Radcliffe-Brown and Equilibrium


Moberg writes that Radcliffe-Brown “assumed that societies had a tendency toward equilibrium” (2013:182). The first thing I thought of when I read this little section was about the movie Equilibrium. In the movie, society is strictly controlled by the government. All art is forbidden and emotions are shunned. When I first thought about this, I thought maybe my connection had just been triggered by the same word used in the book and for the title of the movie. But the more I thought about it, the more it applies to Radcliffe-Brown’s theory and, ultimately, how it disproves his theory.

In the movie, there is an organization comparative to a high-ranking police force. Their job is to arrest those who have committed crimes involving art and emotion. By making these things illegal, the government believed that society would remain stable and peaceful. The main character, John Preston, is one of the best men within this organization. Radcliffe-Brown assumed that society corrected itself in order to maintain itself. In the movie, these policemen were the tool in which society would be maintained. In the beginning of the movie, John was excellent at taking out his targets without thinking twice. As the movie continues on, he begins to question the rules of society and stops taking the drug that suppresses emotions. Radcliffe-Brown thought that all people followed all of the rules of society and he never took human emotion or thought into it, just like the government in the movie. John then realizes how amazing everything is when he can feel emotion and look at beautiful art and hear classical music. He realizes how wrong the government is and that those things shouldn’t be hidden because they are beautiful and not dangerous.

The picture shows John before and after. Before, he willingly followed the government’s orders and maintained society by suppressing everything deemed illegal. After, he realizes that these things are not bad and people should be allowed to feel emotion and make art. John disproves Radcliff-Brown’s theory because he finally takes into account human thought and emotion. People are not always going to follow the rules and society is unable to keep people in line by itself. Equilibrium will not be kept if the human element is involved because people always change and new ideas are constantly being created.

2 thoughts on “Radcliffe-Brown and Equilibrium

  1. I haven’t seen Equilibrium, but your description of it definitely reminds me of another piece of fiction I’ve enjoyed; Lois Lowry’s “The Giver.” The protagonist is a child in a society that has similarly expunged a lot of emotional content from their daily lives. One person, who carries the title of The Giver, retains the capacity for emotional experience by not taking the suppressive medications and participating in other aspects of control. The young protagonist is selected to be the Giver’s successor, and his understanding of his place is fundamentally altered. The book ends with his flight from the community he’s become alienated from. I suppose you could look at that as supportive of Durkheim; the disruption of societal norms creating pathology and disruption. I hadn’t quite thought of that way when I read it, years ago, when I saw it as highlighting the importance of individualistic experience.

    One reading of this supports primacy of structure; the way a person who bucks the system is alienated from it. Another reading supports the primacy of agency; seeing how a break from the system clears the way for personal growth into a beautiful new paradigm. Maybe for “The Giver,” at least, the fact that the story ends without any indication of what the protagonist’s future will hold is an intentional choice, leaving it up to the reader to decide which path it will follow.

  2. This illustrates a key point about equilibrium in society that Radcliffe-Brown seemed to ignore (but Evans-Pritchard and Gluckman DID recognize) – that maintaining equilibrium requires a mechanism for maintaining it. To R-B, it just happened. To E-P, witchcraft accusations kept people in line (the fear of being accused, for instance); for Gluckman, release through times of carnival (reversals of roles) was the mechanism that allowed people to get psychological release and then move back into their carefully controlled social relationships.

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