Functionalists seek to describe the different parts of a society and their relationship through the organic analogy. The organic analogy compared the different parts of a society to the organs of a living organism. The organism was able to live, reproduce and function through the organized system of its several parts and organs. Like a biological organism, a society was able to maintain its essential processes through the way that the different parts interacted together. Institutions such as religion, kinship and the economy were the organs and individuals were the cells in this social organism. Functionalist analyses examine the social significance of phenomena, that is, the function they serve a particular society in maintaining the whole. Functionalism, as a school of thought in anthropology, emerged in the early twentieth century. Bronislaw Malinowski and A.R. Radcliffe-Brown had the greatest influence on the development of functionalism from their posts in Great Britain.
Malinowski suggested that individuals have physiological needs (reproduction, food, shelter) and that social institutions exist to meet these needs. There are also culturally derived needs and four basic “instrumental needs” (economics, social control, education, and political organization), that require institutional devices. Each institution has personnel, a charter, a set of norms or rules, activities, material apparatus (technology), and a function. Malinowski argued that uniform psychological responses are correlates of physiological needs. He argued that satisfaction of these needs transformed the cultural instrumental activity into an acquired drive through psychological reinforcement.
Radcliffe-Brown focused on social structure rather than biological needs. He suggested that a society is a system of relationships maintaining itself through cybernetic feedback, while institutions are orderly sets of relationships whose function is to maintain the society as a system. Radcliffe-Brown, inspired by Augustus Comte, stated that the social constituted a separate “level” of reality distinct from those of biological forms and inorganic matter. Radcliffe-Brown argued that explanations of social phenomena had to be constructed within the social level. Thus, individuals were replaceable, transient occupants of social roles. Unlike Malinowski’s emphasis on individuals, Radcliffe-Brown considered individuals irrelevant.