Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was a British social anthropologist who was responsible for developing the school of thought known as structural-functionalism. Born near Birmingham in England on January 17, 1881, Radcliffe-Brown’s childhood was marred by a long battle with tuberculosis. Radcliffe-Brown enrolled in Trinity College in 1901 where he met and studied under anthropologists W. H. R. Rivers and Alfred Haddon. Both anthropologists instilled ideas about the importance of field research and its necessity for carrying out cross-cultural comparisons. These ideas would eventually become the hallmark of Radcliffe-Brown’s research.
Radcliffe-Brown conducted fieldwork in the Pacific among the Andaman Islanders from 1906 to 1908 as part of his thesis research. While completing his field-work, Radcliffe-Brown began to read the work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim. Durkheim’s ideas about the structure of social relationships would have a profound effect on Radcliffe-Brown and would influence his development of structural-functionalist ideology.
From 1910 to 1912, Radcliffe-Brown carried out fieldwork among various aboriginal tribes of Australia. A distinct focus of this research was kinship and its relationship to social structure. Two important volumes resulted from this fieldwork: The Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931) and Structure and Function in Primitive Society (1935).
In addition to being a meticulous field researcher, Radcliffe-Brown was a distinguished lecturer at the University of Capetown (1920-1925), the University of Sidney (1925-1931), the University of Chicago (1931-1937), and Oxford University (1937). At Oxford University, he also served as the first president of the Association of Anthropologists.
Throughout the latter part of his life, Radcliffe-Brown continued to pursue research on the social structure of primitive groups. Following World War II, Radcliffe-Brown set up research projects in Africa and Australia. He also conducted field research in South America. Radcliffe-Brown died in England in 1955 after suffering from pneumonia.
Radcliffe-Brown’s major contribution to the field of anthropology was his development of the school of thought known as structural-functionalism. Drawing heavily from the work of Emile Durkheim, structural-functionalism teaches that the primary function of society is to maintain social structure. As a result, a complex system of social relations and social institutions develop that have primacy over culture. Within the society’s social structure, the individual has little or no importance—rather, it is the society that dictates the structure and organization of the group.
Structural-functionalism focused on the interrelatedness of different institutions (i.e., economic, kinship, religious, political, etc.) to explain the social norms. Questions asked of individuals during fieldwork were structured to determine the interrelatedness of the various aspects of society and the extent to which different aspects of society influenced each other.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1952). Structure and function in primitive society. New York: The Free Press.
- Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. (1977). The social anthropology of Radcliffe-Brown (A. Kuper, Ed.). Boston: Routledge and Kegan.