Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (18811955)
Dictionary Home
AnthroBase Home
Bookmark, cite or print this page

British anthropologist; founder of structural functionalism and father of modern British anthropological theory. With Malinowski, he initiated a "functionalist revolution" in British anthropology during the early years after the First World War, rejecting the "conjectural history" of the previous generations of evolutionist and diffusionist anthropology in favor of a synchronic, systemic view. But while Malinowski contributed profoundly to the methodology of anthropological fieldwork and championed a rudimentary functionalist theory that focused on individual biological needs, Radcliffe-Brown, whose methodological contribution was minimal, was inspired by Durkheim to formulate a sophisticated structural functionalist theory, which focused on the needs of the social whole. Radcliffe-Brown also saw the potential of bringing together Durkheimian sociology and the traditional anthropological interest in kinship. When kinship terminologies where understood normative systems that ascribed appropriate behavior between various categories of kin, Durkheim's concept of society as a moral collective found a seemingly ideal application.

During Radcliffe-Brown's early career, he travelled extensively, spending many years abroad, at the University of Cape Town (1920-25), the University of Sydney (1925-31), the University of Chicago (1931-37), with shorter stays in Alexandria and São Paulo. Only then did he return to England, where he was offered a professorship at Oxford. In Cape Town and Sydney, Radcliffe-Brown was instrumental in building up departments of (structural functionalist) anthropology; in Chicago, he collaborated with American anthropologists, and had extensive influence on the second generation of Chicago School social scientists (Redfield, Goffman), whom he familiarized with European sociology (much to the chagrin of Boas, who was an empiricist and a cultural relativist and disdained such overarching and speculative projects).

After his return to Britain in 1937, Radcliffe-Brown became the leading figure in British anthropology, and most of Malinowski's former students were captivated by his sophisticated theoretical approach. (A telling, though atypical example, was Bateson's fascination with Radcliffe-Brown, whom he heard speak in Sydney, where Bateson spent some time on his way to his New Guinea fieldwork.) During the heyday of structural functionalism from the late 1930's to the early 50's, Radcliffe-Brown's influence was bolstered by his many prominent students and supporters, notably Evans-Pritchard, Fortes and Gluckman. During a few years in the late 1940's, all four men were together at Oxford University, and Radcliffe-Brown's legacy seemed to be secure for all time. However, after losing his professorship to Evans-Pritchard in 1946, after the latter's Marett lecture in 1951 (in which he dissociated himself from structural functionalism as overly reductionistic), and with the growing influence of methodological individualist approaches, Radcliffe-Brown's influence was dramatically reduced.

To browse texts on AnthroBase dealing with Radcliffe-Brown, see: