Formal-Functional Theoretical and Methodological Orientations in Anthropology


Astrid Sala-Boza
Ph.D. in Anthropology 2005, University of San Carlos, Cebu City

(Presented at the 1st MLE Conference, “Reclaiming the Right to Learn in One’s Own Language,” Capitol University, Cagayan de Oro City, Feb 18-20, 2010.  This paper was previously published in Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society, 36(2008): 167-190.)

There remains a need for work on a formal methodology to systematize the discovery of indigenous culture and knowledge underlying behavior – thought, speech and action – in a field under study. This methodology would yield an analysis of a culture domain according to indigenous conceptual systems and terms of reference, rather than according to a researcher’s analytical interpretation of data at hand.

Formal methodologies address problems of sociocultural research brought about by issues such as translation competence and the introduction of one’s own analytic concepts (Spradley and McCurdy 1975: 73-75). Moving towards ethnographic descriptions which parallel indigenous cultural units in Tenejapa Ladino weddings, Metzger and Williams employed tightly controlled linguistic elicitation methods based on question and answer frames in a native language. The organization of concepts as displayed in the frames has a structure of its own, though this is subject to reordering and analysis according to the analyst’s interests. This methodology, however, does not pretend to completeness (Metzger and Williams 1963: 1076, 390-391).

Frake asserts that an account of socially meaningful behavior must use methods that will successfully describe messages as manifestations of a code. The ethnographer should seek to build a theory of culture, coded in the knowledge in people’s heads, in order to say something of general relevance about cognition and behavior (Frake 1964b: 26-27).

The task of ethnography is therefore to state rules for culturally appropriate behavior, rather than to predict behavior per se. The ethnographer, like the linguist, attempts to state rules and construct utterances that are culturally appropriate for native speakers (Frake 1964b: 27-28). A person learns from his fellows the rules, utterances, and codes that are significant parts of his cultural equipment (Frake 1962: 3).

Frake’s structural description of Subanun “religious behavior” raises the question of what kind of statement would constitute an adequate ethnographic description of a culture. The test of descriptive adequacy must refer to an informant’s interpretation of events. To this end, there are three methodological considerations necessary in formulating ethnographic statements. These are: first, the discovery of major events or scenes of the culture; second, the definition of the scenes for the assignment of acts, interactions, places and objects as roles, routines, settings and paraphernalia; and third, the distribution of the scenes in relation to each other (Frake 1964a: 144-145).

Frake’s characterization of Subanun religion consists not of intuitive impressions of “the meaning of religion in Subanun life unrelatable to operations performed on ethnographic data,” but rather of locating the distributional properties of a structural segment of cultural activity in relation to contrasting and complementary activities. Frake however, says that his study is still deficient in detail and rigor, merely suggesting some of the methodological features of such a statement.

The cited formal methodologies (Metzger and Williams, and Frake) illustrate the application of linguistically-based eliciting procedures for the discovery of informants’ cultural knowledge of how to behave at specific times, and hint at certain definitions of culture. However, operationalized theoretical orientations corresponding to such methodological applications have not been made explicit by either Frake or Metzger and Williams. It would therefore be relevant to find a fundamental theoretical basis underlying and directing the utilization of formal procedures in ethnographic work, applicable in various cultural domains, for example in the anthropology of religion.

Such a theoretical orientation would not only justify the use of formal methodological approaches for discovering aspects of culture through language, but more essentially, provide a rudimentary theoretical frame of reference underlying and mandating such methodology. Toward this end, this present work thus departs from the formal methods previously discussed and instead adheres to the linguistic formal-functional theoretical framework of Fr. Eugene Verstraelen and the corresponding methodological approaches developed by Verstraelen’s student at the University of San Carlos, Mimi Trosdal in the field of culture. As linguist and philosopher, Verstraelen provides a theory of language as the broader structure within which culture comes into play as an extralinguistic element of language, providing language with its semantic content and referential functions. His analytic methodology has been demonstrated by Trosdal to yield not only the grammatical constructions of a language, but also its semantic content, showing the extralinguistic hierarchical organization of rules of behavior. Such semantic content and behavioral rules to a considerable ex-tent correspond to the elusive “knowledge” sought after by cognitive anthropologists and approximated by Frake and Metzger and Williams in their application of formal ethnographic procedures. The theoretical orientations and corresponding methodological applications given here add another dimension to this quest for such “knowledge”.



Verstraelen defines language as a mental symbol system of reality (Verstraelen 2000: 4). As such, it underlies and directs human physico-cognitive behavior. This approach to language may present a reference point for what Urban says is a daunting task confronting linguistic anthropology: investigating the relationship between language and reality (an investigation now stereotyped as the “Sapir-Whorf hypothesis”) and doing so, specifically, by situating language with respect to culture and society (Urban 1998: 582).

Meek notes that linguistic anthropology has been fascinated by the concept of linguistic relativity since Whorf first wrote about the impact of language on thought, behavior and culture. Though this fascination has waned over the past few decades, there is a resurgence of interest in the subject in relation to development in cognitive science (Meek 1998: 583). Carlson cites Shore who situates cultural anthropology as a central voice in the cognitive revolution. The question that compels Shore’s research is very basic: How can work in symbolic anthropology proceed without any explicit theory of mind? He builds on the notion of embodiment and the location of the “body in the mind” by additionally situating “culture in the mind” (Carlson 1997: 631-632).

