A. R. (Alfred Reginald) Radcliffe-Brown.

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Selected Essays by K. R. RADCLIFFE-BROWN

Edited by M. N. Srinivas


Library of Congress Catalog Number: 58-11954

The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 37

Cambridge University Press, London N.W. 1, England

The University of Toronto Press, Toronto 5, Canada

© 1958 by The University of Chicago

Published 1958. Composed and printed by

The University of Chicago Press

Chicago, Illinois, U.S.A.



This is possibly the final volume of A. R. Radcliffe-
Brown's pubUshed and unpublished contributions to so-
cial science in general and social anthropology in particu-
lar. It presents, in Part I, Radcliffe-Brown's major meth-
odological papers in chronological order and follows, in
Part II, with his last finished statement on the nature and
development of social anthropology, originally prepared
as the first portion of a projected introductory book on
social anthropology. It is published with the kind permis-
sion and encouragement of Professor E. E. Evans-
Pritchard, RadcUffe-Brown's literary executor, and any
royalties will accrue to a research fund set up in Radcliffe-
Brown's name.

We are greatly indebted to Professor M. N. Srinivas,
the distinguished Indian social anthropologist, for the
task of arranging and editing this volume and for his il-
luminating Introduction, in which he traces the develop-
ment of Radcliffe-Brown's methodological and theoreti-
cal conceptions. Our thanks are also due the publishers of
the South African Journal of Science and of Nature, and
the officers of the British Association for the Advance-
ment of Science and the Royal Anthropological Institute
of Great Britain and Ireland, for permission to reprint the
published essays included in this volume.

Professor Srinivas has also prepared a brief selective
bibliography of books and essays concerned, in part at
least, with Radcliffe-Brown's influence on anthropology.
Already it is clear that it has been considerable, and it is
still growing. This volume, we hope, will be a contribution
to that end.

Fred Eggan




I. The Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology

II. Historical and Functional Interpretations of Culture

in Relation to the Practical Application of

Anthropology to the Control of

Native Peoples

III. The Present Position of Anthropological Studies

IV. Meaning and Scope of Social Anthropology

V. The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology


I. Definition

II. Precursors

III. The Formation of Social Anthropology

IV. Social Structure

V. Social Evolution








After his retirement from the chair of social anthropology
at Oxford in July, 1946, Professor Radcliffe-Brown started
working on an introductory book on social anthropology,
a subject which he had taught with distinction in several
universities in different parts of the world from Sydney to
Sao Paulo. He managed to finish five chapters of the book
by the end of 1950, and, unfortunately, that was as far as
he got with it. Ill-health, frequent and long travel, teach-
ing, and the many other calls on his time came in the way
of his completing the book. In 1951 he gave the Huxley
Memorial Lecture, "The Comparative Method in Social
Anthropology" (included in this volume), and a year later
he chose Australian cosmogony as the theme of his
Josiah Mason lectures in the University of Birmingham;
this was a subject which he had made his own and on
which he used to lecture brilhantly. He then went to
Grahamstown in South Africa, where he continued to
teach social anthropology until serious ill-health made it
impossible. He returned to England in 1955 and died on
October 24, 1955.

As is well known, Radcliffe-Brown wrote with great
care, handling words like precious stones. He usually
wrote a piece several times before publishing it — the gal-
ley proofs of his famous work. The Andaman Islanders,
were cut into sections and rearranged to make the argu-
ment clearer. His fastidiousness was partly responsible for
his relatively meager output. His fragment on social an-
thropology, included in the present volume, illustrates
Radcliffe-Brown's virtues as a writer: the style is very
simple — in fact, deceptively so — clear, and singularly free



from jargon. It provides a succinct and scholarly intro-
duction to the subject.

