Alfred Radcliffe-Brown

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, FBA (born Alfred Reginald Brown; 17 January 1881 – 24 October 1955) was an English social anthropologist who developed the theory of structural functionalism and coadaptation.

Alfred Radcliffe-Brown
Alfred Radcliffe-Brown.jpg
A. R. Radcliffe-Brown
Alfred Reginald Brown

17 January 1881
Birmingham, England
Died24 October 1955 (1955-10-25) (aged 74)
London, England
NationalityUnited Kingdom
Scientific career
FieldsSocial anthropology
InfluencesÉmile Durkheim
InfluencedE. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Polanyi


Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was born Alfred Reginald Brown in Sparkbrook, Birmingham, England, the second son of Alfred Brown (d.1886), a manufacturer's clerk, and his wife Hannah (née Radcliffe). He later changed his last name, by deed poll, to Radcliffe-Brown, Radcliffe being his mother's maiden name. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1905; M.A., 1909), graduating with first-class honours in the moral sciences tripos. While still a student, he earned the nickname "Anarchy Brown" for his close interest in the writings of the anarcho-communist and scientist Peter Kropotkin.[1]

"Like other young men with blood in their veins, I wanted to do something to reform the world – to get rid of poverty and war, and so on. So I read Godwin, Proudhon, Marx and innumerable others. Kropotkin, revolutionary, but still a scientist, pointed out how important for any attempt to improve society was a scientific understanding of it."[2]

He studied psychology under W. H. R. Rivers who, with A. C. Haddon, led him toward social anthropology.[3] Under the latter's influence, he travelled to the Andaman Islands (1906–1908) and Western Australia (1910–1912, with biologist and writer E. L. Grant Watson and Australian writer Daisy Bates) to conduct fieldwork into the workings of the societies there.[4]

His time in the Andaman Islands and Western Australia were the basis of his later books The Andaman Islanders (1922) and The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1930). At the 1914 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in Melbourne, Bates accused him of plagiarising her work, based on an unpublished manuscript she had sent him for comment.[4]

Before departing for Western Australia, Brown married Winifred Marie Lyon in Cambridge; they had one daughter, Mary Cynthia Lyon Radcliffe.[5] The couple became estranged by about 1926. They may have divorced in 1938 (sources disagree on whether a divorce was completed).[5][6]

In 1916 Brown became a director of education in Tonga. In 1921 he moved to Cape Town to become professor of social anthropology, founding the School of African Life. Further university appointments were University of Cape Town (1921–25), University of Sydney (1925–31) and University of Chicago (1931–37). Among his most prominent students during his years at the University of Chicago were Sol Tax and Fred Eggan. After these various far-flung appointments, he returned to England in 1937 to take up an appointment to the first chair in social anthropology at Oxford University in 1937. He held this post until his retirement in 1946.[7] He died in London in 1955.

While Radcliffe-Brown founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, according to Rodney Needhamhis absence from the Institute during the war years prevented his theories and approach from having a major influence on Oxford anthropology.[8]


He has been described as "the classic to Bronisław Malinowski's romantic".[9] Radcliffe-Brown brought French sociology (namely Émile Durkheim) to British anthropology, constructing a rigorous battery of concepts to frame ethnography.[10]

Greatly influenced by the work of Émile Durkheim, he saw institutions as the key to maintaining the global social order of a society, analogous to the organs of a body, and his studies of social function examine how customs aid in maintaining the overall stability of a society.[citation needed]

Concept of functionEdit

Radcliffe-Brown has often been associated with functionalism, and is considered by some to be the founder of structural functionalism. Nonetheless, Radcliffe-Brown vehemently denied being a functionalist, and carefully distinguished his concept of function from that of Malinowski, who openly advocated functionalism. While Malinowski's functionalism claimed that social practices could be directly explained by their ability to satisfy basic biological needs, Radcliffe-Brown rejected this as baseless. Instead, influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, he claimed that the fundamental units of anthropology were processes of human life and interaction. Because these are by definition characterised by constant flux, what calls for explanation is the occurrence of stability. Why, Radcliffe-Brown asked, would some patterns of social practices repeat themselves and even seem to become fixed? He reasoned that this would at least require that other practices must not conflict with them too much; and that in some cases, it may be that practices grow to support each other, a notion he called 'coadaptation', deriving from the biological term. Functional analysis, then, was just the attempt to explain stability by discovering how practices fit together to sustain that stability; the 'function' of a practice was just its role in sustaining the overall social structure, insofar as there was a stable social structure (Radcliffe-Brown 1957). This is far from the 'functional explanation' later impugned by Carl Hempel and others. It is also clearly distinct from Malinowski's notion of function, a point which is often ignored by Radcliffe-Brown's detractors.[citation needed]

"Malinowski has explained that he is the inventor of functionalism, to which he gave its name. His definition of it is clear; it is the theory or doctrine that every feature of culture of any people past or present is to be explained by reference to seven biological needs of individual human beings. I cannot speak for the other writers to whom the label functionalist is applied by the authors, though I very much doubt if Redfield or Linton accept this doctrine. As for myself I reject it entirely, regarding it as useless and worse. As a consistent opponent of Malinowski's functionalism I may be called an anti-functionalist."[11]

Concept of social structureEdit

While Lévi-Strauss (1958) claimed that social structure and the social relations that are its constituents are theoretical constructions used to model social life, Radcliffe-Brown only half-agreed