Verstraelen’s theory of language stresses that human knowledge is culturally conditioned, and in effect demonstrates the inextricable interrelations of language, culture and society. Linguistic and cultural behavior, i.e., thought, speech and action, proceed according to formal-functional rules embodied in a society’s language. These rules are “linguasociocultural”, since they pertain to language, culture and society. This theory of language in a way situates “culture in the mind”, in that cultural know-ledge, and the rules for thought, speech and action are inextricably inter-linked with language, which is a mental faculty. Verstraelen’s formal-functional theory and analysis of language establishes the foundations for Trosdal’s application of both theory and analysis to language as well as for her development of both in relation to culture and society, as a “linguistic sociocultural application of Dr. Verstraelen’s theory of language” (Trosdal 1990: v).

Language: A Mental Symbol System

Verstraelen’s theory that language is a mental symbol system of the physical and social realities of the world situates it as a fundamental human cognitive faculty. Through the process of conceptualization, the human mind constantly and unconsciously converts its experiences into abstractions. It abstracts elements of an experience, for example, the experience of a ball is abstracted by the mind as something spherical and which bounces.

In order to retain the abstraction “something-spherical-which-bounces” mentally, it is given a form or symbol, i.e., such as the spoken English word bal, to represent it. A symbol such as the word bal is a cognitive representational vehicle which allows the mental retention of the abstractions of reality, as something-spherical-which-bounces, represented by the symbol. Such symbols are organized into a mental symbol system; this human capacity for symbolization is language, hence Verstraelen’s definition of language as a mental symbol system.

Verstraelen further defines language as “essentially a set of rules for generating symbols according to human convention”; language learning proceeds according to a set of rules without which a member of a community would be unable to gain the knowledge needed to think and express himself. These rules are shared by all members of a speech-community or society (Verstraelen 2000: 4, 54, 60; Trosdal 1990: vi, vii, 1971: 839, 1969: 4).

Symbolization and Symbols: Form and Function

The human capability for symbolization is fundamental to basal human knowledge, or basal language, differentiating man from lower creatures; it is the basis for his thought, speech and action. In this perspective, language is not merely speech or communication, which is but one aspect of language use, i.e., the communicative aspect of speech. It is, in Verstraelen’s broader terms, the human capacity for symbolization, as a mind-directed or mental symbol system which is organized and utilized for human physico-cognitive behavior consisting of thought, speech and action, which are the applications of language use (Verstraelen 2000: 45, Trosdal 1990: v-viii).

Verstraelen (2002: 254, 2000: 5-9, 1966: 27) draws on Langer’s definition of symbol as consisting of form and function, as well as on her distinction between sign and symbol. Human symbolization contrasts with sign-usage in lower animals, in which an element in the environment functions to indicate the presence of another element, such as bell-ringing indicating the presence of food, thus inducing salivation in a dog. Sign-usage is devoid of abstract representational function; it is merely symptomatic in character. While humans are also capable of sign-usage, lower creatures are not capable of symbolization in the human sense within the natural course of their mental development.

Symbols generated by language have forms which consist of conventionally devised oral sounds which may, over time, be given written expression to facilitate retention and transmission. These forms have functions (Verstraelen 2002: 11-30, Trosdal 1990: ix). The corresponding oral and written forms or symbols fundamentally consist of phonemes and morphemes of a spoken language, and in some cases the graphemes of a written language. Such symbols are mentally stored and have the threefold functions of: first, reflexive function, existing by themselves, such as the symbols a, e, i, o, u, which are vowels in the English phonemic system; second, construction function, or ability to combine with other symbols, phonemes and/or morphemes; and third, referential, or semantic function, having meaning, for example, the meaning of “ball” as a spherical object of many sizes, materials, qualities, etc. and used as paraphernalia in various games (see Trosdal 1990: vi-viii).

In effect, the human mind transforms experiences into symbols, giving rise to discourse, or symbol-using knowledge (Verstraelen 1966: 191). Symbols have both general reference, such as connotation (or abstract meaning), for example, the Holy Child Jesus; and particular applications, such as denotations (or subsumed entities), for example, the Sto. Niño de Cebu (Verstraelen 2000: 6, 47-51; Trosdal 1990: vii-viii; 1995: 363-364).

Linguistic Symbols, Semantic-Cultural Content and Behavior

Frake says that culturally significant cognitive features are coded and communicated in a society’s language, thus the study of the referential use of terms, or readily elicitable linguistic responses, could be a starting point for mapping a cognitive system (Frake 1962: 3-4). On the other hand, Verstraelen says that “a language generates symbols”, though these are not always consciously “generated” by a member (Verstraelen 2000: 18).

Trosdal terms the set of interconnected semantic-cultural relation-ships associated with a cultural feature or domain of a society as “semantic-cultural content”, for example all the meanings and knowledge associated with the Cebuano word manuk “chicken,” which a member of society would normally learn and possess as a basis for acceptable behavior (Trosdal 1990: xxxi-xxxiii; 1969: 87).

The oral expressions of a language, as in the term Señor Sto. Niño, convey with them meanings that reflect a domain of a society’s knowledge, and serve as the basis for the behavior of members of a certain society. Such expressions are “culturally loaded” features of the language which may yield data on cultural knowledge underlying behavior (Trosdal 1969: 87). Verstraelen says that according to the formal-functional analysis of a language, the referential functionata are extra-linguistic or extra-semantic. The referential function of symbols is not based on systematic features of grammar, but rather, on meanings learned from society through Redundant Corrective Experience (RCE) (Verstraelen 2000: 64-67).

