Structuralism and Functionalism. The Difference between Lévi-Strauss, Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard in Reference to Kinship

Essay, 2013

7 Pages, Grade: 62%


How does the structuralist method which Lévi-Strauss proposed for anthropology differ from the various forms of ‘functionalism’ that he sought to supplant? Discuss with particular reference to kinship.

Even though scholars directly involved in the discourse were themselves not able to able to clearly differentiate between structuralism, functionalism and the various combinations of the two terms, retrospectively, two lines have been drawn. The first is between functionalism which was brought forward by Malinowski and his followers at the LSE and structural-functionalism. The latter was historically developed as a direct reply to a Malinowskian individualism by Radcliffe-Brown, Fortes and Evans-Pritchard. The line this essay is going to blur separates structural-functionalism from originally French functionalism as coined by Levi-Strauss. I argue that those retrospective lines are nowadays often as artificial as they were for contemporary scholars in the early 1900s. Many commonalities – in their striving for universal laws, and even their fallacies – are contrasted by some differences, mainly in their treatment of fieldwork and the concept of structure. The different schools of thought were organically growing out of each other rendering the continuity of features natural. Only paying attention in passing to the earlier, ‘purely’ functionalist school of Malinowski, I compare the structural functionalism most clearly visible in Radcliffe-Brown with Levi-Strauss’ structuralism. Let me briefly put forward his arguments on methods in general as well as function and structure in particular before Levi-Strauss enters the analysis.

In the ‘Preface’ to African Political Systems (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, 2006), Radcliffe-Brown spells out his focus on the gathering of empirical observations in contrast to mere metaphysical reasoning. Once collected, the data should in a second step be systematically compared to other empirical cases. The condensed matter finally results in ‘classifications’ or ‘types’. This tripod of ‘intensive study of single societies’, ‘systematic comparison’ and ‘classification of structural systems’ can be described as the statute of structural-functionalism (e.g. Radcliffe-Brown, 1940). Within this nexus, structure has to be though of as a stable grid beyond individual beings. It has to be thought of as a “unity made of parts and processes that are linked to one another by a limited number of principles of wide validity” (Fortes 1953:39). The endpoint of each analysis is such a structure, general laws, classifications or types. As Fortes (1955:20) claims, Radcliffe-Brown was on search for “statements of laws of kinship organisation”; kinship for him, has a “jural significance” that was missing in Malinowski (ibid.:21). The functionalist part of the two-partite label can be traced back to Durkheim. As Fortes (1955:22) further claims, the “principle of functional consistency” underlies most of the structural-functionalist analyses. In the case of kinship for example, “prohibited and preferential marriages must be analysed with reference to the effect they have in preserving and maintaining an existing kinship structure” (ibid.).

Entering the comparison between structural functionalism and structuralism, a first commonality is to be found in the Durkheimian grounding of both approaches. The tool that was most prominently put forward in Durkheim’s (2008) distinction of ‘secular’ and ‘sacred – the ‘binary distinction’ – serves as an example. Radcliffe-Brown for instance prominently argues for the primacy of the ‘grid’, the structure over the individual – in contrast to Malinowski’s version of functionalism. In a similar way, Levi-Strauss does not only problematise the difference the nature/culture divide, he also analytically differentiates kinship terms in binary pairs: mutuality/separation, hostility/affinity. Even though his usage of binaries is also founded on de Saussure’s linguistics - langue/parole – the common ancestry in Durkheim is undeniable.[1]

More broadly, the aim of both schools of thought has to be seen in the search for generalizable rules. While structural-functionalist analyses lead to classifications and types (such as the two types of ‘African political system’ (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, 2006)) , Levi-Strauss express his search in mathematical connotations (‘permutations’) and linguistics. Based on the structuralist linguistics of de Saussure, Levi-Strauss proposes a method of analysis in the following order (Levi-Strauss, 1963): the first step aims at the identification of the ‘unconscious infrastructures’ of conscious phenomena that are in a second step analysed in relational terms. A concept of the underlying system is proposed in step three, whereas the general laws are finally induced or logically deduced. Levi-Strauss exposes this structure even more bluntly in his book on ‘Totemism’ (Levi-Strauss, 1991:84). The general method – case studies lead to structural models that can be used in order to formulate general laws – seems very similar when we abstract from differences in language – Radcliffe-Brown would not have talked about ‘permutations’. The case of the ‘avunculate’ in the study of kinship illustrates this point in more detail.

