Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown

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by MEYER FORTES, William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology in the University of Cambridge

Professor A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Emeritus Professor of Social Anthropology in the University of Oxford and formerly Fellow of All Souls College, died in London on 24 October, 1955, in his seventy-fifth year. He was seriously ill, off and on, throughout the last five years of his life. While at Rhodes University, South Africa, in 1954, he fell and broke some ribs and though he made a remarkable recovery the accident probably aggravated the pulmonary illness which had been sapping his constitution. He never lamented his lot. However ill he was, he always rejoiced to see his friends and to meet younger anthropologists. To the end he remained dedicated to his life-long ideal, the advancement of social anthropology as a scientific and humanistic discipline. The posthumous letter on Australian local organization in the American Anthropologist (Vol. LVIII, Part 2 (1956), p. 363) was written in his own hand when he was ill in hospital. It is a fragment, but authentically the work of the master, as clear, pungent and unerring as his earliest controversial articles.

When I last saw him, shortly before his death, he spoke with gusto of Cambridge anthropology in the early days, and of his visits to the Havelock Ellises as a boy. Mrs. Ellis, he said, with a flash of the vanity which was, in him, a sympathetic quality, used to accuse him of having swallowed an encyclopaedia. I was reminded of my first meeting with him. This occurred in 1931, when he was on his way to Chicago, and stopped over in England to fulfil his duties as President of Section H of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which was meeting in London. Evans-Pritchard was our host. He was recently back from the Nuer, and he soon drew Radcliffe-Brown into a discussion on Nuer social organization. There followed an impromptu commentary on the concept of the lineage, which was my first experience of Radcliffe-Brown’s great gift of lucid yet searching exposition.

Radcliffe-Brown twice received the traditional tribute of homage and affection given to a great teacher by his colleagues and pupils. The first was the volume of essays Social Anthropology of the North American Indian Tribes, edited by Fred Eggan and presented to him when he left Chicago in 1937. The Introduction by Robert Redfield is, as Eggan says in his preface to the re-issue (1955) of the book, ‘still the best brief evaluation of Radcliffe-Brown and his contributions to Anthropology.’ The second was the volume of essays entitled Social Structure: Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, which I had the privilege of editing for presentation to him when he retired from the Oxford Chair in 1946. The Preface supplements Redfield’s with an outline of Radcliffe-Brown’s career. Further details are given in the Foreword by Evans- Pritchard and Eggan to the collection of Radcliffe- Brown’s papers published in 1952 with the title Structure and Function in Primitive Society.

Of Warwickshire stock, Radcliffe-Brown was educated at King Edward’s High School, Birmingham. After a year of pre-medical science at Birmingham, he gained a scholarship at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1901, and held it till 1906. He told me that he originally hoped to read for the Natural Sciences Tripos but chose Mental and Moral Science on the advice of the Tutor. At that time Economics and Experimental Psychology were still in the curriculum of this Tripos and Radcliffe-Brown received a good grounding in both. He took his degree in 1904, with a First Class, first division. It was through his work in experimental psychology that he came into close contact with C. S. Myers and W. H. R. Rivers and through the latter with anthropology and with A. C. Haddon. He has recorded that he was Rivers’s first pupil in anthropology, in 1904. His name stands first in a chronological list of ‘appointments gained by former students’ which Haddon included in a privately circulated memorandum on anthropology at Cambridge dated 21 June, 1923. This is what Haddon says: ‘A. R. Brown, M.A., former Fellow of Trinity College, has done absolutely first-class work in his studies and publications on the Andamanese and on various Australian tribes. He was elected Anthony Wilkin Student in 1906 and again in 1909. He is now Professor of Social Anthropology in the University of Cape Town.’

Radcliffe-Brown’s first direct contact with those parts of the world in which his life work eventually lay was in 1905. He accompanied the British Association for the Advancement of Science to its South African meeting as one of the secretaries of Section H, of which Haddon was the President. The visitors travelled as far north as the Victoria Falls; and it is of interest to note that one of the papers read to Section H was by Junod on the Bathonga.

