Structural-functionalism, which dominated British social anthropology for much of the twentieth century, interpreted society in terms of its institutions. Institutions provided society with its structure and worked together to keep society, a bounded unit, in a state of equilibrium. A person’s role or position in the structure determined their behaviour.
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In the early 1950s, criticisms of the structural-functionalist approach began to emerge from the Manchester school of anthropology, a group of anthropologists involved with the anthropology department at Manchester University. The Manchester school reacted against the obsession with formal institutions and the structure they supposedly produced. Many felt it was time to move away from the search for ideal types and focus on the much-neglected individual and how he/she coped in a system full of contradictions and inconsistencies. The Manchester school developed a distinctive approach which focused on the role of conflict in society, acknowledged the importance of the wider context (particularly the impact of colonialism), shed light on the issue of multiple identities through their studies of urban and rural communities, and advanced a new analytical model; namely social network analysis. Although the school is distinct in certain ways, its continued reliance on the structural-functionalist paradigm must be realised. In contrast to structural-functionalists, the Manchester school did not see social equilibrium as “a simple affair, resulting from the neat integration of groups or norms. On the contrary it emerges through the balancing of oppositions in a dialectical process” [Kuper 1973, 139]. In other words, conflict is an inherent part of society but certain mechanisms exist to ease the tensions and maintain an equilibrium. Ritual, according to Max Gluckman, was one such mechanism. He analysed “rituals of rebellion” in southern African societies and argued that “whatever the ostensible purpose of the ceremonies, a most striking feature of their organization is the way in which they openly express social tensions” [Gluckman 1963, 112]. One such ceremony occurred in Swaziland. The dominant cleavage in the society was between the king and his subjects. During the ceremony various groups formed cross-cutting ties which undermined and reduced the severity of the dominant cleavage and the king’s subjects were given the opportunity to voice their hatred towards him. “This ceremony is…a stressing of conflict, a statement of rebellion and rivalry against the king, with periodical affirmations of unity with the king” [Gluckman 1963, 125]. One could infer that such a ritual could totally disrupt a society based on the domination of the ruled by the ruler. Crucially however, the people are rebelling specifically against the king, and not against the institution of kingship; “the rebellious ritual occurs within an established and unchallenged social order” [Gluckman 1963, 126-27]. In sum Gluckman explains, The acceptance of the established order as right and good,
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