition, an ardent functionalist would say that religion, as an aspect of culture, 'functions' in order to maintain the society in which it exists.


With the definition of functionalism sort of nailed down, let's move on to two of the men who are usually considered its biggest proponents. Now, depending which source you read, both of these guys are given credit with developing the theory of functionalism. For our purposes, we'll let the professionals argue over who really came up with the theory. We'll just refer to Bronislaw Malinowski and Émile Durkheim as two of the most famous functionalists in history.

First, Bronislaw Malinowski, as a British anthropologist, Malinowski claimed that all aspects of culture function in order to support society. However, he put a bit of a twist on it. For him, it was more individual or personal. He asserted that all aspects of culture originated in order to meet the need of the individual.

In other words, culture came about because individuals had needs. As these individual needs are met, the individual is then free to support society. To put him in a neat little box, let's say that Bronislaw Malinowski felt that culture functioned to take care of the need of the individual. To him, the individual trumped society. Unfortunately for Malinowski, most of his theories have been rather dismissed by more modern anthropologists.

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