Nadel, S. F

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Nadel, S. F



Siegfried Frederick Nadel (1903-1956) was born and raised in Austria. His early interests and training were in the field of music, but he earned his doctoral degree in psychology and philosophy at the University of Vienna, studying with Karl Bühler and Moritz Schlick. Before he began formal training in anthropology, Nadel had already published on the psychology and philosophy of music, written a book on musical typology and a biography of F. B. Busoni, produced programs of exotic music for Radio Vienna, and toured Czechoslovakia with his own opera company.

In 1932 a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation and the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures brought Nadel to the London School of Economics. He studied with Bronislaw Malinowski, and with C. G. Seligman until the latter left for Africa, and for several years participated in Malinowski’s seminar whenever possible. In 1934 Nadel began what was to be a career of active field work. He worked with Nupe and related groups in northern Nigeria between 1934 and 1936 and among the Nuba of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan between 1938 and 1940.

A deeply moral man, Nadel wanted to take part personally in the destruction of the Nazi social system. He enlisted in the Sudan Defense Force in 1941 and was later transferred to the East African Command of the British Army. His army career included service in Eritrea from 1942 to 1945 and in Tripolitania from 1945 to 1946. In Tripolitania he held the office of secretary for native affairs in the British Military Administration. He was given a gazetted commendation “for outstanding service” and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Research and ethnography. Nadel had mastered Hausa before he arrived in Nigeria, and within six months of beginning field work he acquired proficiency in the difficult, tonal language of the Nupe. His linguistic talents, sociability, psychological insights, and adventurous spirit made him a first-rate field worker.

Nadel’s frequent shifts between ethnography and theory enhance the interest of his ethnographic writings and the value of his theoretical treatises. In A Black Byzantium (1942) he made explicit the theoretical basis for the method of ethnographic analysis, and in The Nuba (1947) he brilliantly summarized a large number of structural constancies found among ten tribal groups. His paper “Witchcraft in Four African Societies” (1952) cleverly interlaced ethnography, theory, and the method of covariant analysis to arrive at conclusions about the causes of witchcraft. The paper is a model of the comparative method. The challenging and elusive concepts that define the world of the supernatural are ably handled in Nupe Religion (1954). The book contains theoretical discussions that add to an understanding of the specific beliefs, rituals, and dogmas of the religious life of the Nupe. For Nadel, ethnography was not a simple listing of social and cultural traits; he was concerned with the “reality” that existed for the groups he studied and with explaining why given bits of that reality “hung together.”

Theoretical writings . Nadel’s major contributions to anthropology lie not in ethnography but in theory. Although he is frequently referred to as a leading representative of British social anthropology, his work shows varied influences: Malinowski’s and Radcliffe-Brown’s in anthropology; Max Weber’s and Parsons’ in sociology; Whitehead’s in philosophy; and Köhler’s, Koffka’s, and Lewin’s in psychology. He was also familiar with the work of a large number of American cultural anthropologists. The breadth of Nadel’s theoretical approach makes it difficult to identify him with any particular school.

The Foundations of Social Anthropology, the first of Nadel’s two major theoretical works, concerns itself with “the logical premises that underlie our knowledge of societies... and with the prerequisites, conceptual and technical, of any enquiry meant to lead to this knowledge” (1951, p. v). Nadel argued in Foundations that anthropology is a science and, as such, must go beyond description to explanation. The subject matter of anthropology is behavior that is aim-controlled—tasks that have “consciousness” and exhibit purpose. Following Weber and Parsons, Nadel stipulated that purposeful actions can be understood in terms of logic, cause, and purpose. Moreover, he appears to have attributed equality, or parity, to sociological and psychological phenomena. For example, he wrote that to understand society one needs to think of social systems as having an “ulterior purpose” that comes from without these systems. “Since our subject matter is man-acting-in-society, this ulterior purpose can refer only to one of two things: to the nature of the human organism and its requirements (or ‘needs’); and to the nature of society and its requirements (the ‘necessities of group existence’ )” (ibid., p. 368). Here, then, the two aspects of ulterior purpose are facts about individuals (psychological and organic facts) and facts about groups (sociological facts, facts about the needs of society).

Yet Nadel also argued that to arrive at complete explanations it is necessary to enter the psychological realms of “consciousness” and “motivation.” Although in Foundations Nadel nowhere “proved” the priority of psychological causation over sociological causation, he did apparently believe that sociological facts are “emergent” from psychological ones and that the latter therefore have a kind of priority. And in his second major work, The Theory of Social Structure, he made the following statement: “. . . the interrelation of sub-groups is coterminous with the relationships of persons.... Let me emphasize that in reducing the interrelation of sub-groups to the relationships of actors in their roles I am not merely trying to simplify the picture... there is no other way to give meaning to the conception of interrelations between groups” (1957, p. 95). In brief, although the ulterior purposes of social systems can be considered in terms of satisfying group needs, as well as in terms of satisfying individual needs, group needs can ultimately be reduced to the needs of actors in role relationships, that is, to the needs of individuals.

