Turning African Americans into rational actors: The important legacy of Fauset's functionalism

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    Most scholars are aware that Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North challenged anthropologist Melville Herskovits's cultural continuity thesis, but few consider the merits of Fauset's functionalist counterargument. In this quote from his summary of findings, Fauset claims that there are innate and necessary forms of leadership expression that blacks are only allowed to perform in the "church" (representing African American beliefs and practices broadly). Later in his summary he depicts the leadership and social networking encouraged within the church as a "normal urge" that can contribute to the "advancement of the group."1 Put simply, the black church promotes group and individual survival through the cultivation of leadership and networking. Functionalism was developed in the 1920s by one of the founders of British anthropology, Bronislaw Malinowski. As a theoretical approach to cultural interpretation, functionalism attempts to uncover how cultural beliefs and practices promote individual survival.2 In the 1940s sociologists and anthropologists began shifting the theoretical focus away from how cultural institutions increase individual survival and began to consider instead the contributions of culture to social reproduction. This theoretical paradigm is known as structural-functionalism. Until the 1970s structural-functionalism competed with structuralism and neo-Marxism as a dominant theoretical approach in anthropology. Since the 1970s, interpretivism, which relies on what Clifford Geertz describes as "thick description," has eclipsed other paradigms within anthropology but not to the exclusion of earlier theoretical approaches, including structural-functionalism.3 My point is not to expound on each paradigm, but to note how far anthropology has come since it embraced functionalism in the 1920s and 1930s. The strict functionalism employed by Malinowski in which he connects Trobriand Islander practices to physical survival has been critiqued for reducing culture to digestion. Our physical survival and the reproduction of our social institutions simply validate what we already know about the world and turn explanations for why we do things into tautologies. Functionalism is not missing from anthropology; only now we do not view cultures as rational articulations of a will to live. Only a small fraction of cultural practices and beliefs support physical survival; the rest is superfluous.4 Far more important to anthropologists today is an understanding of how the things we think we need have more to do with making sense of our world than with physical reproduction. Fauset argues that cult affiliation functioned as an adaptive strategy for African American migrants in the North. In the South there existed structurally mediated methods, problematic or not, for social advancement that allowed blacks to endure segregation. In contrast, northern urban centers lacked the white paternalism and economic opportunities that blacks were adept at exploiting in the South. Fauset claims that the South offered relatively more economic opportunities but fewer opportunities for the acquisition of other forms of capital-namely educational-than the North. Fauset cleverly casts conditions in the North as "all head and no body."5 Even though today it is easy to dismiss functionalism as reductionistic, functionalism served three very important purposes within Fauset's text. First, functionalism stands in direct opposition to race essentialism. Functionalism locates social and cultural practices in material culture and therefore rejects the idea that cultural practices are the residue of some afunctional historical essence. As Sylvester Johnson notes, by locating racial identity as a response to present circumstances Fauset repositions race as ethnicity. Second, functionalism asserts that cultural practices support basic human needs, an argument that necessarily turns Trobriand Islanders or African American cult followers into rational actors. Like utilitarianism, functionalism presumes that people act rationally. Third, Fauset does not differentiate the secular from the religious-an assumption that shapes his methodological and theoretical approach to his field. At the time he wrote Black Gods of the Metropolis, "cult" members were often depicted as brainwashed sociopaths who lacked intelligence. By refusing to delineate the secular from the religious and by utilizing the anthropological disciplinary approach known as cultural relativity, Fauset recovered the humanity of the other. Fauset's functionalist framing of black religious practice was radical and disrupted conversations taking place on what we might now call the Right and Left. Fauset described five "cults" in Philadelphia in the mid-twentieth century. He listed origin, organization, membership, finance, sacred text, beliefs, ritual, and finally practices. The consistency of Fauset's survey approach to each cult allows the reader to compare the sects. It also makes his anthropological research seem more objective and removed from race politics. Described as testimonies, the conversion narratives that open each chapter are enticing ethnographic snapshots of a world of suffering made better by faith. The converts interviewed include a man whose wife's pregnancies and subsequent miscarriages made her so sick she almost died several times. Other testimonies come from a woman who lost her baby to "teething" and a syphilitic man who lived most of his seventy years in physical pain. These wellchosen vignettes reveal such suffering, mundane and tragic, that the reader does not question why these people converted. For Fauset, religious conversion is a functional response to suffering. But why one faith over another? And why are women overrepresented in church membership and attendance in Fauset's study? In this chapter I want to address the aspects of African American conversion that are not captured using a functionalist approach. There is something to be gained by a more detailed look at the messy data not easily accounted for in survey methods or functionalist theory. Particularly for my work on gender and religion, interpretivism (an analysis of symbols and mean ing) and discourse analysis (a social constructivist approach to language and culture) are far more useful than functionalism or structural-functionalism for explaining why women convert. Writing about African American converts to Islam, I have had to find ways to explain why co-wives stayed with an unemployed and extremely abusive husband. These women were not poorly educated, and they had extensive knowledge of the Qur'an and Sunnah, or the traditions of the prophet Muhammad. I have had to try to make sense of a woman's decision to continue to frequent a masjid, or mosque, where men publicly sanctioned and ridiculed her for being outspoken.6 From a functionalist perspective, in the United States women gain very little materially from converting to Islam, and some even lose the support of their families and friends. So why do African American women and men convert to Islam? In addressing this question, I want to explore Fauset's findings from the vantage of late twentieth-century converts to Sunni Islam in Los Angeles. Many African Americans in South Central Los Angeles migrated from the South and Midwest. Much like Philadelphia in the 1940s, economic opportunities for blacks in South Central are few and educational opportunities are shrinking. In this respect, my interlocutors are similar, although admittedly not the same, as Fauset's interlocutors. For Fauset the conversion stories provide a rationale for why people convert. But conversion narratives are more than just rationales. Within them one gets a sense of religious interpretation, gender roles, social suffering, individual suffering, the borders of the faith community, and the philosophy of the everyday, otherwise known as phenomenology. In the ethnography that follows, I describe an interaction between an African American male and female convert. This interaction demonstrates that men and women often convert to Islam for very different reasons and that we cannot take residence, social economic level, or race for granted as researchers. The interaction between this man and woman demonstrate that people who fit into the same demographic profile may have very different conceptual universes. Conversion is not really about functionalism in the sense of physical survival, but about how people choose to function given the circumstances of their lives.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Title of host publicationThe New Black Gods
    Subtitle of host publicationArthur Huff Fauset and The Study of African American Religions
    PublisherIndiana University Press
    Number of pages17
    ISBN (Print)9780253352828
    StatePublished - 2009

    All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

    • General Arts and Humanities


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