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.)

The Easter Egg and Togetherness By Nicholas Angelici


The Easter egg. This innocuous little thing has massive amounts of symbolism behind it. It stands for fertility and rebirth in a spring season. But for someone looking at it from a Durkheimian point of view, this egg has a massive amount of meaning beyond this simple symbolism. It represents a massive amount of camaraderie between massive numbers of people. For this blog entry, I should point out the most important parts, demonstrating why Easter itself is so important.

Easter is a massive Christian holiday, with all the intricacies and rituals behind it. It serves to join and gather many individuals who share similar ideas. By gathering in this one location, they remove themselves from their isolated existence. Durkheim pointed out that environment such as this reaffirmed the collective conscience in a group’s behavior (Moberg: 93). He did, however, State that the individual was not the important factor. Although People will chant along with the songs in unison, the individual that is singing is not important to Durkheim.

Durkheim is not the only person that can analyze this information. In his view, this sort of ritual is what binds a community together. If you look at it from Marx’s perspective, A gathering such as this is to help ensure the authority and the power of the priests. They control the means of production in the system. When I refer to this as a means of production, I am not stating that there is a factory inside of a church. The means of production in this case is nothing more than the ability to gather income. The numerous offerings from the people in attendance during mass is more than enough to be considered a productive source of wealth.

Finally, let’s return to the egg in the picture. In my mind, this egg reinforces Durkheim’s view. People will gather to hunt down these colorful creations. In this case, there is no means of production to argue over. It is simply a reason to gather a large quantity of people for a social occasion. This is an excellent example of a Durkheimian view of the world.

21 with Durkheim; Birthdays and Rites: by Nicholas Angelici

For this blog entry, I decided I was going to explore the possibility that one’s 21st birthday, often filled with excessive amounts of alcohol consumption, could be considered a right of passage. A right of passage can be described as “A form of ritual intended to a company or accomplish a change of status”(ELLER, 2013). Using this definition, I will create my own theory as to how such an important event in a persons life can be considered a right of passage. Afterwords I will use participant observation to either confirm or disprove my hypothesis. I will also be comparing it to Nuer practices of rights of passage as well as explaining these similarities using anthropological theory.

Based on my initial understanding, I presume that the social excursion would consist of a period of separation. During this time the person who has just reached their 21st birthday will be segregated from the rest of his family by a handful of specially selected friends. This group of friends will be his comrades and will have had a long history with him. During this period of separation, they will consume copious amounts of alcohol. During the phase of liminality, one would be separated from society. In my view this will probably be during the portion known as the hangover. This is the side effects of drinking copious amounts of alcohol. Although I do not fully understand the symptoms I will explain them in further detail in the second half of this article. The following phase is reincorporation. During this phase, one is joined by his compatriots once again, this time without the alcohol consumption. This will be the theory I frame my research around. During the event, I will take notes to either confirm or deny my hypothesis.

After the experience, and the recovery from it, one of the best comparison so I can find for this right passage would be the Nuer. One of their practices involve the ritual laceration of the forehead (The Nuer, 1940:249). Both of these rituals involve intense pain to the person receiving them. While I did not receive any lasting scars from my participant observation, I did receive more than a mild headache the day after. This would have been during my hypothesized liminality. I can certainly confirm that during this time, I was cut off from society.

But how does this relate to theory? Durkheim has a marvelous explanation for this event. As he theorizes, conformity is the main driving force behind society (Moberg, 2013:89). Although drunken behavior is considered an unfavorable experience, During ones 21st birthday it would be considered rude and unusual for one not to engage fully in alcohol. While I have had alcohol before, (I was in Australia after I turned 18, the national drinking age of that country) it was the social interaction between myself and my friends theat demonstrated I was a part of the group.