This means that it is through the referential function, or semantic content of symbols, that cultural meaning is attached to a society’s language. Through this referential function, the symbols in language convey the array of significances that a society’s culture attaches to the symbols. These significances or semantic content consist of cultural knowledge underlying behavior or language use. Thought, speech and action are associated with the language’s verbal expressions. In this perspective, it is thus the semantic-cultural content of a language, its extra-linguistic component, which underlies behavior.

Underlying Shared Common Knowledge: Unconscious Infrastructure

Accounting for behavior by relating it to the conditions under which it normally occurs requires procedures for discovering what information the people are processing and what they are attending to, when they make decisions which lead to culturally appropriate behavior. This is done by “getting into the subject’s heads” (Frake 1964b: 270). One may thus ask what people “have in their heads”, “how it gets there” and “how it directs behavior”.

A child born into a society, such as Cebuano society, learns through RCE the system of shared meanings, the underlying shared common knowledge as embodied in Sinugbu’anun, the Cebuano Bisayan language. This knowledge of language, cultural meanings and social conventions unconsciously underlies and guides thought, speech and action, and allows the child to learn to behave in culturally appropriate ways. This constitutes the child’s developing performance or competence.

Language and its semantic content is therefore the unconscious infrastructure guiding human behavior. Language and the ability to use it constitute the knowledge which underlies behavior (Trosdal 1990: xiii; 2000: 1). It has been said that Whorf went so far as to suggest that a per-son’s entire view of the world is determined by the language he speaks.

Culturally appropriate behavior is thus guided by culturally conditioned rules which form the semantic function of the language, and are thus peculiar to the society. These rules define the characteristic behavior patterns expected of a member of society in his relationships with others in the different structures of the society, and allow him to behave according to socially prescribed positions with their corresponding behavioral expectations, for example, as a mother of children, as a daughter to a mother as a wife to a husband, in the structure of kinship (Sala-Boza 1982: 225-228). In the same way, the behavior of a Cebuano in his relationship as devotee with the Sto. Niño de Cebu is defined by rules which are learned from generation to generation through the transmission of language and its semantic content, peculiar to Cebuano society (Trosdal 1990: xxvii-xxviii).

Culture: A System of Intertwined Behavioral and
Rules and Language

Like the linguist, the ethnographer seeks to describe an infinite set of variable messages which are manifestations of a finite shared code. This code is a set of rules for the socially appropriate construction and interpretation of messages (Frake 1964b: 26). Frake asserts that behavior proceeds according to rules or requisite knowledge for appropriate behavior. An ethnographic description of the Subanun settlement pattern must state a set of rules one must know in order to decide where to live; it must not consist of merely a map of house sites. Rules are explicit in that they are based on informants’ discussions (Frake 1964b: 20). No area of study (for example, “growing crops”) has been described ethnographically until one has stated the rules for its identification in the culture being studied (Frake 1964b: 19).

For instance, the devotees of the Sto. Niño unconsciously understand that paghauk “to kiss” the Sto. Niño requires certain associative pat-terns or rules of behavior and their underlying meanings, i.e., standing in line at the basilica to take one’s turn to kiss the image; not go ahead of others because this would not be right; magpahid “wipe one’s handker-chief” on the glass enclosing the image; then touching the handkerchief to a body part afflicted with pain or disease, because one’s faith allows a be-lief in the healing power of God as represented by the image. This system of interwoven and unconscious behavioral and associative rules and language constitutes a society’s culture. They form the foundation for, and direct a person’s behavior, with regard to language use in speech, thought and action as a member of society (Trosdal 1990: vii-x, xxx; 2000: 1). Verstraelen notes, however, that the mind has a certain independence from the structure of meanings in a language. Citing Boas, he says that the log-ic of language structure is not the logic of thinking, but rather of grammatical categories which channel thinking in certain directions (Verstraelen 2000: 98).

Such a system of behavioral and associative rules is found in Cebuano Bisayan linguistic forms and functions that are based on physical, psychological and sociocultural realities. It is expected that a member of Cebuano society would have assimilated these rules of language and behavior to conform to Cebuano linguistic and cultural expectations, with allowable variances for personal psychological expression among members of the society. The socio-historically conditioned shared meanings inherent in such rules allow the member to speak, think and act, and so utilize the society’s native language and behave competently according to linguistic and cultural rules embodied in the language (Trosdal 1971: 840).

Language Use: Parole Parlee

Sinugbu’anun “The Cebuano Bisayan language” is parole parlee, a variant of human knowledge which is inextricable from Cebuano culture (Trosdal 1995: 364-366; 1990: xxvii-xxviii; 2000: 4).

Verstraelen refers to Merleau-Ponty’s most important work, Phenomenology de la Perception, which demonstrates the hidden dialogue between subject and reality at the start of interiorization and totalization of symbols during the process of abstraction, wherein each new experience, each new consciousness, is integrated into one’s field of existence. This aspect of language, which is important in the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, must be studied not in its formal structure, as linguists do, but in its actual use, the so-called concrete parole, which to Merleau-Ponty is thinking, that is to say, internal speech not expressed by audible sounds.

Parole, the use of symbols or thinking, is open to the meanings in a whole field of existence, and is socio-historically conditioned. The members of a speech community develop fixed paroles with fixed meanings. Therefore, a subject uses parole to think and speak about his field of existence as others in his society do. Parole, taken as not only thinking, but generally also as anything communicative which a subject receives from and expresses to others, is called parole parlee by Merleau-Ponty.