It was thought that it would be a good idea to publish
along with the chapters on social anthropology some of
Radcliffe-Brown's papers on scope and method. These
papers, written at different points in Radcliffe-Brown's
professional career, have exercised much influence on the
development of anthropological studies but have been
published in journals and reports which are not easy to
come by.^

Throughout his career as an anthropologist, RadcHffe-
Brown was arguing for a rational division of the several
subjects subsumed under the omnibus term "anthropol-
ogy." The great stimulus given to anthropological studies
by the theory of evolution has resulted in bringing to-
gether, within the framework of a single subject, several
distinct disciplines, such as physical anthropology, eth-
nology, prehistoric archeology, hnguistics, and social
anthropology. Anthropology thus includes every aspect
of primitive human life from technology to theology.
RadcHffe-Brown considered such an arrangement not
very rational, and he wanted a division of subjects on the
basis of their logical affinity. He made this division in
three of the essays included in this book: "Methods of
Ethnology and Social Anthropology" (1923), "The Pres-
ent Position of Anthropological Studies" (1931), and
"Meaning and Scope of Social Anthropology" (1944).
Chapter i of "Social Anthropology" is also concerned
with this division.

In making these distinctions, Radcliffe-Brown was es-
pecially concerned with pointing out the differences be-

' It was decided to omit from this collection Radcliffe-Brown's
"Some Problems of Bantu Sociology" {Bantu Studies, Nos. 1-3
[1921-22], pp. 38-46) and "Applied Anthropology" (presidential
address to Section F of the Australian and New Zealand Association
for the Advancement of Science, twentieth meeting, Brisbane,
May-June, 1930).


tween social anthropology — the science of comparative
sociology, which seeks universal laws governing human
social behavior — and ethnology, which is a historical dis-
cipline interested in reconstructing the history of primi-
tive peoples and in classifying their race and language.
According to Radcliffe-Brown, ethnology ought to be
studied in close collaboration with prehistoric archeology,
while physical anthropology belongs to the biological sci-
ences and ought to be studied as a part of the wider sub-
ject of human biology.

Radchffe-Brown's ideas have been so successful that
the distinctions he first advocated in 1923, in "The Meth-
ods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology," have be-
come the commonplaces of British social anthropology
today. But it is necessary to recall that in 1923 W. H. R.
Rivers' reputation was still at its peak. In 1911, Rivers
announced his conversion from the evolutionism of Mor-
gan to a belief in the widespread character of diffusion
and the necessity for ethnological analysis of culture ; his
ideas exercised a powerful influence during his life and for
several years after his death. Rivers' ethnological ap-
proach and his marked bias for psychology were both
threats to the growth, if not the existence, of the nascent
discipHne of social anthropology. Professor Lowie writes :
"Medically and psychologically trained. Rivers did army
service during the war, treating cases of shell-shock. His
alert and suggestible mind was affected by the rise of
psycho-analysis, and on that basis he attempted to ally
psychology with ethnology. Whatever he may have added
to psychological science in this way, he hardly advanced
ethnology; to us at least, he does not seem to have done
more than paraphrase ethnographic facts in psychiatric

In chapter ii of the fragment on social anthropology,
Radcliffe-Brown traces briefly the history of the subject

2 The History of Ethnological Theory (New York, 1937), p. 172.


over the last three centuries, and he makes it evident that
many distinguished thinkers from several countries have
contributed to its growth. It was Sir James Frazer, how-
ever, who first used the term "social anthropology" in the
sense understood by British social anthropologists today.
In 1908, in his inaugural lecture as the honorary professor
of social anthropology in the University of Liverpool, he
defined clearly the nature and scope of social anthropol-
ogy. But that did not put a stop to pseudohistorical and
psychological explanations for social facts and events.
Radcliffe-Brown was the first English-speaking anthro-
pologist to reject both these types of explanations and to
argue that sociological facts demanded explanation in
terms of sociological laws and not in terms of individual
psychology or reconstructed history.

"The Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropol-
ogy" was published in 1923, a year after Rivers' death in
1922, and the latter year also saw the publication of two
works of revolutionary import, Malinowski's Argonauts
of the Western Pacific and Radcliffe-Brown's Andaman
Islanders. The essay constitutes Radclifte-Brown's earhest
statement on the nature, scope, and affiliations of social
anthropology, and his subsequent pronouncements do
not reveal any radical departure from it. If any single es-
say can be called the charter — to use a favorite word of
Malinowski — of modern British social anthropology, it is
undoubtedly "The Methods of Ethnology and Social An-
thropology." It was a charter of revolt when it first made
its appearance.

