Alfred Brown, from Stocking’s Functionalism Historicized.
A.R. Radcliffe-Brown is the only anthropologist I know of who had a signature cocktail. He called it the ‘Claire de Lune’. It was one one-third gin, one-third kirsch, one sixth lemon juice and one sixth orgeat. (Stocking, “Radcliffe-Brown’s receipts: the nomothetic of everyday life, p. 10 in HAN 5(1) 1978.)
Radcliffe-Brown’s eccentricity did not stop there. He spent his entire life cultivating the air of the cultured bohemian, affecting “a cloak and opera-hat on inappropriate occasions” (Kuper Anthro and Anthros 1st ed. 41). Examples 2 and 4He “had even thought out the best position in which to sleep,” recounted one admirer, “Not on the back, not whole on the side, and not like a foetus.” (Watson, But to what purpose, p. 63).
I say he ‘cultivated’ this air for good reason. It was a long way from Alfred Reginald Brown, his birth name, to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the hyphenated personality he concocted for himself after he added his mother’s surname to his own (there were “so many other Browns in the world” he remarked by way of explanation (Stocking After Tylor, 304) . R-B (as everyone called him) or ‘Rex’ (as familiarity his friends were allowed) was half English aristocrat and half Paris savant and definitely a project of self creation. In fact, Alfred Brown was born in 1881 “of undistinguished Warwickshire stock” (Stocking, After Tylor 304). His father died when he was five, leaving his family penniless. R-B lived with his grandparents and soon found success through study, earning a scholarship to Cambridge in 1901.
It was at Cambridge that R-B was first exposed to anthropology. In 1898 the university had sent a large, interdisciplinary team of researchers to the Torres Straits, the narrow body of water separating Australia and New Guinea. Very little was known of the area at the time, and Torres Straits expedition, as it was known, investigated both sides of the straits, using what were then the latest techniques in the new fields of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics. The main members of the team for our purposes here were W.H.R. Rivers, A.C. Haddon, and C.G. Seligman. Seligman would move on to the LSE and be a teacher of Malinowski, but the others continued their association with Cambridge, forming a ‘Cambridge School’ of anthropology. This was the version of the discipline that Radcliffe-Brown would encounter in the early 1900s.
Brown earned his degree at Cambridge in 1904 and obtained another Cambridge-sponsored grant to conduct research in the Andamans, an isolated chain of islands between what is now Myanmar and India. The islands were seen by the British as one of the many last bastions of unexplored primitivity they could explore — they featured in the popular 1890 Sherlock Holmes story The Sign of the Four, for instance. For most of the 19th century the British used it as a harbor for ships moving between India and Burma (the both under British control) and as a prison. When Radcliffe-Brown visited the island its “negrito” were seen as the lowest form of life in Asia, perhaps possibly related to African pygmys. Today, the evidence suggests they are genetically related to Malaysian people and strongly resisted British forces, who ‘pacified’ the region violently and used its prison to isolate and incarcerate Indian activists striving for independence.
It turns out Radcliffe-Brown was not much of a fieldworker. Although he describes himself as having spent the years 1906 to 1908 in the Andamans, most of his actual fieldwork involved ten months of research at Fort Blair, the British military outpost, where he interviewed nearby Andamanese in an attempt to reconstruct their ‘primitive’ social organization as it existed before the arrival of the British. He gave up working in the other, less colonized islands because it would have involved spending years learning the language. “I ask for the word ‘arm’ and get the Önge for ‘you are pinching me’,” he wrote. [this from Stocking, After Tylor 306-307].
In 1908 he returned to Cambridge. His fieldwork was only a partial success, but he had done it, and he won a fellowship at Trinity. He spent the next several years lecturing in England at the LSE, Birmingham, Cambridge, and other places. It was during this period that Radcliffe-Brown undertook another bout of research between 1908 and 1910, this time in Australia. Australia was seen as a particularly good place to do research because Aboriginal people were viewed as especially primitive remainders of human nature in the raw. Radcliffe-Brown’s expedition again got mixed results. He was paired with Daisy Bates, a now-famous female explorer, but they quarreled. Radcliffe-Brown got a sense of Australian colonialism when a ceremony was broken up by white settlers seeking to arrest Aboriginal people. Radcliffe-Brown ended up hiding them in his tent.
During his lectureships in England from the period of 1910 to 1914 Radcliffe-Brown continued to shape his own views. His Francophilia grew, as he discovered the work of Emile Durkheim and, especially, Marcel Mauss. Mauss corresponded with Radcliffe-Brown and Radcliffe-Brown began to see Durkheimian sociology as a novel and powerful theoretical form that could be applied to the nascent theories of ‘primitive’ social organization developed by Rivers. In 1914 he hyphenated his named, becoming finally A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.
