Anthropology in the Music of the ’60s and ’70s

By Alex H

The ’60s and ’70s were a time of social upheaval and cultural change, which can be seen in the music of the time.  The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Beach Boys, Simon and Garfunkel, Jonny Cash, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, and The Beatles are only some of the musicians and bands that emerged in this age of musical revolution. Many people look at this time in history as being the most important era for the development of music culture. It was at this time that lifestyles began to change. Many of us know this as the “hippie era” in which the youth of America began to question all parts of society previously accepted. People were challenging lifestyles, drugs, clothing, sexuality, formalities, education, and the function of the government in a democracy. Music is in a way a cultural artifact that sheds light to the culture and society at the time that the music is made and released. This is why we can use methods within cultural anthropology to study the music of the 1960s and 1970s, why it emerged in popularity, and how it contributed to the function of society and social change.

We can look at the foundation for this counterculture in music by looking at Boasian Anthropology. Boasian Anthropology has four main theories, cultural relativism, and historical particularism, diffusion, and salvage anthropology. For this purpose it is Historical Particularism that helps us study the music of the ’60s and ’70s. Franz Boaz states that, “In historical happenings we are compelled to consider every phenomenon not only as an effect but as a cause.” (Boaz, 315) When Boaz says this, he means that we have to look at the historical development and events of a culture in order to study their behavior. We cannot just think of historical events as being the results of something, but also as agents of change. In other words, if we want to look at how this culture of music developed, we have to look at the history of the united states prior to the ’60s and ’70s. Many of the youth in this era had parents who lived in the great depression. Their parents were used to a much more conservative and traditional way of life and culture. The music of the seventies was about controversial ideas that were not explored in music in prior generations. For example: the idea of drugs being associated with a peaceful lifestyle, an open sexuality, or an anti-violence discourse. The song “All You Need is Love” was released in the famous summer of 1967 by the Beatles. The song tittle became a famous saying for those in the anti war movement. To understand this, we need to use Historical Particularism. At this time, the US government was expanding its presents in Vietnam. People of America were tired of the deaths and the damage the war extended on their society. Boasian Anthropology states that each culture undergoes its unique history that results in its varying cultural movements. In this case, the music of America in the 1960s and 1970s reflected a time of Cultural Revolution brought upon by several historical events.

            The basic premise of structural Functionalism is that society functions as a whole while areas of culture and society interact to make it work. However, we cannot just look at the function of society, we have to also look at the structure. This is what Radcliffe Brown believed. He claimed that, “For social anthropology the task is to formulate and validate statements about the conditions of existence of social systems (laws of social statics) and the regularities that are observable in social change” (Radcliffe Brown) By this Radcliffe is saying that when studying society and social change such as the counter culture of the ’60s and ’70s, one must focus on the social structure rather then biology. In order to understand the social phenomena of the musical revolution, you have to look at the social level. He also claims that all individuals are just performing social roles that allow society to function as a whole. This suggests that people of the ’60s and ’70s were not acting a certain way because of biological needs, but because of reactions to social influence and social systems. The music created a social system or way to question society that did not previously exist in such magnitude. The youth of America that were acting as rebels were not harming society, but were performing social roles needed for change to happen. This idea of Structural Functionalism suggests that all types of people help society function as a whole. The musical revolution allowed society to change and function in a way that was better for the changing attitudes in the country.

Music is a cultural artifact that can give insight into the culture of the time. Anthropology allows us to analyze music as a result of historical events and how it ties into the function of society. We have to look at music as an indicator of social change.


  1. Boas, Franz (December 1920). “The Methods of Ethnology”. American Anthropologist (jstor PDF) 22 (4): 311–321. doi:10.1525/aa.1920.22.4.02a00020. JSTOR660328. ISSN: 00027294.
  2. A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1951. The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 81(1/2): 22.
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33 Responses to Anthropology in the Music of the ’60s and ’70s

  1. Andrew Sullivan says:

    It would be interesting to see how these theories could be applied to the music of the 90’s and 00’s, It seems like some of the same arguments could be made, but there would be some slight differences.

