Skip to main content
Social Sci LibreTexts

3.3: Anthropology in Europe

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    ( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\)

    \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\)

    \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\)

    \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorA}[1]{\vec{#1}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorAt}[1]{\vec{\text{#1}}}      % arrow\)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorB}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorC}[1]{\textbf{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorD}[1]{\overrightarrow{#1}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectorDt}[1]{\overrightarrow{\text{#1}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vectE}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash{\mathbf {#1}}}} \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \)

    \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)

    The discipline of cultural anthropology developed somewhat differently in Europe and North America, in particular in the United States, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries with each region contributing new dimensions to the concept of culture. Many European anthropologists were particularly interested in questions about how societies were structured and how they remained stable over time. This highlighted emerging recognition that culture and society are not the same. Culture had been defined by Tylor as knowledge, beliefs, and customs, but a society is more than just shared ideas or habits. In every society, people are linked to one another through social institutions such as families, political organizations, and businesses. Anthropologists across Europe often focused their research on understanding the form and function of these social institutions.


    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Bronislaw Malinowski, Professor of Anthropology, c1930.

    European anthropologists developed theories of functionalism to explain how social institutions contribute to the organization of society and the maintenance of social order. Bronislaw Malinowski believed that culture is an integrated functional whole and that every part of culture has a function (Sidky 2004). Malinowski focused on the individual and human nature, not society (Sidky 2004). He believed that cultural traditions were developed as a response to biological and psychological specific human needs such as food, comfort, safety, knowledge, reproduction, health care, well-being, and economic livelihood. For example, one function of educational institutions like schools is to provide knowledge that prepares people to obtain jobs and make contributions to society. One thing Malinowski wanted to accomplish was to get rid of the "savage" stereotype. He emphasized that customs that appear irrational to the outsider actually served important functions within the society (Lavenda & Schultz 2013).

    Definition: Functionalism

    The belief that cultural institutions function to meet the basic physical and psychological needs of people (Harris & Johnson 2007)


    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, (n.d.).

    Structural functionalism was another form of functionalism that arose in Great Britain. British anthropologist, A.R Radcliffe-Brown, was its most prominent advocate. Radcliffe-Brown was interested in the way that social structures functioned to maintain social stability in a society over time (Harris & Johnson This approach had little interest in the individual, which contrasts with Bronislaw Malinowski's functionalist approach. Radcliffe-Brown suggested that in many societies it was the family that served as the most important social structure because family relationships determined much about an individual’s social, political, and economic relationships and these patterns were repeated from one generation to the next. In a family unit in which the father is the breadwinner and the mother stays home to raise the children, the social and economic roles of both the husband and the wife will be largely defined by their specific responsibilities within the family. If their children grow up to follow the same arrangement, these social roles will be continued in the next generation.

    Definition: Structural Functionalism

    The belief that social practices and social institutions function to preserve the structure of society (Lavenda & Schultz 2013; Sidky 2004).

    In the twentieth century, functionalist approaches also became popular in North American anthropology, but eventually fell out of favor. One of the biggest critiques of functionalism is that it views cultures as stable and orderly and ignores or cannot explain social change. Functionalism also struggles to explain why a society develops one particular kind of social institution instead of another. Functionalist perspectives did contribute to the development of more sophisticated concepts of culture by establishing the importance of social institutions in holding societies together. While defining the division between what is cultural and what is social continues to be complex, functionalist theory helped to develop the concept of culture by demonstrating that culture is not just set of ideas or beliefs, but consists of specific practices and social institutions that give structure to daily life and allow human communities to function.


    Harris, Marvin K, and Orna Johnson. Cultural Anthropology. Boston: Pearson A and B, 2007.

    Lavenda, Robert H, and Emily A. Schultz. Core Concepts in Cultural Anthropology. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc, 2012.

    Sidky, H. Perspectives on Culture: A Critical Introduction to Theory in Cultural Anthropology. Upper Saddle River, N.J: Prentice Hall, 2004


    Figure 3.3.1. Bronislaw Malinowski, Professor of Anthropology, c1930, from LSE Library under Public Domain.

    Figure 3.3.2. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, (n.d.), by Wikimedia Commons under Public Domain.

    A derivative work from:

    "The Culture Concept" by Cowall, E & Medeiros P. In Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology. Society for Anthropology in Community Colleges, 2020, under CC BY-NC 4.0.

    3.3: Anthropology in Europe is shared under a CC BY-NC license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.