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Leach's Critique of Functionalism and its Difficulty in Explaining Social Change The Critique of Societies as Oriented Towards Equilibirum

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Leach's Critique of Functionalism and its Difficulty in Explaining Social Change

The Critique of Societies as Oriented Towards Equilibirum

The Gumsa and Gumlao Models:


  • Descent: Patrilineal lineages and clans, ultimogeniture (youngest son inherits), each lineage headed by an elder.

  • Allliance: Matrilateral cross-cousin marriage is the ideal. Clans are ideal exogamous, but almost always so at the level of the lineage.

  • Leads to the mayu-dama system in terms of understanding hierarchy:

  • I. Mayu: lineages from which ego’s lineage have taken brides.

  • II. Dama: lineages in which women from ego’s lineage have recently married.

  • III. Lawu-lahta: recognized as descent relatives, but distant relationships. Neither mayu nor dama.

  • IV. Closely related lineages with whom one cannot marry.

Contradictions in the Gumsa ‘Model’

  • Mayu/dama relationship is hierarchical.

  • If a son-in-law cannot give gifts as bride-price, he must work for his father-in-law.

  • Tendency is for the chief of the village to try to act like a Shan prince (saohpa) and treat the dama relationships as if they were feudal serfs.

  • At a certain point the dama lineages rebel, instituting a gumlao ‘democracy’

Contradictions in the Gumlao ‘Model’

  • In principle, all lineages are equal and there should be no distinction between wife givers and wife receivers.

  • However, the terminology and language of mayu and dama is retained.

  • Over time, the mayu lineages try to reassert their authority by requiring high bride price and the village begins to resemble a gumsa autocracy.

Social Change: Individuals and Societies:

  • Structural-functionalism viewed individuals as being constrained and shaped by the social roles that they occupied.

  • Leach: this was an overly-socialized view of human nature.

  • Individuals will try to manipulate the social system, and there are different ‘voices’ in all societies.

  • In so doing, they will collectively produce changes in a society.

  • Led to network theory and rational-action theory. (Barth, Bott).

Leach’s Model of Social Change: Is it Universal or Specific?

  • All societies have tensions; they are not necessarily striving for equilibrium.

  • Radcliffe-Brown’s idea that social cohesion was necessary for societies to exist was an unwarranted assumption.

  • It also focused the analysis of societies on sources of stability, rather than sources of change.

  • Teleological: assumption that societies were oriented towards a specific, unconscious purpose of social cohesion.

  • The banality of functionalism: “If societies changed, they wouldn’t remain the same.”

  • However, not all societies have the same tensions that existed in the Kachin Hills. The internal tensions between gumsa, gumlao and Shan were ethnographically specific.

  • However, Leach’s study did focus anthropological attention on sources of conflict and change in societies in general.

  • Indirectly, therefore, he stimulated an interest in conflict theory, specifically the work of Marx.

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