Anthropology Theory Project

A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

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A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (photo courtesy of NNDB)


Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown started not as an anthropologist but as a philosopher and psychologist but then turned to anthropology which allowed him to earn the name of "Father of Structural-Functionalism." Structural-functionalism is commonly defined as "society as an entity composed of functionally interdependent institutions" according to NNDB (2009). He is also considered the co-founder, along with Bronislaw Malinowski, of British social anthropology. Throughout his academic career, he did extensive fieldwork among different groups of people around the world the comparison of which would ultimately help him to create a theory on social structures. His influence and his teachings encouraged people to participate in anthropology and helped to create British social anthropology.

Early Life and UniversityEdit

Alfred Reginald Brown was born in Birmingham, England on January 17, in 1881 and later changed his name to Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. At the age of twenty years old, he entered Cambridge University planning to study philosophy, psychology, economics, and the natural sciences. When he was there, he became friends with another student named Peter Kropotkin, a known anarchist communist. Kropotkin's view on survival of the fittest was different than the common idea in that his was theselection for skills that allowed humans to thrive by working together" (NNDB). This idea influenced Radcliffe-Brown's thinking and laid the foundation for his views on social anthropology. Following the lead of one of his teachers, he switched his focus from psychology to anthropology and was persuaded to do fieldwork. Eggan and Warren say that “from Rivers and Haddon came the stimulus to field research, and Radcliffe-Brown spent the years 1906-1908 in the Andaman Islands” (1956: 544). This research led Radcliffe-Brown to about his experience with the Andaman Islanders. This was first presented as his thesis which gained him a Fellowship of Trinity College. The thesis dealt with a reconstruction of Andamanese culture history. After returning from the Andaman Islands, he got his Fellowship and spent the next two years, according to Fortes, “teaching at the London School of Economics, where he held the newly created post of Reader in Ethnology, and at Cambridge, where he lectured on Comparative Sociology” (1963: ix). While he was teaching, he became aware of the ideas of sociology that were emerging from France. He started reading about Emile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss. This made him interested in the meanings and functions behind myths, rites, and institutions. Before reading this, Radcliffe-Brown was more in tune with his teacher at Cambridge, W. H. R. Rivers, who dealt with the problems of ethnology. His report on the Andaman Islands "reflected the diffusionist proclivities of Rivers" (1973: 53).

Beginning Field WorkEdit

It wasn’t until 1910 that he was able to go back out into the field. With his new interests in his mind, he spent two years studying the Aborigine tribes in Western Australia. Those two years of research enable Radcliffe-Brown to write “the important paper on ‘Three Tribes of Western Australia’ (1913), which contained the germ of the theory and method later perfected” says Fortes (1963: ix). This research would help him again and in a much larger way in 1931 in his Social Organization of Australian Tribes, which, according to a web page at Minnesota State University (2007), says “applied his structural functional paradigm to Australian kinship systems and analyzed the way they related to social organization” (2007). In 1914, he was able to go back to Australia for the meeting of the British Association. The outbreak of World War I stopped Radcliffe-Brown from returning to England so he took the time to uncover some opportunities. In 1916, he became the Director of Education in the Kingdom of Tonga which provided him with ethnological experience along with the experiences of administration. This position led Radcliffe-Brown to have contact with a Polynesian society in which he was able to study. He served that post for three years and after that went traveling to South Africa where his intellectual life had a major change.

