Radcliffe Brown: Biography, Contributions and Books

Early life: Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown was born in Birmingham in 1881. He belonged to the English lower middle class. With economic support from his brother, Radcliffe-Brown embarked on medical studies. But his teachers encouraged him to move to Cambridge and study anthropology. While at Cambridge, Radcliffe-Brown became a pupil of pioneering ethnologist W. H. R. Rivers. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Cambridge in 1904 and stayed there for postgraduate work. Between 1906 and 1908, Radcliffe-Brown conducted fieldwork as part of his research on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Ocean. He went on to participate in an expedition to Western Australia from 1910 to 1911, where he focused on family organization and kinship. During the First World War, Radcliffe-Brown served as Director of Education in the Kingdom of Tonga. Afterwards, he travelled around the world teaching at the universities of Cape Town, Sidney and Chicago as well as establishing chairs of anthropology at all three. He returned to Britain in 1937 to take the position of Chair in Social Anthropology at Oxford (Monagahn & Just 2000; Barnard 2012; Nielsen & Eriksen 2013).


The Natural Science of Society

The German sociologist Emile Durkheim majorly influenced Radcliffe-Brown. Following Durkheimian fashion, Radcliffe-Brown saw abstract mechanisms akin to collective representations that integrated society. Radcliffe-Brown explicitly hoped to transform anthropology into a ‘real’ science based on the natural sciences. This is indicated in his last book, ‘A Natural Science of Society’ which was published in 1957. Radcliffe-Brown proposed that society is bound together by a structure of rules, social statuses and moral norms that regulate behavior. This social structure exists independently of the individual actors who reproduce it. According to Radcliffe-Brown, the ultimate goal of the anthropologist was to discover the governing principles of empirically existing situations (Nielsen & Eriksen 2013).

Furthermore, social structures could be divided based on their functions. For example, social structures could be partitioned into discrete subsystems such as systems for distribution of land, for socialization and for conflict resolution, all of which contribute to the maintenance of the social structure as a whole. To distinguish himself from other anthropologists, Radcliffe-Brown called his approach structural-functionalism and viewed social anthropology as a comparative sociology rather than a discipline in itself (Nielsen & Eriksen 2013).

Joking and Avoidance Relationships

Radcliffe-Brown sought to study the formation of groups in society and the rules governing their behavior by employing the concept of social structure. A classic example of this approach was his analysis of ‘joking’ and ‘avoidance’ relations. A joking relationship was one where one party was permitted to tease or make fun of the other party, who was required not to take offence. For example, in Robert Lowie’s account of the Crow Indians, a man was allowed to treat his wife’s sister with the utmost license and she would jest him in similar fashion. On the other hand, an avoidance relationship was characterized by mutual respect and a limitation of direct personal contact. For example, older Navaho women traditionally wore tiny ‘mother-law-bells’ that were designed to warn sons-in-law of their arrival so that the men may absent themselves (Monagahn & Just 2000).

Radcliffe-Brown analyzed joking and avoidance behaviors as standardized social relationships that did not represent spontaneous shyness but rather a structural situation between two people. He then went on to further investigate the functions of such social relations. Radcliffe-Brown concluded that such behavior was primarily found in structural situations where the potential for conflict or awkwardness was high. Thus, joking and avoidance behaviors were alternative rather than opposite ways of solving similar social problems. Such behaviors provided people with a social script, either by allowing the most egregious behaviors or by prohibiting them from interacting at all (Monagahn & Just 2000).


Radcliffe-Brown saw a lot of potential in the Durkheimian analysis of kinship. He viewed kinship as a juridical system of norms and rules. A kinship system was understood as an unwritten constitution for social interaction. It was a key institution to the understanding of the social organization in small-scale societies. Kinship was viewed as the engine of a self-sustaining, organically integrated yet abstract entity called social structure (Nielsen & Eriksen 2013). For Radcliffe-Brown, the importance of kinship was not its origin but its meaning in contemporary society (Barnard 2012).

Structural functionalists used kinship to study the politics, economics and religion of primitive societies. Kinship was a framework for the creation of groups in pre-state societies. The groups would have collective rights to land and animals. They demanded loyalty during wars and were also involved in settling disputes and organizing marriages. Radcliffe-Brown studied how these primitive societies were integrated and what social structures bound them together as a whole (Nielsen & Eriksen 2013).


Radcliffe-Brown held two theories of totemism. His first paper on the subject was titled ‘The sociological theory of totemism’ and delivered at a conference in Java in 1929. He explained how Australian Aborigines classified the world and people as members of different social groups. He agreed with Durkheim that totems have the function of expressing clan solidarity. For Radcliffe-Brown, totemism was an exclusive development of the symbolism of nature. A group chose a species to represent them since that species was already of ritual importance (Barnard 2012).

His second essay on totemism titled, ‘The comparative method in social anthropology’ was presented as a public lecture in 1951. This second theory was not just about how the Aborigines classified people as members of social groups, but also about how they classified animals as member species. For example, the eagle and crow represent moieties in parts of Western Australia. Radcliffe-Brown questioned why the eagle and crow were chosen and also what the symbolic relation between the eagle and crow was (Barnard 2012).

Influence of Radcliffe-Brown

Radcliffe-Brown’s influence was predominantly in South Africa and Australia. He established social anthropology departments in Cape Town and Sydney. During his stay in Cape Town, he collaborated with Isaac Schapera, who went on to direct the department there for many years. This department was a critical voice and major political force throughout the years of Apartheid. Radcliffe-Brown’s was palpable since he had argued that cultural differences were not a valid basis for racial segregation since the groups inhabited the same society. While in Sydney, he stimulated the scientific study of aboriginal languages and established the city as a base camp for field workers throughout the Pacific. From 1931 to 1937, he contributed to the Europeanization of American anthropology in Chicago. Finally, Radcliffe-Brown’s spell also reached India. Indian anthropologist M. N. Srinivas did postgraduate work with Radcliffe-Brown and also taught at Oxford for three years. When he returned to India in 1951, Srinivas was instrumental in founding Indian social anthropology as a largely structural-functionalist discipline (Barnard 2012; Nielsen & Eriksen 2013).

Radcliffe-Brown’s primary influence was as a teacher rather than a writer. He possessed a charismatic personality and was a brilliant lecturer. He published relatively little and his writings exhibited consistency in theoretical viewpoint for four decades (Barnard 2012).

Selected Publications of Radcliffe-Brown

  • 1912: The Distribution of Native Tribes in Part of Western Australia
  • 1913: Three Tribes of Western Australia
  • 1922: The Andaman Islanders: A study in social anthropology
  • 1931: Social Organization of Australian Tribes
  • 1940: On Joking Relationships
  • 1948: A Natural Science of Society
  • 1952: Structure and Function in Primitive Society


  • Kinship: Kinship refers to family ties based on either blood or other commonly accepted links (Carsten 2012).
  • Totemism: Totemism refers to a belief system in which humans are believed to have a mystical relationship with an animal or a plant. The totem is said to interact with a kin group and serve as their symbol (Haekel 2020).


Barnard, A. (2012). History and theory in anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Carsten, J. (2012). Kinship. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/kinship

Haekel, J. (2020). Totemism. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/totemism-religion

Monaghan, J., & Just, P. (2000). Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nielsen, F. S., & Eriksen, T. H. (2013). A History of Anthropology (2nd ed.). Pluto Press.

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Arushi is a sociology and environmental studies. She is passionate about writing and researching about these two fields. She has a keen interest in social work and has collaborated with many volunteering programs in the past. Her hobbies include horse riding, trekking and painting.