Sociology Index


Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, FBA (17 January 1881 – 24 October 1955) was an English social anthropologist who developed the theory of structural functionalism and coadaptation. Radcliffe-Brown founded the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Oxford. Radcliffe-Brown brought French sociology, and David Émile Durkheim to British anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown argued for a 'natural science of society'. He claimed that there was an independent role for social anthropology here, separate from psychology, though not in conflict with it. This was because psychology was to be the study of individual mental processes, while social anthropology was to study processes of interaction between people. Radcliffe-Brown argued for the use of the comparative method to find regularities in human societies and thereby build up a genuinely scientific knowledge of social life. Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown figures among eminent sociologists of the world.

Radcliffe-Brown has often been associated with functionalism, and is considered by some to be the founder of structural functionalism. Influenced by the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, he claimed that the fundamental units of anthropology were processes of human life and interaction. Because these are by definition characterised by constant flux, what calls for explanation is the occurrence of stability. Radcliffe-Brown asked, why would some patterns of social practices repeat themselves and even seem to become fixed? Radcliffe-Brown reasoned that this would at least require that other practices must not conflict with them too much; and that in some cases, it may be that practices grow to support each other, a notion he called 'coadaptation', deriving from the biological term. Functional analysis, then, was just the attempt to explain stability by discovering how practices fit together to sustain that stability; the 'function' of a practice was just its role in sustaining the overall social structure, insofar as there was a stable social structure (Radcliffe-Brown 1957).

"to say we are studying social structures is not exactly the same thing as saying that we study social relations, which is how some sociologists define their subject. A particular social relation between two persons (unless they be Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) exists only as part of a wide network of social relations, involving many other persons, and it is this network which I regard as the object of our investigations.
"I am aware, of course, that the term "social structure" is used in a number of different senses, some of them very vague. This is unfortunately true of many other terms commonly used by anthropologists.

The choice of terms and their definitions is a matter of scientific convenience, but one of the characteristics of a science as soon as it has passed the first formative period is the existence of technical terms which are used in the same precise meaning by all the students of that science. By this test, I regret to say, social anthropology reveals itself as not yet a formed science.''" - A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1940. On Social Structure. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 70(1): 3.

"For social anthropology the task is to formulate and validate statements about the conditions of existence of social systems (laws of social statics) and the regularities that are observable in social change (laws of social dynamics). This can only be done by the systematic use of the comparative method, and the only justification of that method is the expectation that it will provide us with results of this kind, or, as Boas stated it, will provide us with knowledge of the laws of social development. It will be only in an integrated and organised study in which historical studies and sociological studies are combined that we shall be able to reach a real understanding of the development of human society." - A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. 1951. The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland 81(1/2): 22.