  2. Kirsten Jaqua says:

    Very interesting essay. The introductory parts of your paragraphs did a good job of explaining the theories you were using and why, and I thought you tied Historical Particularism in very well and cited some good examples of historical change in the 60s and 70s that influenced this change in music. If this essay wasn’t so limited by the word restriction, I’d have been interested to see the paragraph on structural functionalism expanded. There’s a whole world of things you could write on how music played a role in effecting change in this era.

  3. Michaela Cavanagh says:

    The 60s are my favorite decade and I really enjoyed reading you essay however I do have one critique. As you stated in your introduction, people were challenging lifestyles, clothing, drugs, sexuality, government etc, I would argue that this younger generation were not challenging these variables of society, but they were experimenting with them. And by historical events occurring in the 60s and 70s, these people were the social change by experimenting not challenging. By experimenting, these people were able to create a revolution with music and decide what was right and wrong through the two decades which in the end, ended the uproar of the Vietnam war and conventional ideas domestically and publicly.

    • Mariah Stoneman says:

      I’d have to agree with Michaela. I doubt the overall goal of these young generations of the 60’s was to challenge their society. They built their own way of looking at life and attempted to stay true to their individuality which in return brought on a revolution. With experimenting comes creativity.

  4. Anna Wood says:

    Michaela brings up a really interesting point. In some ways I agree with her. From my limited knowledge of the 60s and 70s it was less of a time of youth rebellion and more of a time of youth experimentation. However that is just a general impression of these two decades. If we look more at the details, there were definitely historical events where the youth were truly actively pushing back against the norms/rules/traditions of their society. This is where I disagree with Michaela. The specific event that comes to mind is the protest of the Vietnam War. Personally, I think this is definitely challenging the rules of society and not experimenting. It was one of the first times in history that the population was really actively working against the US government’s war policies. This is the active pushing back that I think defines the youth’s “challenge” of their traditions/society.

  5. Maddi Kraft says:

    Really excellent essay Alex! Your explanations of the theories were really well written and understandable. I really enjoyed your Structural Functionalism paragraph! It is so interesting to think of that era through an anthropological lens and to think about the “hippie era” in terms of society and not biology. I think it would have been interesting for you to relate Structural Functionalism back to the parents of the “hippies: that would have made a very compelling argument about society vs. biology, like a nature vs nurture sort of thing. Like Andrew, I think it would be interesting to see this argument given to the ’90s and ’00s or maybe comparing the two eras. Overall really compelling essay!

  6. Nayantara Nelson says:

    The idea that the music of the era sheds light on the culture of that time is really interesting. I like how you explained the “cause and effect” of historical events such as The Great Depression, along with the current events of that era, and how it shaped the ideas and behavior of the generation compared to the generation before. I would find it interesting to use this idea in relation to the Artists and the listeners. Maybe the controversial topics in the music of the 60’s and 70’s were sparked from the events happening, but it would be interesting to see how this music affected the generation, as opposed to the events and maybe how the music in itself changed the ideas and behaviors of these people.

  7. Ian McClain says:

    Your analysis of this topic using Structural Functionalism to explain how music was reflective of social structure and societal changes during the 60’s and 70’s seemed to fit very well. I think this theory works so well to explain the counter culture movement because of fluctuating political views during this time period. This social structure, which was partly determined by politics, was reflected in the music culture in the United States. This theory seems to be an improvement on just functionalism (at least in this scenario) because it would be difficult to argue what musical expression serves biologically for individuals who may be putting themselves at risk in order to change the system. I wonder if AR Radcliffe Brown were alive today, if he would be interested in this topic and if so how he would approach its explanation?

  8. Angela Gianficaro says:

    I really enjoyed this essay. I feel that both of the theoretical arguments presented applied well, and there were many examples to support them. One particular example that came to my mind especially while reading the paragraph about Structural Functionalism is the song “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. This song was released in the fall of 1969 protesting the war in Vietnam. The song related to young men who were drafted into the war, and how although the draft was randomized, many of the men could easily get out of their service based on how wealthy or influential their families were socially. This relates strongly to the Structural Functional theoretical argument. As expressed in this specific song, along with many others, artists such as Creedence Clearwater Revival were shedding light upon the uneven social system in the U.S., and also upon which Americans from certain social classes had to sacrifice their time and lives for the overall functioning structure of the U.S.