It was in the course of his analysis of the ethnological
approach that Radcliff"e-Brown was led to distinguish be-
tween the diff"erent kinds of history practiced by his col-
leagues. He pointed out that ethnologists did not write
"real" histories but conjectural histories which were at
best probable and at worst mere piling-up of unverifiable
guesses — which was, indeed, true of Rivers' History of


Melanesian Society (2 vols. ; Cambridge : Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1914).

Radcliffe-Brown welcomed proper history where suf-
ficient documentary material was available. He pointed
out the value of history, though he took pains to em-
phasize that it was different from a "functional" or socio-
logical explanation of the social institutions in question.
In his own work he even reconstructed history. Professor
Lowie, who is generally critical of RadcUffe-Brown's ap-
proach, points out that ". . . RadcUffe-Brown's theoreti-
cal intransigence on the subject of history wanes before
data with which he is thoroughly familiar and, notwith-
standing some qualms, he stoops to chronological hy-
potheses. The Yaralde kinship system 'cannot reasonably
be supposed to have developed independently of these
(Arande systems) ... we must certainly assume some his-
torical connection between them.' Again, 'the Kumbain-
geri type is a stepping stone from the Kariera to the
Arunta form.' Surely this is conjectural history."^ Rad-
chffe-Brown also encouraged the historical interests of his
students. Professors Lloyd Warner and Fred Eggan tell
us: "We remember well his encouragement of our own
early researches on historical contacts in northern Aus-
tralia and on historical changes in the kinship systems of
American Indian groups where documentary or other
data were available to check historical influences."^

He also pointed out that the intensive field studies of
social anthropologists resulted in valuable contributions
to tribal and local history. But he did make a sharp dis-
tinction between historical and functional explanations.
In the one, "explanation" consists in seeking out facts or
events which have happened earlier and showing that the
later facts or events arise out of the earher. In the other,

^Ibid., p. 226.

^ Obituary notice on Radcliffe-Brown by F. Eggan and W. Lloyd
Warner, American Anthropologist, LVIII, No. 3 (June, 1956),


explanation consists in showing how one event or group
of events is but one instance of a universal law. Knowl-
edge of the history of an institution will help in discover-
ing its social function, but the two are essentially different,
"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
which are observable in social change (laws of social dy-
namics)." The understanding of the development of hu-
man society (i.e., social evolution), however, "will be only
in an integrated and organised study in which historical
and sociological studies are combined."^

Attempts to "explain" complex social institutions by
reference to "facts" of individual psychology were popu-
lar with British anthropologists up to the I930's. But Rad-
cliffe-Brown, following Durkheim, insisted that psychol-
ogy and social anthropology deal with facts at different
levels and that it is wrong to explain the social by reference
to the individual. "I wish most emphatically to insist that
social anthropology is a science just as independent of
psychology as psychology itself is independent of physiol-
ogy, or as chemistry is independent of physics; just as
much and no more. This position is by no means novel.
Durkheim and the important school of V Annie Sociolo-
gique have insisted upon it since 1895."^ This does not
mean, however, that Radchffe-Brown ignored "human
nature." He states, "One determining factor in the forma-
tion of human social systems is that basic human nature
which it is the business of the general psychologist to

It is necessary to remember that when an anthropolo-
gist is studying a tribe or village he is not studying "hu-
man nature with the hd off," as Aldous Huxley would
6 "The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology."
« "The Methods of Ethnology and Social Anthropology."
^ "Meaning and Scope of Social Anthropology."