This parole parlee was the subject of study of Sapir and Whorf. However, while Whorfian theory can explain the parole parlee, it cannot explain the differences of the paroles parlee actually existing in different speech communities. Whorf presupposes a static parole parlee, whereas Merleau-Ponty accepts a dynamic one by introducing the term, parole parlante, which is parole as far as it is meaning-giving. It is a new meaning introduced by creative speech to the other members of a speech community. Once accepted by the society, parole parlante enters the parole parlee of the community, and is thus an origin of parole parlee, constitutes parole parlee, and renders parole parlee dynamic and open to change (Verstraelen 1966: 187-194).

Parole parlante may be a linguistic introduction from another language or a new expression from the language itself and is usually expressed in speech. Examples are pista, from Spanish fiesta, or hatud-kawat “telegram” in Cebuano, which in time were accepted by the community and became parole parlee. Parole parlante allows for dynamism in language, reflective of the society’s evolving realities (Trosdal 1990: xxvi-xxvii; 1995: 364).

In Verstraelen’s terms, parole parlee is taken in a broad sense to mean the totality of behavioral output of the mental symbol system embodied in one’s native language, which is the basis for and used in the realization of the thoughts, words and actions of a social member. A child is born into a society initially and gradually learns this sum total of oral expressions or spoken realizations and their corresponding behavioral applications or parole parlee, of the society. This common knowledge and concomitant language is a society’s native language, as is Sinugbu’anun “The Cebuano Bisayan language,” the lingua franca in Cebuano Bisayan society. Cultural knowledge, i.e., rules learned (cultural competence) and concomitant behavior (cultural performance) underlying such behavior, are inextricably interrelated with one’s native language (Trosdal 1990: xxx). See for example Sala-Boza (2007).

Formal-Functional Study: The Semantics of Parole Parlee

Frake asserts that any verbal response in conformity with a language is necessarily culturally significant behavior, and thus by pushing forward the analysis of such responses we can arrive at procedures for isolating the significant constituents of analogous and interrelated structures. He advocates the determination of sets of contrasting responses (contrast sets or culturally appropriate alternative responses) to culturally valid exercitation contexts (segregates or terminologically distinguished arrays of objects), as well as the identification of taxonomies and attributes of objects. He says that this methodology should also be applicable to the “se-mantic” analysis of any culturally meaningful behavior (Frake 1962: 4-13).

Spradley and McCurdy say that cultural meaning is based on the way folk concepts are organized, thus investigation turns out to be a search for principles employed in organizing folk concepts which may be discovered in terms of folk taxonomies and contrast sets (Spradley and McCurdy 1975: 86-87).

These viewpoints indicate the primacy of meanings in the underlying semantic structure guiding cultural behavior, as members of a society interrelate with each other. Thus, rather than merely showing the basic structure of a domain without all its meanings, as in folk taxonomies, or focusing on differences among concepts, as in contrast sets (Spradley and McCurdy 1975: 92-93), formal-functional methodology seeks to discover meanings underlying behavior. A formal-functional study of a cultural feature or domain of society (for example, a study of the semantics of parole parlee in a particular area of interest, like the devotion to the Sto. Niño of Cebu), will yield largely unconscious (assumed or taken-for-granted) rules of behavior within the area of society under study. Such a study requires a fluent knowledge of the language and its system of meanings, or expository semantics, and is analytical in nature (Trosdal 1990: xxvii; 1995: 365-366).


Interlinked Questions

Frake’s method seeks to reveal the knowledge that underlies communication. The informant’s interpretation of a socially meaningful verbal or non-verbal act (a message) is the key to the discovery of code rules. These rules may be inferred if one knows the message and the interpretation (Frake 1964b: 28). Terminological systems may be analyzed to reveal the conceptual principles which generate them. This methodology taps a central portion of an informant’s cognitive world (Frake 1962: 30).

Frake wrote of concepts as being interlinked by a variety of relationships to a large number of other concepts which in turn are interlinked with other concepts. If semantic domains are sets of related concepts, then a conceptual structure of a culture and the peoples’ language cannot be separated into a finite number of clearly delimited relations. There is instead a network of relations whose links enable us to travel along different paths from one concept to another. Relationships among concepts may be discovered through interlinking queries (Frake 1964b: 37-38).

A description organized by linked queries and responses is simultaneously a program for finding out information. To Frake, an “interlinkage” is a pair of queries which connect utterances as mutual topics and responses; it is the basic unit of these procedures. If “meaning” has to do with extragrammatical rules of use, the interlinkage of queries and responses says something about the meaning of utterances even if we cannot see the non-verbal objects and events referred to by the utterances (Frake 1964b: 29).

Frake’s “interlinkage” of concepts which can be discovered by a set of interlinked queries is applied in Trosdal’s interlinked-query inter-view method which was designed to yield linguistic and sociocultural data to reveal an informant’s knowledge on norms of behavior. While Frake applies the concept of “interlinkage” to a “pair of queries” and speaks of the “interlinkage of queries and responses”, Verstraelen and Trosdal further apply the concept of interlinkage not only to a pair of queries, but to an entire chain of interlinkages in a linguistic elicitation procedure.

In formal-functional methodology, each question in the infor-mant’s native language elicits a response with information. From that in-formation is extracted the basis for the next question, and so on and so forth until one has exhaustively discovered the range of semantic content and thus of meanings and knowledge of the cultural feature or domain un-der study, and has arrived at a conclusion of the series of questions.

