Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.

views updated May 23 2018

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.



Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) was one of the most eminent anthropologists of the first half of the twentieth century. By example and teaching he helped to develop and establish modern “social” anthropology as a generalizing, theoretical discipline. The most notable of his many important contributions was his application to primitive societies of some of the ideas of systems theory, which led to a revolution in the analysis and interpretation of social relations. In brief, he may be said to have turned social anthropology from its preoccupation with historical development and psychological extrapolation to the comparative study of persistent and changing social structures.

Radcliffe-Brown was born and educated in England. He attended first the Royal Commercial Travellers’ School at Pinner, Middlesex, and then for two years was a foundation scholar at King Edward’s High School, Birmingham. He left school when not yet 18 years old, undecided on a career and with few prospects. By private study he gained an exhibition at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1901 and held it with increasing distinction until 1906. His original intention had been to study natural science, but his tutor, W. W. Rowse Ball, a mathematician and minor historian, and incidentally a great admirer of Sir James Frazer, diverted him to “moral science.” In the curriculum of the time, moral science included experimental psychology and economics as well as philosophical subjects. Radcliffe-Brown took his bachelor’s degree in 1905, being placed in the first division of the first class.

Of great significance were his university associations with W. H. R. Rivers, A. C. Haddon, and C. S. Myers. All three had been members of the 1898 Cambridge Expedition to Torres Strait. Myers was the exemplar of rigorous and fruitful scientific method, while Haddon and Rivers introduced Radcliffe-Brown to the discipline of anthropology and vitally influenced the shaping of his approach. Haddon, who became one of Radcliffe-Brown’s most enthusiastic sponsors, transferred to him his own critical acumen, his interest in classification and morphology, his demand for inductive generalization on the widest possible basis, and his recognition that a strict comparative method demands the intensive field study of particular societies. There is some reason to think it was Haddon, too, who first made him critically aware of the systemic interdependence of social phenomena and who may thus have edged him toward a sympathy for Durkheim’s viewpoint. Rivers was an inspiring teacher in psychology, but Radcliffe-Brown progressively turned away from Rivers’ conception of anthropology, which eventually became a historical fantasy about the diffusion of culture. However, the qualities of mind that Rivers showed in his psychological studies—his insistence on scientific procedures, delight in analysis, and facility in adapting problems to novel experimental conditions—were precisely those which Radcliffe-Brown developed to a striking degree. He dedicated The Andaman Islanders (1922) to both Haddon and Rivers.

Given this background, it is not difficult to understand the fixation on the methods of natural science that came to characterize Radcliffe-Brown’s approach. It is noteworthy, also, that he studied carefully the writings on the philosophy of science of William Whewell, especially Whewell’s work on the processes of inductive thought. In view of the recent rediscovery of Whewell’s importance, it says much for Radcliffe-Brown’s precocity that he preferred him to J. S. Mill at a time when Mill was generally much more highly regarded.

Most of Radcliffe-Brown’s working life was spent outside England. He held chairs of social anthropology successively at Cape Town, 1920-1925; Sydney, 1925-1931; Chicago, 1931-1937; and Oxford, 1937-1946, where he was also a fellow of All Souls College. He was visiting professor at Yenching in 1935 and at Sao Paulo from 1942 to 1944. After his retirement from Oxford he was professor of social science and director of the Institute of Social Studies at Farouk i University, Alexandria, from 1947 to 1949, and he later held a special appointment at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa, from 1951 to 1954. He was associated in various capacities with several other universities, including Cambridge (where he had been a fellow of Trinity College from 1908 to 1914), London, Birmingham, and Manchester.

He devoted a great deal of time to the stimulation and organization of research by others and was restlessly active in promoting large schemes. While in South Africa, he organized the School of African Life and Languages with his own chair as a nucleus. At Sydney, in conjunction with the Australian National Research Council, he founded the journal Oceania and directed a vigorous and successful research program. But there, as at Cape Town and later at Chicago, he was frustrated by a shortage of money, and he had the same problem at Oxford, where there was an interest in research but no substantial funds available until after he had retired.

Among his many professional distinctions were membership in the Amsterdam Royal Academy of Sciences, honorary membership in the New York Academy of Sciences, fellowship in the British Academy, first presidency of the British Association of Social Anthropologists, and the presidency of the Royal Anthropological Institute, which awarded him the Rivers Medal in 1938 and the Huxley Memorial Medal in 1951. Only the Australian National Research Council declined to admit him to full membership. A number of his students who attained high academic distinction in the field of anthropology, together with others whom he had influenced less directly, paid him tribute in two collections of essays (Social Anthropology … 1937; Fortes 1949) and by two special printings of some of his own outstanding writings ([1923-1949] 1961; 1958).