say. The "lids" are there in every society, however primi-
tive, and it is impossible to take them off. "When we
study the 'psychology' of the French or the Germans or
the people of the United States, we are deahng with those
characteristics of mind or behaviour that result from 'con-
ditioning' by a particular social system. Here the 'special'
characteristics with which we are concerned are deter-
mined by the social system, while the social system itself is
determined by the general characteristics of basic human
nature."^ Radcliffe-Brown's position on this point is
largely accepted by British anthropologists today. In the
United States, however, there is more traffic between an-
thropology and social psychology (especially that branch
of it which is called "culture and personality") than there
is in England. Anthropological studies in the United
States are so organized that an undergraduate's time
tends to be distributed more evenly than in England
among the various disciphnes subsumed under the term
"anthropology" — physical anthropology, archeology, hn-
guistics, ethnology, social anthropology, and "culture and
personality." In the United States the distinctions be-
tween the various branches of anthropology are not
drawn as sharply as in England, and social anthropology
does not occupy as dominant a place. The term "cultural
anthropology" is far more popular than "social anthro-
pology" in the United States, and American anthropolo-
gists are more willing than their British colleagues to
move from the social to the psychological, if not the bio-
logical, level. ^

Again, in the United States anthropology and sociol-
ogy form distinct clusters of studies, whereas in England
social anthropology is recognized as a branch of sociol-
ogy. It should not be surprising if the two subjects came

» Ibid.

^ See the articles by G. P. Murdock and R. Firth on British social
anthropology in the American Anthropologist, LIII (1951), 465-89.


even closer together in the near future. The different align-
ments of sociology and anthropology in the United States
and England are in some measure due to the greater
spread of Durkheim's and RadcHffe-Brown's ideas in

Until 1931, Radcliffe-Brown described the subject mat-
ter of social anthropology as culture or social life. Subse-
quently, however, he used increasingly "social structure"
and "social system," and he began to drop the use of
"culture." This is seen clearly in his essay, "On the Con-
cept of Function in Social Science."^"

In 1937, at his Chicago Faculty Seminar, "A Natural
Science of Society," he went even further: "You cannot
have a science of culture. You can study culture only as a
characteristic of a social system. Therefore, if you are
going to have a science, it must be a science of social sys-
tems."" Subsequently, "social structure," which he re-
garded as a part of "social system," claimed his attention
more and more, and in 1940 he chose "social structure" as
the theme of his presidential address to the Royal Anthro-
pological Institute.

It is worth recording, however, that he used the con-
cept of "social structure" as early as 1914^Mn a course of
lectures he gave on social anthropology in Birmingham.
The concepts of "social structure" and "social integra-
tion" figure prominently in his address on apphed anthro-
pology to Section F of the Australian and New Zealand
Association for the Advancement of Science (twentieth
meeting, Brisbane, May- June, 1930). It was there that he

1° It is based on the comments which Radcliffe-Brown made on a
paper read by Dr. A. Lesser to the American Anthropological As-
sociation in 1935. Reprinted in Structure and Function in Primitive
Society (London, 1952), chap. x.

"See A Natural Science of Society (Glencoe, 111.: Free Press,
1957), p. 106.

12 See Professor Fortes' memoir on Radcliffe-Brown in Man,
LVI (November, 1956), 149-53.


Stated what he considered "one of the most important
laws of social integration viz: — , the 'law of opposition,' "
The "law" formulated by Radcliffe-Brown is that "in any
segmentary organization the unity and sohdarity of a
group or segment depends upon the existence of some
form of social opposition, i.e., some form of socially regu-
lated and organised antagonism, between it and the other
groups or segments with which it is in contact, which op-
position serves to keep the separate segments differenti-
ated and distinct. Opposition, which I am here using as a
technical term for sociahsed or institutionaUsed antago-
nism, may take many different forms, and warfare is only
one of them."!^

Since 1940 the concept of social structure has provided
the chief theoretical framework for British social anthro-
pology. In the United States, a distinction is often made
between "functionahsts" and "structuralists," the former
being the followers of Malinowski and the latter the fol-
lowers of Radcliffe-Brown. This distinction is too neat,
but it highlights an important fact : in contemporary Brit-
ish social anthropology, structure has largely replaced
culture. It is not unUkely, however, that this present pre-
occupation with social structure may itself lead, in the not
distant future, to a systematic examination of the relation
between structure and culture on a comparative basis.

