A.R. Radcliffe-Brown (1965b [1935]:178-179)

Radcliffe-Brown was an English social anthropologist who developed the theory of Structural Functionalism and studied anthropology at Cambridge under Haddon and Rivers. Radcliffe-Brown carried out extensive fieldwork in the Andaman Islands, Australia, and elsewhere. On the basis of this research, he contributed extensively to the anthropological ideas on kinship. Radcliffe-Brown argues that by studying kinship than individuals in a society it is more useful because the structure of kinship remains the same from generation to generation. Radcliffe-Brown argues that structural relations between people in certain positions in kinship systems lead to conflicts of interest. It is solved by joking or avoidance in relationships.


Why would Radcliffe-Brown argue that, “studying kinship in a society more prevalent than studying individuals in the same society”? And why is that “joking” a way of avoiding conflict from certain relationship?

Max Gluckman

Max Gluckman was a South African and British social anthropologist and was educated at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is known for his analysis of political systems among different groups of Africa, especially the functions of feuds and conflicts. In his studies of South and Central African societies he realized how deeply the colonial regimes and the global economy affected every aspect of peoples’ lives.  In the “Licence in Ritual,” describes how ritualized reversals of social roles, seemingly acts of rebellion, act instead to support a society’s of social order and political systems (McGee and Warms: 153).


Does our modern society exercise African rituals?

Bronislaw Malinowski

Bronislaw Malinowski was born in Krakow, Poland on April 7, 1884 and became influential in British anthropology and is the founder of Functionalism. His first field study came in 1915-18 (Trobriand Islanders of New Guinea in the southwest Pacific). He used a holistic approach in studying the native’s social interactions including the annual Kula Ring Exchange, (to be associated with magic, religion, kinship and trade). He died in 1942.

Functionalist approaches understand society and culture to be like living organisms. Parts of a culture can only be studied adequately as they function within the whole. At the same time, elements of culture are assumed to be part of deeper processes and systems that need to be uncovered if the individual elements themselves are to be properly understood.

Presentation Slides

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  • jumpinhare  On February 9, 2014 at 7:45 am

    Radcliffe-Brown thought that social institutions should be studied, kinship and social relationships can be very volatile and studying them would account for how the society is held together.

    Radcliffe-Brown described relationship customs whereby certain individuals (often in-laws) are expected to engage in formalized banter. He proposed that to understand this social interaction by studying the specific joking relationships in the context of the social relations/ kinship in the society.

    RB found two types of relationships where joking was customary; asymmetrical relationship where one party is required to take no offense at constant teasing or mocking by the other, and a symmetrical relationship where each party makes fun at the others expense. Joking was found to decrease tension and to keep parties in their placement within the society. One African society used joking while hunting, never allowing the hunter to get a “big head” about his catch. Competition and ego can be destructive within societies. Avoidance language can also be used out of respect for two individuals that have a common interest to reduce conflict.

  • Reyna Alvarenga  On February 9, 2014 at 8:47 pm

    Radcliffe-Brown reason for arguing that it was easier to study kinship than individuals could have been because individuals are complicated and change their minds all the time. Also, individuals are not always related and can overturn their friends and even family because they do not feel the connection like a kinship would feel. For instance, a kinship has a blood relationship and duties are often passed down by generation and generation. Whereas, individuals are living in their own world, making their own rules as they please or can. Joking has been found to be less confrontational and more welcoming by others since it is said with no intention of reality. Sometimes even when the joke is very harsh the person does not take any offense towards who said it because it is all being said in a friendly humorous environment.

  • J  On February 10, 2014 at 12:12 pm

    In some cultures there is a rule that individuals must value the well being of others first and foremost, than their own well being. In a culture that values the system of kinship above all else, it may be easier to interpret that the members of a family bond, lineage, or clan show the traditional obligations and upbringings of individuals. Perhaps what Radcliffe-Brown sought to focus on, was that the traditional obligations in a kinship system often produced steady variables of how a group of individuals act towards one another. For a quick example, person “a” is related to person “b” by last name, therefore “a” must accommodate “b” in their home for while, until “b” is ready to travel the land again. If occurrences like these happen often, and to multiple groups, then it could be resulting from some social rule put in place by a group, and not an individual. Or I could be completely wrong in my interpretation of what Radcliffe has in his mind. Joking may just be a unique norm of how groups ward each other off from tense situations, just as it would be the norm to apologize to an individual for a misunderstanding, or saying bless you to someone who sneezed.

  • K  On February 13, 2014 at 2:09 pm

    In Radcliffe-Brown’s work it shows that kinship can show the lineage and set up for a society. In class we discussed that in a matrilineal society the mother’s line would inherit thrones or objects. In observing a functional society and culture researchers must understand the hierarchy of the society to understand the events that occur. In studying kinship we as researchers can follow the chain of events past, present and future to gain a better understanding of why. The joking concepts are also fascinating and effective peace keeping methods. The division of power exists in the kinship and lineage. With the two types of joking, symmetrical and asymmetrical, the tension and power balance of the hierarchy can be established and maintained. With the symmetrical joking there is an equal insult-acceptance process between the two parties (such as two feuding tribes joking with one another to relieve tensions during major interactions). However, in the asymmetrical joking there is a one-way insult-acceptance interaction, usually in terms of maintaining equilibrium in a group (such as the !Kung tribe in Africa claiming the kill is not impressive in an attempt to keep the hunter’s ego in check). With these checks and balances of human interactions in check a society can run smoothly and avoid unnecessary problems. This technique is actually used in our current society in things as common as couple relationships. If you are frustrated with something your spouse does and instead of becoming angry, you jokingly mention their frustrating behavior then you can address your frustrations and not cause conflicts.