In 1906 Radcliffe-Brown went to the Andaman Islands as Anthony Wilkin Student in Ethnology. He returned in 1908 and was elected to the Fellowship at Trinity College mentioned in Haddon’s note. His Fellowship thesis was the first draft of what later became The Andaman Islanders. It was mainly descriptive, including in particular the account of Andamanese technology that is printed as an appendix to the book. At this stage he was still following closely the methods of his teachers, Haddon and Rivers.

He held his Fellowship until 1914. In 1909-10 he held the post of Reader in Ethnology at the London School of Economics, where he lectured on the Australian aborigines and on the potlatch of the North-West Coast American Indians. He also gave a course of lectures on Comparative Sociology at Cambridge. It was at this time, as the Preface to The Andaman Islanders tells us, that he was working out the sociological method of interpreting primitive social institutions exemplified in Chapters V and VI of that book. The syllabus of the Cambridge lectures indicates how his ideas were developing. He had visited France about this time and been in touch with Durkheim and Mauss, and there is an obvious Durkheimian slant in the lectures. The second, for example, was entitled ‘The Classification of Social Types’ and the eleventh ‘The Social Origin of General Ideas.’

Re-elected Anthony Wilkin Student, he went out to Australia in 1910. The next two years were spent in field research. The results were outlined in the 1913 paper in the Journal of the R.A.I. This investigation laid the foundations of his profound knowledge of Australian social organization and of his life-long study of kinship systems.

Back in England in 1913, Radcliffe-Brown completed his revision of The Andaman Islanders, but owing to the outbreak of the First World War it was not published until 1922. It is worth recording that he gave a course of lectures on Social Anthropology at Birmingham University during December, 1913, and January, 1914. This arose out of the 1913 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science which was held at Birmingham. The President of Section H, Sir Richard Temple, devoted most of his Presidential address to a plea for extending the teaching of anthropology in the universities and proposed that Birmingham University should give the lead. His emphasis was on the utility of anthropological studies for those whose work as administrators, missionaries, or traders would take them to foreign parts and that was why he thought that Birmingham, with its world-wide commercial connexions, was so suitable as a centre for them. The response of the University was to invite Radcliffe-Brown to give this course of lectures. Temple’s high opinion of Radcliffe-Brown is best seen in the review he wrote, in 1922 (MAN, 1922, 71), of The Andaman Islanders, which he enthusiastically hailed as ‘a revolutionary theory of social anthropology.’

The lectures were reported in the Birmingham press. They covered much the same ground as the earlier Cambridge course. The note struck is one that became familiar later. In the first lecture Radcliffe-Brown explained what he meant by the scientific study of society, referring for illustration to Utopian politics. It was a mistake, he said, to think that changes in society could be brought about simply by getting a majority of voters to back some legislation. For human society was, to quote the newspaper report, ‘just as much the product of natural law as any other sort of phenomena in the universe’ and social institutions were ‘the result of certain principles which they could by study discover.’ A later lecture compares ‘savage societies’ in which ‘the number of persons in effective social contact with one another was limited,’ and ‘the social structure was very simple,’ with complex civilized societies. The concept of social evolution is distinguished from that of social progress, which is not susceptible of scientific solution and must be left to politicians and reformers. Illustrating social evolution by reference to language, he is reported as saying that ‘if an effort were made to try to change some parts of the system of society . . . the whole would fall to pieces . . .’ Two lectures deal with ‘moral and juridical institutions’ and illustrate ‘the nature of moral obligation … by reference to different forms of the family and clan,’ and two are devoted to ‘religious institutions.’ Radcliffe-Brown had the distinction twice more of delivering special courses of lectures at Birmingham University. He gave the Muirhead lectures in 1946-47 and the Josiah Mason lectures in 1952. The latter summed up his ideas on Australian cosmology and it is to be hoped that any material which he has left on this subject, on which he was an unsurpassed authority, may one day be published.

