Was Evans-Pritchard a structural-functionalist?
Evans-Pritchard is widely known as a structural-functionalist (Kuper, 1988). What sense does this question make taken by its face-value? Let us understand it as a mathematical exercise. The question asks whether the works of Evans-Pritchard can be described as a subset of the anthropological tradition referred to as structural-functionalism. As I will argue, his works can not – at least in their entirety – both temporally and partially be seen as a subset of structural-functionalism. Especially in his later works, Evans-Pritchard stresses individual agency, the importance of history as well as personality in a way that is not congruent with structural functionalism in its traditional way. But before I am able to assess the congruency of Evans-Pritchard’s work with structural-functionalist imperatives in detail, the latter needs to be expressed in a clear set of statutes. The work of Radcliffe-Brown (Radcliffe-Brown, 1940) and Fortes (Fortes, 1953) can serve as a guideline for this.
Radcliffe-Brown describes in the ‘Preface’ to African Political Systems (Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, 2006) the general aim and method of his contemporary social anthropology. As a precondition for analysis, the gathering of empirical observations in contrast to mere metaphysical reasoning constitutes the starting point. The collected data, however, must in a process of systematic comparison be reduced to ‘classifications’ or ‘types’. The same tripod of ‘intensive study of single societies’, ‘systematic comparison’ and ‘classification of structural systems’ can repeatedly be found in his lectures (e.g. Radcliffe-Brown, 1940) as well as in Fortes’ writings (see 'Introduction', Fortes & Evans-Pritchard, 2006). This methodological nexus might therefore be seen as the first ‘statute’ of structural-functionalism.
Of higher importance and implication, however, is its theoretical foundation. What is social structure after all? For Radcliffe-Brown (1940:2), social structure consists of the “network of actually existing relations”. Fortes (1953:37) takes up this emphasis on relations and defines social structure as the “system of interconnected politico-legal statuses symbolised and sanctioned by ritual.” He clearly differentiates this abstract structure, from individuals. Rather, “when a person dies his status is kept alive by being taken up by an heir" (ibid.). Structure has to be thought of as a ‘grid’ that is stable and continuous 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” (ibid.:39). The rigidity and stability of the structure has in return a crucial effect on ‘social phenomena’, i.e. the actions within society. As Radcliffe-Brown (1940:3) puts it: “the social phenomena which we observe in any human society are not the immediate result of the nature of individual human beings, but are the result of the social structure by which they are united." Understood in this way, the tradition is deterministic with a heavy emphasis on the general equilibrium of a society amongst and in between its social institutions.