Ed Gein and structural-functionalism. What do they have in common, if anything?
Radcliffe-Brown’s structural-functionalist theory was a powerful theory at the time though it left many things unexplained, like social deviancy. His theory focused primarily on the fact that certain social institutions were created naturally in order to fulfill certain functions of society and define relationships between people and other people, people and their institutions, and people and their environment. These social institutions were likened to organs in the human body- vital to the stability and upkeep of society. But what happens when someone does not have access to these vital social institutions? How do they develop and how does it impact society? Since anthropological theory is littered with similes and metaphors about how society is like the human body and its institutions like organs I decided to pick someone else who liked human organs and focus on his deviancy- meet Ed Gein.
Ed Gein was born on a farm and grew up mostly isolated from society. Although he could attend school- a vital social institution- he was not allowed to participate fully in it, ‘stunting’ it’s effect on Gein’s life. Ed Gein’s family- arguably one of the most vital social institutions of all, was dysfunctional at best. For this brief analysis, I’m going to mostly focus on those two social institutions family and school and how the lack of them in a structural-functionalist model can create deviancy.
First, let’s talk about Gein’s life on the farm. His father was largely absent and an alcoholic, dying at 66, while his brother Henry died at the ripe old age of 43, and his mother died at the age of 67. Gein’s life was largely centered around these three people and he had trouble socializing with and making friends with others. This led to a dependency on his own family, a dependency that Gein’s mother may have intentionally created.
Augusta Gein, Ed’s mother, was a highly religious woman who hated her husband and “harlots,” (which by her definition pretty much included all other women in the world) who were creatures of the devil. She was known for keeping her sons on the farm quite often and shouting the most violent and controversial of bible verses at them. Mother-son bonding, am I right? She allowed them to attend school, but when the boys tried to make friends and engage in their schooling she yelled and punished them (and often tried to go after the people they socialized with as well). Ed’s isolation on the farm can be compared to having your two kidneys (these would be school and family) but one is shriveled and half functioning and the other is diseased and actively failing.
Ed Gein had challenging relationships with his family which failed to provide him with the necessary lessons and information to allow him to be a “proper” member of society. The secondary social institution- of schooling- also failed Gein. His mother’s interference in his school life made Gein into a socially awkward recluse, and eventually into a true deviant of society.
Ed Gein is probably one of the most famous serial killers (though that title is often debated due to how many people he technically killed, versus how many people’s bodies he just snatched from the graveyard) in America and people are fascinated by his macabre creations from different pieces of the human body, like skin masks and suits and gloves made from human hands. Though according to the structural-functionalist theories people like Ed Gein should not exist- deviancy is not a part of the structure that Radcliffe-Brown discusses. Though if we argue that deviancy can be caused by the lack of important parts of Radcliffe-Brown’s structure, suddenly it fits a little more neatly. Though I wonder why structured society is so fascinated by deviants like Gein? Perhaps that’s a question to address another day.