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.
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).