Spreading His InfluenceEdit

In 1921, the first Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Cape Town was created which the university offered to Radcliffe-Brown and he accepted. For the next five years, Radcliffe-Brown was busy in trying to establish the School of African Life and Languages in order to try and study the native races of South Africa. Teaching was perhaps where Radcliffe-Brown would shine the brightest and as a teacher of young minds he, according to Fortes, “soon attracted large undergraduate audiences, and his wide scholarship and integrity quickly won him a leading position among the staff” (1963: x). His biggest challenge was to try and get the public to understand the importance of anthropological studies in South Africa in order to receive funding for research plans that he was trying to undertake. Regrettably, the funds never came and the research never took place. However, during this time, he wrote for the press, gave speeches, spoke at conferences, and organized courses for applied anthropology. Some of the works that he had published include his "Notes on the Social Organization of Australian Tribes. Part II," "The Mother's Brother in South Africa," and some reviews of Atlas Africanus and Origin of Australian Beliefs. Also, his biggest contributions to social anthropology were published during these years; The Andaman Islanders in 1922 and “Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology” in 1923. His lectures were widely covered by the press of the South Africa but he did not suggest reform for anthropology; he only argued that the anthropologist should only give his scientifc advice on situations. Finally, in 1926, he left the university with the department ran by his first South African pupil, I. Schapera. His influence was spread and his subject is now taught at all universities in South Africa.
After leaving South Africa, he accepted a job at the University of Sydney as the first Chair of Social Anthropology. He taught there for five years and accomplished many things. This included the creation of new courses on anthropology, the foundation of a research school, and creating training courses for colonial officers traveling to Papua and New Guinea. Receiving much funding, he was able to send his students into the field to conduct fieldwork; something he could not do in South Africa. He also established and edited the journal Oceania which deals with articles that are written about social and cultural anthropology. He also continued his own studies of Australia which were interrupted by World War I. Using his old information and his current research, he was able to present, according to Eggan and Warren, “a major synthesis in ‘The Social Organization of Australian Tribes’ (1930-31), still the basic study for the region” (1956: 545). After working there for five years, he left Australia to teach elsewhere. His influence can be felt because the work he left behind included creating a link between academic anthropology and administration.
In 1931, Radcliffe-Brown moved to Chicago to work as a professor of anthropology. While there, he had a seminar debate with Mortimer Adler, a philosopher who also taught at Chicago. The debate was about the natural science of society and the transcript was published in 1957 under the title, “The Nature of a Theoretical Natural Science of Society.” He also had much free time to read and study and furthered his knowledge of Indian social organization. Eggan and Warren say that he also “systematized and expanded his conception of social anthropology as the comparative study of society…and encouraged the application of social anthropological methods to Western and Far Eastern societies” (1956: 545). Because of all of his work done and theories worked on, he became a major and controversial name in American Anthropology. This is because his views on sociology were still relatively new in American tradition of anthropology. Most of the anthropologists were interested in Franz Boas' views of historical and historicist approach. It also leaned towards the ideas of "movement towards 'culture and personality' studies" according to Kuper (1973: 64). However, he left Chicago in 1937 to take a different position in England.
Oxford University had just created a Chair of Social Anthropology and Radcliffe-Brown willingly took the job. There were only a small number of students and professors at Oxford who were interested in anthropology and there was no encouragement towards them. Most of the students belonged to Bronislaw Malinowski although Radcliffe-Brown did have one or two. He was a given a warm welcome from the few other British anthropologists and there was that “with both him and Malinowski in the country there was every prospect of lively theoretical developments” according to Fortes (1963: xiii). While there, he lectured on the importance of sociological studies in anthropology. Finally, in 1946, he retired from his post at Oxford.
Although Radcliffe-Brown retired in 1946 and died in 1955, he produced important works of theory and method. His Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952) is a book that deals with the idea of kinship systems in societies. It also deals with religion (including totemism and the role of religion in society). Finally, it deals with taboos and laws that societies might have. His Method of Social Anthropology is a collection of essays in two parts. The first part are the papers that Radcliffe-Brown wrote about methodology during his life. The second part is his last statement on social anthropology including its nature and its development. This book was published posthumously in 1958.

Bronislaw MalinowskiEdit

Radcliffe-Brown and Bronislaw Malinowski have an interesting history together. Together, they are known as the "Fathers of British Social Anthropology" because of what each contributed to the field. Malinowski brought the "awareness of the flesh-and-blood interests behind custom, and his radically new techniques of observation" says Kuper (1973: 51). Radcliffe-Brown brought the ideas of French sociology and new concepts to new fieldworkers. They did not have much in common besides the fact that both hated history and both were concerned about the different aspects of a society and the way that they relate to each other; however, the similarities end there. Malinowski considered fieldwork to be very important to anthropology. His studies include three trips to New Guinea with a two year stay with the Trobrianders. Malinowski was also interested in the way social institutions worked to meet individual needs. Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, was seen as an armchair anthropologists with the only major in-depth study being done with the Andaman Islanders. The rest of his studies only picked at various subjects within the society. He was more focused on the way that social institutions supported structures in society and societal integration.
In 1937, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown were working together at Oxford and was greeted with open arms by his fellow anthropologists. By some, he was seen as a welcoming challenge to Malinowski's teachings by representing sense, clarity, and sociology. He was also seen as the classis to the romantic that was Malinowski. Malinowski also gushed his theories and ideas while Radcliffe-Brown let only a little through at at time. The two did work together well, however, because the students would go to Radcliffe-Brown for theory instruction and then turn to Malinowski afterward for fieldwork.
The biggest rift came between them when Radcliffe-Brown was grouped with Malinowski as a "functionalist." This started when Malinowski first showed Radcliffe-Brown a paper in which contained a lot of reference to Durkheimian views on social function. Then Malinowski began to construct a theory which had a lot of non-social ideas. In the thirties, Malinowski was increasingly trying to explain social facts related to biological or cultural needs; which was his ideas of functionalism. Radcliffe-Brown is quoted in Kuper saying, "'As a consistent opponent of Malinowski's functionalism I may be called an anti-functionalist'" (1973: 86).


