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

Cultural anthropology, which is also known as social or sociocultural anthropology, is defined as the study of customary patterns in human behavior, thought and feelings (Haviland, Walrath and Prins, 2006). In order to understand the work of cultural anthropologists, culture should be clarified and basically understood since it is the societys shared and socially transmitted ideas, values and perceptions (Haviland, Walrath and Prins, 2006). Various aspects of culture are thus used to make sense of experience that generates the reflection in behavior (Haviland, Walrath and Prins, 2006). 

Cultural Anthropology is seen to be a significant field in social sciences due to its various contributions to understanding people from different cultures. Essentially, this method is founded on the observation of phenomena as they occur in nature (Moore, 1998) focusing primarily on the study of contemporary cultures wherever they may be found in the world (Ferraro, 2006). Particular cultures can be  compared by the patterns and processes that are distinguished through repetitive charting and cross-checking of natural events and interactions between organisms especially for human beings (Moore, 1998). In relation to this, 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. Structural functionalism, cultural functionalism, and structuralism are some of the widely used theoretical approaches which have contributed greatly to ethnographic fieldwork. Various anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinoski, Emile Durkheim, and Claude Levi-Strauss have worked on developing and further analyzing these theoretical approaches through their application in research studies or ethnographic fieldwork.

Bronislaw Malinowski believed that the productivity of field workers depends on certain conditions, special methods, and genuine scientific aims  (Moore, 1998). His theoretical framework made posits that all facts in a social field are interrelated so that changes in one affect all the others (Moore, 1998). Like Boas, Malinowski is a strong advocate of field work and insisted on learning the local language in order to try and understand a culture from an insiders perspectives (Ferraro, 2006). He relied greatly on the perspective of functionalism which concentrated on exploring how contemporary cultures operated or functioned on the society (Ferraro, 2006) as a satisfaction for the needs of an individual (Bailey, 2009). His discussions emphasized that the needs of individuals should be served or met by culture, specifically the needs which have a biological, psychological, andor social nature (Bailey, 2009). Also, he stated that not only do all aspects of a culture have a function, but it is also related to one another (Ferraro, 2006) stressing 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 Trobiand Islanders as part of their core beliefs or religion (Ferraro, 2006). Although religion and magic are commonly expressed as two distinct aspects, Titiev (1960) stated that the realizations concerning the vagueness and uncertainties of this common idea regarding the said division are increasing. Thus, people are now refusing to recognize the traditional dichotomy and now prefer to treat both sets of practices as one (Titiev 1960). This functionalist tenet is no better illustrated when kula not only performs the function of distributing goods within the society but is related to many other areas of the Trobiand Culture, which includes political structure, magic, technology, kinship, social status, myth and social control (Ferraro, 2006).  Alexander Moore (1998) also 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.

On the other hand, 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. According to him, religion dictates to people actions, ideas, and sentiments and it also possesses its own authority. Therefore, like law and morality, it has a regulating function in society and creates social equilibrium (Hosu, 2009). He admitted to having trouble breaking free of this assumption himself until he finally did so in the process of deciding whether it made sense to apply notions of health and sickness to societies as well as to individuals (Schneider, 2006). Structural functionalism, is best understood in his explanation of the use of religion to control a society.

His approach to the topic was complex and involved several different forms of explanation and the core was the form called structural (Schneider, 2006). The application of the beliefs and practices focused on religion as a great tool in unifying a community (Lukes, 1985). The domain of religion presents a fascinating field for inquiry by social scientists, in which, like magic, religion is populated with entities (i.e. Gods, miracles and sacred objects) whose existence or spiritual qualities are not detectable by the accepted methods and instruments of science (Schneider, 2006). Specifically, a unified social interaction such as the church ensures social solidarity. Durkheim dismissed some of the easier answers to this question that had been provided and assumed that religion resulted from flawed thinking on the part of primitive people (Schneider, 2006). Yet, Durkheim doubted that religion was merely an immature phase in human intellectual development. The fact that questions regarding religion could be explained by social science made him hypothesize and focus on the his question which states, What sort of a science is it whose principle discovery is that the subject of which it treats does not exist (Scheider, 2006).

Due to this, Durkheim dismissed arguments that the core of religion was a belief in the supernatural or in divinities since some religions, forms of Buddhism, for instance, lacked them (Scheider, 2006).  He also believed that the distinction between the sacred and the profane was unique because it was seen as being absolute unlike good and bad, which might shade into one another at their boarders (Schneider, 2006). The sacred had to be kept perfectly insulated from the profane in ways that allowed the two to be defined by one another, thus having decided that sacredprofane distinction characterized all religions, Durkheim made it the centerpiece of his definition of religion as

A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is     to say, things set apart and forbidden- beliefs and practices which unite into a single     moral community called a church, all those who adhere to them(Schneider, 2006).

The theory of structuralism in cultural anthropology can be seen as similar to Durkheims view of functionalism not only because the concept of life-death is emphasized in the two approaches, but also in a sense that it structuralism also focuses on 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 mans management of the chaos he is exposed to (Kaplan  Manners, 2009). Levi-Strauss studies, which focus on myth and thinking, emphasize 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.

These concepts are found in accordance to religion. Specifically, the opposing ideas good-evil and life-death can be considered as core elements in religion. This shows that the theories involving structuralism are applied in the social institutions such as religion.

These theoretical approaches are important to researchers mainly 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. Research studies done by Bronislaw Malinoski, Emile Durkheim, and Claude Levi-Strauss are ideal examples of the significance of theoretical approaches in ethnographic fieldworks. All three released studies which were similar to each other due to the focus of the religion of a particular group or society. Although the focus of their studies was similar, a crucial distinction is seen in these studies in the application of also three different approaches for the analysis of the social institution which they have focused on.


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