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Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown June 30, 2010

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.
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Like nearly all sociologists, anthropologists, philosophers, and social theorists in the twentieth century, Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (born 17 January 1881 in Birmingham – died 24 October 1955 in London)  spent much of his career describing what his anthropology was not.  Adam Kuper similarly attempts to disentangle the misunderstood Radcliffe-Brown from the true theorist.

While the misappropriations of Radcliffe-Brown’s theories are not interesting from the standpoint of the anthropologist or ostensibly to the student of the history of anthropology, as Kuper explains, Radcliffe-Brown’s influence among subsequent national generations of anthropologists is. Kuper laments that Radcliffe-Brown has been ridiculed as a “displaced naturalist” who mistakenly applied physiological and physical models to the study of social structures.  What matters more for Kuper was the “direct inspiration” his kinship studies had on the work of Fred Eggan, Meyer Fortes, and Sol Tax. Radcliffe-Brown also  emerged as the “hero” of Levi-Strauss’ Totemism as well as “strongly influencing” Victor Turner and other important later twentieth century anthropologists.  In conclusion, Radcliffe-Brown’s “profound” yet in many cases second-hand or indirect influence on subsequent generations has made his work difficult to objectively apprise.  His “structural positivism” while “unfashionable” was not necessarily “untenable” (The Social Anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown , 1977, p. 1)

Despite numerous changes throughout his career, Radcliffe-Brown, Kuper explains, consistently argued that the structures that he was investigating as the subjects of social anthropology, were “directly observable” and corresponded simply to “empirical reality.”  The “starting point” of any investigation was “a set of living human beings involved in a series of social relationships with one another.”  This “social network” was the “social structure” (3.)  Behind the everyday network of interactions were the “structural forms” of society.  Such an abstraction was “empirically real,” since the social form “corresponded to the stated norms and customary usages of various kinds of social relationships.”

Radcliffe-Brown was early on converted to the methodology of Emile Durkheim.  Along with Marcel Mauss, Radcliffe-Brown was the most prominent proponent of Durkheim’s anthropological outlook.   The Durkheimian tradition, according to Kuper, mandates that sociological analysis “may explore the connections among social institutions and the connections between these connections.”  As important for Durkheimian social analysis was an understanding of the interaction between the individual and the group, particularly those values which are internalized by the individual which contributed to group solidarity.

Radcliffe-Brown’s “structural positivism” distinguished him from the latter followers of Durkheim in France, as for the French Durkheimians, “structures” were the creation of the anthropologist rather than the product of the systematized observations of the anthropologist.  If “structures” revealed anything for Claude Levi-Strauss, it was the hidden rather than the empirical reality.  For Maurice Halbwachs, according to Kuper, this “reality may lie at the level of a ‘collective unconscious.'”  Levi-Strauss noted in this regard that “The term ‘social structure’ has nothing to do with empirical reality but with models which are built up after it.”   Where Levi-Strauss and Radcliffe-Brown really differ, as Alan Barnard points out, was that Levi-Strauss conceived of  “social structure” as the “structure of social relations of all societies.”

Levi-Strauss’ conception of  social structure concerns the underlying structure of all possible social structures.   Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, always regarded social structures as accessible empirically, moving from the individual to the relations of that individual with others in the community, to groups within the community and how they interact with other groups, and finally to relationships between communities (Encyclopedia of social and cultural anthropology, ed. Alan Barnard and Jonathan Spencer, 511.)

Radcliffe-Brown’s “structural positivism” and practicing anthropologists’ castigation of his natural historical methods and his scientism, uncovers a central problematic about how “science” was deployed in 20th century anthropology in order to legitimate specific methodological innovations and conceptual tools while denigrating other approaches.  Chief among these, for Radcliffe-Brown, were Malinowski’s “functionalism,” the  priority of  “culture” among Franz Boas and his students, and the persistent evolutionist school.  As important was the consistent emphasis of anthropology upon the category of the social, rather than the psychology of the individual as the principle subject of study.