R-B in Australia in 1928
In 1914 he attended the same conference in Australia as Malinowski, only to find himself stranded there and without funds. Too old to enroll in the war (he was in his early thirties when it began) or get back home, and out of money, he took up a job at a grammar school in Sydney and eventually got a position as Director of Education for Tonga [After Tylor 324]. He tried mixing in a bit of fieldwork but was again frustrated by the need to learn a local language and spend a significant amount of time in the field. After the war, in 1919, he contracted tuberculosis and went to go live with his brother in South Africa.
In 1921? Radcliffe-Brown was appointed to the inaugural chair in anthropology at the University of Cape Town. He was not an active fieldworker in Africa, but used teaching as an opportunity to develop his own theories of social organization. These were most clearly on display in his 1922 book Andaman Islanders, in which he took ethnography from his earlier fieldwork and analyzed it using his new functional theory of social institutions which was deeply indebted to Mauss and Durkheim. Other than this book, however, Radcliffe-Brown became known for his essays, written versions of his lectures in which he expounded his systems of thought with great clarity. He used these essays to break with historicism, which he associated not with a scrupulous Durkheimian particularism, but with a conjectural history which explained ‘primitive’ societies in terms of survivals.
How did Radcliffe-Brown envision the relationship between politics and the academy? Importantly, he looked at South Africa in a politically progressive way as a single society composed of different groups, rather than two different ‘cultures’ or ‘races’ meeting. This latter position was politically conservative in the South African context and played into apartheid discourses of the necessity of separate spheres for black and white, and ‘preserving’ African culture by denying Africans western education and restricting them to ‘tribal’ territories. But Radcliffe-Brown was hardly an activist. He believed in pursuing anthropology as a pure science - what we might call today ‘basic research’ — and did not believe it should be sullied with applied work, despite the fact that it offered, he claimed, objective truths about the social situation which administrators and politicians did not have access to. Anthropology’s pure scientific knowledge was useful, he claimed, and used it to criticize government policy which was uninformed by his insights. This stance was offered both relevance but also distance, and is a position which many anthropologists have taken from the safety of their ivory towers.
After five years at Cape Town, Radcliffe-Brown took up another inaugural chair in anthropology (support for which came from Orme Masson, an influential Australian professor and also Malinowski’s father in law), this one at the University of Sydney. Being at Sydney gave Radcliffe-Brown the ability to influence who was doing fieldwork not only in Australia, but in much of the southwest Pacific, including New Guinea. The position was supported by the Rockefeller foundation, whose goal was to provide training to colonial officers serving in New Guinea and elsewhere in the Pacific. The idea was that anthropology would make them better administrators. The results were mixed. Radcliffe-Brown’s structure functionalism was inherently conservative: since every institution in a society had a function, any change to the structure would be pathological. This was not the news that colonial authorities wanted to hear, since their goal was to change the societies they encountered, both for humanitarian reasons and for profit.
In 1931 Radcliffe-Brown moved again — this time to the University of Chicago. Chicago was the first place where he had taught in which he was not creating an anthropology program from scratch. Indeed, it was the first country in which there was already a well-developed and active program of anthropological research. As we have seen, in the pre-professonial days, anthropology was dominated by east coast departments such as Harvard, Yale, Penn, and Columbia, each of which were centers of intellectual life for each state they were in, and attached to a museum. Chicago was an upstart, the major academic power in the American midwest, and richly funded by Rockefeller money when it opened in 1890. The older, east coast departments emerged out of an English tradition derived ultimately from Oxbridge. Chicago was designed as a pure research university in the German tradition — ‘the college’, as it was called, was tacked on to the ‘university’ which granted higher degrees. Anthropology’s foothold at Chicago was established by Frederick Starr, a model of the ultra-creepy and deeply racist anthropologist. He was replaced in 1924 by Faye Cooper Cole, a Boasian who was an able administrator whose goal was to build up the department by importing talent. He first hired Edward Sapir, the best Boasian available given that Kroeber was at Berkeley. In 1929 anthropology became a separate department from sociology. In 1931,When Sapir left, Cole looked for his next star and found Radcliffe-Brown.
Radcliffe-Brown helped put his unique spin on Chicago, a place which in its midwest isolation was already developing its own unique style. Radcliffe-Brown’s ahistorical ‘functionalism’ was different, he claimed, than the ‘historical’ school of the Boasians. He developed the study of North American kinship systems — which ended up being far more complicated than he had thought — and produced a generation of students who, along with Sapir-trained Robert Redfield and R-B’s old friend and student W. Lloyd Warner, would shape the department in the future.
