What is the Use of Functional Method in Anthropology?


Functional method

The application of the functional method in the study of anthropological events is based on the fundamental acknowledgement that society is like a biological organization wherein different social institutions work differently.

Herbert Spencer has applied this method in his book entitled Principles of Sociology, but the best examples of its application are found in Durkheim’s works The Division of labour in Society and The Rules of Sociological Method. Durkheim has regarded the relation of social, institutions with the needs of social individual as the work of social institution. He has shown difference between normal and pathological work of an institution.


Functional method in anthropology is the creation of reactions of the evolutionary methods. These anthropologists criticized the application of comparative and historical methods in anthropology. According to them, the principle of evolution cannot present a scientific definition of the whole social history of man.

But the functional method was criticised because its original recognition was not satisfactory. As a matter of fact there are many such differences between society and biological organization on the basis of which it can be said that society is not an organic structure. While the parts of animal body do not have independent government and life individuals of a society do have their independent government and life. While the body regulates the functions of its organs in an animal, it is not so in society.

Even then, in the field of social anthropology, functional method has been applied m important studies of the functions of various social institutions in primitive society. Many important studies of the village communities have been done through the help of this method. Malinowski’s studies are worth mentioning in this connection.

But Malinowski’s recognition of the functional integration in various parts of society, as in animals, has been criticised. This recognition of Malinowski created difficulty in explaining social changes in society. The modern anthropologists, therefore, regard the application of functional method as proper only in a limited field and many precautions are considered necessary in applying this method.


In this connection, the suggestions of R.K. Murton are important, Murton differentiated between function and dysfunction and between manifest and latent functions. He drew attention to the fact that there are many functions of social institution and one or other of these functions can be more important and, for the discovery of which, historical and comparative studies can prove to be more useful. In the words of Bottomore, “What is most valuable in the functionalist approach is the greater emphasis and clarity given to the simple idea that in every particular society the different social activities are interconnected. It still remains to discover however, in each case, which activities are related and how they are related.”

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