Culture: Functionalist Perspectives

Functionalists Durkheim and Mauss argued that social structures shaped human cultures. Aboriginal societies with simple structures had simpler (‘primitive’) cultural classification systems, industrial societies had more complex cultures.

Writing primarily in the late 19th century, Functionalists such as Mauss and Durkheim subscribed to an evolutionary view of culture and developed theories about how cultures changed as societies ‘evolved’ (as they saw it).

Functionalists have theorised extensively about ‘culture as a social system of norms and values’, but their theories of ‘the arts’ are much less developed than their theories about societal cultures more generally.

Primitive Classification

Primitive Classification was a book (1963 English language, first published in 1903) written by Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss in which they theorised about how human culture first developed.

They argued that human culture is only possible once humans develop the capacity to distinguish between things and classify them.

When a child is first born, it does not have the capacity to classify things, rather the newborn child merely experiences a continuous flow of experiences that merge into one another. At this point culture is not possible as there is no distinguishing clearly between things and thus no classification system can be developed.

As the child develops its ability to classify things evolves so that it can order things with higher levels of complexity. Functionalists apply a similar idea to how cultures get more complex as societies get more complex.

The Origin of Classification Systems

Durkheim and Mauss theorised that cultural classification systems came from the differentiated structure of society. As they saw it, social structures were based upon divisions between social groups and the cultural classification systems of a society reflected the number of social divisions in the social structure.

Durkheim and Mauss developed this theory based on examining existing anthropological evidence on the social structures and cultures of Australian Aboriginal peoples, who they believed had the most primitive societies.

The Port Mackay aboriginals were divided into two broad social groups known as moieties. These were called the Youngaroo and the Woobaroo, and their cultural classification system also divided everything in the natural and social world into two groups.

For example, alligators and the sun were classified as Youngaroos while kangaroos and the moon were classified as Woobaroos.

The Wakelbura of Queensland had a more complex social structure which was divided into four groups: There were two moieties – the Mallera and Wutaru, and then each of these was further subdivided into two marriage groups:

  • Mallera moiety: Kurgila and Banbey marriage groups
  • Wutaru moiety – Wongu and Obu marriage groups.

The Wakelbura cultural classification system reflected this four way subdivision structure – everything was first classified into one of two primary categories and then further classified into a sub category.

Interestingly this could be quite restricted: what one could eat was determined by one’s sub-classification – the Banbey were only allowed to eat certain types of food, for example, and forbidden from other food types which people in other moiety-marriage groups were allowed to eat.

Complex Classification Systems

As the complexity of social structures increases so does the complexity of cultural classification systems.

For Durkheim and Mauss, the pinnacle of societal evolution was modern industrial civilisations which they saw as having the most complex social structures based on a very complex division of labour, and it was these complex social relations which lay the foundations for a complex cultural classification system which incorporates a scientific world view.

Social Relations then Cultural Classifications

Durkheim and Mauss speak out against Biological determinism:

“The first logical categories were social categories; the first classes of things were classes of men” (Durkheim and Mauss 1903).

They are against the view that any underlying logical relations between things form the basis of social relations – social relations come first, then classification systems and from this our worldview or culture.

Religion and Classification

Durkheim later developed the theory of the evolution of classification systems by applying it to religion in society.

In The Elementary Forms of Religious life (first published in 1912) Durkheim argued that religion is based on a basic division of the world into Sacred and Profane.

Durkheim argued that totemic religions in ‘primitive’ societies formed the basis of a shared collective conscience (like a shared culture) based on what he called mechanical solidarity (or high levels of similarity).

Durkheim argued that while the totem did classify people into different groups, it also emphasised that they were part of the same ‘spiritual whole’ – totemic religions viewed togetherness and whole society solidarity as more important than social differences.

Thus in totemic societies a relatively simple system of religious classification reinforced ‘social solidarity’ at the societal level – there was very little specialised division of labour in totemic societies.

As society evolves the division of labour becomes more complex as job roles become more specialised (scientists/ engineers/ teachers/ politicians and so on) and collective conscience becomes less strong.

As a result modern industrial societies can encourage excessive individualism and anomie (a sense of normlessness), but individuals still need to rely on each other for society to carry on functioning.

In advanced industrial societies religious systems no longer automatically create a collective conscience (or shared culture) based on ‘mechanical solidarity’ – society evolves to produce specialist institutions which do this – such as professional associations and education (according to Durkheim).

For Durkheim maintaining a sense of shared culture in complex societies was an ongoing problem but one which must be addressed (and engineered through social policy) for societies to continue, which he believed was beneficial compared to societies collapsing through revolution.

Evaluations of the Functionalist Perspective on Culture

Durkheim and Mauss have been criticised because there is empirical evidence which doesn’t fit their theory. They simply ignore evidence which doesn’t fit.

For example Needham (1963) has pointed out that the Port Mackay aboriginals are actually further divided into two marriage clans and so on that basis should have a four-fold cultural classification system rather than the binary one they do have.

Durkheim has been criticise in general for over emphasising the importance of social structure in ‘determining’ cultural world views. His theory doesn’t account for the existence of deviant individuals or subcultures which exist in many societies, suggesting individuals have more agency than his theory allows for.

Signposting and Related Posts

This post was written primarily for A-level sociology students studying the Culture and Identity option as part of the AQA specification.

The most closely associated material relevant to this post is Durkheim’s perspective on religion.

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Sources/ Find out More

Adapted from Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss (1953) Primitive Classification, Routledge 201 edition.

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