What Was Radcliffe-Brown

Although *Radcliffe-Brown carried out fieldwork in western Australia, he worked in an area where Aboriginal life had been far more severely disrupted by colonial settlement than had central Australia in the 1890s. While he had the opportunity to collect detailed genealogies and statements of marriage rules, he did not observe normal, daily interaction and was unaware of how the principles he elucidated translated into social behaviour. Instead, Radcliffe-Brown gained an overview of structural variation in the 130 ‘tribes’ on which he had sufficient information, which was brilliantly conveyed in a four-part analysis published in the first issues of Oceania (Radcliffe-Brown 1930–1). A limited range of types of Aboriginal society were identified, each named after a representative tribe: such as the Kariera, Aranda, Mara and Murgin systems.

Adopting a (Herbert) †Spencerian perspective, Radcliffe-Brown inferred that the more complex types had developed out of the simpler forms as a consequence of progressive social evolution; indeed, he claimed to have predicted the existence of the simpler Kariera system from his knowledge of the Aranda system described by Spencer and Gillen. Whether he had indeed done so, or learned of systems of the Kariera form from Daisy Bates’s field notes, has been hotly debated; there is no doubt that Bates already understood, and had documented, the operation of four-section systems of the Kariera type. While Radcliffe-Brown and his followers were later ridiculed by †Edmund Leach for indulging in ‘anthropological butterfly collecting’ when they classified societies according to types and subtypes, his imposition of order upon the accumulating ethnographies of Australia was a substantial achievement. It has nevertheless severe limitations. The method is almost entirely descriptive. There are no hypotheses to explain why the variety of human societies should take particular forms, other than an alleged inherent tendency for systems to develop greater complexity over time.

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