Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown: biography of this English ethnographer.
A summary of the life and research of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, famous anthropologist.
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was an English anthropologist who carried out important ethnographic studies on the peoples of different islands of Oceania, especially the Andaman Islands and parts of Australia and Polynesia.
Apart from his field work he stands out as a theoretician, focusing on the concept of function understood in a sociological sense as opposed to the Biological functionalism of Bronisław Malinowski.
In the following we will see some brushstrokes of the life of this author, in addition to his thought and we will mention some of his works, through a biography by Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown..
Short biography Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, born Alfred Reginald Brown in the English village of Sparkbrook, Birmingham on January 17, 1881.. He was the second son of the marriage of Alfred Brown and his wife Hannah, née Radcliffe. The young Alfred would end up deciding to add to his name his mother's maiden name and adopting Radcliffe-Brown.
Early years and education
He was educated at King Edward's School in Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge during the period 1905 to 1909, graduating with honors in moral science. During this period he earned the nickname "Anarchy Brown" by showing an interest in the anarchocommunist and scientist Peter Kropotkin..
Radcliffe-Brown himself said that, as a young man, he wanted to do something to change the world, to make it a better place, away from poverty and war. As he read authors such as William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx, he took on an increasingly revolutionary vision. When he learned about Kropotkin, a revolutionary but also a scientist, he understood that the best way to improve society was to understand it better scientifically.
Travel and field study
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown studied psychology under the direction of W. H. R. Rivers who under the direction of A. C. Haddon led him into social anthropology. Under Haddon's influence, Radcliffe-Brown traveled to the Andaman Islands, an archipelago where he would reside between 1906 and 1908.
Later, he would travel again to Western Australia where he would stay between 1910 and 1912. There he would have the company of the biologist and writer E. L. Grant Watson and the Australian writer Daisy Bates, and would carry out field studies investigating the native societies of the region.
These trips, together with those he made to other places such as Polynesia and Africa, would later materialize in the form of several books. Among the most outstanding ones we have "The Andaman Islanders" (1922) and "The Social Organization of Australian Tribes" (1930).
But before he published these texts he had to face a controversy. During the 1914 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Melbourne and while he was still in Oceania, his former research partner Daisy Bates accused Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown of having plagiarized her work, based on an unpublished manuscript.based on an unpublished manuscript she had sent to Alfred for comment. Although the accusation was serious, the matter did not seem to go much further.
Years as a teacher
In 1916 Radcliffe-Brown became the director of education in Tonga, a British colony at that time. Later, in 1921 he would travel to Cape Town and become a professor of social anthropology, founding the School of African Life there. He later worked at several institutions, including the University of Cape Town (1921-1925), the University of Sydney (1925-1931), the University of Chicago (1931-1937).
In 1937 he decided to return to his native England, becoming a professor at Oxford University in 1937.. He remained a professor at this illustrious institution until his retirement in 1946. Almost a decade later, on October 24, 1955, he died at the age of 74 in the city of London.
As a small brushstroke to his most intimate life, we can reveal that Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown married Winifred Marie Lyon in Cambridge and had a daughter with her whom they named Mary Cynthia Lyon Radcliffe before traveling to Australia. The couple did not live happily, since soon they would become estranged due to his travels, breaking the marital life already by 1926 and, although it is not certain, in 1938 they would end up divorcing.
Thought and work
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown is described as being "in love" with Bronisław Malinowski, since he seems to have been quite fond of his philosophy. He brought French sociology, largely represented by Émile Durkheim, to British anthropology, building a rigorous and wide-ranging battery of new concepts for the branch of ethnography.
Heavily influenced by Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown saw in institutions the key to maintaining the overall social order of society, analogous to the organs of a body, and certainly taking an organicist view of the social phenomenon as complex as society itself.He saw institutions as the key to maintaining the overall social order of society, analogous to the organs of a body and certainly taking an organicist view of the complex social phenomenon of society itself. His studies of social function examine how customs have the purpose of maintaining, to the greatest extent, the stability of a society.
The concept of function
Radcliffe-Brown is often associated with functionalism and is also considered by some to be the founder of structuralist functionalism.. However, Radcliffe-Brown refused to be considered a functionalist and carefully distinguished his concept of function from that of Malinowski, who openly supported functionalism.
Whereas Malinowski's functionalism claimed that social practices can be directly explained by their ability to satisfy basic biological needs, Radcliffe-Brown rejected this idea. Instead, and influenced by Alfred North Whitehead's process philosophy, he suggested that the fundamental units of anthropology should be the processes involved in human life and their interactions..
Radcliffe-Brown wondered why some social behaviors and social practices repeated themselves and even became fixed. He argued that this must at least require that other practices do not conflict with them and, in some cases, that these practices support or intensify each other through interaction, a phenomenon he called "coadaptation."
His functional analysis was simply an attempt to explain the stability of societies, discovering how practices fit together to maintain social stability.. Each social practice has a function which is itself the role the practice plays in helping to maintain the overall social structure, as long as there is a stable or potentially stabilizable social structure to maintain.
Evolution of cultures and diffusion of cultural practices
A widespread idea in anthropology at the time was that, in studying tribal societies, all cultures were seen as "doomed" to follow a unilinear process of well-defined and marked historical development or evolution. The societies seen as more "primitive" were understood as representing the first stages of this process, while the more developed ones were understood as representing the first stages of this process, while the more developed ones were understood as representing the first stages of this process.while the more developed ones were interpreted as representing the more advanced stages.
Another view held in early 20th century anthropology was that social practices tend to develop only once. Similarities and differences between societies were thought to be explained by reconstructing them historically, i.e., interpreting how they had developed throughout history, mainly based on the idea of unilinear evolution. It was believed that when a culture develops or discovers something new, it ends up passing to other cultures through diffusion, that is, being "copied", not having been discovered simultaneously and independently.
According to these views, the most appropriate way to explain the differences between tribal and modern societies was historical reconstruction, to interpret at what stage they were and what influences they had received from other cultures. However, Radcliffe-Brown rejected both positions, considering that the historical reconstruction was not very reliable. He was more in favor of comparing cultures to see if there were regularities among human societies and, consequently, to build genuine scientific knowledge about social life. and, consequently, to construct genuine scientific knowledge about social life.
As we have discussed in the section on his biography, Radcliffe-Brown carried out extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, Polynesia and Africa. His work contributed to expand the knowledge about the kinship view in different culturesalthough he criticized the alliance theory defended by Lévi-Strauss and other structuralist anthropologists.
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown is often criticized for undervaluing or ignoring for having underestimated or ignored the effects of historical changes in the societies he studied.especially those caused by colonialism, a phenomenon that was in full swing in several of the places where he went, such as Australia and Africa. Despite this he is, along with Bronisław Malinowski, considered one of the great fathers of modern social anthropology.
- Ruiza, M., Fernández, T. and Tamaro, E. (2004). Biography of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona (Spain). Retrieved from biografiasyvidas.com.
- Hogbin, Ian (1988). "Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881-1955)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Centre of Biography, Australian National University. 11.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)