A tall man with a distinguished air and presence, strikingly handsome in his prime, he often captivated people as much by his charm, wit, and cultivation as by the appeal of his ideas. He was a particularly brilliant teacher who was so much the master of his subject, and of the arts of rostrum and seminar, that he could expound the most difficult topics without notes or any outward hint of preparation. His writings gave the same impression.

Throughout his life, his complex personality caused divided reactions to him, arousing devotion, ambivalence, and hostility. In his youth he had a reputation of dash, extravagance, and overbrilliance, and at Cambridge he had been known as “Anarchy” Brown because of a flirtation with anarchism, later transmuted into a mild socialism. (He changed his name by deed poll, in 1926, from Brown to Radcliffe-Brown, Radcliffe being his mother’s family name.) When more mature he tended to keep people at a certain distance and seemed to discourage overintimacy or dependence, rarely permitting himself to show signs of private experience. Although he did not seek disciples, circles did form around him. In congenial company, he was warm and kindly and, with students, he was patient, courteous, and almost always helpful. Several generations of young people thought him inspirational and found that the inspiration lasted. But there were those to whom he showed another side, who felt his cutting wit and memorable power of scorn. He could give an impression of waiting for others to cross a pons asinorum that he had built for them. He was somewhat given to instructing other scholars in their own subjects and his conception of social anthropology emboldened him to call into question the autonomy or status of other disciplines. Many who knew him over long periods thought him, certainly, a man of hubris, yet at the same time without jealousy, malice, or censoriousness. He had no liking for academic politics and was not caught up in the pursuit of power or advantage. He was never affluent, and his health caused him more or less constant concern.

Theoretical orientation. Radcliffe-Brown’s outlook rested on a highly personal philosophy of science. A primary influence on that philosophy was Whewell, from whom he appears to have acquired his passion for method. He possessed in a notable degree what Whewell had regarded as an all-important requisite in inductive science—a fertile, sagacious, ingenious, and honest mind—and his work continually exemplified Whewell’s formula for the growth of a generalizing science of principle—the “colligation of facts” and the “explication of concepts” by “progressive intuition.”

In its more general philosophical aspect, his position was a synthesis, or attempted synthesis, of extraordinarily diverse elements: he drew his theory of reality from Heraclitus, his theory of process from Herbert Spencer, and his theory of epistemology from Durkheim. Moreover, his indebtedness was by no means limited to those thinkers. There is evidence that he drew on Hume, Samuel Alexander, Whitehead, and Ralph Barton Perry, and he had a considerable affinity for Chinese philosophy. He freely acknowledged the influence of certain writers of the French Enlightenment, notably Con-dorcet and Montesquieu, in forming his conception of social science. Comte and Durkheim had considerable attraction for him, and he spent much effort in testing some of Durkheim’s ideas against facts. His debt to these Continental theorists, however, was more for their sociology than for their philosophy, a fact that is somewhat concealed by his proximate debt to Spencer. Although Radcliffe-Brown did not reject the agnostic-evolutionist label, he had important disagreements with Spencer, just as he did with Comte and Durkheim: his most serious disagreement with Spencer had to do with the latter’s historical speculations, his extreme individualism, and the utilitarianism to which Durkheim also objected. Radcliffe-Brown agreed with Durkheim about the relation between the individual and society but ruthlessly pruned the French sociologist’s thought of its reified abstractions.

His conviction that the particular events of social life are the facts to which all concepts and theories must be applied rested directly on a Heraclitean view of reality. His critics never realized that his fundamental viewpoint was thoroughly historical, that he merely claimed Hume’s “privilege of the sceptic” as to the possibility of making inductive generalizations about history; its entanglement of accident with law seemed to him to rule out the prospect. The Heraclitean logos, with its emphasis on persistence through change, on the necessary interconnectedness of things, and on formal rather than genetic unity, posed an essential problem: to find what is discoverably coherent in the social process. It is not always changing in all respects at once, but is constrained and shaped to be what it is at particular places and times. This view, in amalgam with Spencer’s conception of evolution as at one and the same time a process toward higher integration and differentiation, and with some contributions from Durkheim’s sociology, led Radcliffe-Brown to the conception of types and forms of social structure as fiduciary equilibria in persistent systems.