    • Olivia Smith says:

      I have been listening to that song for most of my life and I never really applied what you said to it. Of course, I knew the lyrics and all but it’s interesting to actually understand that now! I just went back and listened to it again and I completely agree, it sheds light on the social injustice and how the lower social classes were pushed into war. For the Americans who had money and an education, they could get out of the draft of course. It’s not fair but it’s sad how that is one of the only ways to do it. This essay and your comment remind me of Julie Taymor’s movie, “Across the Universe”

  9. Larkin says:

    I thought this essay was really well written and very interesting. I think Historical Particularism related particularly well with the topic. When talking about music during the Depression however, I think it’s important to highlight that musicians then also tested the boundaries at the time, because every era has them some music genre the pushes the boundaries, but the 60’s and 70’s really highlighted this freedom of expression. For example Jazz became popular during this time, which created freedom of expression in all communities. This can be seen as another way music gave insight into the different cultures and what people were suffering at the time. But by highlighting the 60’s and 70’s as a time of extreme cultural change I think you gave very good points as to how music affects culture and vice versa.

    • Kaleigh C says:

      I agree with that every generation has a music genre that pushes the boundaries, but as of recent history this paper did a great job examining the counter culture music scene of the 1960s. It’d be interesting to see what our decades “greats” will be in another 50 years, and if these influential bands discussed in this paper will still hold such esteem and honor with the passing of time and people who were alive to experience the music itself.

  10. Madeline says:

    I think the topics discussed in this essay can be attributed to music of every decade. There was always a counterculture going against what the norm was thought to be. If you track the development of Rock Music throughout the decades you find that in the 20’s you had blues, which unlike most music of the time spoke of hardships and misfortune. In the 30’s you had music and dances such as the fox-trot which was popular among teens and had very controversial lyrics. This was also a big deal because a dance originally done by the African American culture, was now receiving wider fame and being done by white teens. In the 40’s you hear folk music beginning to take shape with the music of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seegar, who sung about the need of change and peace in America with songs like “This Land is Your Land”. And finally in the 50’s you have artists like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry defying all norms with their songs about girls and cars and not to mention their radical dance moves. Each decade has their own counterculture that really sheds light on to the problems of the time and reveals things about the culture you wouldn’t otherwise see.

  11. Alex S. says:

    I love your discussion and your points on 60s and 70s music! I would like to add, just for kicks, that this generation did not only consist of youth rebellion and anti-war acts, but was a prominent time for Black Power in the United States. Motown was one of the newly developed recording industries in the 1960s and could be considered a great contributor to the functionalism of the country. Motown gave a new sound to the 60s as well as to black and non-black artists in the U.S. African Americans seized the opportunity for change, breaking through into the white popular music market, and this change has had a great impact on racial pride and the creation of African American political and cultural institutions within the contemporary United States. Historical Particularism could be used to address this growth in society.

  12. Maddie Gross says:

    These developed arguments, are ones I really affirm. I appreciated you citations of big-deal anthropologist who had developed Historical Pluralism and Functionalism. It was smooth and detailed, reminding me of a political engaged era, that had a lot of its roots in music. Meaning music was an agent for political change, because it had a large presence, audience, and influence, allowing transformative ideas to spread. Alex S. noted and I fully agree that music was used by many marginalized groups as a form of expressive and action-inspiring. While the 60s and 70s saw anti-government movements, we also saw a Bill of Rights and integrated public schooling for the first time. I also would argue that functionalism is hard to use as an explanation for a new wave of thinking, because it tends to view things as static, and not as agents of change, instead agent of perpetuation of the system. While is allowed many progressive ideals to be expressed, it did not function to change the whole society, since we still have a lot of problems, that will not be solved through music. Keeping in mind, we were assigned to write about music, you still did an excellent job.

