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Functionalism and Structuralism Essay

In this essay I will be using Malinowski’s Functionalist approach and Levi-Strauss’s Structuralism, whilst analyzing the Trobrianders society and way of life.

Bronislaw Malinowski initially created the Anthropological school of Functionalism. Malinowski’s version of Functionalism is more psychologically linked, and focuses on his idea that people have psychological and physical needs, and hence social institutions develop in order to meet these needs. Malinowski divides these needs into seven categories, nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement and growth. Through his fieldwork and ethnography Malinowski demonstrates how each of these needs are met through certain functions in society. Malinowski is best known for the fieldwork that he conducted among the Trobrianders of the Trobriand Islands. Malinowski was among the Trobrianders from 1915 till 1918. Though the ethnographies that Malinowski published, the functionalist analyst approach is clearly presented.

French structuralism is another approach, which concerns itself with the psychological aspect; this is because it also deals with the cognitive processes. Levi-Strauss essentially led the way for French structuralism, however he was not the first to come up with it. Structuralism in reference to Levi-Strauss is different to that which is associated with Radcliffe-Brown. As Levi-Strauss uses structuralism, he does not limit it to anthropology. Levi-Strauss searched for in depth structures of psychobiological nature, which is consistent for all human beings. These structures are very hidden within a society and are only apparent when observing very slight surface behavior, which, in turn, changes from culture to culture. . He claimed the structure of human thought to be underlined by binary oppositions (e.g. black/white), which exists in all within all cultural contexts, meaning it is universal.

The Trobrianders live in sub-clans that are referred to as ‘Dala’, and since the Trobrianders practice exogamy; people can only marry individuals from another Dala. This kinships pattern functions as a way of categorizing, or organizing individuals so as to prevent ‘incest’. The Trobriand view of incest is different to western definition of incest, in western society incest refers to blood relatives, whereas in the Trobriand society, incest refers to all the members of the Dala, which includes ‘classificatory’ relatives as well as blood relatives. So the exogamous pattern is a method of preventing this incest from occurring. It is also a way of creating alliances and establishing friendships with other Dalas, because then members of each Dala become the ‘affines’ of the new couple. This also helps with the ‘status’ of the Dala, because it is seen as good to have alliances with neighboring clans in case of war. This function deals with the basic need of ‘safety’.

Regarding religion, the Trobrianders believe in spirits as well as sorcery. They believe that in order to get pregnant a Baloma spirit needs to impregnate the woman, rather than a man. This is linked to their kinship pattern of matrilineal corporate descent. Also, this belief disassociates pregnancy with sex, making sex a much more physical act rather than biological. Therefore, when the Trobrianders reach their adolescence and become sexually active, the young men move into their own ‘bachelor huts’. Nevertheless when a couple actually chooses to get serious and get married, they stop all public displays of affection and remain faithful to each other, this then relates to the basic need of “bodily comfort”, having a family unit.

In terms of economics, an important intuition that the Trobrianders engage in is the exchange of yams. Yams are ground in two separate gardens; one garden is for sacred yams, which get blessed by a priest. These yams are used as offerings to affines or to repay debts to individuals. For example, when a new couple is formed, the wife’s brother will have to pay her and her husband yams, as a sign of respect and alliance. In turn the husbands will give yams to his sister and her husband. This is an example of an asymmetrical exchange. The yams are also a symbol of status; people leave the yams that they receive outside their huts; in plain view of the whole village. The bigger the yam pile, the higher you are in status. The other garden has yams that are used for basic nutrition.

Establishing alliances and competing for status is an institution that is highly popular among the Trobrianders. Another exchange, which is larger than the yam exchange, is the Kula ring. The Kula ring is the most prestigious exchange within the Trobriand society. It is so prestigious that only the chiefs of villages are allowed to participate, but they will bring a whole team of men along with them on the journey. The exchange includes all the Trobriand Islands and some of the small neighboring islands. In this exchange, necklaces and bracelets that have been fabricated specially are traded round the circle. It is an asymmetrical exchange because necklaces are sent in one direction of the Kula ring, while the bracelets are sent the other.

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