Explain social structure, its features and constituents according to Radcliffe Brown


Social structure

In his book Novum organon renovatm, Whewell, has rightly said, “The fundamental principle and supreme rule of all scientific terminology is that terms must be constructed and appropriated so as to be fitted to enunciate simply and clearly true general proposition.” Agreeing with this principle Radcliffe Brown, in his Book, Method in Social Anthropology, starts with giving clear definitions of various methods and concepts in social anthropology.

As he he says, clarifying the necessity of conceptual clarification, “One of the difficulties that the reader of the literature of anthropology has to face is the fact that the same word is used in different meanings by different writers, and many anthropological terms are sometimes used ambiguously or without precise definition.” Therefore, while defining social structure, Brown has taken special organization and other related concepts.


Fallacy of misplaced concreteness

According to Brown, “The empirical reality with which social anthropology has to deal, by description, by analysis and in comparative studies, is the process of social life of a certain limited regie n during certain period of time.” Brown sounds a warning here. He points out to the fallacy of “misplaced concreteness” “which results from treating abstractions as though they were concrete realities.” Societies should not be taken as separate discrete entities. According to Brown, in order to describe social life, one should describe its general features which provide data for the science. He defines the subject matter of social anthropology by social life.

Defining this subject m atter further he says, “The social life as a phenomenal reality is a process consisting of a multitude of actions of human beings, more particularly their interactions and joint actions.” Social life again can be divided into Synchronic and Diachronic aspects.

Synchronic description takes social life as it is at a certain time without reference to changes in its general features. Diachronic description gives an account of such changes. Social anthropologist has to provide both the descriptions.


Social structure and social organization

Before defining the elements of social structure, Brown has clarified the distinction between social structure and social organization. According to him, the social structure refers to an arrangement of persons. On the other hand, “Social organization is the arrangement of activities of two or more persons which are adjusted, to give united combined activity,” Social organization can be explained by the example of modern army or tribal group’s industrial groups, sports groups etc.

Social structure, on the other hand, can be explained by the example of modern army or tribal groups, etc. The distinction between social organization and social structure will be further clear from the definition and explanation of the term ‘Social Structure’, which now follows.

Meaning of social structure


In the words of Radcliffe Brown, “Social structure therefore is to be defined as the continuing arrangement of persons in relationships defined or controlled by institutions, i.e., socially established norms or patters of behaviour.” In this definition of social structure, two phrases require further clarification, the continuing arrangement of persons and socially established norms or patterns of behaviour.

Continuing arrangement of persons

According to Brown social structure is a continuing arrangement of persons in relation to each other. This arrangement of persons is different in a village, a city or a primitive tribe. The characteristics of this arrangement are in fact the characteristics of social structure. In other words, the characteristics of social structure are the characteristics of social groups which constitute it.

Structural features of social life


According to Brown, the most important structural features of social life are as follows;

1. Existence of social groups

Social structure consists of all kinds of social groups within it.

2. Internal structure of groups


These groups, again, have a specific internal structure. For example, the family group consists of *he relations of father, mother and children to each other.

3. Arrangement into social classes

These groups, again, are arranged into social classes and categories such as the castes in Indian society and the economic classes in western societies.

4. Social distinctions

There is again a system of social distinctions between different classes based upon sex, authority, economic distinctions, caste distinctions etc. One finds a system of social distance between them as can be seen between Brahmins and Sudras in India.

5. Arrangement of persons in dyadic relationship

Dyadic relationships are person to person relationships such as those found between master and servant. In social structure one finds arrangement of persons in dyadic relationship.

6. Interactions between groups and persons

Finally, the most important feature of social structure is the interaction between groups and the interactions between persons. An example of interactions between groups is seen when one nation goes to war with another. Interactions between persons can be seen in social processes involving cooperation, conflict, accommodation etc.