Even though most anthropologists know and follow the method, following the lead of a Cebuano informant’s terminology for this type of experience with her, Trosdal has termed it sukli’sukli’ “interlinked query interview method,” in reference to the interlinked linguistic and semantic question-and-response exchange between researcher and informant. Within Verstraelen’s formal-functional orientation, Trosdal developed the method to elicit data for her formal-functional dictionary of the Cebuano language (1990), and her formal-functional Cebuano grammar (1992). The same method was found to be applicable to the elicitation of the semantic content of a language.

Sukli’sukli’ demands a fluent knowledge of the native language of the society and culture under study. All queries are posed to the informant in the native language. Each succeeding question proceeds from the informant’s previous answer to get further elaboration, thereby minimizing researcher bias (although each succeeding question is formulated by the interviewer), and maximizing the gradual exposition of indigenous knowledge in a systematic manner. The researcher personally conducts the intensive interviews and records all questions and answers simultaneously by pen, typewriter or computer.

Sample Interlinked Query Interview

The rules in the formal-functional analysis are discovered from da-ta obtained through the interlinked-query interviews with the researcher’s consultants. A brief sample portion of an actual interview of a consultant (Aristone Taburnal, an employee at the Basilica del Sto. Niño de Cebu, taken on April 27, 1993) for the study on the Señor Sto. Niño de Cebu is illustrated here in Cebuano-Visayan with English translations.


Question: ’Unsa man di’ay’imung buhatun sa kandila’an? [“What do you do at the ‘votive candle area’?”]

Answer: Tig’ilis ku sa kandila’ gikan sa Rosarian’ug sa Holy Candle. ’Ang mga taw ray mubutang sa kandila’ sa ‘votive candle stand’.  [“I am the one who changes the candles [which are] from Rosarian and Holy Candle [suppliers of votive candles]. It is only the people who put votive candles on the candle stands.”]

Question: ’Unsa’un man di’ay nang kandila’ sa mga taw? [“What then do the people do with these votive candles?”]

Answer: ’Idagkut sa mga taw, ’ug ’ang ’uban mudagkut magdyi’,’ug ’ang ’uban dili’ lang sa’. ’Ug’ang’uban mangayupu’ lang. [“The people light the votive candles. Some of them light the candles and pray, while others don’t (pray). Still others just put their arms together (in a gesture of prayer).”]

Question: Nganung magdagkut ’ang mga taw? [“Why do people light votive candles?”]

Answer: ’Ang mga taw magdagkut kay magpasalamat kay ma’ayu ’ang ’ilang sakit ’ug ’ang ’uban nagpatabang sa ’ilang prublima ’ug ’ang ’uban mu’anha’ kung na’ay ’iksamin labi kanang mga ’istudyanti. Kung tig’iksamin mudaghan ’ang mga taw sa Sto. Niño. [“The people light votive candles in thanksgiving for the healing of their illness; others petition for assistance with their problems; others go there when they have exams, especially students. There are more people at the Sto. Niño during exams.”]

Question: Kinsa man ’ang ’ilang pasalamatan? [“Who do they give thanks to?”]

Answer: Pasalamatan nila ’ang Sto. Niño tungud sa ’ilang gipa-ngayu’ nga natuman. [“They give thanks to the Sto. Niño because their petitions have been fulfilled.”]

Question: Kinsa man say ’ilang pangayu’an ’ug pakitabang? [“From whom do they also ask for help?”]

Answer: Pangayu’an kung mag’ampu’ kung dili’ [way la’in nga] ma’u ’ang Sto. Niño.  [“They ask in prayer from none other than the Sto. Niño.”]

Question: Kinsa man sa ’ilang pagtu’u ’ang Sto. Niño? [“Who do they believe is the Sto. Niño?”]

Answer: ’Ang Ginu’ung Jesus sa gamay pa. [“The Lord Jesus when he was still small.”]

Question: Kinsa man nang’ilang ’ingnun nga Ginu’u? [“Who is that whom they say is God?”]

Answer: Gituhu’an na’ nila na kadtung Ginu’u nga nabanhaw. [“They believe that He is the risen Lord.”]

Question: Mutu’u ba sila nga ’ang Sto. Niño Diyus? [“Do they believe that the Sto. Niño is God?”]

Answer: Ma’u giud na’ ’ang ’ilang gituhu’an, kay magsakripisyu gud na’ sila ’ug ’anhi bisan ’ug layu’ ka’ayu ’ang ’ilang pinuy’anan. Kanang ’ilang pana’ad ba… kanang magbantay ’ug mangga mudaghan gali’ ’ang bunga mu’anha’ ’ug mag da’ug daghang mangga. ’Ibutang sa may ’altar ’ang daghan ka’ayung mangga, hilaw ’ug hinug. Tagsa ray simana nga di’ magda ’ug mangga. Kanang tagabukid ma’uy ganahan ka’ayu magda ’ug mangga… kanang taga Busay ’ug taga-bukid, sa Busay ’ug Guadalupe. Dad’un lang na’ sa guardiya sa ta’as. Wala’ man nay pu’as ’ang mangga ’ug bunga, kada simana na’a. Basta kanang tagabukid magda’ug mangga muhatag pud ’ug kuarta. Muhatag ’usahay ’ug’usa ka gatus nga kuarta kay magpasalamat. Sa’ad na’ nila. ’Usahay ma’alas kwatruhan sa hapun, way kasu kung ma-gab’ihan. [“That is indeed what they believe, because they sacrifice in order to come [to the Basilica] even if they live very far. Their vow is that … if they are mango contractual growers or tenants, and they have a bountiful harvest, they go to the Basilica and bring a lot of mangoes. They put very many mangoes on the altar, both ripe and unripe. Few weeks pass without mangoes. The mountain folk are the ones who like very much to bring mangoes… those from Busay and Guadalupe. The guard brings these upstairs [to the Augustinian convent]. Fruit-bearing is continuous; there are fruits every week. When the mountain folk bring mangoes, they also bring money. Sometimes they may give 100 pesos in thanksgiving. That is their vow. Sometimes they may reach the Basilica at four in the afternoon, but it doesn’t matter to them if it is night-time by the time they return to the mountains.”]

