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Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881–1955)

by Ian Hogbin

This article was published:

Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955), anthropologist, was born on 17 January 1881 at Aston, Warwickshire, England, second son of Alfred Brown (d.1886), manufacturer's clerk, and his wife Hannah, née Radcliffe. He was educated at King Edward's School, Birmingham, and Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1905; M.A., 1909), graduating with first-class honours in the moral sciences tripos. He studied psychology under W. H. R. Rivers who, with A. C. Haddon, led him toward social anthropology. Elected Anthony Wilkin student in ethnology in 1906 (and 1909), he spent two years in the field in the Andaman Islands. A fellow of Trinity (1908-14), he lectured twice a week on ethnology at the London School of Economics and visited Paris where he met the sociologist Emile Durkheim, whose theories coloured all his subsequent work. At Cambridge on 19 April 1910 he married Winifred Marie Lyon; they were divorced in 1938.

Leaving alone for Western Australia in 1910, Brown joined E. L. Grant Watson and Daisy Bates in an expedition to the North-West, studying the remnants of Aboriginal tribes for some two years at missions, the lock-hospitals on Bernier and Dorré islands and on sheep and cattle stations. There was friction between Brown and Mrs Bates.

He was in Melbourne for the 1914 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, where he was accused of gross plagiarism by Daisy Bates. Stranded by the outbreak of war, he taught at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and was director of education (1916-19) in Tonga. From 1921 he was foundation professor of anthropology at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Next year he published The Andaman Islanders. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Radcliffe-Brown.

A 'starter and a stirrer', that year he accepted the new chair of anthropology at the University of Sydney, partly funded by the Rockefeller Foundation. He soon had a dozen scholars in the field in Australia, Papua, New Guinea and the Pacific islands. He delivered papers before the Institute of Pacific Relations (Honolulu, 1927), the fourth Pan Pacific Science Congress (Java, 1929), the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science (Brisbane, 1930) and the British Association (London, 1931). He founded the journal, Oceania, in 1930; its first monograph was his Social Organization of Australian Tribes (1931). Although condemned for failing to acknowledge the work of his predecessors, notably R. H. Mathews and Bates, the book marked the beginning of an epoch and drew scattered material together in manageable form. However, it is largely 'a description of ideal systems of rules as formulated—not of actual behaviour of systems in operation'.

A flamboyant, egocentric character, Radcliffe-Brown cultivated the idiosyncratic. He was handsome, charming and a brilliant conversationalist, and moved in Sydney's highest social circles. He cultivated the arts and championed Edward de Vere, earl of Oxford, as the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Fearing that the Depression might lead to financial collapse, Radcliffe-Brown departed in 1931 to fill a chair at the University of Chicago, leaving his successors to solicit government and Rockefeller grants to save the Sydney department. In 1937 he moved to a new chair at Oxford, from which he retired in 1946. Survived by his daughter, he died in London on 24 October 1955.

Radcliffe-Brown and his contemporary B. K. Malinowski were the founders of modern anthropology. A theoretician rather than a field worker, Radcliffe-Brown strove to make anthropology a branch of the natural sciences: without his conscious endeavour to apply scientific methods to the study of society, later achievements would have been impossible. His influence was far reaching and due largely to his power to inspire his students. He also held visiting professorships at Alexandria, Egypt; Yengching, China; San Paolo, Brazil; Grahamstown, South Africa; and Manchester, England, so the spread of his teaching was very wide. Unfortunately he would never accept correction from later field-workers. His final publication was a note castigating one of them for pointing out the mistake of his assertion that the fundamental unit everywhere of Aboriginal social structure was the localized exogamous patrilineal horde.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Fortes (ed), Social Structure (Oxford, 1949)
  • R. Needham, Remarks and Inventions (Lond, 1974)
  • I. White, Daisy Bates (Canb, 1985)
  • Oceania, 26 (1955-56), 32 (1961-62)
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, 56 (Nov 1956)
  • British Academy (London), Proceedings, 1956, p 287.

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Citation details

Ian Hogbin, 'Radcliffe-Brown, Alfred Reginald (1881–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Brown, Alfred Reginald

17 January, 1881
Aston, Warwickshire, England


24 October, 1955 (aged 74)
London, Middlesex, England

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