Why did Radcliffe-Brown cross the road? By Nicholas Angelici.

He didn’t, he was in his office.

This joke is meant to be a metaphor for the view that Radcliffe-Brown took to British structural functionalist theory. The question that I seek to answer in this blog post is whether or not participant observation is necessary. Obviously, to Radcliffe-Brown the answer is no. In contrast, Malinowski would state that the observation was important. Malinowski himself spent several years of of his life in the Trobriand islands doing participant observation research (Moberg 2013, 187). By comparing these two theorists, I hope to better understand the reasons for this difference, and determine which one is a more effective technique.

Let us first take a closer look at Radcliffe-Brown. He was born to modest means in Britain, but soon took on an aristocratic image (Moburg 2013, 186). He was one of the original theorists that created the British structural functionalist theory. This was built off of Durkheim’s, using the organic analogy. The main difference is that instead of using this analysis for industrial societies, he would focus on the less intensive societies, such as pastoral or horticultural societies (Moberg 2013, 179-180). This would be one of the reasons why Radcliffe-Brown had such an interesting view of culture.

Radcliffe-Brown had very little interest in studying culture. He considered it pointless to study. In his own words “Radcliffe-Brown contended that culture was only “thoughts”. Because “thoughts” can’t be observed, it would be impossible to formulate a scientific study of them… (Moberg 2013, 187)”. This is a vastly different view of how culture your functions, in comparison to someone like Boaz. To most anthropologists, culture can be easily studied by observing how the society interacts with itself. You can find out what someone is thinking. All you need to do is ask, and trust that the person knows the culture they reside in.

In contrast, Malinowski did a massive amount of participant observation. He did this in the Trobriand Islands for two years. This exile was not self-imposed. He had been forced to remain there with the outbreak of the First World War (Moberg 2013, 187). During this time, he studied the vast trading networks of the native Islanders. He was able to observe all of the different aspects of the male trading enterprise (Moberg 2013, 188). Something like this would have been impossible to theorize, such as Radcliffe-Brown would have done.

So, to truly answer the question we posed at the beginning, you should look at the differences in these two theorists. With Radcliffe-Brown, culture was unimportant. It was merely the nonsense that people came up with in their head. It was impossible to study scientifically, therefore it was useless. I believe that this misses the point about culture. Malinowski demonstrates why theorizing from an armchair is not helpful. One cannot simply come up with every possibility that a person can create. Without his long observation on the islands of the South Pacific, there would have been no possible way someone would have come up with a system as complex as the one he observed. This is why participant observation is so important. Reality is often stranger and more amazing than the fiction we create in our head.


Moberg, Mark. Engaging Anthropological Theory: A Social and Political History. (London: Routledge, 2013.)

3 thoughts on “Why did Radcliffe-Brown cross the road? By Nicholas Angelici.

  1. I liked the joke at the beginning. I thought that it was a nice tie in to figuring out whether or not participant observation is necessary. One thing I think would be important to add is that though both theorists’ types of functionalism have difficulty explaining change, Radcliffe-Brown’s structural functionalism has an even more difficult time doing so. Since he has a view that a synchronic perspective is sufficient enough when learning about a society, it makes sense that he would see extensive participant observation as not necessary.

  2. I agree with Maddie about the joke because it tells us exactly what we are about to read in one sentence. What I would say you could add a little information about Malinowski because you describe in more detail Radcliffe-Brown’s version of Structural Functionalism. I think there could be further analysis done on the connection between the differences in their way of interpreting a society and their form of doing so (participant observation or not).

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