Theoretical contributions. Radcliffe-Brown formed his theoretical approach as early as 1908, when as a postgraduate student he stated the requirements of a science of human society. He considered them to be threefold: to treat social phenomena as natural facts and thus subject to discoverable necessary conditions and laws; to adhere to the methodology of the natural sciences; to entertain only generalizations that can be tested and verified. He never departed from these rules, although his conceptual thought developed steadily.

His ideas and methods did not change essentially from those he put forward in his early works, The Andaman Islanders and two papers, “The Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology” (1923) and “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa” ([1924] 1961, pp. 15-31); but their classic formulation came somewhat later, in two years, “On the Concept of Function in Social Science” ([1935] 1961, pp. 178-187) and “On Social Structure” ([1940] 1961, pp. 188-204), and in a third study, in which he applied his theoretical approach, The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931a).

Instead of explaining social phenomena in historical or psychological terms, which he believed to be impossible, Radcliffe-Brown proposed to explain them as persistent systems of adaptation, coaptation, and integration. His main working hypothesis was that the life of a society can be conceived of as a dynamic fiduciary system of interdependent elements, functionally consistent with one another. He had used the notion of “social structure” as early as 1914, but in Frazer’s and Rivers’ rather ill-defined sense, as almost a doublet of “organization.” In the 1920s his use of the notion became more explicit, and in the 1930s quite precise. In his final formulation, structure refers to an arrangement of persons and organization to an arrangement of activities. At the same time, he substituted the concept of “social system” for that of “culture.” All these changes were connected.

In order to achieve scientific explanation, Radcliffe-Brown urged that anthropology free itself from concern with what Whitehead called “the goading urgency of contingent happenings.” Although he was himself a humanist, he saw that a humanist anthropology was premature and could prevent wide induction, comparison, and generalization. His primary goal was the abstraction of general features and the search for comparable types and varieties, and he believed that the only acceptable method for acquiring systematic knowledge is to test successive hypotheses with facts. Some of his contemporaries who admired his empirical and analytical studies nevertheless failed to appreciate the extent to which these studies derived their excellence from his methods and principles; instead, they felt that his anthropology was unduly sparse, rigid, and lacking in human values. The impression that Radcliffe-Brown’s work was surrounded by an aura of unreality was created by his abstract conception of anthropology as a science that could move from empiricism, classification, and unguided induction to postulation and many-dimensional theory. It was a conception that anthropologists with a historical, genetical, or psychological outlook, including those of Malinowski’s school, could not accept, and indeed his idea of social anthropology as a “comparative sociology,” with the fundamental character of a natural theoretical science, did not win the recognition Radcliffe-Brown had hoped for. To be sure, many of the empirical and analytical discoveries that he made only by virtue of that conception, as well as his general principles of functional-structural study, came into wide use, but within frameworks of thought and in the service of methods having little in common with his.

His published work was slender in bulk, comprising only some 70 items, even including miscellaneous writings such as reviews. All of his writings are marked by clear language, impeccable style, and logical ability, combined with exceptional scientific imagination. He also had a sense for good technical language and for classification and typology. He gave many useful technical notions and terms to anthropology: for example, a precise language for the orders of family and kin relationships; the distinctions between pater and genitor, between rights in rem and in personam, and between organization and structure; and such notions as that of a “corporation” serving an “estate,” of “alliance” or “consolidation,” of “structural opposition,” and of “ritual status” and “ritual value.” His schematic ability was well displayed even in his first Australian study, “Three Tribes of Western Australia” (1913).

His only extended field expeditions were to the Andaman Islands, in 1906-1908, and to northwestern West Australia, in 1910-1912, but there is no substance to the allegation that he had a temperamental preference for the armchair. Rather, both the studies that resulted from his field trips and those that were produced from secondary research reveal his characteristic use of theory to guide imagination. In “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa,” not the product of a field expedition, he developed a brilliant hypothesis of correlative, sympathetic, and antithetic functions to account for similar structural patterns of relationships in diverse types of societies. In The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931a), which covered the whole of aboriginal Australia as then known, he made a catalogue, classification, analytic generalization, and synthesis of an immense range of data on patterns of sex and age, community of language and custom, possession and occupancy of territory, kinship, marriage, segmentation, and cosmology. From this monumental account of variety within homogeneity there emerged, in addition to a typology that guided thought for a generation, the first forms of the analytical generalizations of relationship systems on which “structure” study was to be based, notably the jural significance of kinship classifications; the structuring of relationships by generation, age, and sex; the “internal solidarity” of sibling groups; and the “external unity” of lineage. These two studies alone would have assured him a substantial reputation, but he produced 14 others on totemism (1914; 1929), primitive law ([1933] 1961, pp. 212-219), sanctions ([1934] 1961, pp. 205-211), patrilineal and matrilineal succession ([1935] 1961, pp. 32-48), taboo ([1939] 1961, pp. 133-152), joking relationships ([1940; 1949] 1961, pp. 90-104, 105-116), religion ([1945] 1961, pp. 153-177), kinship systems ([1941] 1961, pp. 49-89), theory of comparative social anthropology (1958, pp. 42-129), and political systems (1940, pp. xi-xxiii).

