Alfred Reginald Brown
17 January 1881
|Died||24 October 1955 (aged 74)|
|Influenced||E. E. Evans-Pritchard, Meyer Fortes, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Karl Polanyi, M. N. Srinivas|
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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 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.
He studied psychology under W. H. R. Rivers who, with A. C. Haddon, led him toward social anthropology. 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.
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Association for the Advancement of Science, in Melbourne, Bates accused him of plagiarising her work, based on an unpublished manuscript she had sent him for comment.
Before departing for Western Australia, Brown married Winifred Marie Lyon in Cambridge; they had one daughter, Mary Cynthia Lyon Radcliffe. The couple became estranged by about 1926. They may have divorced in 1938 (sources disagree on whether a divorce was completed).
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. He died in London in 1955.
While Radcliffe-Brown founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford, according to Rodney Needham his absence from the Institute during the war years prevented his theories and approach from having a major influence on Oxford anthropology.
He has been described as "the classic to Bronisław Malinowski's romantic". Radcliffe-Brown brought French sociology (namely Émile Durkheim) to British anthropology, constructing a rigorous battery of concepts to frame ethnography.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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, 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.