Radcliffe-Brown, A(lfred) R(eginald) 1881-1955

views updated

RADCLIFFE-BROWN, A(lfred) R(eginald) 1881-1955

PERSONAL: Born January 17, 1881; died October 24, 1955. Education: Attended University of Birmingham and Cambridge University.

CAREER: Director of Education for Tonga, 1916; taught in Cape Town, South Africa, 1920-25, Sydney, Australia, 1925-31, at University of Chicago, Chicago, IL, 1931-37, and at Oxford University, 1937-46. Founder of journal Oceania.


The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1922.

The Australian Aborigines, Institute of Pacific Relations (Honolulu, HI), 1927.

The Social Organization of Australian Tribes, Macmillan (Melbourne, Australia), 1931.

Taboo, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, England), 1939.

(Editor, with Daryll Forde) African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, Oxford University Press (New York, NY), 1950.

Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses, Cohen & West (London, England), 1952.

A Natural Science of Society, Free Press (Glencoe, IL), 1957.

Method in Social Anthropology: Selected Essays, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1958.

SIDELIGHTS: The originator of modern social anthropology, English anthropologist, teacher, and author, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown defined many important concepts in his field of study, and during the 1940s he was the premier anthropologist among British scientists. While other social scientists stressed the importance of accurate data collection in the field, Radcliffe-Brown emphasized more theoretical aspects. He believed that the role of the social anthropologist was to observe and describe the interdependent social institutions of a given society and determine the part each institution played within the entire society. Thus he maintained that he could compare various societies and determine general social laws. Although he conducted field work over only a relatively short period of time, his scholarly career spanned four decades. During these productive years he wrote a handful of important works, founded the influential journal Oceania, and taught at several universities, including in Cape Town, South Africa, Sydney, Australia, and at the University of Chicago and Oxford University.

Although he had originally planned to pursue a career in medicine, Radcliffe-Brown changed his focus and enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied under W. H. R. Rivers, a psychologist who had undertaken the first Cambridge-sponsored anthropological expedition in the South Pacific. For his part, Radcliffe-Brown conducted field work in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean from 1906 to 1908 and among the Aboriginal peoples in Western Australia from 1910 to 1912. Each of these trips provided data for publications and later theoretical work, among them The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology, The Australian Aborigines, and The Social Organization of Australian Tribes.

Radcliffe-Brown's studies of kinship relationships among peoples in Africa and Australia supported his theory that the role behavior played within a group could best lead to an understanding of the behavior. One of his most well-known analyses, first published as "On Joking Relationships," involved formalized small talk among members of tribal societies, behavior that he termed "joking relationships." Other studies dealt with the kinship rules of Australian Aboriginal societies and pioneered an understanding of Aboriginal culture, in 1924 he published the paper "The Mother's Brother in South Africa," about the relationship in certain South African societies in which maternal uncles played a special role in raising their nephews.

Another subject of interest to Radcliffe-Brown was the use of totems, which he discussed in his 1939 publication Taboo. Totems are complicated practices related to a belief in a mystical relationship between an individual or group and a natural object, for example, a plant or animal. Taboos—ritualized behavior or a prohibition against touching, saying something, or doing something for fear of reprisal from a supernatural force—are often used in concert with totems. Radcliffe-Brown was one of the first anthropologists to further understanding of the use of totems and taboos in societies.

Radcliffe-Brown's most important published papers were posthumously collected in Structure and Function in Primitive Society. Together they demonstrate his important theories, still known as his version of functionalism. In this system, which applies to small-scale societies, component parts of society—such as kinship systems and legal systems—are considered to be interrelated and to have an indispensable effect on each other.



Fortes, Meyer, editor, Social Structure: Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Clarendon Press (Oxford, England), 1949, Russell & Russell (New York, NY), 1963.

Kuper, Adam, The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown, Routledge & Kegan Paul (Boston, MA), 1977.

Thinkers of the Twentieth Century: A Biographical, Bibliographical, and Critical Dictionary, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1983.

World of Sociology, Volume 2, Gale (Detroit, MI), 2001.


Australian Journal of Anthropology, winter-spring, 1992, Kenneth Maddock, "Affinities and Missed Opportunities: John Anderson and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown in Sydney," pp. 3-18.*

About this article

Radcliffe-Brown, A(lfred) R(eginald) 1881-1955

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article