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A. R. Radcliffe-Brown

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown is the person most responsible for bringing Emile Durkheim’s ideas into British social anthropology, although with his own particular twist. He wanted to establish anthropology as a positive science in Durkheim's sense, and identify the mechanisms by which relatively small-scale societies based on kinship came together to form an integrated, functional whole, and in particular one with a stable, if not unchanging, social structure. One of his key ideas is that kinship groups and other social structures were akin to law in rural, stateless societies like Tiv, Maasai and Luo communities, and that the “rules and roles” of social statuses in these systems functioned to maintain and perpetuate order, just like a legal system. Hence the school of anthropology most associated with him is called “structural functionalism” in contrast to the “functionalism” of his contemporary, Bronislaw Malinowski.

A biographical note

When Alfred was young, he was known as Alfred Brown, born in the United Kingdom, and raised by his mother who had to work to support her children after their father died when Alfred was young. Brown eventually earned a scholarship to study at Cambridge. Then he would have been able to study under anthropologists in the sense of people who were interested in the human species and its diversity, but there was no formalized sense of anthropology as a study of culture and society. Brown liked philosophy, especially the anarchist writings of Kropotkin, which got him the nickname “Anarchy Brown” (Goody 1999, 1). I imagine that anthropology students were a bunch of misfits, hipsters, and rebels even back then before there was anthropology as we know it. But Brown also legally changed his name to Radcliffe-Brown, incorporating his mother’s maiden name, but also making himself sound a little more aristocratic than he really was. His other nickname was “Rex” (Kuper 1973, 52).

Radcliffe-Brown eventually went on to found many of the first departments of anthropology at several universities, including one at the University of Sydney, the first department of anthropology in Australia. His time at USYD was short, but nonetheless the department of anthropology pursued a research agenda largely shaped by its founder even after he left. Its anthropologists would contribute to a comparative study of human societies with the aim of discovering the universal laws of their social structure.


Goody, J. R. 1999. “'Anarchy Brown'.” Cambridge Anthropology 21 (3): 1–8. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23818707.

Kuper, Adam. 1973. Anthropologists and Anthropology: The British School, 1922-1972. New York: Pica Press. http://archive.org/details/anthropologistsa0000kupe.

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a._r._radcliffe-brown.txt · Last modified: 2021/07/08 21:24 by Ryan Schram (admin)