A Comparison of Three Theoretical Approaches in the Field of Cultural Anthropology

Cultural anthropology is seen to be a significant field in social sciences due to its various contributions to understanding people from different cultures. Specific theoretical approaches are applied by cultural anthropologists in order to accurately study and observe the way in which culture influences the interaction and socialization of a particular group of people. This paper focuses on the major themes of Bronislaw Malinowski, Emile Durkheim, and Claude Levi-Strauss concerning ethnographic fieldwork. Bronislaw Malinowski believed that the productivity of field workers depends on certain conditions, special methods, and genuine scientific aims  (Moore, 1998). He relied greatly on the perspective of functionalism which focused on the society as a satisfaction for the needs of an individual. He stressed the interrelatedness of the function of certain constituent elements in a social field (i.e. norms, customs, traditions, and institutions) in analyzing the social structure. An example of his application of this theory is best seen in his analysis of the prevalence of magic in Trobianders.

Alexander Moore (1998) stated that this specific study of Malinowski was an example of functional theory based on ethnographic evidence of high quality because his data led him to realize that the amount of magic varied in proportion to the danger and uncertainty of the activity. A direct relationship was seen between the amount of danger and the amount of magic practiced. Thus, it can be said that the responses to magic are reflections of an individuals psychological needs to control destiny and chance.

A societal practice such as magic was able to reduce an individuals anxieties about the uncertain. A different viewpoint on functionalism is expressed by Emile Durkheim. His fundamental concepts revolved around the idea of how the individual is able to support society, specifically its solidarity. This theory is best understood in his explanation of the use of religion to control a society. The application of the beliefs and practices involved in religion greatly contribute in unifying a community (Lukes, 1985). Specifically, a unified social interaction such as the church ensures social solidarity. The theory of structuralism in cultural anthropology can be seen as similar to Durkheims view of functionalism in a sense that it structuralism also focuses in questions about bringing order and unifying the society. Although this is so, the concepts found in this theory led by Claude Levi-Strauss are centered more on the human patterns of thought and how man deals with the chaos he is exposed to (Kaplan  Manners, 2009).

His studies, which focus on myth and thinking stresses that man consistently tries to give logic to chaotic experiences by providing classifications of various concepts. As a result, specific segments of societies are labeled complete with their resulting opposite. Examples of which include good-evil, right-left, and life-death.  Theoretical approaches are important to researchers simply because they provide guidelines in the analysis of data. Specifically, the ideas and questions involved in these anthropological theories are able to sustain the objectives of the anthropologist while collecting and interpreting the data from field work.


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