"to say we are studying social structures is not exactly the same thing as saying that we study social relations, which is how some sociologists define their subject. A particular social relation between two persons (unless they be Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) exists only as part of a wide network of social relations, involving many other persons, and it is this network which I regard as the object of our investigations.
"I am aware, of course, that the term "social structure" is used in a number of different senses, some of them very vague. This is unfortunately true of many other terms commonly used by anthropologists. The choice of terms and their definitions is a matter of scientific convenience, but one of the characteristics of a science as soon as it has passed the first formative period is the existence of technical terms which are used in the same precise meaning by all the students of that science. By this test, I regret to say, social anthropology reveals itself as not yet a formed science.''"[12]

In addition to identifying abstract relationships between social structures, Radcliffe-Brown argued for the importance of the notion of a 'total social structure', which is the sum total of social relations in a given social unit of analysis during a given period. The identification of 'functions' of social practices was supposed to be relative to this total social structure. Lévi-Strauss saw social structure as a model.[13]

Evolutionism, diffusionism, and the role of social anthropologyEdit

A major view in the study of tribal societies had been that all societies follow a unilineal path ('evolutionism'), and that therefore 'primitive' societies could be understood as earlier stages along that path; conversely, 'modern' societies contained vestiges of older forms. Another view was that social practices tend to develop only once, and that therefore commonalities and differences between societies could be explained by a historical reconstruction of the interaction between societies ('diffusionism'). According to both of these views, the proper way to explain differences between tribal societies and modern ones was historical reconstruction.

Radcliffe-Brown rejected both of these views because of the untestable nature of historical reconstructions. Instead, he argued for the use of the comparative method to find regularities in human societies and thereby build up a genuinely scientific knowledge of social life.

"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 (laws of social dynamics). This can only be done by the systematic use of the comparative method, and the only justification of that method is the expectation that it will provide us with results of this kind, or, as Boas stated it, will provide us with knowledge of the laws of social development. It will be only in an integrated and organised study in which historical studies and sociological studies are combined that we shall be able to reach a real understanding of the development of human society"[14]

To that end, Radcliffe-Brown argued for a 'natural science of society'. He claimed that there was an independent role for social anthropology here, separate from psychology, though not in conflict with it. This was because psychology was to be the study of individual mental processes, while social anthropology was to study processes of interaction between people (social relations). Thus he argued for a principled ontological distinction between psychology and social anthropology, in the same way as one might try to make a principled distinction between physics and biology. Moreover, he claimed that existing social scientific disciplines, with the possible exception of linguistics, were arbitrary; once our knowledge of society is sufficient, he argued, we will be able to form subdisciplines of anthropology centred around relatively isolated parts of the social structure. But without extensive scientific knowledge, it is impossible to know where these boundaries should be drawn.


Radcliffe-Brown carried out extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, and elsewhere. On the basis of this research, he contributed extensively to the anthropological ideas on kinship, and criticised Lévi-Strauss's Alliance theory. He also produced structural analyses of myths, including on the basis of the concept of binary distinctions and dialectical opposition,[15] an idea later echoed by Lévi-Strauss.


Radcliffe-Brown was often criticised for failing to consider the effect of historical changes in the societies he studied, in particular changes brought about by colonialism. Nevertheless, he is now considered, along with Bronisław Malinowski, as one of the fathers of modern social anthropology.[citation needed]

Selected publicationsEdit

  • 1912, "The Distribution of Native Tribes in Part of Western Australia", Man, 12: 143-146.
  • 1913, "Three Tribes of Western Australia", The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 43: 143-194.
  • 1922, The Andaman Islanders; a study in social anthropology.
  • 1926, 'Arrangements of Stones in Australia', Man, 26: 204-205.
  • 1931, Social Organization of Australian Tribes.
  • 1940, "On Joking relationships": Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 13, No. 3 (Jul. 1940), pp. 195–210 doi:10.2307/1156093
  • 1952, Structure and Function in Primitive Society: posthumously
  • 1948,[16] A Natural Science of Society: based on a series of lectures at the University of Chicago in 1937 and posthumously published by his students


  1. ^ David Graeber, Fragments of an Anarchist Anthropology, Chicago, 2004, p.16.
  2. ^ George W. Stocking Jr., After Tylor, British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951, Madison, Univ Wisconsin, 1995, p. 305.
  3. ^ "The Andaman islanders; a study in social anthropology (Anthony Wilkin studentship research, 1906". Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  4. ^ a b Hogbin, Ian (1988). "Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. 11. Retrieved 10 November 2015.
  5. ^ a b Maddock, Kenneth (23 September 2004). "Brown, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe (1881-1955)". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/37877. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  6. ^ Hogbin, Ian (1988). "Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Retrieved 29 March 2019.
  7. ^ Adam Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School, London, Penguin, 1973, pp. 45–46)
  8. ^ "Rodney Needham". Retrieved 19 October 2014.
  9. ^ Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists, p. 34.
  10. ^ Kuper, Anthropology and Anthropologists, p. 36.
  11. ^ A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1949. 'Functionalism: A Protest,' American Anthropologist 51(2): 320–321.
  12. ^ A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1940. On Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70(1): 3.
  13. ^ Claude Lévi-Strauss, Anthropologie structurale (1958, Structural Anthropology, trans. Claire Jacobson and Brooke Grundfest Schoepf, London 1963.)
  14. ^ 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.
  15. ^ 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): 15–22.
  16. ^ History of anthropological thought by v.s Upadhayay and Gaya Panday

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