  13. I enjoyed this essay and think Historical Particularism was the perfect choice to conceptualize what was going on at this time. Often the focus on the ’60s and ’70s is on free love and high usage of psychedelics, but I like how you incorporated how the music was a response to the Vietnam war and that it accurately depicted the public sentiments of the time. Structural fuctionalism was also a good theory to use because it helps to make sense of why this change happened at this time and the societal repercussions as a whole. These two decades were a time of extreme social upheaval and demonstration that led to many of the changes that we take for granted today.

  14. Frank Minor says:

    Great topic, I like the paragraph about Historical Particularism, as it applies to the counter culture movement of the 1960’s and 70’s pretty well. I noticed a few people on the comments said that the youth at this time were experimenting, rather than challenging, but I would say this is not the case. That generation did both in my opinion, because their social experiments went against the way of life held by their parents and most of Americans before them, and if you look at the youth organizations and protests, the “Hippies” often challenged political and social views held at the time rather openly. This movement is a direct effect, and a cause for a ridiculous amount of change in this country, with the music and other pop culture at the time reflecting and perpetuating the change and ideology of the time, as well as bringing people together to hear some awesome jams.

  15. Amy Knutson says:

    This essay has great points and arguments, but it left me feeling like there was more to be discussed. I think it would be interesting to analyze how the actual melodies, beats, rhythms, and instruments used reflected the big changes and ideas going on during that time. Are there multiple music cultures clashing/blending in certain songs or sounds? For example, did the sitar being used in rock songs reflect some sort of unity between two very different cultures?

  16. Annie Birkeland says:

    I agree that the U.S. presence in Vietnam was a strong influence for songs in the 60s, but I’m not sure that I follow the connection to parents who lived during the Great Depression. Even if the older generation perhaps listened to more conservative music how does that influence the generation in the 60s to suddenly rebel against traditional music and cause a radical genre to emerge? I definitely think that their experiences shaped what kind of music was being made, but it would have been helpful if you could expand on how you thought their parent’s generation directly influenced the music being produced.

  17. Alexis says:

    This is a very interesting topic and I really enjoyed reading it. I like that you chose Bosian theory and made connection with only one of his four theories. Functionalism is an interesting choice for this specific topic, at first I was a bit confused as to where this argument was going to go, but I think you included it in amazingly saying that it was social because they were questioning the social structure.

  18. Olivia Smith says:

    I agree, the Boasian theory fits very well with this topic. Being quite a fan of the discussed era and music, I loved reading what you said about the way young Americans changed society. There are tons of influences behind the music of the 60’s and 70’s. This music revealed to many older Americans who didn’t quite understand the desire for change; these musicians expressed struggle and new ways of thinking, which is very interesting to me. What amazes me is that this happened in a quick amount of time. It took just a few decades for this lifestyle to permanently change American culture. As new generations come in, we lose the strict conservative ways of living that was once dominant in the early to mid 1900’s. It’s amazing to see how these artists and bands are still present today, I feel as if this was an era in American culture that will never really fade away. They were some of the first people to radically make a difference in many other things as well, including art (example: Andy Warhol and pop art) and racial equality (MKL Jr.)

  19. Madelyn Wisell says:

    This first caught my attention because of the topic. It was interesting to see how young Americans changed society through their music. The music of the 60s and 70s showed a desire for change, and it showed Americans challenging various parts of society including sexuality, education, and the government. Functionalism definitely applied because they were challenging the structure of society. It would be interesting to see an anthropologist apply these theories to other eras of music. I enjoyed reading this, and seeing the connections made.

  20. Kayla McClelland says:

    The 60’s and 70’s were exciting and unpredictable. I think these two decades are especially enticing for our age because it was an era that gave voice to the younger generations, notoriously through the music but also art and literature that characterizes the iconic “hippie” experience. I believe the author of this blog gave a critical anthropological analysis of 60’s and 70’s music counterculture through Boasian and functionalist theories. I had one particular thought while reading this blog, and that was what would a cultural evolutionist have to say about 60’s and 70’s music? It is almost comical that this evolution in music towards progressive and democratic values and philosophies would most likely be seen as exactly the opposite.

