Biographical Snip: Radcliffe-Brown

Radcliffe-BrownMuch of my thesis focuses on the micro-politics of interpersonal relationships articulated through various social forms (bifurcate merging classificatory kinship system, moieties, subsections, patri-filial ba:purru groups etc. blah.) in the everyday life of family in camp. So there is no better person to kick of the Biographical Snippets section with than  Professor Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. A.R-Brown was a one-time radical, a key figure in early ‘traditionalist’ studies of Indigenous Australia (and elsewhere), and a one of the founding theorists of modern social anthropology.

Before I go on I must confess to having a soft spot for R-Brown. As a first year undergraduate I enjoyed the friendship of a particularly wonderful anthropologist tutoring at U.W.A at the time. On his advice, nay insistence, I read almost everything Radcliffe-Brown wrote. It took me two semesters and a summer break, but I grew to love his dusty, earnest analysis. While it is indeed dated in many respects, his stuff is brilliant, and perhaps almost poetic (in a dusty earnest kind of way).

Radcliffe-Brown was born in Birmingham, England and attended Trinity College in Cambridge. At college he was known to his friends as ‘Al Brown’, or ‘Anarchy Brown’. The latter nickname was on account of admiration for Russian geographer, zoologist, and prominent anarchist – Peter Kropotkin. While he spoke little of this association in later years, as David Graeber points out, it is not surprising that his theoretical interest remained the maintenance of social order outside the state. Mr. R-Brown carried this interest to the Andaman Islands (1906-1908) and Western Australia (1910-1912). In later years he spent much time in Africa and took up Professorial posts at the universities in Sydney, Chicago and Oxford. He also taught at other universities throughout his career.

His major works include The Andaman Islanders (1922), Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931), On Joking Relationships (in) Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 13, No. 3 (1940), pp. 195–210, Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1952 and my personal favourite). With relation to Yolngu ethnography, he also made a brief foray into the rather silly debate with Spencer and Gillen (among others), about the number of ‘lines’ in the Yolngu terminological system.

Radcliffe-Brown’s work is most heavily influenced by the French sociologist Emile Durkheim. He had faith in the potential for a universal comparative sociology. The aim of this grandiose project was to identify, compare and classify social institutions (and the relations and practices they involve), according to the way they ‘function’ to sustain the social structure as a whole. This idea was taken directly from Durkheim’s ‘organic’ or physiological model of society in which each part plays a particular role in sustaining the life of an organism as a whole. In this sense, Alfred’s anthropology was the study of relations and processes between people and their significance, the way they ‘function’ to affect order in the social whole.

This model of things, of course, had little capacity to deal with variability, innovation and historical change, but such was the state of most anthropology at the time.

What is more curious about A.R-Brown for me, given his early ascription to anarchism, is the way he reduced individual will and the integrity of personal relationships to external, abstract rule+formula. It makes me wonder if/how values of individual autonomy, voluntary association and the radical decentralization of social power might be compatible with ‘actor-less’, mechanized conceptions of the social world.

The only controversy involving R-Brown relates accusations that he plagiarised the field-notes of some-time anthropologist Daisy Bates in his work on Australian kinship. This claim was made by Mrs Bates herself and supported by Needham (1974).

Radcliffe-Brown’s anthropological approach is most often referred to as ‘Structural Functionalism’, though he didn’t consider himself a functionalist.

He died on the 24th of October 1955.

I think you’re great Alfred.

1 Comment

Filed under Anthropological Awesome, Anthropology

One response to “Biographical Snip: Radcliffe-Brown

  1. Pamela Faye

    Hi B, great blog! I must leap to Mrs Bates defence, however, and point out that having ventured deep into both anthropologist’s fieldnotes there is certainly evidence to suggest Brown borrowed rather a lot, particularly material on social organisation in the north-west material.

    And thanks for filling in for me for Nic’s tutorial next Monday – most appreciated. Hopefully we’ll get to meet in person and exchange some kind of anthropological interpetative dance some time soon.

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