In constructing his theory of social systems, Radcliffe-Brown considered “phenomenal intelligible reality” to consist of objects or events and the relations between them. The relations are of two kinds, which may be symbolized as R and r. The first kind, R, are spatiotemporal relations of “real interconnectedness”; the second, r, are logico-mathematical relations which are “immanent in the universe” and independent of space and time. He conceived of social anthropology as a discipline that ultimately would deal theoretically with both classes.

The social anthropology of function, structure, and relational networks (the first phase in the development of social anthropology more generally) deals with the relations of real interconnectedness, with “…the continuing arrangement of persons in relationships defined or controlled by institutions, i.e., socially established norms or patterns of behavior” (1958, p. 177). The substance of this study is the “real and concrete” social structure resulting from “role-activities” of persons acting from “positions” in that structure. Interrela-tional (R) concepts apply only to what he called “the internal nature” of particular social systems, such as those of Kariera or Aranda, a system being a set or assemblage of interdependent parts forming “a naturally occurring unity,” a complex, ordered, and unified whole in a particular region over a period of time.

In the second phase of the development of social anthropology, an effort would be made to deal with r-relations, which Radcliffe-Brown conceived to be, at their simplest, relations of similarity and difference. This would require some sort of nonquantita-tive mathematics or other system of symbols. Although he held that R-relations were different from r-relations, it was characteristic of him to envisage an eventual theoretical science bringing both within mathematical or symbolic analysis, the task of abstract theory being the conceptualization of “real interconnectedness” in ways that would make the analysis possible. He realized such a science existed only “in its most elementary beginnings,” and he himself devoted considerable effort to the task of bringing the two classes of relationship together.

Radcliffe-Brown’s social anthropology is best described by separating two main elements, a general theory and a central one. The general theory produced three connected sets of questions. The first set deals with static, or morphological, problems: what kinds of societies are there? what are their similarities and differences? how are they to be classified and compared? The second set deals with dynamic problems: how do societies function? how do they persist? The third deals with developmental problems: how do societies change their types? how do new types come into existence? what general laws relate to the changes? The general theory dealing with these problems was transposed from biology and bore a heavily Spencerian cast in its emphasis on three aspects of adaptation: ecological adaptation to the physical environment; social adaptation, i.e., the institutional arrangements by which social order is maintained; and the socialization, or “cultural adaptation,” of persons.

The central theory dealt with the determinants of social relations of all kinds. Radcliffe-Brown phrased it in terms of the coaptation or fitting together or harmonization of individual interests or values that makes possible “relations of association” and “social values.” The theory resembles Spencer’s “market” model of interaction and draws on the tradition reflected in Ralph Barton Perry’s General Theory of Value.

The two theories are articulated in the idea that the life of a society can be conceived and studied as a system of relations of association and that a particular social structure is an arrangement of relations in which the interests or values of different individuals and groups are coapted within fiduciary “social values” expressed as institutional norms.

The idea of coaptation is fundamental to Radcliffe-Brown’s whole outlook, but the logical and conceptual implications are not fully worked out, nor are the static and dynamic aspects of the coap-tative process. What he did write is probably best viewed as only a sketch for a “pure” theory dealing with all classes of relations of association and, a fortiori, all classes of functioning systems or social structures. He became increasingly preoccupied with the general theory and, in his later period especially, with the concept of structure, at the expense of the theory of coaptation.

While Radcliffe-Brown did not regard the study of social structure as the whole of anthropology, he did consider it to be its most important branch; but he asserted that “the study of social structure leads immediately to the study of interests or values as the determinant of social relations” (1940) and that a “social system can be conceived and studied as a system of values” ([1939] 1961, pp. 133-152).

