Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown: biography of this English ethnographer

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was an English anthropologist who conducted important ethnographic studies. on the peoples of the different islands of Oceania, in particular Andaman and parts of Australia and Polynesia.

In addition to his fieldwork, he stands out as a theorist, focusing on the concept of function understood in a sociological sense against the biological functionalism of Bronisław Malinowski.

Below we will see some sketches from the life of this author, in addition to his thought and we will quote some of his works, through a biography of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown.

    Brief biography of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown

    Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, born Alfred Reginald Brown in the English village of Sparkbrook, Birmingham, January 17, 1881. He was the second child from the marriage of Alfred Brown and his unmarried wife Hannah Radcliffe. Young Alfred will finally decide to add his mother’s maiden name to his name and adopt Radcliffe-Brown.

    Early years and training

    He was educated at King Edward’s School, Birmingham and Trinity College, Cambridge during the period 1905 to 1909, graduating with honors in moral sciences. Meanwhile earned the nickname “Anarchy Brown” while becoming interested in anarcho-communist 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. By reading authors such as William Godwin, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Karl Marx, he adopts an increasingly revolutionary vision. When he met Kropotkin, a revolutionary but also a scientist, he realized that the best way to improve society was to better understand it scientifically.

    Travel and field study

    Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown studied psychology under the guidance of WHR Rivers who under the guidance of AC Haddon this led him to immerse himself in social anthropology. Under Haddon’s influence, Radcliffe-Brown traveled to the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in which he would reside between 1906 and 1908.

    Later, he will travel again to Western Australia where he will stay between 1910 and 1912. There he will find the company of the biologist and writer EL Grant Watson and the Australian writer Daisy Bates, and will carry out field research on them. indigenous societies in the region.

    These trips, along with those he took to other places like Polynesia and Africa, would be the ones that later materialized in the form of various books. Among the most notable are “The Andaman Islanders” (1922) and “The Social Organization of Australian Tribes” (1930).

    But before publishing these texts, he had to face a controversy. At the 1914 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Melbourne and still meeting with him in Oceania, her former research partner Daisy Bates accused Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown of plagiarizing his work, Based on an unpublished manuscript she had sent to Alfred for comment. Although the accusation is serious, the issue does not appear to go much further.

      Years of teaching

      In 1916 Radcliffe-Brown became director of education in Tonga, a British colony at the time. Later, in 1921, he went to Cape Town and became a professor of social anthropology, founding here the School of African Life. He then worked in several institutions, including the University of Cape Town (1921-1925), the University of Sydney (1925-1931), the University of Chicago (9131-1937).

      last years

      In 1937 he decided to return to his native England, becoming a professor at the University of Oxford the same year.. He held the post of professor at such an 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 Lyon House in Cambridge and had a daughter with her whom they named Mary Cynthia Lyon Radcliffe before surrendering in Australia. The couple did not live happily ever after, as they would soon distance themselves due to his travels, breaking off marital life as early as 1926 and, although it was not certain, in 1938 they would eventually divorce.

      Thinking and work

      Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown is described as a “lover” of Bronisław Malinowski, as he seems to have been fairly true to his philosophy.. He brought French sociology, mainly represented by Émile Durkheim, to British anthropology, building a rigorous and broad battery of new concepts for the branch of ethnography.

      Strongly influenced by Durkheim, Radcliffe-Brown he saw in institutions the key to maintaining the global 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. His studies of social function examine how customs are supposed to maintain the stability of a society to the greatest extent.

      The concept of function

      Radcliffe-Brown he is generally associated with functionalism and is also considered by some to be the founder of structuralist functionalism.. However, Radcliffe-Brown rejected being seen as a functionalist and carefully distinguished his concept from the role Malinowski played, which openly supported functionalism.

      While Malinowski’s functionalism argued that social practices can be directly explained by their ability to meet basic biological needs, Radcliffe-Brown rejected this idea. Instead, and influenced by the trial philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, indicated that the fundamental units of anthropology should be the processes that take place in human life and their interactions.

      Radcliffe-Brown wondered why certain social behaviors and social practices repeated themselves and even became a fixed thing. He argued that this should at least require that other practices not conflict with them and, in some cases, that those practices support or intensify each other through interaction, a phenomenon he called ” co-adaptation ”.

      His functional analysis was simply an attempt to explain the stability of societies, discover how practices work together to maintain social stability. Each social practice has a function which is in itself the role that the practice plays in helping to maintain the social structure in general, as long as there is a stable or potentially stabilizable social structure to be maintained.

      Evolution of cultures and dissemination of cultural practices

      A common idea in the anthropology of the time was that in the study of tribal societies it was believed that all cultures were “doomed” to follow a unilinear process of historical development or evolution, well defined and marked. Societies considered more “primitive” were seen as representatives of the early stages of this process., While the most developed were interpreted as the representatives of the most advanced stages.

      Another view of early 20th century anthropology was that social practices tend to develop only once. It was believed that the similarities and differences between societies can be explained from historical reconstruction, that is, from interpreting how they developed over the course of history, especially on the basis of the idea of ​​unilinear evolution. It was believed that when a culture develops or discovers something new, it ends up happening to other cultures by diffusion, ie “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, interpreting at what stage they were and what influences they had received from other cultures. However Radcliffe-Brown rejected both positions, considering that historical reconstruction was not too reliable. he he was more favorable to the comparison of cultures to see if there were regularities between human societies and, consequently, build real scientific knowledge on social life.


      As we discussed in the section on his biography, Radcliffe-Brown has conducted extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, Polynesia, and Africa. His work has helped expand knowledge of the view of kinship in different cultures, Although he criticized the theory of alliance advocated by Lévi-Strauss and other structuralist anthropologists.


      Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown is often criticized for despising or ignoring the effects of historical changes in the societies he studiedEspecially those that happened due to colonialism, a phenomenon that was booming in many of the places he visited, such as Australia and Africa. Despite this, he is, along with Bronisław Malinowski, considered one of the great fathers of modern social anthropology.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Ruiza, M., Fernández, T. and Tamaro, I. (2004). Biography of Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown. In Biographies and Lives. The online biographical encyclopedia. Barcelona, ​​Spain). Retrieved from
      • Hogbin, Ian (1988). “Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955)”. Australian Dictionary of Biography. National Biography Center, National University of Australia. 11.

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