Two articles – Radcliffe-Brown’s ‘The Mother’s Brother in South Africa’ and Levi-Strauss’ ‘Structural Analysis in Linguistics and Anthropology’ – aim at explaining the importance of the mother’s brother in patrilineal societies. Both articles proceed via a comparative path. Whereas RB reviews the BatHonga in South Africa as well as his own material from Fiji and Tonga, Levi-Strauss uses material from Tonga, Melanesia, New-Guinea, the Dobu and the Siuai. Radcliffe-Brown follows a common hypothesis in his treatment of the material that culminates in the claim that “since it is from the mother that he expects care … he looks for the same sort of treatment from the people of his mother’s group” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:25). Feelings towards the mother are extended towards the kindred. In general, the term avunculate covers two antithetical systems of attitudes It either represents family authority - fear, obedience - or privileges and familiarity. Ego’s relationship towards the uncle is usually inversely correlated with the treatment of the father. It is still very much descent that determines the relationship. In patrilineal cases, the uncle is a ‘male mother’ whereas in matrilineal society, the uncle plays the role of an authority. With his widely comparative approach, Levi-Strauss tries to approach his system of ‘all possible permutations’ and indeed finds examples for various patterns in which he observes the relationships between four pairs: husband and wife, nephew and uncle, father and son as well as brother and sister. As Radcliffe-Brown he chooses to establishes a clear pattern in those relationships. He most expressively negates RB’s findings – but only on a content as opposed to a methodological level (Levi-Strauss, 1963:44):

-"the correlation between types of descent and forms of avunculate does not exhaust
-the problem. Different forms of avunculate can coexist with the same type of descent
-whether patrilineal or matrilineal"

He adds, however, a contextual analysis that RB is missing: What he calls the "synchronic law of correlation" (ibid.:44) specifies that "in order to understand the avunculate we must treat it as one relationship within a system, while the system itself must be considered as a whole in order to grasp its structure" (ibid.:46). For LS, an analysis of terms and phenomena in their respective context – potentially exhausting all potential forms of combinations – is necessary. In the case of the avunculate, this context is not confined to the core family but has to involve several generations and levels of kinship.

The above example shows that the framing of an analysis, even its content, in both structural-functionalist and structuralist accounts are comparable. Whereas RB argued that kinship was based on descent from ancestors making the nucleus family the focus point, Lévi-Strauss grounds it on the alliance between two families transcending the traditional picture of the ‘elementary structure of kinship’ towards what the former called the secondary parts such as uncles and aunts. The ordering of relationships in certain classes (respect, familiarity, avoidance, joking etc (see Fortes, 1955:24; Levi-Strauss, 1963) for example is identical. So is the basis of the argument in a number of empirical case studies. Even fallacies of the theories are partly congruent.


[1] In several instances, Levi-Strauss goes beyond binaries, however. Especially his critique on the evolutionarist account of savages / primitives in opposition to the modern thinking serves as an example here (Levi-Strauss, 1967).

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Structuralism and Functionalism. The Difference between Lévi-Strauss, Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard in Reference to Kinship
University of Cambridge
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Structural-Functionalism, Anthropological Method
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Johannes Lenhard (Author), 2013, Structuralism and Functionalism. The Difference between Lévi-Strauss, Malinowski and Evans-Pritchard in Reference to Kinship, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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