Constituents of social structure

As has been already pointed out, social structure is constituted by continuing arrangement of persons in relationship. These arrangements of persons are generally in the form of social groups. According to Brown, “By social group we mean a body of persons having certain cohesion.” The social groups are named differently according to their different forms such as a family, a horde, a clan, a kinship, a tribe etc. Radecliffe Brown has defined each of these types of social groups clearly.

1. The Family

According to Brown, “The family as a group was formed by marriage and the birth of children and came to an end as a separate group on the death of the husband, thus having continuous existence for only a limited number of years.” Thus, family is composed of a man with his wife or wives and their young children. It is a domestic group. It has its own hearth, shelter and food supply. Several families constitute a horde.

2. The Horde

Thus the internal structure of the horde consists of family. According to Radcliffe Brown, “A horde may be described as being politically autonomous, under the authority of the old men, and as being very largely self-sufficient economically.” The hordes constitute a clan. They occupy the territory of the clan. On the average each horde consists of not more than 50 per cent.

3. The Clan

Several hordes together constitute the social structure of the clan. Men connected with a particular territory form a distinct social group known as clan. According to Radcliffe Brown, “The clan was a continuing group which the natives themselves thought of as having come into existence at the beginning of the world and as being eternal: as members were losf by depth they were replaced by the birth of new members.” The clan is a unit of fundamental importance in the primitive social structure. A woman belonged to a clan of her father. Marriage between persons of one clan was forbidden.

The country was usually divided into clans. The male members of the clan constituted the continuing Nucleus of the Horde. The female members moved out after marriage and other female members moved in as wives of the men. The clans constituted a wider system of structure known as a tribe.

4. The Tribe

In the words of Radcliffe Brown, “A number of clans had the same language, and had similar customs; they therefore formed a linguistic community which is referred to as aTribe.” Tribe is not a politically united group. Its members do not Amite in any combined action. It is the hordes of some tribe or different tribes which engage in fighting.

5. The kinship system

Persons of different hordes and of different tribes are linked by means of kinship system. Explaining the nature of the kinship system, Radcliffe Brown has said, “The basis of the recounting consisted of actual genealogical relationships, including therein the relations between fellow-members of one clan.

Thus, the kinslup system cuts across the tribal relationship. Kinship relationships were classified into a number of categories. Each category was denoted by one kinship term distinguished as being nearer or more distant to other kinship relationship. The arrangement of relationships was dyadic, i.e., person to person relationship. Persons use to visit kinship members in other clans and tribes. Thus kinship cuts across club each person had his own particular position in the total kinship structure due to his status in descent, marriage etc.

6. The Moieties

Sometimes primitive social structure is divided into two moieties. Each moiety includes a number of tribes. Each clan belongs to one of the moieties. Thus a moiety is wider than tribes. In the words of Radcliffe Brown, “Essentially the system is a classification or grounding of class, which cuts across the classification into tribes or linguistic communities.”

7. Social sections

According to Brown, the primitive society may have a further dichotomy into two alternating generation divisions. Each clan contains at all times the adult and the children, male and female, thus there is a four fold division of society into sections which have particular names. These sections determine marriage and kinship relationships.

8. Totemic group.

Each clan is a distinct totemic group having its own sacred totem centres, its own myths, its own rites. Each clan has its own totemic solidarity and continuity which differentiates it from other clan. There are totemic ceremonies. Thus totemic group maintains solidarity of primitive society. They provide the religious structure of society.

9. Social classes

According to Brown, in some primitive societies one may find division of social structure into social classes. An example of such a division is the division between chiefs and commoners in Polynesia. Social classes, however, are not found in all the primitive societies.

Principles of description of social structure

From the above mentioned description of the structural system in a primitive people Radcliffe Brown formulates the important principles concerning the description of social structure.

1. The description of social structure should include not only the social groups and social classes-but the whole set of socially fixed relationships of person to person as in kinship system.

2. Thus the social structure at a particular place and time consists of the whole set of social relationships among members.

3. Social relationships should be defined in terms of social institutions.

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