of the British Period to 1947
Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown (1881-1955)
Born in Birmingham in 1881 as plain A.R. Brown, the young man published his first works under that simple name. In the early 1920s he began to use "Radcliffe Brown" and in 1926 he changed his name by deed-poll to "Radcliffe-Brown".
Enrolling as a student of natural sciences, philosophy, economics and psychology at Cambridge University in 1901, Brown was known among his fellow students as "Anarchy Brown" on account of his political leanings and his personal acquaintance with the anarchist P. Kropotkin. The latter's ideas as well as the breadth of his studies influenced his notion of society as a self-regulating system and his view of anthropology as the natural science of society. R-B remains today a major figure in anthropology who, more than any other single person, established his field as a science in English-speaking countries. His influence has been called so great as to be almost unnoticed.
After completing his studies, R-B went to the Andaman islands for his first field trip 1906-08. What caused him to pick this destination from all the other possibilities is not clear. Perhaps R.C. Temple had something to do with it. The two major pioneers of Andamanology, E.H. Man and M.V. Portman had retired from the islands around the turn of the century and especially Man had made the subject fashionable in Europe during the first decade of the 20th century by his energetic lecturing activities and donations of Andamanese objects to museums. R-B's work in the Andamans won him a fellowship at Trinity College, Cambridge and set him firmly on the road to academic success.
From 1910-1911 R-B went on his second field trip, this time to Western Australia. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 found him a director of education in the Kingdom of Tonga. Many academic appointments followed: he was professor of social anthropology at the University of Cape Town in 1920, moved to Sydney in 1926, to Chicago in 1931 and was at Oxford from 1937 until 1946. He also held shorter appointments at Yenching (China), São Paulo (Brazil), Alexandria (Egypt) and Grahamstown (USA).
We cannot judge R-B's post-Andamanese work nor is it within our province to assess his importance to social anthropology which is said to be enormous. What we can do is to judge his Andamanese work where, alas, we have found him problematical. His work, The Andamanese Islanders, contains much elegant and original theorising and such brilliance has endeared him to generations of university lecturers. Even today, most university courses require their students to read R-B's text. Often it is the only text on the subject they see. This is most unfortunate.
The problem is not so much with the theorising but with the underlaying data. R-.B wrote in 1932
there is a danger that the ethnologist may interpret the beliefs of a native people not by a reference to their mental life but by reference to his own. My investigations led me to the conclusion that this was what Mr. Man had done in his interpretation of some of the Andamanese myths. I did not question his records of what the natives told him but only the meanings that he attached to their statements.
Fair enough. But R-B then goes on to contemptuously dismiss Portman's work ("does not add very much to our knowledge of the Andamanese") and to dispense some exceedingly faint praise to Man.
The data from the Andamans underlying R-B's theoretical constructs have never been checked by other academics. The Andamans were closed to independent researchers almost throughout history and they still are, even today. To put it another way, R-B's theories - as far as they are based on his Andamanese work - have been left standing on their academic pedestal by default. A close reading of R-B's book raises disturbing questions. Are the elegant theories he built really resting on rock-solid evidence as the author would have us believe? Or did he find what he was looking for because he knew what he wanted to find? He would not have been the first anthropologist in that position - nor the last. Anthropology is a very soft science in most of its branches and requires absolute personal integrity and as few preconceived ideas as possible from its data collectors and researchers. The field trip to the Andamans 1906-08 was R-B's first and he wasn't quite as sure-footed or coolly rational as he pretended to be. To his credit he admits that
I am unfortunately obliged to leave a big gap in this chapter and in the book, owing to my inability to discuss the Andamanese notions about sex. The natives of the Great Andaman at the present time show an unusual prudery in their conversation and dealings with white men, but there is good reason to suspect that this is due to the influence of officers who have been in charge of the Andaman Home in former years. At the present time all the men except a few of the oldest in remote parts are very careful never to appear before a white man without some covering although formerly they wore nothing. In their conversations in the presence of a white man they are careful to avoid reference to sexual matters. The men of Little Andaman who have not come under the influence of the Andamanese Homes, still go naked and unashamed, and indulge in obscene gestures and jokes. At the time I was in the Andamans I failed to realize the very great importance of a thorough knowledge of the notions of a primitive people on matters of sex in any attempt to understand their customs, and therefore failed to make the necessary inquiries.