When the First World War broke out Radcliffe-Brown was in Australia again. The British Association held its meeting for that year in Australia and he was amongst the members attending it. Section H, on that occasion, presented a unique cross-section of British anthropology. A prophetic eye might have discerned the pattern of things to come in its membership and in the papers offered. Elliot Smith spoke on mummification and megaliths as evidence of the diffusion by migrations from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Pacific and even America. Rivers elaborated these ideas in a paper arguing that Australian culture is allied to Melanesian cultures and that both types are the result of the infiltration of immigrant seafaring peoples. He gave a second paper purporting to demonstrate that ‘all the forms of marriage which would be the natural result of monopoly of the young women by the old men are thus now known to accompany the gerontocracy of Australia.’

But what is much more revealing from our present point of view is the contrast between the papers given by Radcliffe-Brown and Malinowski. Radcliffe-Brown’s paper is formal and analytical. It is a proposal for classifying the varieties of Australian totemism. First there is a tabulation of the different kinds of totemism, defined as a ‘special magico-religious relation between an individual or a social group . . . and a class of natural objects. . . .’ Thus he distinguishes different forms of clan, local-group, section, sex, personal, etc., totemism. Then he uses this classification as a basis for determining a series of regional types. He lists nine types—Kariera, Burduna, etc. The Kariera type, for instance, has totemic clans with male descent, multiple totems, Talu cult, no prohibition against killing or eating the totem. The other types are different. The analysis thus begins by establishing what are the variables comprised within the institution of totemism and then distinguishes regional types that vary in accordance with the different ways in which these variables are combined. Short and formal as the summary in the Report of the 84th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science is, it clearly foreshadows the method used in ‘The Social Organization of Australian Tribes.’ Malinowski’s paper, on the other hand, is pure theory and polemic. He discusses the distinction between the sacred and the profane put forward in Durkheim’s recently published Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). Referring to the ethnographical works of Spencer and Gillen, the Seligmans and Thurnwald, he concludes that the division is not an ‘essential and fundamental feature of religion.’

Illness prevented Radcliffe-Brown from returning to England in 1914, and from continuing his fieldwork in Australia. At first he taught in a Sydney grammar school. Later, in 1916, he went to Tonga as Director of Education and stayed there till he was ordered to leave on grounds of health in 1919. It was not an experience that he relished but it was valuable in giving him direct contact with a Polynesian society. It served also to strengthen an interest in applied anthropology, which he turned to good effect in later years.

Personal ties next took him back to South Africa, where he was able to visit Basutoland. Soon after he received an appointment as Ethnologist to the Transvaal Museum in Pretoria. Here he was almost wholly occupied with technology and physical anthropology. As a pupil of Haddon’s he was well trained in both of these branches of anthropology, but he was not primarily interested in either.

A great turning point came in 1921. South Africa was changing from a mainly agricultural to a mainly industrial and urban economy. This led to a rapid flow of African labour to industrial areas; and the historical ‘Native Problem’ thus took a new and more intractable turn. A demand arose, from both political and academic circles, for the dispassionate study of the native peoples of South Africa; and the first step was the establishment, in 1920, of a Chair of Anthropology in the University of Cape Town, as the nucleus of a School of African Life and Languages. We can appreciate this far-sighted act if we remember that there was, at that date, not a single full-time professorship of anthropology in any British university.

Radcliffe-Brown was appointed to the new Chair. It was an appointment widely welcomed. His Inaugural Lecture, given in August, 1921, was discussed in leading articles in all the important South African newspapers. ‘All who are interested in the native question,’ said the Cape Argus (27 August, 1921), ‘. . . will ponder what he has to say on this pressing and ever-present subject.’ The theme of the lecture was the emerging social changes due to the mutual relations of White and Bantu, the need for systematic study of ‘the native mind’ as the newspapers put it, and the way in which theoretical anthropology regarded the issues. He repeated what he had said in a public lecture a year earlier in Johannesburg that ‘all the various customs, institutions and beliefs of a society formed together a closely connected system . . . change one part of the social system and you inevitably produce a far-spreading movement . . .’ (Rand Daily Mail, 8 September, 1920).

