Print Сite this

Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology

Anthropology is the study of human nature and behavior. Different theories have been advanced by various theorists to explain the existence of humanity and mankind’s behavior. Anthropology is divided in four major categories of studies which include archaeology, cultural anthropology, physical anthropology, and linguistic anthropology. There are different anthropologists who are associated with different theories of human nature and behavior. In this essay, a discussion of 2 great anthropologists, namely, Karl Marx and Bronislaw Malinowski, who advanced different theories of anthropology, will be made (Fulbrook 2002).

We will write a
custom essay
specifically for you

for only $16.05 $11/page
308 certified writers online
Learn More

Karl Marx (1818-1883) – assisted by Engels F. – advanced the materialism theory of anthropology. According to this premise, Marx argues that materialists prioritize material belongings (Erickson and Murphy 2008). Human behavior is said to be part of nature. In this connection, human nature can only be understood via natural science studies.

Marx feels that that human nature is as a result of conditioning of human life by the surrounding environment. In support of his theory, Marx declares that human nature is governed by the prevailing conditions, such as, capitalism and utilitarianism (Fulbrook 2002). He thus argues that humans behave the way they do due to the surrounding conditions as a way of expressing their lives.

It should be noted that Marx’s work in anthropology is now being regarded as one that is of great use to the modern anthropologist yet it had been ignored in the past. His works seem to reflect the present state of human behavior in socio-economic activities. Marx’s works are based on the belief and school of thought that views humans as social beings who seek to satisfy their needs. Humans thus develop solutions to their problems so as to suit certain circumstances. According to him, humans create cultures and social relations in order to express their lifestyles (Langness 2005). Marx further expresses the idea that human nature is always transformational..

Marx ideas that human nature continuously transforms to fit its historical context was disputed by other anthropologists who believed that human nature could not be fully transformed. Nevertheless, Marx and Engels proposed a model of evolution in societies which would be used to learn the nature of society and its transformational processes that condition humans towards certain behavior. According to the theorists’ arguments, society had to go through a series of developmental stages. For example, society develops from tribalism, all the way to communism, through feudalism and capitalism stages (Sofroniou 2005).

Although materialist theories were not adopted by many anthropologists in the early 20th century, they are now gaining prominence among modern anthropologists in explaining societal development (McLeish 2003). It is worth mentioning that the materialist theory has been used in the development of other theories. For instance, this school of thought has been widely accepted by feminists, postmodernists, neo-materialists, and neo-evolutionists in developing the respective theories.

Another anthropological theory worth discussing is the functionalist theory which was developed by Bronislaw Malinowski and later advanced by Radcliffe. Functionalists make use of organic analogy to explain the relationships existing in the society as well as its (society’s) functionality (McLeish 2003). The biological perspectives of an organism can be compared to the different parts of the society and likened to their specific functionality. Just like the organism, the society reproduces, works, and lives. According to the functionalists, society carries out its different interactive activities to ensure the fulfillment of its duties. The different organs in the society include its various institutions such as religion, economy, and kinship. The biological cell is likened to the different individuals, each of which has its particular role within society.

Get your
100% original paper
on any topic

done in as little as
3 hours
Learn More

The development of functionalism in the 20th century was provoked by the many diffusionist and evolutionary theories that were developed in the 19th century. The functionalism theory exists in two versions (Jones 2003). One takes a structural functionalism approach while the other adopts a bio-cultural functionalism approach.

According to Malinowski, bio-cultural functionalism states that society has individuals who have psychological needs, such as, food, shelter, and reproduction. Further, he argues that the social institutions in the society exist to provide the necessary requirements. Social control, political organization, education and economics, are four cultural derivatives of social needs within the society which need to be provided by the societal institutions. In each of the institutions there is a set of rules as well as a charter and personnel. More so, in each of the institutions, there is material apparatus, activities and associated functions for each. According to Malinowski, psychological needs have a correlation to coherent psychological responses (Jones 2003). Moreover, he argues that there is need for transformation of cultural instrumental activity towards gaining psychological fortification as the driving force geared towards the fulfillment of needs.