Many of Radcliffe-Brown’s own writings were consequently built around the rejection or modification of existing arguments. In these writings, Radcliffe-Brown underscores the importance of social anthropology’s approach to the status of a natural science of society and emphasizes anthropology’s continuities with the natural sciences through its mutual examination of “structures.”  As importantly, like many eighteenth and nineteenth century social theorists, Radcliffe-Brown understood “science” to be the perceivable law-governess of nature which allowed for sciences to be ontologically grounded and new sciences, such as social anthropology, to be epistemological probabilities. As with many nineteenth century theorists, Radcliffe-Brown was particularly concerned with how knowledge was transmitted from generation to generation of practitioner and what kinds of knowledge counted as theory.

Radcliffe-Brown begins his article “On Social Structure” by noting that the ‘Functional School of Social Anthropology’ “does not really exist,” being a “myth” invented by Professor Malinowski.  As social anthropology was a branch of the “natural science,” it was not appropriate for “schools” to exist, where generations of anthropologists become partisans for the methods of their teachers.   Anthropologists were only to find flaws in the existing interpretations of anthropological problems and to contribute in the best manner possible to a growing body of theory (25.)

Social anthropology was, furthermore, a study first and foremost of the “relations of association between individual organisms.”  These associations were “social phenomenon” rather than “cultural phenomenon,” as social phenomenon were the prior and proper objects of social anthropology.  Culture denoted, contra Boaz,  “not any concrete reality, but an abstraction,” and as it was used it was a “vague abstraction.”

Anthropology could only be a science of the observable and not of the abstract since it was, as a “natural science” “revealed to us through the senses.”  Anthropology, like other sciences, dealt with structures, much in the same manner as atomic physics “deals with the structures of atoms” and crystallography with the structures of crystals.”  There was consequently a place for a science of society which “will have for its task the discovery of the general characteristics of those social structures of which the component units are human beings.”  Social phenomena were then “a distinct class of natural phenomena” with social structures “just as real as individual organisms” (27.)  For Radcliffe-Brown, the term “social structure” underscored how far away from a science social anthropology actually remained.  All terms, in this prescientific period,  were merely “the most convenient for the purposes of analysis.”  (28)

Social institutions, much as Durkheim argued, were then nothing but “standardized modes of behavior.”   Social institutions, moreover, “constitute the machinery by which a social structure, a network of social relations, maintains its existence and its continuity.”  Social institutions have the “function,” according to Radcliffe-Brown, following Durkheim, “as the relation of the social structure to the existence and continuity of which it makes some contribution”  (37.)    Function, Radcliffe-Brown, later wrote “may be defined as the total set of relations that a single social activity or usage or belief has to the total social system” (43.)

Social anthropology must then, again following Durkheim, also study all of those phenomenon which allow social relations to persist in a community, such as legality, morality, codes of conduct, religion, and government, among other things.  All of these things could be profitably studied in the context of how they “depend on, or affect, the social relations between persons or groups of persons” (32.)

Radcliffe-Brown’s understanding of social structures and the functions that they possessed in the community in order to maintain social solidarity was opposed to that of Malinowski.  Malinowski held, according to Radcliffe-Brown, “that every feature of a culture past or present is to be explained by reference to seven biological needs of individual human beings” (49.)  Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, used “function” to denote “the discoverable interconnections of the social structure and the processes of social life.”  For Radcliffe-Brown, institutions did not directly support biological needs but the maintenance of the social fabric (51.)  This understanding of function has nothing in common with “the theory of culture as derived from individual biological needs” (52.)

Radcliffe-Brown’s emphasis on the continuity of social anthropology with the natural sciences allows for a discussion of the continuities of twentieth century practitioners with nineteenth century methodologies and problematics. In particular, the deployment of the shared vocabulary of the sciences not only emphasized what social anthropology was ideally to become but distinguished what social anthropology should not become.  Though Radcliffe-Brown was particularly concerned with the profusion of “schools” in anthropology, his positivism allowed him to engage in a particular kind of canon building which linked him to Durkheim and away from Boaz, Malinowski, and Levi-Strauss.



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