Radcliffe-Brown was one of the main figures of the structural functionalist school of British anthropology. He viewed anthropology as a natural science, similar in essence to the physical and biological sciences. The object of natural science was to investigate the structure of the universe. Social phenomena constitute a distinct class of natural phenomena, and social structures are just as real as are individual organisms.
Following from this, the anthropologist had to use methods similar to those in the physical and biological sciences, the empirical observation of natural phenomena. Anthropologists shouldn’t be concerned with ‘culture’ since that word does not denote any concrete reality, but is rather a vague abstraction. Instead, what can be revealed by direct observation is how humans are connected by a complex network of social relations.
Social structure as a whole can only be observed in its functioning. Most of the social relations which in their totality constitute the structure, such as relations of father and son, buyer and seller, ruler and subject, cannot be observed except in social activity in which the relations are functioning.
Science is not concerned with the particular, the unique, but only with the general. The actual relations of Tom, Dick or Harry may go down in field note-books and may provide illustrations for a general description. But what anthropologists need for scientific purposes is an account of the form of the structure. A general or normal form is abstracted from the variations of particular instances.
Structural functionalists were not interested in the historical development of the societies they studied, as this was not directly observable, and was in effect speculation.
Society is an organism Radcliffe-Brown drew from Durkheim the idea that social institutions perform a ‘function’ which corresponds to the needs of the social organism, society. Durkheim attempted to find objective criteria by which to judge whether a given society at given time is normal or pathological, eunomic or dysnomic. He argued that the increase in the rate of suicide was symptomatic of a dysnomic or in his terminology, anomic social condition.
Radcliffe-Brown made an analogy between social life and organic life. An animal organism is an agglomeration of cells, an integrated living whole, an integrated system of complex molecules. The system of relations by which these units are related is the organic structure.
The life of an organism is conceived as the functioning of a structure. It is through the continuity of the functioning that the continuity of the structure is preserved. The function of any part is the part it plays in, the contribution it makes to, the life of the organism.
If we examine such a community as an African or Australian tribe we can recognise the existence of a social structure. Individual human beings, the essential units in this instance, are connected by a definite set of social relations into an integrated whole.
Equilibrium The continuity of the structure is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of individual human beings and of the organised groups into which they are united. Social life of is the functioning of the social structure.
The function of any recurrent activity, such as the punishment of a crime, a funeral ceremony or other ritual, is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the structural continuity. Anthropologists identify the meaning of customs, the role of ritual in establishing collective sentiments and transmitting them across generations.
A social system has a certain kind of functional unity. We may define it as a condition in which all parts of the social system work together with a sufficient degree of harmony or internal consistency, ie. without producing persistent conflicts which can neither be resolved nor regulated.
A society that is thrown into a condition of functional disunity or inconsistency will not die. It will continue to struggle toward some sort of eunomia (social health), and may in the course of this change its structural type.
Social personality This is the position occupied by a human being in a social structure, the complex formed by all his social relations with others. Social personality is something that changes during the course of the life of the person. We cannot study persons except in terms of social structure, nor can we study social structure except in terms of the persons who are the units of which composed.
Social physiology Every kind of social phenomenon, morals, law, etiquette, religion, government and education, are all parts of the complex mechanism by which a social structure exists and persists. Religion is the cement which holds society together.
In ‘primitive society’ economy cannot be studied in abstraction from the rest of society. The exchange of goods and services is dependnent on, the result of, and the means of maintaining a certain structure – a network of relations between persons and collections of persons. The potlach in north west America is the machinery for maintaining a social structure of lineages, clans and moieties with which was combined an arrangement of rank defined by privileges.