Malinowski looks at an institution in the perspective of separate organized set of behavior. An institution then becomes a social system because it hosts many individuals who together tend to express the accepted mode of behaviors (Harris 2001). It is further stated that an institution is a cross- sectional subdivision of culture which entails the differentiated components of culture.

In his further attempts to explain functionalism Malinowski, believes that an institutional charter is mainly characterized by an organized system of values as developed by humans for the sake of their organizational interactions. He believes that the basis for which an institution is differentiated is its functionalism (Harris 2001). This means that different institutions vary from each other by the way in which they are designed to function in the society. Malinowski states that the function of institutions within society is to ensure continuity of life and normal functionality of the society (organism), or species of organism. Basically, Malinowski feels that the key aspect of consideration in his theory of functionalism is the biological functionalism of an organism with reference to its needs.

In fact, he emphasizes the need to research on the general characteristics of society and relate its individual tasks to the biological organism. Through his research he bridged the gap between the biological needs of an organism and those of the society’s cultural organization principles. In trying to harmonize the concepts of human culture and biological functions, he first had to classify needs as basic then realize derived needs. Finally, he had to harmonize them all according to their respective means of satisfaction and functionality in the society as related to the biological organism. He identified basic needs such as food, reproduction, bodily comfort, safety, relaxation, growth, and movement (Harris 2001). Malinowski categorized instrumental needs such as personnel renewal which is achieved in education. Character development is achieved through social control. Other types of needs in the society include symbolic and integrative needs, such as, transfer of expertise and experience which means passing knowledge to members of society as well as intellectual development.

It should be remembered that Malinowski’s work was fundamental in the development of social anthropology, thereby giving prominence to the study of social relations and social behavior in society (Harris 2001). Although Malinowski’s principle thoughts have remained unchanged from their original state, the new paradigm has taken a different approach in defining functionalism.

Through his research, he felt that social and cultural relations within society ought to be studied while emphasizing close observation of participants’ cultural contexts. According to Malinowski, there was a need to consider observable deviations in actions and cultural norms. Studies should compare what the society expresses as their action with their real operations. His works are among the most read of his times (Jones 2003). He notably contributed a lot to economic anthropology, language development, and sociological paternity.

We will write a custom
for you!
Get your first paper with
15% OFF
Learn More

Further development of the original functionalism theories has not only resulted in a new approach to functionalism, but also to the discrediting of some of the original ideas of founders (Jones 2003). Development of neo-functionalism theory that is based on the Malinowski school of thought advances a further argument for the need to satisfy the needs of the society.

In conclusion, there are different theories of anthropology which were developed by different scholars and great thinkers. Each of them has its own strengths and weakness. Despite these, at least each of the mentioned theories has added new insights to the pool of knowledge from which most researchers of the recent past as well as present derive their ideas.


  1. Erickson, Paul A. and Murphy Liam D. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.
  2. Fulbrook, Mary. 2002. Historical Theory. London: Routledge.
  3. Harris, Marvin. 2001. The Rise of Anthropological Theory: A History of Theories of Culture. Suwanee, GA: Rowman Altamira.
  4. Jones, Pip. 2003. Introducing Social Theory. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
  5. Langness, Lewis L. 2005. The Study of Culture. San Francisco, CA: Chandler & Sharp.
  6. McLeish, John. 2003. The Theory Of Social Change: Four Views Considered. London: Routledge.
  7. Sofroniou, Andreas. 2005. The Philosophical Concepts of Management through the Ages. St Raleigh, NC:

Cite this paper

Select style


StudyCorgi. (2021, November 19). Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology. Retrieved from


StudyCorgi. (2021, November 19). Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology.

Work Cited

"Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology." StudyCorgi, 19 Nov. 2021,

1. StudyCorgi. "Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology." November 19, 2021.


StudyCorgi. "Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology." November 19, 2021.


StudyCorgi. 2021. "Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology." November 19, 2021.


StudyCorgi. (2021) 'Major Theorists and Their Approaches in Anthropology'. 19 November.

This paper was written and submitted to our database by a student to assist your with your own studies. You are free to use it to write your own assignment, however you must reference it properly.

If you are the original creator of this paper and no longer wish to have it published on StudyCorgi, request the removal.