W. E. H. Stanner

[For the historical context of Radcliffe-Brown’s work, see the biographies ofComte; Durkheim; Frazer; Haddon; Kroeber; Malinowski; Rlvers; Spencer; Wheweix; for discussion of his ideas, seeAnthropology, article onSocial Anthropology; Culture; Ethnology; Functional Analysis; Kinship.]


Dates in brackets in text are dates of first publication and are included in the collection 1923-1949.

1913 Three Tribes of Western Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43:143-194.

1914 The Definition of Totemism. Anthropos 9:622-630.

(1922) 1948 The Andaman Islanders. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

1923 The Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology. South African Journal of Science 20:124-147.

(1923-1949) 1961 Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West; New York: Free Press.

1929 Notes on Totemism in Eastern Australia. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 59:399-415.

1930a Editorial. Oceania 1:1-4.

1930b Former Numbers and Distribution of the Australian Aborigines. Official Yearbook of the Commonwealth of Australia 23:687-696.

1930c The Sociological Theory of Totemism. Pages 295–309 in Pacific Science Congress, Fourth, Batavia-Bandoeng (Java), 1929, Proceedings. Volume 3: Biological Papers. The Hague: Nijhoff.

(1931a) 1948 The Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

1931b Applied Anthropology. Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, Report 20:267-280.

1940 Preface. In Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard (editors), African Political Systems. Oxford Univ. Press.

1950 Introduction. Pages 1–85 in A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde (editors), African Systems of Kinship and Marriage. Oxford Univ. Press.

1958 Method in Social Anthropology: Selected Essays. Edited by M. N. Srinivas. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Elkin, A. P. 1956 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown: 1881-1955. Oceania 26:239-251.

Firth, Raymond 1956 Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown: 1881-1955. British Academy, London, Proceedings 287-302.

Fortes, Meyer (editor) 1949 Social Structure: Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Oxford: Clarendon.

Fortes, Meyer 1955 Radcliffe-Brown’s Contributions to the Study of Social Organization. British Journal of Sociology 6:16-30.

Fortes, Meyer 1956 Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, F.B.A.; 1881-1955: A Memoir. Man 56:149-153.

Lowie, Robert H. 1937 The History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Farrar & Rinehart. → See especially pages 221–229 on “Radcliffe-Brown.”

Redfield, Robert (1937) 1955 Introduction. In Social Anthropology of North American Tribes. Enl. ed. Edited by Fred Eggan. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Social Anthropology of North American Tribes. Enl. ed. Edited by Fred Eggan. (1937) 1955 Univ. of Chicago Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.

views updated May 29 2018

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1881-1955


Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was a British anthropologist closely associated with the development of structural-functionalism. His firm theoretical framework and his administrative skills helped to consolidate social anthropology as an academic discipline across the British Commonwealth.

Defying his impoverished lower-middle-class beginnings, Radcliffe-Brown enjoyed an elite academic education at Cambridge University, where A. C. Haddon (18551940) and W. H. R. Rivers (18641922) were his mentors. He first wanted to study natural sciences, but was directed toward moral sciences (comprising philosophy, psychology, and economics). Yet his leanings toward the natural sciences remained with him throughout his career, and the use of analogies between social structures and structures occurring in nature are emblematic of his style of thought. At the same time, he was able to combine his insistence on structure with a flamboyant way of dressing and a fascination with Peter Kropotkins (18421921) anarchism, earning Radcliffe-Brown the nickname Anarchy Brown.

Most of Radcliffe-Browns adult life was spent outside England. He conducted ethnographic fieldwork in the Andaman Islands (19061908) and Western Australia (19101912), but never achieved the kind of in-depth familiarity with local settings that would soon become typical of social anthropology. Radcliffe-Browns influential academic career began in 1920, when he became the founding professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. He went on to become founding professor at the University of Sydney (19261931), professor at the University of Chicago (19311937), and chair of social anthropology at the University of Oxford (19371946). He continued lecturing at universities in Brazil, Egypt, England, and South Africa, and served as president of the Association of Social Anthropologists until shortly before his death.

Even by his own account, Radcliffe-Brown was a slow writer. His only monograph is The Andaman Islanders (1922); the rest of his publications are articles and lecture transcriptions. Although his academic career spanned half a century, Radcliffe-Browns theory remained more or less unchanged throughout. He constantly systematized the idea that social anthropology should become a natural science of human society through empirical investigations of social structures. Comparisons between different societies should enable anthropologists to discover universal and essential relations; apparent diversity should be reduced to clear classifications. Anthropology should focus on directly observable networks between persons, and distill general structural forms. Rejecting diffusionism, evolutionism, and any kind of conjectural history, Radcliffe-Brown was also critical of the concept of culture, which for him was a foggy abstraction and subordinate to social structure.

