A theoretical perspective that attempts to explain folklore and other sociocultural
phenomena in terms of their functions or effects on the wider social or cultural system.
“Function” is distinguished from “purpose” or “use” in that it does not presuppose any
conscious or deliberate intention in bringing these effects about.
The concern with “function” in the social sciences depends on an analogy drawn
between biological and social processes. The analogy began with Auguste Comte (1798–
1857) and was extended by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903), who argued that, like
biological organisms, societies were built up from discrete structures that fulfilled distinct
functions. Biological and social life depended on component structures functioning to
fulfill the needs of the organism. Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) emphasized the
importance of both causal and functional analysis in the understanding of sociai facts.
Causal analysis focused upon the antecedents of a particular social institution, whereas
functional analysis concentrated on the contribution that institution made to the larger
social system of which it was a part. For Durkheim, the ultimate contribution, and the one
he emphasized in virtually all of his analytical works, was the reinforcement of
“collective sentiments” and the strengthening of those bonds essential to holding society
A.R.Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955) and Bronislaw Malinowski (1884–1942) both read
Durkheim, and each introduced a type of functionalism into anthropological theorizing.
Radcliffe-Brown directly followed Durkheim, focusing on the structure of social relations
and the contribution of these structures to the integration of society. When the function of
a particular structure in integrating the society could be shown, that structure was, in
effect, explained. For example, Radcliffe-Brown regarded the taboos against eating
dugong, pork, and turtle observed by expectant parents in the Andaman Island as
standardized expressions that symbolized the significance and importance of the
reproductive event to the parents and the community. The care and concern required in
observing such ritual prohibitions establish and fix those fundamental values that bind a
Malinowski attempted to present a theory of society based on needs that had to be
fulfilled if a society were to endure. There were the basic biological needs—nutrition,
reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, movement, growth, and health—that every culture
had to satisfy, at least minimally, if it were to survive. The satisfaction of these basic
needs, however, creates derived cultural needs that demand economic systems,
mechanisms of social control, education, and political organizations for their fulfillment.
Culture itself depends upon the fulfillment of symbolic or integrative needs. Knowledge
ensures the continuity of experience within society. Magic and religion provide
intellectual, emotional, and pragmatic means to deal with chance and the inevitability of
human death, while myth explains and validates a society’s institutions. The particular
institutional forms that might fulfill basic, derived, or symbolic needs would necessarily
vary from society to society, but these needs would have to be met by all societies in some way. The contribution of an institution to meeting a basic, derived, or integrative
need constitutes its function.
Functionalism was introduced into folklore by anthropologists. William R.Bascom
(1912–1981), in his essay “Four Functions of Folklore,” enjoined folklorists to pay more
attention to the social and cultural contexts of folklore and to the functions which folklore
fulfilled in society (Bascom 1954). Drawing directly on Malinowski’s work, Bascom
defined and illustrated four particular functions of folklore. The first was escape; that is,
escape in fantasy from the restrictions and frustrations imposed on the individual by his
or her society or environment. For example, Zuni folktale motifs concerning the
abandonment of children might permit the expression of a resentment against children
that the Zuni could not express more directly. The second function was validation;
folklore could be used to justify the rituals and institutions of the society. A myth might
be used to justify a particular ritual, or a proverb might be used to validate why a
particular course of action was the correct or appropriate one. The third function was
education. Folklore could inculcate the values of the society in the younger generation.
Folktales frequently illustrate moral principles and describe the consequences of failing
to strictly obey them. The role of folklore in education was noted as particularly
important in nonliterate societies in which all education was conducted orally or through
customary example. The fourth function was social control; folklore could be used to
reward and punish individuals in order to ensure conformity to group standards. A
traditional song, riddle, or proverb could be recited to express disapproval or to ridicule
someone who had violated a social norm. Bascom recognized that these four functions
were not the only functions of folklore. Nevertheless, he saw these as the most important
ones. Each could contribute to the maintenance of a cultural system through time.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, a number of folklore essays began to appear with the
term “function” in their titles. Alan Dundes reprinted a series of essays on function—
including Bascom’s 1954 essay—in his anthology The Study of Folk lore (1965), thereby
introducing a burgeoning generation of folklore students to the functional perspective.
Function became a basic element in the teaching of folklore analysis. American
folklorists made particular use of the psychological function of escape in their efforts to
explain seemingly irrational behaviors and fanciful narrative motifs and episodes.
Fishing superstitions, dowsing, ethnic humor, cruel jokes, lullabies, and whaling songs
are some of the forms of American folklore that have been examined firom a functional
perspective. For example, superstitions among Texas coastal fisherman were studied by
Patrick B.Mullen (Mullen 1969). Despite their employment of the latest in
communications and fishing technologies, coastal fishermen would not sail with women
on board, they would not bring black suitcases or utter the word “alligator” on board, nor
would they turn a hatch cover upside down. Following Malinowski, Mullen claimed that
such superstitions were the fishermens response to the anxiety engendered by the
dangerous and uncertain conditions of their enterprise. The superstitions functioned to
reduce this anxiety by giving the fishermen a sense of mastery of forces over which they
had no real control. Mullen’s hypothesis was supported by the fact that the more
hazardous sea fishery involved twice as many magical beliefs as the safer bay fishery.
By the mid-1970s, the heyday of functionalism had passed. The rationale for
functionalist analysis had been undermined in anthropology and sociology. Functional
explanations were shown to be illogical, teleological, and grounded in questionable assumptions. At best, they could serve to point out important, if unnoticed, effects of, and
interrelations between, a cultural practices, but they explained nothing. In folklore
studies, the embrace of functionalism had largely been the embrace of a culturally and
socially situated analytic and interpretive paradigm—a paradigm absent in earlier
diffusionist and literary approaches to folklore. As emerging structuralist, semiotic,
performance, and phenomenological perspectives offered alternatives to, or subsumed,
functionalist assessments, functionalism faded as an explicit approach to the analysis and
interpretation of folklore.
Bascom, William R. 1954. Four Functions of Folklore. Journal of American Folklore 67:333–349.
Burns, Tom. 1969. Involving the Introductory Student of Folklore in the Functional Analysis of the
Material He Collects. Folklore Forum 2:13–27.
Hawes, Bess Lomax. 1974. Folksongs and Functions: Some Thoughts on the American Lullaby.
Journal of American Folklore 87:140–148.
Mullen, Patrick B. 1969. The Function of Magic Folk Belief among Texas Coastal Fishermen.
Journal of American Folklore 82:214–225.
Oring, Elliott. 1976. Three Functions of Folklore: Traditional Functionalism as Explanation in
Folkloristics. Journal of American Folklore 89:67–80.
A theoretical perspective that attempts to explain folklore and other sociocultural