Question: ’Unsa man nay bu’ut pasabut sa pana’ad? [“What is meant by a vow?”]

Answer:  Kung matuman ’ang ’iyang pangayu’ muhatag ’ug donation sa Sto. Niño. Kung pila ka pursyintu sa ’ilang nakita’. [“If their petition was fulfilled, they give a donation to the Sto. Niño. It may be a percentage of what they earn.”]


Formal-Functional Analysis of Data

Formal-functional analysis of data thus obtained must systematize the discovered knowledge to approximate the guiding rules behind culturally determined acts (Trosdal 1971). The analysis is not a mere translation of indigenous knowledge from the native language into English, but rather, a discovery of the rules underlying correct knowledge in the expression of devotion.

Categorical rules underly and direct the behavior of a member of society in the culture domain under study. They proceed from the nuclear highest level category form (nhlcf), or the highest rule in the culture domain. Lower categories of rules emanate from the nhlcf and become low-er level constituents which in turn yield a series of interrelated rules formulating the cognitive system underlying the culture domain.

Each rule is composed of various constituents which may in turn also occupy other positions in lower level rules in the construction of meanings or conceptual or semantic relationships in the culture domain under study. For instance, the nhlcf Señor Sto. Niño de Cebu (which is rule 1:1 in this cultural domain), is comprised of the main constituents found in a lower category rule, rule 1:2, which subsequently gives constituents which are developed in still lower category hierarchical rules.
Rule 1:2 gives the knowledge of the informants regarding the constituents of the nhlcf. This shows that to the informant, the Sto. Niño is a ribultu “carved image” plus (+) Hesukristu sa gamay pa “Jesus Christ when he was small”. Part (P) of this categorical rule is that the image gidala sa mga katsila’ “was brought by the Spaniards.” Concomitant (C) to the rule is that the Señor Sto. Niño is Patrun sa Cebu “Patron of Cebu”, part (p) of which is that He is Patrun sa Pilipinas “Patron of the Philippines”. A situation (S) illustrating the rule is that kasagaran sa mga taw nakasabut ’ana’ “most people understand this”. Other lower category rules follow accordingly. These are formulaic in expression according to a system of notation (Sala-Boza, next article, this issue).


Formal-functional theory and methodology are subsumed under formal methodology in general and its strengths and limitations must be considered in the light of critiques on the various linguistic elicitation techniques in formal ethnographic methodology.

Black (1963) described Metzger and Williams’s use of the question-and-answer frame as rigidly controlling the ethnographer-informant interaction situation for minimum ambiguity in interpretation of results. In a method like programmed training, the ethnographer systematically learns the correct questions to ask by producing a set of questions (frames) in the native language, along with the answers that will be consistently elicited from informants in response to them. Applied in the interest of obtaining scientifically respectable data, this rigid technique aspires to obtain replicable and phenomenological ethnographic data. Black found the method highly exciting, even though it produced tentative and incomplete data (Black 1963: 1347).

Replicability, a general goal of science, refers to the use of a descriptive format in ethnography, a formal statement of relations between specified units such that other investigators can easily check these units and proceed from them rather than start anew. This was made conceivable by a method of using frames in the analysis of phonological units derived from structural linguistics. Black noted that the method employs only the linguistic context, the context of the linguistic interview itself, an “artificial” setting akin to the experimental laboratory which is not a real-life situation in which things generally happen.

On the other hand, the goal of obtaining a phenomenological description, a particular concern of ethnography, is addressed through the discovery of native classifications of phenomena, a level of abstract indigenous knowledge. To Black, this “knowledge,” commonly shared by members of a society about things they select to observe, appears to be what has in the past been referred to as “covert culture”, and she saw the general approach subscribed to by Metzger and Williams as a break-through toward dealing with this aspect of culture more rigorously.

However, consistent with her objection to the purely linguistic interview context of the units, Black cited the strictly verbal nature of the resultant “cultural grammar” as limited. Even though linguistic interaction through “talk” in question and response frames is the method by which cultural knowledge, or “cognitive structures” are discovered, she does not believe this elicitation method can uncover all cultural transmission or knowledge acquired by an individual to become a functioning member of his society. She insisted that at some point, this interview technique must be supplemented by observation of naturally occurring events. Despite her objections, Black acknowledged that this method for discovering cultural patterning or “cognitive structuring” had led to substantive ethnographic statements by Metzger and Williams, as well as by Frake and Conklin, and is characterized to a high degree by phenomenological validity and replicability (Black 1965: 1348-1351).