  21. Alex S. made a great point. There was a lot more going on during the 60’s and 70’s outside of the “hippie movement”. Black Power, Brown Power, as well as a huge surge for the feminist movement were all being addressed during this time. In fact a lot of this was also addressed through music. While I think overall this was a great blog post I think you missed out on a few really intriguing political and cultural structures that came about during this time. It would have been really interesting to read about the development of these other institutions utilizing the theories and approaches you mentioned in your post, but I understand there was a word/page limit. Well done.

  22. Jessica Wentworth says:

    The paragraph about structural functionalism really helped me understand it more. There are so many points brought up in this essay that I wouldn’t have ever thought of. By looking at all these different scenarios through the different anthropological lens’ it really opens up many different ideas we wouldn’t see otherwise and I think that is interesting.

  23. I think this essay was done really well. I liked all of the really specific examples of songs that the author pointed out and then explained in anthropological terms. I wonder if, jumping off of the author’s idea about the Beatles, you could use a historical particularism standpoint to examine the Beatles and Beatlemania and see how the cultural upheaval taking place in the U.S. affected the Beatles’ rise in America. In fact, I think I just came up with my idea for my next paper. I might even bring in how the Beatles song “Helter Skelter” affected Charles Manson and all of the cultural things that go along with that. Thanks for the great essay!

  24. Calder Justice says:

    The use of Historical Particularism to look at these developments in history is quite fascinating and, in my opinion, well done. The environment that these two generations grew up in were massively different and so the way in which they understood their surroundings was equally so. The Boasian Anthropology Theory seems particularly adept at explaining cultures in relation to their historical context, which, as a history major, I find quite interesting and useful.

  25. Stephanie Scattergood says:

    Your paragraph on structural functionalism was really helpful for me, and this was the best part of your essay in my opinion. It really opened my eyes to looking at the music of the peace movement in a new way and its role in society. I would be curious to see how this would apply to music of other decades, in particular the grunge movements with punk music and the hip-hop music of the last decade.

  26. I like how you relate music with politics in the 60s and 70s and how it relates to Boaz’s idea of each culture having its own particular history that forms it the way it is today. The music of this era is such a huge part of US culture and extremely prominent today- 50 years later practically everyone is familiar with the bands that you gave as an example. It is also very accurate to look at the social behavior of people during this time. People were responding to politics, a new laid-back form of life, and things happening then in society, as opposed as a biological need.
    Madison Simonds

  27. Han Lee says:

    I particularly enjoyed the use of historical background in the essay because the song “All You Need is Love” was definitely so accepted and loved due to the events going on around that time. The war time tensions were eased even if just a little bit from the song, and it explains for the popularity of the song. History and culture always go alongside each other so the time period of the song explains the meaning of the song to the people.

    Han Kyul (Joshua) Lee

  28. Joe Sulik says:

    As a long-time lover of protest music, and music from the 60s and 70s as a whole, I really enjoyed this essay. I think the 60s and 70s in particular pose a strong case to be viewed in light of historical particularism; it was such a pivotal era, and while the music created during this period has inspired countless other bands and artistic movements, none of it would have happened were it not for the global events happening at the time that led to such an explosive period of artistic and philosophical exploration and social activism.

  29. Han Lee says:

    Also to the latter part of your essay, I agree with your final saying that says, “We have to look at music as an indicator of social change.” That is very similar to what I said in my essay, perhaps not as cleverly, but the music of a culture is one of the best indicators of social change. If the popular music of America today was able to be presented to the Americans of say 40 years ago, it would bring forth a total different reaction from the public. And that, shows how much the American culture has changed, and it applies to any other culture.

  30. Charlotte Thompson says:

    I really enjoyed this article. I think that it is very well put together and that the use of Boasian theory and functionalism were very well explained.I enjoyed the idea of music shedding light on the culture of the time.I think that it would be interesting to look at the role that the feminist movement and the civil rights movement had on this genre of music at this time.

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