Two events have transformed the background of post-war anthropology: the colonial revolution leading to the rise of struggles against imperialism, now on the defensive, and, at a different level, the growth of structural anthropology. The one reflects the other, for the work of Claude Lévi-Strauss is an extended post-mortem on the massive perceptual illusion through which a nascent imperialism brought ‘savages’ into being, freezing them conceptually in their subhuman otherness even as it disrupted their social formations and liquidated them physically. Yet over the last two decades, against this backdrop of displacements, British anthropology has been slowly and steadily disintegrating, its future distracted between disparate sectors of the ‘human’ sciences. This article represents a preliminary and tentative attempt to outline the crisis.

The secret of the arrested intellectual development of British anthropology must be sought, in the first place, in the advance which made anthropology possible in its present form. Anthropology grew up in the context of the discovery of a new technique which finally established the primitive as a legitimate object of study. This technique was fieldwork, the direct and systematic observation of the social life of primitive peoples. Anthropology founded its specificity on this technique and on the object legitimized by it.

Marx once said, ‘the origin of political economy as a science does not by any means date from the time to which it is referred as such’. footnote1 The same could be said of British anthropology, for the conditions of its birth as a practice (fieldwork) precisely precluded its birth as a science. Fieldwork crushed the development of theory as a specific autonomous level of anthropology. Functionalism existed as a practice before it was formalized as a ‘theory’. This is why it could never attain the status of a genuine theory. In his Wirtschaft and Gesellschaft, published in the same year as the two ‘pioneering’ monographs of British anthropology–Radcliffe-Brown’s The Andaman Islanders and Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific—Weber had described the ‘functional frame of reference,’ as ‘convenient for purposes of practical illustration and for provisional orientation’. British anthropology transposed this ‘framework’ to the level of a theory, conceptualizing the rules and methodology of functionalist practice as a substantive theoretical system. Thus technique was substituted for theory, and theory collapsed into technique. As one British anthropologist wrote subsequently, ‘Malinowski remained unchallenged when he confused general rules concerning the comparative relevance of field data with theories of society’. footnote2 The arrested development of pre-war anthropology was the natural product of the sterilizing impact of a functionalism which never developed theoretically, because it was in its essence a pseudo-theory, a handbook of practice disguised as theory.

Here we can only sketch the outlines of a critique of functionalism, focusing on its mode of perception of primitive society, on the problematic underlying this perception and the model used to validate it at the level of a theory.

1. Perception. Radcliffe-Brown isolated two zones of meaning in the primitive world, conceived as an undifferentiated sector without regard to variations in the mode of production. These were rules and behaviour. The unity of functionalist analysis was established on the basis of a relationship of complementarity between these zones. To Fortes, as to most functionalists of his generation, descent (i.e. the attribution or inheritance of material wealth, political power and rights and obligations in general by membership of a certain groups defined in terms of kinship) became the major explanatory principle of kinship theory, and descent was ‘fundamentally a jural concept as Radcliffe-Brown argued’. Following Dutkheim, the latter had remarked, ‘what we have to seek in the study of a kinship system are the norms’. Functionalism translated this advice into an axiomatic premise.

The normative focus was complemented by a focus on social relations. Intersubjectivity acquired an overwhelming prominence in the functionalist optic, which reduced the structure of primitive formations to the transparency of ‘actual social relations of person to person’. The main concepts which functionalism transmitted to political anthropology derived from this obsession with the overt visible stream of social interaction. They could only transcribe an immediately given observable ‘reality’. footnote3

This dual focus soon crystallized as the invariant structure of the functionalist approach and provided the essential line of continuity between its pre- and postwar phases. Descent group theory evolved directly out of the first focus (rules), political anthropology out of the second (behaviour).