While Metzger and Williams’s research and Black’s evaluation of their methods and findings, were done in the 1960s, Frake critiqued the method in the 1970s. Frake asserted that cognitive anthropologists listen to what the natives have to say, using a variety of methods to induce people to verbalize in consistent question-response fashion about many topics of interest. In the process, a pursuit of methods that work replaces the search for a theory that explains what we want to know. Frames had emerged as a useful and powerful methodological device.

Lifted out of the distributional model of structural linguistics, the frame was construed as an inquiry matched with a set of responses. A question-answer sequence, a conversational exchange, served as the unit of analysis. The frame attempted to define a context showing semantic, rather than the grammatical relations linguists were then concerned with. While the method was useful, it apparently presented compartmentalized and seemingly trivial findings. A paper by Metzger and Williams on Tzeltal “firewood collection” is an example. Furthermore, problems were en-countered regarding technical difficulties with the notion of what a “question” was, as well as with inducing people to verbalize in consistent question-response fashion about topics of interest. There was also a high degree of informant variability. Failure to fully exploit the interactive aspects of the frame model and to widen the frame to encompass the con-texts specifying the meaning of human behaviors led to methodological difficulties. The method was focused on questions and answers as chunks of verbiage isolated from their settings and their speakers, and the reductionist stimulus-response model of behavior hung over many early such programmatic statements.

Frake proposed addressing these problems by attending to wider contexts of questioning to sort out different semantic relations (the wider social contexts) and to informants’ interpretations, to help explain variations. He focused on the context within which people organize their conceptions of what is happening at a given time, and on the human capacity to reframe reality repeatedly.

What Frake sought were the basic units of interpretive context, “talk” which might be defined as social occasions where ethnographers go for their data: parties, weddings, trials, ceremonies, etc. A “talk” is a conceptual unit wherein experience is organized as accounts and predictions of, as well as plans for, events. Culture is not just strictly a script for the production of social occasions, but a set for creating dramas, for writing new scripts, and for recruiting players and audiences. It provides principles for framing experience as eventful in particular ways. It provides improvised and continually revised cognitive sketch maps of events (see Sala-Boza 2007).

This conceptual view of culture corresponds to Metzger and Wil-liams’s goal of discovering the organization of cultural knowledge, or “cultural structure,” which Black said implies a view of culture that is not shared by all anthropologists (Black 1963: 1348). It therefore appears that critiques of formal ethnographic methodology attempted so far turn not merely on elicitation techniques, but also on a more fundamental issue regarding the definition of culture.

Black asserted that most anthropologists adhere to a definition of culture which merges verbal cognitive discriminations for identifying and classifying phenomena (utilized by Metzger and Williams) with other, non-linguistic or paralinguistic, symbolic systems (Black 1963: 1348).

In this, they follow Goodenough. For example, Frake cites Goodenough’s definition of culture as consisting of the forms or organizations of things in the minds of people. Culture does not consist of the things, people, behavior and emotions themselves. Thus, ethnographic description which gives central importance to cognitive processes will contribute reliable cultural data regarding the relations between language, cognition and behavior; allow meaningful cross-cultural comparison; and yield productive descriptions of cultural behavior which clearly state what one must know in order to behave in contextually appropriate ways in a particular culture (Frake 1962: 14).

In the same vein, Verstraelen’s theory of language situates culture as an extra-linguistic or a non-linguistic symbolic system connected to and transmitted by language, providing language’s semantic function as “cultural content”. In this orientation, the use of linguistic devices for the discovery of semantic function or content of a culture under study may be seen as a strength, rather than as a limitation.

Though Verstraelen’s operationalized theory of language and culture and Trosdal’s methodological applications set their work somewhat apart from Frake’s, the approaches of these three scientists focus similarly on the discovery and presentation of the rules underlying behavior. The assumptions made by Frake on the nature of culture does not appear to contradict Verstraelen’s theory. Their methodological approaches are to some extent similar, though Verstraelen’s formal-functional linguistic elicitation method seems to be more intensive, resulting in a formal-functional analysis of a language’s grammar or culture.

The linguistic elicitation methods discussed here provide a readily accessible gateway to categorical semantic content in people’s heads, where rules of knowledge and behavior underly and direct human thought, speech and action. It is advantageous that they do not adhere to rigidly controlled “frames”, for it is when the linguistic devices are too rigidly controlled by question-and-answer frames, somewhat as in a laboratory setting approximating reductionistic stimulus-response methodological orientations, that linguistic elicitation may become isolated from social situations and therefore be somewhat limited as a discovery procedure.

What if one were to theoretically eliminate covert knowledge and focus only on observable behavior as cultural phenomena? What would be the basis for understanding observable human behavior if knowledge were to be eliminated as part of the human spectrum of activity? The study of the basic human physico-cognitive behavior of thought, speech and action would be impossible, for such an approach would be to reduce human life to a nominal physical level without cognitive capacity or expression. Nothing would be left of “overt” behavior for observation and interpretation, nor of “covert” behavior for discovery. Such an extreme scenario would lead one to ask what then would restore human cognitive expression and behavioral capacity.