Included in this volume is the abstract of a paper di-
rectly bearing on applied anthropology which Radcliffe-
Brown read before the Fourth Panpacific Science Con-
gress at Java in 1929.^^ This interest in applied anthropol-
ogy is also evident — in fact, too much so — in his paper,
"Some Problems of Bantu Sociology" {Bantu Studies,
Nos. 1-3 [1921-22]). He emphasized the utility of social
anthropology to colonial administrators, and one of the

''>Ibid.,p. 272.

'^ "Historical and Functional Interpretations of Culture in Rela-
tion to the Practical Application of Anthropology to the Control of
Native Peoples."


criticisms he made of ethnology was that it had no "prac-
tical" use. In his desire to popularize social anthropology,
Radcliffe-Brown was seeking the help of those interested
in good government in the British colonies.

However, faith in appUed anthropology is also a logical
consequence of Radcliffe-Brown's central assumption
that social anthropology is a science like physics, chemis-
try, and biology. One of Radcliffe-Brown's aims was to
try to apply the logic of the natural sciences rigorously to
social anthropology. This led him to the conclusion that,
just as in the other natural sciences, in social anthropol-
ogy the "pure" scientists discover universal laws which
the "apphed" scientists use for the welfare of mankind.
The effectiveness of appUed anthropology has increased
as progress continues in pure anthropology, while the
neglect of pure science in the long run injures applied

Besides, we should not forget that Radcliffe-Brown
grew up in Victorian England, which was marked by faith
in reason and in progress, which is the result of the appli-
cation of reason to human affairs. This faith drew strength
from Radcliffe-Brown's own studies in the Positivist
springs of French sociology. ^^

RadcUffe-Brown used to tell his friends and colleagues
aiat Prince Peter Kropotkin was his neighbor in Birming-
ham and that during his vacations from Cambridge
(where he was known as "Anarchy Brown") he used to
visit the great Anarchist philosopher. On these occasions
they discussed everything, including RadcHffe-Brown's
panaceas for what he regarded as the ills of contemporary
England. Kropotkin pointed out to the young reformer
that it was necessary to study and understand society be-
fore trying to change it and that in order to understand

15 It may be recalled here that Durkheim, from whom Radcliffe-
Brown took so much, wrote a book on socialism, and that Juarez,
the Mexican revolutionary, was a classmate of Durkheim.


such a complex society as Victorian England one should
begin by making a systematic study of a faraway primitive

When Radchffe-Brown felt that social anthropology
had become estabhshed as a subject in British universi-
ties, his keenness for apphed anthropology was tempered
by his concern for making advances in pure social anthro-
pology. He wrote in 1944: "The demand on social anthro-
pologists to spend too much of their time on practical
problems would inevitably reduce the amount of work
that can be given to the development of the theoretical
side of the science. But without a sound basis in theory,
apphed anthropology must deteriorate and become not
applied science, but merely empirical research. "^^

Throughout his academic career, Radcliffe-Brown
stressed the importance of the comparative method. In
fact, according to him, one of the crucial distinctions be-
tween social anthropology and sociology consisted in the
use of the comparative method by the former and its neg-
lect by the latter. Radcliffe-Brown was even wilhng to call
social anthropology "sociology" as long as the prefix
"comparative" was added. This insistence on the com-
parative method was not merely at the level of doctrine.
He practiced it all the time. As is well known, he pub-
lished an extremely valuable comparative study of the
social organizations of Australian tribes in 193 1.^" The
subject of his Huxley Memorial Lecture was the compara-
tive method in social anthropology; in the lecture he pro-
ceeded from a consideration of an Australian folktale to
the role of institutionalized opposition in social structure.

I hope that this collection of essays and addresses of
Professor Radcliffe-Brown in a single volume will be use-
ful to students of the subject as well as to professional
social anthropologists. I am grateful to Professor Evans-

^^ "Meaning and Scope of Social Anthropology."
""Oceania Monographs," No. 1 (Melbourne, 1931).


Pritchard, literary executor for Professor Radcliffe-
Brown, for permission to publish the essays included in
this book. In deference to Professor Evans-Pritchard's

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Online LibraryA. R. (Alfred Reginald) Radcliffe-BrownMethod in social anthropology; selected essays → online text (page 1 of 16)