  • Carson Hoffman  On February 14, 2014 at 8:07 am

    Upon reading the Max Gluckman article I became confused when he talked about who had the power in the family. From my understanding, Gluckman presented two different example about these societies in Africa discussing the social order and role reversal. I would like to dive into this a little more and explain what I took form this reading. In the first article the main issue I found intriguing was the role reversal. The woman in this location had essentially no rights and had to obey certain “laws” in their society. Then one day a year the woman had all the power and followed the men’s “laws”, while the men had to follow the women’s “laws”. The reason that this event took place was to give thanks to one of their gods. I found the description to relate to mother earth in a sense in how she would bring good crops, rain, and protect the village. Looking at this in a functional sense I have found this set up to be very interesting. The men function as the main workers and hunters through the year. There function is to keep the society alive and functioning. During this time the women function as a way to keep the house clean, carry the man’s child and other things. I found the role reversal day to give the women a greater function in this society. If I believed that the full years crops, rain fall, and other great benefits depended on one day in which I couldn’t take part in, I would be very thankful to have the women. In a sense this day gives the women a higher function rating some what keeping the social equality on the same level. In my opinion I find the woman role reversal function to be one way to help keep the woman feeling happy and the men thankful to have the woman. I don’t thank this is the best way to accomplish that but that is a different discussion. I enjoyed analyzing the functional system for this society and would like to hear other interpretations on the first or second society presented.

  • Kaleb Greer  On February 16, 2014 at 8:45 am

    I think modern society of the United States does have some African rituals. However, I would say it has “evolved” or changed in a way that it is not the exact same ritual found in Africa. I believe that the joking relationship that Radcliffe-Brown researched is prevalent within the US. Joking between friends, mothers, mother-in-laws, and other relationships are seen. However, I think that the intensity might have changed within certain relationships. Also,I would imagine that new rituals from Africa that we didn’t notice or just recently heard could be making its way into US culture. Small rituals are easy to spread and to obtain.

  • larson1301  On February 16, 2014 at 8:47 am

    Radcliff argued that studying a group of people (kinship) was a lot easier than studying the individual. I believe he said this because groups of people are more likely to act sicilia through out their grouping. They pick up certain predictable measures because once something works they are not likely to change how they do it. Where as an individual is more likely to continuously change their methods of doing something because they can make that gamble on the idea that it’d really only be effecting themselves. A group cannot make decisions on a premise of a gamble because it will effect more than one person creating a sort of domino effect.

  • Art M  On February 16, 2014 at 5:56 pm

    I don’t think that we exercise African rituals of cohesion in our society, even though there are some similarities between the rituals and using role reversal to relieve tension in a society. Once a year, the women in the villages would switch roles with the men and act like them in order to bring a bountiful crop for the upcoming year, as an emic explanation, and to relieve any tension that has been held in the families, as an etic explanation. Though our society doesn’t rely on role reversals for bringing in good crops for a year, we don’t use role reversals for tension release either. Some people go out with friends, spend some time alone, or do other things in order to relieve tension. The use of role reversals can be seen in group therapy, where a therapist would ask people to act as the people that cause them tension but it usually happens during the therapy session and never for a whole day.

  • kimico  On February 17, 2014 at 6:50 pm

    Malinowski’s functionalist approaches to studying culture make sense in that one element of society cannot be understood unless the other elements are also studied. In looking at the tobelija, or the Sworn Virgins of the Balkan regions of Europe where women live their lives as men, an ethnographer might see this choice in any number of ways. To truly understand why these women take a vow renouncing their lives as women to live the rest of their lives as men, affording all of the same rituals and routines that belong to men aside from marriage and procreation, we must understand all of the pieces that interconnect with this one element. In understanding that many women make this choice because of a lack of a male heir in the family, or as a way out of an unwanted marriage, we must begin looking at other elements of their culture because this practice did not develop in a vacuum.

    This also reminds me of Radcliffe-Brown’s preference to study kinship rather than the individual. Although a woman’s choice to become tobelija is ultimately an individual decision, it has so much to do with her kinship. In the patrilineal societies of the Balkans where this ritual exists a woman cannot inherit property, resulting in the acquisition of family land and objects to parties outside of the immediate kinship structure if no sons are produced. Her choice has effected the entire family and thereby studying the group’s kinship can glean more information and understanding rather than solely focusing on the individual.

  • PT  On February 25, 2014 at 11:27 am

    Radcliffe-Brown statement that studying kinship in a society is more prevalent than studying individual in the same society because in the kinship system it usually stays the same. As to the individual, they can change and so studying something that change is not as reliable as something that is structured. Looking at the family structure is easier than concentrating on an individual. As to joking, it is to avoid conflict because it can be used to relieve tensions from each other. Joking can be the same as how we use it today in our society. We joke around with each other until a tensions arrives and one would just mention that they were joking only to avoid that conflict.

  • mec  On May 16, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    Why would Radcliffe-Brown argue that, “studying kinship in a society more prevalent than studying individuals in the same society”? And why is that “joking” a way of avoiding conflict from certain relationship?
    Radcliff-Brown probably argued that it was more important to study kinship than individuals in the same society because by studying kinship it could help understand the individual of that society on a whole new level. By understanding an individual as part of a bigger web of people, it might be instrumental to studying why those individuals must behave in that group and what occurs if they do not adhere to social laws. The joking provides a means of avoiding conflict because it allows for an egalitarian society to stay that way. If there was a heavily ingrained social hierarchy then this joking would probably be a moot point. When we think of our own western ideas of “joking” it isn’t too different from this case. Often times someone will make a statement that upsets someone else and then they will try to solve the issue byt stating “Im joking” or ” I’m just kidding” (depending on whether that first individual cares about that person being upset). Joking to avoid conflict seems to be something that our western culture and their culture have in common, even the though the actual mechanism of it may be different.

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