Perhaps this is a good place to mention Radcliffe-Brown as a mentor. His global peregrinations prevented him from creating a circle of dedicated students the way Mauss, Boas, and Malinowski did. This lack of a Radcliffe-Brown ‘school’ was not just the result of his travels, but also seemed deeply ties to his character. By his time in Chicago in the 1930s, Alfred Brown had transformed himself into A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, a glittering Svengali of anthropology. He appears not to have had much of a private life, and was married and divorced early in his life. He did not have messy love-hate relationships full of intense and ambivalent relationships with his students as Malinowski did, nor was he a family man the way Boas was. He cultivated awed disciplines who adhered unquestioningly to his beautiful theories. Most of his career focused on teaching undergraduates, and his speciality was the lecture. As someone once remarked, he has trouble teaching graduate students because he had already taught them his entire system at the lecture. At Chicago he had students he worked closely with, such as Fred Eggan, but he did not found a school. Rather, he was one more influence in a rich mix of intellectual currents. [drawing on Stocking’s chapters in After Tylor]
An elderly R-B, probably from his Oxford days, via the Pitt-Rivers.
Radcliffe-Brown’s day finally arrived in 1936. R.R. Marett, the reader of anthropology there, was going to retire, so All Souls (a wealthy college) agreed to food the bill for a professorship in anthropology, mostly, apparently, to stave off concerns that the deserved to be taxed by the university during the depression, when wealthy and ancient colleges like All Souls had extra money and the university as a whole was struggling . Malinowski was first offered the position, but was happy in London. Radcliffe-Brown was selected to fill it [drawn from ch. 3 and 4 of Riveiere’s Oxford Anthropology]. This was an important turning point for anthropology in the UK — for the first time, the ‘functional revolution’ had a firm hold at Oxbridge. Malinowski was Radcliffe-Brown’s frenemy, untied against the older anthropology but sparring for funds to create the new anthropology. In the 1930s they had jousted for control of Rockefeller money, but now students could be lured out of one orbit and into another. Malinowski’s massive two volume 1934 ethnography Coral Gardens and Their Magic set new records for empirical detail but seemed to offer little in terms of the new objective Science of Man that Malinowski promised his funders (“I know a lot about yam growing after reading it, I can tell you,” Quipped Godfrey Wilson [Fires Beneath loc 2093]. Radcliffe-Brown, on the other hand, had a genuine theoretical system. For the more discerning English anthropologists, such as E.E. Evans-Pritchard, he offered a much more British and drama-free environment than Malinowski. Friday pub nights with Max Gluckman, Evans-Pritchard, and Meyer Fortes helped endear Radcliffe-Brown and his social systems to some of the most up and coming anthropologists of the next generation [Riviere, Oxford Anthropology, p. 90]. At any rate, in a twist of fate Malinowski left for America in 1938, never to return. Oxford was now the center for the new anthropology.
Institutional inertia affected Radcliffe-Brown as well. His larger-than-life bohemian personality did not fit in well with an institution which had valued conformity and tradition for literally a thousand years. Marett had advocated for what we might call a “four-field” approach in anthropology, including physical anthropology and archaeology, an old-school anthropology connected to museums (in this case, the Pitt-Rivers museum). Radcliffe-Brown, drawing on Malinowski’s success at the LSE, tried to transform Oxford into a center for graduate education. But the LSE was a new institution, with strong top-down control (whose ear Malinowski had) and a willingness to innovate. Radcliffe-Brown was unable to move conservative Oxford, and his innovations were seen by the existing community of anthropologists as a threat, ‘disaster’ as Beatrice Blackwood called it. His various attempts to get external funding, or move internal college and university funding were also unsuccessful. He requested that the anthropology department be turned into an ‘institute’, a request which the university did not approve. He simply changed the name on the door and printed new business cards! Eventually, the change was accepted. The depression no doubt didn’t help but neither, likely, did his personality — he lacked the tact and charm of Firth and Malinowski. [Mills in History of Oxford Anthropology].
The elderliest R-B, from his Oceania obituary.
Worse, World War II altered British national priorities in important and unforeseen ways. Radcliffe-Brown was 55 when he was hired at Oxford — just in time to watch students empty out of the university and into the military. He eventually left as well, spending the second half of the war in Brazil, trying to start an anthropology program in Sao Paolo. When the war was over so was his career: He retired in 1946 at the age of 65 (the standard year of retirement). During the war he had dreamed of returning to the United States, but bounced around in Egypt and South Africa (partially seeking drier warmer climates since, as he told Warner, he could not live in Britain in the winter any more) before settling in London. He died in 1955.
22 notes · View notes