In Foundations Nadel also included close analytical treatment of such basic concepts as culture, society, institution, group, function, pattern, configuration, ethos, and eidos. He had gone through the difficult task of translating his own raw field data into these concepts, and he attempted to provide some rationale for his particular mode of “translation.” Nadel did not present generally accepted viewpoints in this book; rather, he delved deeply into the basic conceptual and methodological problems which confront all anthropologists.

Nadel’s Theory of Social Structure is one of the outstanding theoretical works of twentieth-century social science. Roles, according to Nadel, are “modes of action ‘allocated to individuals’ by the norms of society” and lie at the very heart of socialstructural analysis. To describe social structure, one must consider three aspects of roles: the allocation principles that provide actors with roles; the degree to which given roles have authority over other roles—the command-over-action aspect; and the degree to which given roles command the various resources and benefits of the social system. In applauding this important contribution to social theory, Janowitz has written that Nadel’s formal presentation of the core of social structure parallels “the classical concerns of sociology and political science. Naturally, it remains for the social scientist to elaborate these definitions with a variety of concepts and taxonomies which give substantive content to such an approach” (1963, p. 152). Such an elaboration would bring the concept of social structure into the world of empirical research. Nadel himself began the task of elaboration, in his treatment of a role player’s command over resources and benefits. Nadel’s social structural concepts have been further elaborated by Freilich (1964), who has also attempted to operationalize them.

Students of Africa will certainly continue to find Nadel’s ethnographic writings of gret importance. All anthropologists, however, must take into account Nadel’s ideas about anthropological research and explanation. He raised crucial questions that will remain with anthropology for many years: whether anthropological analysis should consider only one level—cultural, social, or psychological —or whether two or more of these levels are appropriate; whether psychological explanations have causal priority over sociological ones; whether it is possible to do “experimental anthropology”; and whether correlational approaches are more useful than “systems” analyses. Any professional preparing to write on these issues, as well as on the nature of social structure or on structural analysis, must first acquire a thorough familiarity with Nadel’s writings.

Morris Freilich

[See alsoAnthropology, article onSocial anthropology; Social structure. Other relevant material may be found inAfrican society, article onSub saharan africa, and in the biographies ofMalinowski; Radcliffe-Brown; Seligman, C. G.]


1935a Nupe State and Community. Africa 8, no. 3:257-303.

1935b Witchcraft and Anti-witchcraft in Nupe Society. Africa 8, no. 4:423-447.

1937a Experiments on Culture Psychology. Africa 10, no. 4:421-435.

1937b Gunnu: A Fertility Cult of the Nupe in Northern Nigeria. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 67:91-130.

1939a The Application of Intelligence Tests in the Anthropological Field. Pages 184-198 in Frederic C. Bartlett et al. (editors), The Study of Society: Methods and Problems. New York: Macmillan.

1939b The Interview Technique in Social Anthropology. Field. Pages 184-198 in Frederic C. Bartlett et al. (editors), The Study of Society: Methods and Problems. New York: Macmillan.

1939b The Interview Technique in Social Anthropology. Pages 317-327 in Frederic C. Bartlett et al. (editors), The Study of Society: Methods and Problems. New York: Macmillan.

1942 A Black Byzantium: The Kingdom of Nupe in Nigeria. Published for the International Institute of African Languages and Cultures. Oxford Univ. Press.

1946 Land Tenure on the Eritrean Plateau. Africa 16, no. 1:1-22; no.2:99-109.

1947 The Nuba: An Anthropological Study of the Hill Tribes in Kordofan. Oxford Univ. Press.

1951 The Foundations of Social Anthropology. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, Ill - Free Press.

1952 Witchcraft in Four African Societies: An Essay in Comparison. American Anthropologist New Series 54: 18–29.

1954 Nupe Religion. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

1955 Two Nuba Religions: An Essay in Comparison. American Anthropologist New Series 57:661–679.

1956 The Concept of Social Elites. International Social Science Bulletin 8:413–424.

1957 The Theory of Social Structure. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, III.: Free Press. → Published posthumously.


Dahrendorf, R. 1959 S. F. Nadel. Page 410 in Internationales Soziologen–Lexikon. Edited by Wilhelm Bernsdorf. Stuttgart (Germany): Enke.

Firth, Raymond 1957 Siegfried Frederick Nadel: 1903–1956. American Anthropologist New Series 59:117–124. → Contains an excellent bibliography.

Fortes, Meyer 1957 Siegfried Frederick Nadel, 1903–1956: A Memoir. Pages ix–xvi in S. F. Nadel, The Theory of Social Structure. London: Cohen & West; Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Freilich, Morris 1964 Toward a Model of Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 94:183–200.

Gillen, John P. 1952 [A Review of] The Foundations of Social Anthropology, by S. F. Nadel. American Anthropologist New Series 54:74–75.

Janowitz, Morris 1963 Anthropology and the Social Sciences. Current Anthropology 4, no. 2:139, 149–154.

Leach, E. R. 1951 [A Review of] The Foundations of Social Anthropology, by S. F. Nadel. Africa 21:243–244.