Radcliffe-Brown had five years at Cape Town. He quickly became one of the best-known academic personalities of South Africa. His brilliance as a lecturer, his wide learning, his connoisseurship in the arts, his single-minded advocacy of an approach to political and social issues through science and reason, his distinguished bearing, attracted notice both inside and outside the University. He was in great demand as a speaker at academic celebrations (for instance, the Jubilee of Huguenot College at Wellington) and at conferences and public meetings concerned with educational matters or questions of social policy relating to the Bantu peoples. He used these occasions to drive home the need for the systematic study of Bantu social life by trained students as a basis of enlightened policy. A particularly useful venture was the organization of vacation courses. These were attended by missionaries and administrators from the Reserves and by others concerned with Bantu affairs. Radcliffe-Brown gave the lectures on Social Anthropology and on the Ethnology of Africa and of the Bantu peoples. Other specialists lectured on Bantu history and languages, and on problems of Bantu law, administration and education.

Radcliffe-Brown’s introductory lecture to the second course made so great an impression that it was published in full in the Cape Times (9 January, 1924). It is worth referring to the examples he gave to illustrate how scientific study bears on practical administration—though he was careful to insist that the application of anthropological knowledge must be left to those whose professional task it is. Why, he asked, had there been a rebellion in Zululand when an attempt was made to introduce a poll tax? It was because this was a direct attack on the ‘fundamental principle of family organization, a principle as sacred to the Zulu as any of ours are to us.’ This is the principle that every member of a household except the actual head is ‘in a position of dependence, of infancy in the legal sense.’ To put a poll tax on such a person is to ‘admit an immediate relation between him and the State instead of the mediate relation through the father or guardian . . .’ He spoke also of the lobola custom, and outlined his theory of bride price as the means of establishing paternal rights over the children and as a compensation to the family losing a daughter. Finally he warned against regarding the belief in witchcraft as due merely to ignorance. ‘The function of the belief . . . is . . . that it provides an outlet in action for the social passions,’ that is, the anxiety and distress aroused by things going wrong.

The respected Bantu savant, Professor D. D. T. Jabavu of Fort Hare, paid an enthusiastic tribute to Radcliffe-Brown’s vacation-course lectures in a newspaper article praising especially the ‘practical and constructive conclusions ’ which he drew. In fact, the lectures were popular presentations of theoretical ideas that Radcliffe-Brown was exploring at the time. Some of these appear in the famous papers on ‘Methods’ (1923) and ‘The Mother’s Brother’ (1924); others, such as the contrast between ‘mediate’ and ‘immediate’ relations to the State, we are now rediscovering. The Andaman Islanders was published in 1922, but it is not a product of this period. Radcliffe-Brown later regretted that he had not had the time or the funds for extended fieldwork in South Africa. He was, however, able to pay two visits to the Transkeian Territories, where he met and had discussions with the local administrative officers. Writing to him in 1925 to express regret at hearing of his impending departure, the Chief Magistrate of the Territories said: ‘I can assure you that you have opened up new avenues of thought and enquiry to us . . .’ The letter goes on to speak of the ‘deeper and more intelligent interest in the problems which so frequently confront us . . .’ aroused by Radcliffe-Brown’s visit, and ends with a hope that he would soon return to South Africa.

Radcliffe-Brown resigned his professorship at Cape Town on being invited to take the new Chair of Social Anthropology at the University of Sydney. South African newspapers expressed the disappointment widely felt. They contrasted the South African Government’s niggardly attitude about funds for anthropological teaching and research with the generous provision made by the Australian governments and the Rockefeller Foundation for the Sydney department. Radcliffe-Brown’s departure, wrote the Rand Daily Mail, ‘is an incalculable loss for the country.’ It should ‘draw attention to the stepmotherly manner in which one of our most valuable sciences is being treated by public and Government alike’ said the Cape Times (23 November, 1925). There could be no better testimony to the impact Radcliffe-Brown made on South African intellectual life.

