Malinowski Revisited

Comparative Functionalism: An Essay in Anthropological Theory

by Walter Goldschmidt
University of California, 150 pp., $3.95

The arrogance of the British is really quite intolerable. Consider the present case. A distinguished American professor writes a short but elegant essay which his publishers extol to the skies as a major contribution to anthropological theory. In his opening chapter the author curtly dismisses the fashions in statistical comparison which are the current vogue among a high proportion of his American colleagues; the rest of the book is concerned with styles in sociological anthropology which were first developed in England. The author is well disposed towards these British theorists and he presents his own argument as a development from their positions. And the only reward that he gets for this display of international goodwill and freedom from academic chauvinism is the snide British comment: “But, my dear Sir, you are twenty-five years out of date.”

Apart from a few maverick characters who try to be all things to all men, professional anthropologists sort themselves out into two fairly well-defined groups—the would-be scientists and the humanistic arts men. We need not bother here with the latter. The scientists like to imagine that they can be as clinical and objective as chemists and physiologists; they may be dealing with human beings but that is a misfortune. They imagine that Culture is as natural and automatic as Nature itself; they presume the existence of laws of sociology as immutable as the law of gravitation; they can never admit that the material under observation might have a will of its own. But despite the apparent confidence of such writers, the analogy between natural science and social science is very weak. The natural scientist is able to make useful predictive statements because his model of the external world is precisely conceived and its component elements rigorously defined. In contrast, the social scientist has only the vaguest notion of the qualities which delimit his social universe, and the component categories by which this universe is described are either undefined or undefinable. It follows that the elaborate systems of statistical cross-cultural analysis which have grown out of the Human Relations Area Files at Yale are just eyewash. The constituent elements of the anthropologist’s factional analysis are not properly discriminated and do not in the least resemble the objectively distinguishable units for which statistical methods of analysis were originally designed. And without such discrimination the use of statistics is wholly inappropriate.

This much Professor Goldschmidt accepts. He agrees that anthropologists study social systems and not just agglomerations of institutions, but he would still like to be a scientist and thinks he can have the best of both worlds by offering us a modified version of Malinowski’s functionalism.

MALINOWSKI’S vituperative attack on contemporary anthropological fashion dates from around 1926. He categorically rejected the idea that we can usefully think of society as an assemblage of “traits,” analogous to a mixture of chemical elements, brought together by the accidents of history. On the contrary each culture is a total system, an entity sui generis. What …

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Bloodletting January 26, 1967