Verstraelen’s theory points to the human capacity for symbolization and the application of this capacity to the mental storage of images and meanings shared with and transmitted by others in culture, for use in the expression of thought, speech and action according to accepted pat-terns of relationship. What then would be more fundamental to human physico-cognitive behavior than the discursive knowledge (i.e., symbol-using knowledge) of behavioral expectations as stored in the mental symbol system of language, used in discursive thought, transmitted through the communicative aspect of speech, and expressed in human action? Such fundamental knowledge can be taken as culture itself, since without it, “observable behavior” would not even exist. In this view, observable behavior would then be “cultural expression”; it is ways of doing things with corresponding cultural products, based on the guiding knowledge, or culture in people’s minds.
Most anthropological definitions of culture situate it within the broader context of language defined not merely as communication, but also as a mental symbol system of reality. Methodology must be more than a mere consideration of “overt” or “covert” culture, or of “linguistic eliciting devices” which may or may not be “limiting” as discovery procedures. There is the more fundamental philosophical consideration of language as a human cognitive device for the symbolic representation of human realities and their extralinguistic semantic content, in other words, of culture in Verstraelen’s formal-functional theory.

Verstraelen and Trosdal’s theory and method have yielded data open to scrutiny as to their validity, verifiability and replicability. Using formal-functional orientations, I have rigorously counterverified formal-functional methodology through the application of a statistical methodology which illustrated the high incidence of “applicability” of the analytical rules discovered through the linguistic eliciting methodology used (Sala-Boza 1982: 224). Such “applicability” means that the “rules” of behavior discovered through formal-functional analysis by Trosdal were tested statistically by the author and found to have been largely manifested or “applied” in the actual or “real” behavior of the informants.

In other words, the “rules” generally corresponded to actual behavior, and were thus the “guiding knowledge” underlying and directing behavior. This documented verification empirically showed the validity, verifiability and replicability of Verstraelen’s formal-functional theory and Trosdal’s cultural anthropological methodological orientations stemming from it.

It is expected that the same empirical standards will apply to other formal-functional studies, thereby resulting in a fundamental understanding of the referential function or semantic content of behavior. Corollary to this empirical character of the data will be its expected predictive value of the behavior of the members of a society, in the cultural domain under study. Formal-functional research may be used as the fundamental cornerstone for defining and understanding the behavior which proceeds from cultural knowledge, e.g., Cebuano knowledge of the Señor Sto. Niño de Cebu. “Ideal” data thus obtained need not be isolated from “real” behavior, but may be used in conjunction with other methodologies for a holistic view of the cultural domain.

It should be noted however, that formal-functional methodology depends on the researcher’s working knowledge of the informant’s native language for the discovery and analysis of data. “Getting into people’s heads” presupposes basic understanding of the language’s semantic content for the elicitation of “knowledge” on the informant’s own terms and orientations. This carries over to the testing of the replicability and verifiability of data, which should ideally be done by a researcher with a good working knowledge of the language of research.


Black, Mary. 1963.  “On Formal Ethnographic Procedures,” American Anthropologist 65: 1347-1151.

Carlson, Robert G. 1997.  Book review, Culture in Mind: Cognition, Culture and the Problem of Meaning, by Bradd Shore. American Anthropologist 99(3): 631-632.

Frake, Charles O. 1962 .“The Ethnographic Study of Cognitive Systems,” in Dil, Anwar S. (ed.), Language and Cultural Description: Essays by Charles O. Frake, pp. 1-17. Stanford, CA.: Stanford University Press.

1964a “A Structural Description of Subanun Religious Behavior,” pp. 144-165.

1964b “Notes on Queries in Ethnography,” ibid: 26-44.

Meek, Barbara A. 1998.  Book Review, Rethinking Linguistic Relativity, by Gumperz, John J. and Levison, Stephen C. (eds.), American Anthropologist 100(2): 583.

Metzger, Duane and Gerald E Williams. 1963 “A Formal Ethnographic Analysis of Tenejapa Ladino Weddings,” American Anthropologist 65: 1076-1101.

Sala-Boza, Astrid 1982 “The Sitio Sta. Ana Cebuana: A Sociocultural Study,” Master’s thesis in Anthropology. University of San Carlos.

2007 “ ‘The Kulilisi of the King’: A Folk Catholic Courtship Ritual traditionally Performed at Cebuano Wakes,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society 35(1/2): 48-86.

Spradley, James P. and David W. McCurdy. 1975. Anthropology: The Cultural Perspective. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

Trosdal, Mimi. 1969 “Philippine Linguistic Studies,” Leyte-Samar Studies 3(2): 1-98. Divine Word University of Tacloban.

1971 “Semantics of Parole Parlee: The Contextual Formal-functional Analysis of a Cultural Feature among the Cebuanos of the Philippines,” Anthropos 55: 839-862.

1990 Formal-Functional Cebuano-English Dictionary with an English-Cebuano Lexicon. Cebu City: Mimi Trosdal.

1992 Formal-Functional Cebuano Grammar of the Cebuano Language. Cebu: Salvador and Pilar Sala Foundation.

1995 “Meaning: The Referential Function of Language,” Philippine Quarter-ly of Culture & Society 23(3/4): 361-368.

2000 “A Linguasociocultural Analysis of Society.” (Unpublished manuscript)

Urban, Greg. 1998. Book review, Language and Communicative Practices, by William Hanks. American Anthropologist 100(2): 582.

Verstraelen, Eugene, SVD. 1966. Analysis of Language. Cebu City: Reports of the Linguistic Institute of the University of San Carlos (unpublished manuscript).

2000 “Formal-Functional Analysis of Language.” (Unpublished manuscript).

2002 “A Formal-Functional Analysis of Language with an Application to Ibanag,” Philippine Quarterly of Culture & Society 30(3/4): 231-408.

One thought on “Formal-Functional Theoretical and Methodological Orientations in Anthropology

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