Radcliffe-Brown stayed five years at Sydney. His arrival there was welcomed as a landmark in Australian academic history. The reasons are well stated in the following comment in the Sydney Morning Herald of 15 June, 1927. ‘Australia has owed herself such a chair as Professor Radcliffe-Brown fills not only because of the research work crying out to be done before it is too late among the fast vanishing tribes of our own aborigines, but also because of the increased responsibilities in New Guinea . . .’ In this atmosphere of encouragement, and with adequate funds at his disposal, Radcliffe-Brown soon established the nucleus of a research school, in addition to undergraduate courses that became highly popular, and training courses for administrative officers bound for Papua and New Guinea. The journal Oceania was founded, and among its first publications was the series of articles that were later reissued as ‘The Social Organization of Australian Tribes.’ He returned, in this paper, to his earlier interest in the comparative morphology of Australian social organization, but with a new depth of theoretical insight. A complementary paper on ‘The Sociological Theory of Totemism’ which he gave at the Fourth Pacific Science Congress in Java in 1930 applies the same method of analysis to the problem sketched in the 1914 paper to the British Association.

In 1931 Radcliffe-Brown went to the University of Chicago. His career there is best described in the words of his closest friends and pupils of that period, Professors Lloyd Warner and Fred Eggan, from whose obituary memoir in the American Anthropologist (Vol. LVIII, Part 3, 1956, pp. 544-6) I quote. ‘For the first time in many years,’ they say, ‘he had no administrative burdens and greater leisure to write and teach. He renewed his earlier acquaintance with American Indian social organization, developed his conceptions of primitive law and social sanctions, and laid the framework for the modem treatment of the lineage. He systematized and expanded his conception of social anthropology as the comparative study of society in a brilliant series of lectures and seminars, and encouraged the application of social anthropological methods to Western and Far Eastern societies. He became an important and controversial figure in American anthropology.’

But his stay in Chicago was short. In 1937 he returned to England to take up the newly created chair of Social Anthropology at Oxford. Here he was in his element. His task was not as it had been at Cape Town and Sydney, and to some extent even at Chicago, to establish social anthropology in the University. This had already been done. It was to deploy the scholarly importance and demonstrate the high intellectual quality of his subject. The war played havoc with these aims. Indeed he was away from Oxford, in Brazil, on a cultural mission for the British Council, from 1942 to 1944. Nevertheless he succeeded in making a distinguished place for the study of social anthropology at Oxford, and the influence of the Oxford school was widely felt.

What is sometimes called the ‘British school’ of post-war social anthropology gained its chief impetus from Radcliffe-Brown during this period. He came to Oxford at a critical moment in British social anthropology. The rich harvest of intensive field research stimulated by Malinowski was coming in fast. It threw into relief theoretical problems of social organization which were Radcliffe-Brown’s speciality. His publications in the decade 1940-1950 and his lectures and seminars at Oxford provided the conceptual foundations for dealing with these problems. As a teacher, Radcliffe-Brown excelled. He warmed to an audience, especially if it was young. His exceptional ability to expound difficult problems with ease and clarity and his delight in systematic analysis were most happily expressed in his lectures, or better still in the informal sessions with friends and pupils over drinks which he loved. He had an imposing and world-wide knowledge of ethnography which he kept well up to date, and he kept in close touch with current work in philosophy and sociology too. Always eager to know what younger anthropologists were doing and to argue problems with them, his thinking was always ahead of his infrequent and often short publications. Some of his most fertile ideas were put forward in lectures and conversation and came into circulation through the work of his friends and pupils.

When Radcliffe-Brown retired from Oxford in 1946 he was invited to establish a department of Sociology at the Farouk I University at Alexandria. In 1950 he was elected Simon Visiting Professor at Manchester University, and later went out to Rhodes University, Grahamstown, first as a Research Fellow and then as Visiting Professor. He returned to England in 1954, a very sick man, but with unquenched eagerness to maintain his contacts with social anthropology. An event that will long be remembered was his presence at the meeting of the Association of Social Anthropologists in January, 1955. He rose from his sick bed in a London hospital to preside, and the ovation he received from the gathering, which included a sizable number of young anthropologists who had never met him, touched him deeply. But what was memorable was his superb summing-up of the discussion and the ideas he threw out as he made his comments.