Besides such gaffes, R-B is noticeably reticent when it comes to telling us where his data comes from. Did he collect it himself, did he get it from other people's work? He does not say, apart from the remark on Man's erroneous interpretation quoted above. Neither does the young scientist tell us how he conducted the "necessary inquiries". On his arrival at Port Blair in 1906, the two major figures of Andamanology, Man and Portman, had left the islands 1900 and 1901. Temple had also left in 1904. In 1906 there were no decision-makers at Port Blair with scientific interests and close personal contact to the "natives". The convict colony was in the hands exclusively of bureaucrats, policemen and jailers. Indeed, the earlier British administrations' "friendly approach" to the aborigines was regarded as having failed. The new administration had adopted a policy not too far removed from genocide against the hostile Jarawa, and the system of Andamanese Homes had been destroyed in 1905. At that time the Great Andamanese (which are the subject of R-B's book) were close to cultural extinction, their tribal structure dissolved and their numbers shrinking rapidly through disease. There wasn't much original data left to be collected from them in 1906. Did R-B learn an Andamanese language in the time he was there? Did he work through interpreters? If so, who were these interpreters and what was their quality? Perhaps the Great Andamanese knew enough English to explain the intricate details of their dead customs and beliefs? And who were the aborigines interviewed? Sadly, the author is too busy theorising to tell us.
Just how sloppy R-B's work could be is shown in a small article he published in 1914, "Notes on the Languages of the Andaman Islanders" (Anthropos 9:36-52). It deals with the languages of the northern Great Andamanese and is the only work ever published on the subject. Although the text contains much unique information (not difficult if you are the only author on the subject), it fails to identify the origin of much of the northern Great Andamanese data. Instead of identifying the specific tribal language, R-B merely assigns a word to "north Great Andamanese." This fault (as irritating as it is irreparable since all of the northern Great Andamanese languages are now extinct) has not endeared R-B to later linguists. The kindest some of them have called this article is "useless".
In Australia, R-B's arrogance left a trail of destruction. In a work on Australian Prehistory by Mulvaney and Kamminga (published 1999 by the Smithsonian Institution, Washington and London) we find the following:
Perhaps the greatest discouragement to the integration of archaeology or material culture studies in Australian tertiary education was A.R. Radcliffe-Brown's tenure of the Sydney University Chair of Anthropology (1926-31), synchronous with the field work of D.S. Davidson, and Hale and Tindale. The Great Depression ended all hopes that further departments of anthropology would be established in Australian universities. Radcliffe-Brown laid some of the foundations for the study of social structure, and his work is a landmark in the history of social anthropology. Yet he promoted doctrines which negated prehistory as a fruitful field of academic study. In a scathing review of one of Davidson's more important works, Radcliffe-Brown asserted in 1930 that anthropology 'will make little progress until we abandon these attempts at conjectural reconstructions of a past about which we can obtain no direct knowledge in favour of a systematic study of culture as it exists in the present.' It was 30 years before his former department appointed its first lecturer in prehistory.
Beware, therefore, when studying the great panjandrum's Andamanese texts (and possibly all his texts). Read him only together with the works of Man and Portman which may be less elegantly constructed but contain rather more reliable data and less theorizing.
Members of the Andaman Association have looked in Port Blair for traces of R-B's activities in the Andamans but the Japanese occupation of the islands during World War II seems to have left nothing traceable there. In some archives (most probably at Oxford), there must be R-B notes, diaries and other papers on Flashman's time in the Andamans and elsewhere. Perhaps some writer and publisher somewhere should consider putting aside the umpteenth biography of Napoleon or Virginia Woolf and tackle Radcliffe-Brown instead.
Clearly, R-B was a strong personality. Too strong for the good of his own field, in fact. He could and did flatten any academic opposition wherever he went - and he went far. As a scientist, however, through his Andamanese work, we now see him as a rather mediocre researcher with a pronounced talent for creating spectacular theoretical fireworks in the sky. Weak on facts and strong on arguments. That R-B's work on the Andamanese is still required standard reading at so many universities courses does not say much for the universities involved.
Radcliffe-Brown died in London on 24th October 1955.
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