Assessments of Radcliffe-Browns contribution to anthropology tend to be polarized. He was a charismatic lecturer, able to impress upon others a habitus of scientific rigor. Even some streams of American anthropology, with its longstanding emphasis on culture and historical particularity, were influenced by him. But just as much as he united scholars during his lifetime, his name soon became synonymous with an overly rigid and intellectually unsatisfying approach that no one wanted to follow anymore. From the 1950s onward, all major figures in British social anthropology, notably E. E. Evans-Pritchard (19021973), Raymond Firth (19012002), and Edmund Leach (19101989), denounced Radcliffe-Browns theory as unable to grasp history, social change, and unequal relations of power. That he wanted anthropology to become a natural science attracted particular scorn (e.g., Leach 1976). Even if Radcliffe-Browns importance for the discipline is now widely seen as historical, his emphasis on observable social networks, as opposed to cultural values, retains a certain influence, especially in Britain.


Leach, Edmund. 1976. Social Anthropology: A Natural Science of Society. London: British Academy.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1922. The Andaman Islanders: A Study in Social Anthropology. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1940. Preface. In African Political Systems. eds. Meyer Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, xi-xxii. London: Oxford University Press.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1952. Structure and Function in Primitive Society: Essays and Addresses. London: Cohen & West.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1958. Method in Social Anthropology: Selected Essays. Ed. M. N. Srinivas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Stefan Ecks

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.

views updated May 23 2018


RADCLIFFE-BROWN, A. R. (18811955) was an English social anthropologist. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, as he was known formally after changing his name in 1926 (Radcliffe having been his mother's original surname), was born in Sparkbrook, Birmingham. He was educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham, at Birmingham University (where he spent a year as a premedical student), and at Trinity College, Cambridge University, from which he graduated with a bachelor's degree in mental and moral science. Among those who taught him as an undergraduate were C. H. Myers and W. H. R. Rivers (both medical psychologists who had participated in Cambridge's pioneering anthropological expedition to the Torres Strait off the northeastern tip of Australia). After graduation in 1904 Radcliffe-Brown went on to study anthropology under Rivers and A. C. Haddon (who had also been on the expedition of 18981899) and was sent by them in 1906 to study the people of the Andaman Islands, southwest of Burma, for two years.

Radcliffe-Brown's initial report on this expedition, "The Religion of the Andaman Islanders," published in Folk-Lore in 1909 (his book The Andaman Islanders was not published until 1922), led Trinity College to offer him a fellowship, the tenure of which (from 1908 to 1914) was for a brief period combined with a teaching position at the London School of Economics. It was in those years that he first encountered and became permanently influenced by the sociological orientation of Émile Durkheim. Radcliffe-Brown quickly became part of the rapidly developing, distinctively sociological approach to the study of primal societies, and by the 1920s he was probably this movement's most influential figure. Until well into the twentieth century this field was dominated by the ethnological approach, the practitioners of which were particularly interested in the detailed history of particular societies and the patterns of diffusion and transmission of their cultures. That style of analysis was itself still influenced by the evolutionist approach that had been strongly in evidence in the later part of the nineteenth century and had largely regarded religion as a primitive form of science. While the ethnologists of the early part of the twentieth century did not cling strongly to the latter view, they stood in contrast to the emphasis that Radcliffe-Brown, under Durkheim's influence, increasingly placed on the idea that primitive societies should be analyzed synchronically rather than diachronically. In other words, Radcliffe-Brown's work increasingly involved the claim that in order to comprehend scientifically the main features of a society one should regard it as a functioning whole; its different parts were explainable in terms of their interrelatedness and their contribution to its maintenance.

Radcliffe-Brown's impact, which grew intermittently but strongly in the 1920s and 1930s through his teaching and writing in various countries, was based primarily on his advocacy and practice of what he came to call a natural science of society, with particular reference to social structure. His attention to religion was largely confined to the study of ritual and ceremonywhich was particularly evident in the book that he published on the Andaman Islanders in 1922and the related phenomenon of totemism. In his work on ritual, Radcliffe-Brown was greatly influenced by Durkheim's argument that the primary significance of ritual is its expression and promotion of collective sentiments and social solidarity.