This is not the place to attempt a balance sheet of Radcliffe-Brown’s contribution to twentieth-century social anthropology. To have established social anthropology as a reputable academic study in some of the most famous universities in the English-speaking world, and elsewhere too, would, in itself, be a claim to a place of high honour in the history of anthropological science. But his achievement is far greater. He will go down in history as one of the creators of modern social anthropology and his part in this was revolutionary. That is to say, he developed methods and generalizations which set new tasks and opened new possibilities in social anthropology. Much as he owed to his predecessors, he made additions of such originality to the body of anthropological science that we are still assimilating them. Indeed his ideas and theories are more influential today than ever before. This is due to the fact that they never became rigid. Consistent as his aims, and his general framework of thought, remained right through his career, his specific methods and hypotheses never became inflexible. He improved and modified them with every advance in knowledge. What he strove for, above all, was increasing precision and generality and he reached a very high level in these respects. It has often been remarked that Radcliffe-Brown wrote little in comparison with other leading anthropologists of his generation. It is important to add that everything he wrote is still significant. This is as true of his short notes, controversial articles and reviews as of the better-known and more systematic papers. They are pregnant with ideas and insight which will inspire field research and theory for many years to come.

Radcliffe-Brown’s connexion with the Royal Anthropological Institute went back to 1909, when he became a Fellow, and he supported the Institute loyally all his life. He was President in the difficult years 1940-1942 and later served very conscientiously on the Council and on Institute committees. He gave devoted service also to other bodies concerned with promoting anthropological study and research, for example the International African Institute. The Royal Anthropological Institute conferred various honours on him. He was awarded the Rivers Medal in 1938, was elected the first Henry Myers Lecturer in 1945, and received the Huxley Memorial Medal in 1951. He took great pride in these honours and also in his life presidency of the Association of Social Anthropologists. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1950 and was a Member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences.

What manner of man was ‘R.-B.’ as his friends and pupils usually called him? He was tall and of striking appearance. As a young man at Cambridge he had the nickname of ‘Anarchy Brown.’ This was a friendly recognition of the streak of aloofness in him and of his reputation for holding somewhat highbrow ideas in matters of art, life and literature. But though he was always somewhat reserved and had intimate ties with only a very few close friends, there was nothing of the recluse or the ivory-tower scholar about him. He greatly enjoyed both giving and receiving hospitality and was as genial in the company of a group of students as in the Common Room of All Souls. He took the greatest pleasure in good food, good wine and, most of all, good conversation. Though he could be severe to the point of scorn with slipshod thought and was repelled by bigotry or irrational prejudices of any kind, he was quite incapable of malice. He was unfailingly helpful to younger students. He read their manuscripts, gave them advice, and made fertile theoretical suggestions for their work, without stinting time or patience. He was gentle with his friends and happy in their affection. For a man so detached in his personal relationships and his philosophy of life, his bonds with them were very close. He admired and was influenced by classical Chinese culture and philosophy and by the writers of the French Enlightenment. He was a poor academic politician for he did not care to seek after power. But he will be remembered by those who knew him well most of all for his single-minded and life-long devotion to the advancement of anthropology and his ability to inspire others with this ideal.


A full bibliography of Radcliffe-Brown’s publications up to 1947 is given in Social Structure: Studies Presented to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Oxford (Clarendon Press), 1949. The following is a list of his publications from 1947 to the time of his death.

1949    ‘White’s View of a Science of Culture,’ Amer. Anthrop., N.S., Vol. LI, No. 3.
1950    ‘Introduction’ to African Systems of Kinship and Marriage, edited by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown and Daryll Forde, Oxford University Press.
1951    ‘The Comparative Method in Social Anthropology’ (The Huxley Memorial Lecture for 1951), J. R. Anthrop. Inst., Vol. LXXXI.
1951    ‘Murngin Social Organization,’ Amer. Anthrop., N.S., Vol. LIII, No. 1.
1952    ‘Introduction’ to Structure and Function in Primitive Society, by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, London (Cohen & West).
1956    ‘On Australian Local Organization,’ Amer. Anthrop., N.S., Vol. LVIII, No. 2.

This obituary first appeared as: Fortes,  Meyer. 1956. ‘Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, F.B.A., 1881-1955 a Memoir’. Man Vol. 56, pp. 149-153. Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

FORTES, MEYER. 1956. ‘Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, F.B.A., 1881-1955 a Memoir’. Man Vol. 56, pp. 149-153. (available on-line:


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