Structural-functionalism was firstly developed in the United States by anthropologist but was independently created in the United Kingdom by Radcliffe-Brown. It was created mostly as an opposition to evolutionism. The foundation for the theory came from his studies of Durkheim and Max Weber which involved many ideas of social structures while the methodology came from classical fieldwork. Although Radcliffe-Brown was given the credit for the formulation of the theory, E. E. Evans-Pritchard has the best usage in his works; Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande and The Nuer. Structural-functionalism has "an idea of society as a holistic, integrated system, but structural functionalism had a much stronger emphasis on the self-perpetuation of the system. Indeed, the very name of the school implies that social institutions (which collectively form a social structure) function to maintain the harmony of the social whole" says a webpage on Most structural-functionalism deals with political and economical issues but their main focus is on kinship and lineage. They use these topics to help them understand non-Western societies and they way that they function. The most famous theory to stem from structural-functionalism was Pritchard\\\\'s theory on segmentary lineage; which states that people who are "close kin stand together against more distant kin" says (Segmentary lineage).


Radcliffe-Brown's teachings and ideas have affected people in different ways. His influence was felt around the world in such places as Tonga, Sydney, Cape Town,and Chicago; all places that he taught at. He affected students as well as whole departments of anthropology, but this was not without controversy. He was very critical of social evolution and disliked conjectures about whole civilizations, as well as laws about human nature. These ideas would be echoed by both Bronislaw Malinowski and Franz Boas. His passion for the discovery of the way that societies worked and to understand their different parts led him to, says NNDB, “intriguing questions as to how very similar social structures (such as exogamous moieties) could pop up in very distinct and geographically separated tribes” (2009). However great he was, he was eventually shadowed by Malinowski and Boas in their thoughts that culture was a “system of meaning that shape and are shaped by individuals within a society” according to NNDB (2009).
From his educational origins as a philosophy and psychology student to the founder of British social anthropology, Radcliffe-Brown couldn’t have done it without people along the way. He was encouraged to become an anthropologist by his professor at Cambridge and his reading of the French sociologists Emile Durkheim and Mauss led him to become one of the greatest anthropologists of his time. His travels allowed to him spread his influences to almost every part of the globe and helped him to write his ethnographies and create his theory of structural-functionalism.

Major Publications Edit

  • Three Tribes of Western Australia (1913)
  • The Andaman Islanders (1922)
  • Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology (1923)
  • The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1930-31)
  • Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952)
  • The Nature of a Theoretical Natural Science of Society (1957)
  • Method in Social Anthropology (1958)

Selected Annotated Bibliography Edit

Berndt, Ronald M. 1957 In Reply to Radcliffe-Brown on Australian Local Organization. American Anthropologist 59: 346-351

Radcliffe-Brown wrote an article that was published posthumously to the American Anthropologist which is what the author reviews. He says that in Radcliffe-Brown's article, many misinterpretations were made about a letter that the author wrote about Wulamba people and how the author didn't take the leading ethnographer's account into perspective. The author argues that he did and the article goes on from there. Useful article if there was more information on the Wulamba people and if Radcliffe-Brown had been to study them himself.

Bidney, David. 1947 The Problem of Social and Cultural Evolution: A Reply to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. American Anthropologist 49: 524-527

Bidney responds, in his article, to the position that Radcliffe-Brown holds which is his views on social function. He argues that there can be such a thing as social and cultural evolution but that they don't have to always be together; one can exist without the other. He spends the rest of the article refuting different points of views that Radcliffe-Brown had about evolution and societies. This would be a good article if there was interest in theories of cultural evolution.

Eggan, Fred and W. Llyod Warren. 1956 Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, 1881-1955. American Anthropologist 58: 544-47

Eggan and Warren discuss the life and times of Radcliffe-Brown. They go into great detail about his accomplishments and the work that he did around the world. They also talk a little about the written work that he did during his life and the theories that he developed. This article helped me to write about his life and some of the work that he did.

Fortes, Meyer, ed. 1963 Social Structure: Studies presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. New York: Russel & Russel Inc.

Fortes' book is a collection of studies that were supposed to be presented to him at his retirement from teaching in 1946 at Oxford. After that however, he went on to Alexandria in Egypt to establish a department of sociology at the university. "The variety of subjects dealt with by the contributors corresponds to the width of Radcliffe-Brown's own interests" (v). It also gives an overview of his life and works. This book was useful in helping to write about his early life and university.

