Before and After Science: Radcliffe-Brown, British Social Anthropology, and the Relationship Between Field Research, Ethnography, and Theory

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In Radcliffe-Brown’s theoretical program of social anthropology as a “natural science of society” empirically grounded and making extensive use of the “comparative method” for aims of generalization about social phenomena, the ethnographical method according to Malinowski’s principles was seen as a fundamental research tool useful not only for guaranteeing scientific reliability to the work of collecting and recording ethnographic documentation but also for empirically testing theoretical hypotheses. It was thus often supposed that ideally the latter had to orientate the selection of particular research topics before starting fieldwork and while carrying out it. In the first part of the paper, I treat of Radcliffe-Brown fieldwork researches in the Andamans Islands and in Western Australia, underlining the evolution of this scholar’s thinking about how articulating ethnography and theoretical views from the completion of his fieldwork to the moment of the publication of ethnographic results. In the second part, I expose some points of debate inside British Social Anthropology before 1960 on how to organize fieldwork research and ethnographic monographs by trying to conciliate the stress put by Radcliffe-Brown on the search for the normative and structural aspects of social life with the Malinowskian imperative of presenting a thorough documentary evidence of every detail of ‘natives’ views, beliefs, discourses and behavior, taking in account also individual variation. In the final part, I propose a sketched overview on how these epistemological dilemmas about the aims of fieldwork research and ethnography have been faced inside British anthropology since the 1960’ till the present.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationEthnography. A Theoretically Oriented Practice
Number of pages30
Publication statusPublished - 2020

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