In his first major essay on totemism, "The Sociological Theory of Totemism," published in the Proceedings of the Fourth Pacific Science Congress in 1929, Radcliffe-Brown maintained that Durkheim, by arguing that a totemic object acquires its significance via its sacredness, had begged the crucial question as to why totemism in primal societies typically involves plants or animals, even though Durkheim had pointed cogently to the ways in which ritualized collective conduct in connection with totems was intimately related to social structure and social integration. Radcliffe-Brown argued that plants and animals should not be regarded simply as emblems of social groups, but rather that they are selected as representatives of groups because objects and events that deeply affect the material and spiritual well-being of a society (or any phenomenon that represents such an object or event) are likely to become what he called objects of the ritual attitude. Although there has been disagreement as to the extent to which Radcliffe-Brown's second essay on this subject ("The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 1952) involved a substantial change of position, there can be no doubt that it exhibits a very explicit interest in a theme that was not conspicuous in the essay of 1929namely, the various relationships between totemic objects and between these objects and the structures of the groups that maintain ritual attitudes toward them.

Some have regarded Radcliffe-Brown's work at this point as embracing a form of cognitive structuralism, which is committed to the view that while animals and plants are good to eat they are even better to "think" (that is, they constitute a highly suitable and accessible symbolic means for "talking about" central features of a society's social structure and its relationship with its environment). Others have insisted that Radcliffe-Brown did not move so far beyond his original position of maintaining that the selection of totems is based primarily upon the tangible effects that particular plants or animals are perceived to have in a society. For discussion of the debate see Milton Singer's book, Man's Glassy Essence: Explorations in Semiotic Anthropology (1984).


Radcliffe-Brown's major writings on religion are to be found in The Andaman Islanders, 3d ed. (Glencoe, Ill., 1948), Structure and Function in Primitive Society (London, 1952), and The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown, edited by Adam Kuyper (London, 1977). Illuminating discussion of his work can be found in Adam Kuyper's Anthropology and Anthropologists, rev. ed. (Boston, 1983).

New Sources

Câmara, J. L. Bettencourt da. Radcliffe-Brown and Lévi-Strauss: A Reappraisal. Lisbon, 1995.

Maddock, Kenneth. "Affinities and Missed Opportunities: John Anderson and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown in Sydney." Australian Journal of Anthropology 3 issue 1/2 (1992): 319.

Singer, Milton. "On the Semiotics of Ritual: Radcliffe-Brown's Legacy." In Theory and Method: Evaluation of the Work of M.N. Srinivas. New Delhi, 1996.

Roland Robertson (1987)

Revised Bibliography

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

views updated Jun 08 2018

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

The English anthropologist A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955) pioneered the study of social relations as integrated systems. His analyses of kinship relations in Australia and in Africa have had a powerful influence on modern social anthropology.

Alfred Reginald Brown was born in Birmingham, England, in 1881. In 1926 he would add his mother's maiden name to his own, becoming famous as A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Born into a family of modest means, he left school at 17 to work in the Birmingham library. On the urging of his brother, Brown began premedical studies at the University of Birmingham. Though he had aspired to a degree in the natural sciences, Brown was convinced by a Cambridge tutor to enter Trinity College as a student in the moral sciences. Among his Cambridge teachers was the psychologist W. H. R. Rivers, who had recently returned from the Torres-Strait expedition to Melanesia in the South Pacific—the first major anthropological expedition sponsored by Cambridge.

In 1906-1908 Radcliffe-Brown undertook his first field work in the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean, research which led in 1922 to the publication of his classic monograph The Andaman Islanders. His other major field research was a survey of different kinship systems among the aboriginal groups of Western Australia, undertaken in 1910-1912.

The rest of his professional life was taken up with teaching and writing theoretical papers. Over the course of three decades, Radcliffe-Brown held major teaching posts at the University of Capetown in South Africa, the University of Sydney in Australia, the University of Chicago in the United States, and Oxford University, where he was appointed to the first professorship in anthropology in 1937. In Sydney he founded the influential journal Oceania.

By force of personality and intellect, Radcliffe-Brown shaped the course of British anthropology throughout the decade of the 1940s. Whereas the influence of Bronislaw Malinowski, the other important British anthropologist of the time, was to set a high standard of field work and data collection, Radcliffe-Brown's influence was more theoretical. Malinowski had argued that cultural institutions had to be understood in relation to the basic human psychological and biological needs they satisfied. Radcliffe-Brown, however, stressed a "structural-functional" approach to social analysis which viewed social systems as integrated mechanisms in which all parts function to promote the harmony of the whole.