Homans, George C. 1941 Anxiety and Ritual: The Theories of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. American Anthropologist 43: 164-172

Homans discusses the theories concerning magic and religion that were held by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. After describing their various theories, the author says that the two men should have collaborated and put both theories into one and attempt to find some common ground. He also says that the theory to describe a phenomenon is more complicated than the event actually is. This would be a useful article in comparing a specific area in which Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown differed.

Kronenfeld, David B. 1975 Kroeber v. Radcliffe-Brown on Kinship Behavior: The Fanti Test Case. Man 10: 257-284

Kronenfeld writes about the debate that existed between Radcliffe-Brown and Alfred Kroeber which was whether or not our behavior towards kin relates to our terms for our kin. He uses this argument to expand on his ideas about language and culture. He goes into depth on both sides of the argument and he gives examples of possible terminology-behavior relations. He concludes that Kroeber was the "winner" of the argument but a new language-culture relationship was established which Radcliffe-Brown responded to but Kroeber ignored. Useful article if trying to relate linguistic anthropology with social anthropology using Radcliffe-Brown's theories.

Kuper, Adam. 1973 Anthropologists and Anthropology: The British School 1922-1972. New York: Pica Press

Kuper gives a detailed description of the development of British theories in anthropology and the anthropologists that developed them. He discusses Radcliffe-Brown and Mailowski and the relationship between the two. He also discusses the transition from function to structure during the thirties and forties. This book was relevant to me because of the content that it contained. It gives a general overview of the Malinowski--Radcliffe-Brown argument. It also shows how Radcliffe-Brown develops his theory on structures in society.

Kuper, Adam. 1976 Radcliffe-Brown, Junod, and the Mother's Brother in South Africa. Man 11: 111-115

In this article, the author discusses the theory that Radcliffe-Brown developed concerning the avunculate. He uses the research that H. A. Junod collected during his time with the Thonga in Mozambique. He states that the ideas conjectured by Radcliffe-Brown were completely undermined by objections raised by Junopd and other ethnographers of the Thonga. This article would be useful in understanding Radcliffe-Brown's theories on kinship.

Murdock, George P. 1960 Review of Method in Social Anthropology: Selected Essays by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. American Anthropologist 62: 156-157

Murdock reviews one of Radcliffe-Brown's books in an article in the American Anthropologist. He says that he hoped to find some the spark that inspired Radcliffe-Brown to study the people in the book. It offered, in the time that it was written, a refreshing view. It suggests to use a scientific approach to study social behavior which contrasted with the current theories of unilinear evolutionism and historical diffusionism. The reviewer was disappointed to not find the stimulus of Radcliffe-Brown. He suggests that Radcliffe-Brown's book "deserves a respectful burial in textbooks on the history of social theory" (157). Useful article comparing the responses that Radcliffe-Brown has received and the amount of influence his works have had.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1958 Method in Social Anthropology. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press

Published posthumously, this book contains essays, in two parts, by Radcliffe-Brown which were either published or not. Most of the essays deal with his views on social anthropology and one dealing with the relationship between historical interpretations of culture and anthropology and one deals with the "current" position of anthropology. This book contains a lot of information on Radcliffe-Brown's views of social anthropology and would be useful for the study of it.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1922 The Andaman Islanders. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

This book contains information on Radcliffe-Brown's study of the Andaman Islanders conducted in his first fieldwork. The first four chapters describe various culture aspects including, ceremonial customs, social organization, religion, and myths. The last two chapters are Radcliffe-Brown's attempt to try and interpret what he observed. This is an important work because it was his first fieldwork that he conducted and it shows his views of anthropology before they were influenced by his reading of the French sociologists.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. 1913 Three Tribes of Western Australia. The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 43: 143-194

Radcliffe-Brown writes about his experience and the time he spent studying Aborigine society in the western part of Australia. This paper presents part of the study that took place in 1911. He also mentions the time he spent with and the help received by D. M. Bates, an anthropologist who studied many different societies in Australia. The article discusses the organization, religion, kinship, and society of the three tribes. This would be useful to compare different societal functions and their relationship in Australia.


Eggan, Fred and W. Llyod Warren. 1956 Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, 1881-1955. American Anthropologist 58: 544-47

Fortes, Meyers, ed. 1963 Social Structure: Studies presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. New York: Russel & Russel Inc.

Kuper, Adam. 1973 Anthropologists and Anthropology: The British School 1922-1972. New York: Pica Press

Minnesota State University, Mankato. 2007 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Electronic Document

NNDB: Tracking the entire world. 2009 A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Electronic Document

Partapuoli, Kari Helene and Finn Sivert Nielson. Segmentary lineago. Electronic Document

Partapuoli, Kari Helene and Finn Sivert Nielson. Structural functionalism. Electronic Document

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