A brief exploration of functionalism within Cultural Anthropology

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2011

10 Pages, Grade: 1,75


Ritual is a phenomenon that is ingrained into many aspects of our lives whether we are conscious of it or not. It is a subject of considerable anthropological discussion and many theories have been devised to account for its existence and meaning. This essay will focus on the functionalist approach to ritual in terms of its preceding theories, the different directions it took, and the theories that it inspired. This will be done primarily through an historical analysis of functionalism throughout the 19th and 20th century by its key proponents.

The Myth and Ritual School was one of the main theoretical positions that preceded and influenced Functionalism. It was heavily centred on the explanation of ritual in religion in a historical and evolutionary context, documenting the psychological origins within ritual, and sought to find the quintessential essence that formed religion (Bell, 1997, pp. 3-23).

Its main influences were William Robertson Smith (1846-1894) and Sir James George Frazer (1854-1941), who both took approaches that sought to find universal structures within ritual and place these in an evolutionary perspective. The former saw “ritual as the primary component of religion...it fundamentally serves the basic social function of creating and maintaining community, with myth being an explanation of the meaning of the ritual”, and the latter saw myth more as a secondary feature of ritual (Bell, 1997, pp. 4-5).

These two perspectives branched off into two directions that are formally labelled as the Myth and Ritual School. The first perspective that was put forward by Samuel Henry Hooke (1874-1968) was that myth and ritual were inseparable and in early civilisations ritual were centred on the re-enactment of theme of death and resurrection, usually of a king. This was a fundamental thought process towards seeing the social and functionary uses of ritual. It effectively showed how ritual in that context helped to maintain a king’s status as an authority and keeps the social order in alignment with this political direction (Bell, 1997, pp.5-83).

The second perspective put forward by Jane Ellen Harrison (1850-1928) was that ritual was the source of myth, and when the ritual cessed to occur, then the myth would function as a story, attaching itself to whatever cultural, historical, or pseudoscientific explanation of an event that was feasible at the time (Bell, 1997, p. 6). Again, this theory was an important ‘stepping stone’ towards a more functionalist approach by tying in the symbolic relationship of ritual to its social function.

The emphasis on examining ritual in these ways was a key factor in the development of Functionalism. The transgression from placement of ritual within a historical and psychological context through to focusing on ritual’s social function, provided a new set of questions for scholars in the Functionalist arena to answer. Anthropologists began to shift their focus more heavily towards ethnographic fieldwork as a means of gathering information, and looking at the concrete links between society and religion, and how religion actually affected the people it came into contact with, rather than just its theoretical implications(Bell, 1997, pp.8-23).

Early theorists such as N.D. Fustel de Coulanges (1830-1889) and Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) paved the way for what was later to be known as Functionalism in its matured form. Namely, in relation to ritual the primary goal of Functionalism was to find out what “ritual accomplishes as a social phenomenon, specifically, how it affects the organization and workings of the social group” (Bell, 1997, p.23).

Coulanges believed that family lineage functioned as the central premise behind how ritual was conducted in classical times, particularly with the ancient Greek and Roman traditions, and this in turn was influenced by the ancestry of that particular social institution. In short, he began to link together how past and present rituals affected the current social climate (Bell, 1997, p.23).

This in turn influenced Durkheim, who broadened the thesis that ritual has a social function. He went further to state that religion comes from social factors and has a role within society as a cohesive agent. Specifically, he believed that religion functioned through the ritualisation of the ideological and cultural ideas of a society, to reinforce that society. So in fact, he proposed rituals function as the medium, at least though religion, to maintain the status quo and reinforce the unity of society through a positive, reaffirming method (Bell, 1997, p.24).


Excerpt out of 10 pages


A brief exploration of functionalism within Cultural Anthropology
Massey University, New Zealand
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
432 KB
cultural, anthropology
Quote paper
Lee Hooper (Author), 2011, A brief exploration of functionalism within Cultural Anthropology, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/233133


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: A brief exploration of functionalism within Cultural Anthropology

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free