Here the influence of the great French sociologist Emil Durkheim was evident. Like Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown thought that social institutions should be studied like any scientific object. The job of the social anthropologist was to describe the anatomy of interdependent social institutions—what he called social structure—and to define the functioning of all parts in relation to the whole. The aim of such analysis is to account for what holds a functioning society together.

This approach led Radcliffe-Brown to undertake somewhat abstract and clinical analyses of social institutions in the search for general social laws. Among his most famous analyses is that of "joking relationships" in tribal societies. In his famous essay "On Joking Relationships, " published originally in 1940, he described an often noticed custom whereby certain individuals (often in-laws) are expected to engage in formalized banter. He proposed that one could only understand such strange customs by studying the specific joking relationships in the context of the total patterning of social relations in the society.

This highly formal approach to the study of social customs led Radcliffe-Brown to a number of other famous analyses. His early survey of Western Australian aboriginal societies, for instance, led to the first sophisticated account of complicated aboriginal kinship systems as a set of variations on a few structural themes. He was able to identify a set of relationships between kinship terminologies and marriage rules that made sense for the first time of the "structure" of aboriginal society. These studies are still the cornerstone of the social anthropology of aboriginal Australia.

In an early paper, "The Mother's Brother in South Africa, " published in 1924, Radcliffe-Brown made sense of what had been thought to be isolated and peculiar customs observed in African societies whereby a boy has a special relationship with his maternal uncle (his mother's brother) that is distinct from his relationship with any other uncle or with his own father. Again, by examining this relationship in light of the total abstract pattern of kinship relations and the pattern of relations between different social groups, Radcliffe-Brown was able to show the structural-functional "logic" of an apparently irrational custom.

In yet another illuminating analysis, Radcliffe-Brown provided the basis of a coherent explanation of "totemism"—the set of associations between social groups and species of plants or animals. Radcliffe-Brown argued that totemic beliefs create solidarity between nature and human society. Nature was, through totemism, domesticated. Furthermore, Radcliffe-Brown insisted that oppositions between natural species of animals or plants served to symbolize differences between one social group and another. This approach to totemism, once again stressing analyzing specific social institutions in relation to their total encompassing social context, was a major advance in the understanding of such beliefs and paved the way for the more modern work of structuralists such as Claude Levi-Strauss.

Radcliffe-Brown's list of publications is not especially long. Yet in a series of powerfully argued papers he was able to transform the face of anthropology in his time. Throughout his career Radcliffe-Brown insisted that the proper aim of anthropology was the careful comparison of societies and the formulation of general social laws. When he went into anthropology exotic cultures were usually studied as collections of separable customs and cultural anthropology was the history of how such customs were "diffused" between cultures by borrowing or conquest. Radcliffe-Brown was a major part of a movement to understand human society as integrated systems, open to scientific analysis. This elegant and often abstract approach to social analysis has had its critics and its defenders. But Radcliffe-Brown's analysis of social patterns left an important mark on all of modern social anthropology.

Further Reading

The most influential of Radcliffe-Brown's essays have been published together under the title Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952). The most informative account of Radcliffe-Brown's life and work is contained in the book Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School (1983) by Adam Kuper. Other extensive discussions of his impact on anthropology may be found in Marvin Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory (1968) and in David Bidney, Theoretical Anthropology (1967). □

Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald

views updated Jun 27 2018

Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955) Radcliffe-Brown was one of the most influential of the founding figures of social anthropology, through his teaching in universities in England, North America, South Africa, and Australia. He was less noted for his field studies than for his teaching, yet he was the first to have an anthropological training as an undergraduate at Cambridge, and the first to hold a Chair in Social Anthropology at Cape Town, Sydney, Oxford, and Chicago.

In his theoretical approach Radcliffe-Brown owed much to Émile Durkheim, stressing the importance of structure in society, and of the functions of different institutions. This has led to criticisms of his approach as too rigid and mechanistic. However, he was clearly an excellent teacher, his influence being represented more by the range of students he influenced than by his (relatively small) published output. He preferred to publish definitive studies of what he called ‘comparative sociology’ that set out the rules governing human social relationships. Probably the most widely read of these works is still Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952), an accepted classic of social anthropology, setting out clearly many of the concepts that are now taken for granted in the discipline.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R.

views updated May 23 2018

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (British social anthropologist): see EVANS-PRITCHARD, E.