W.G. Runciman on the tendency of human societies to form varieties

A title which deliberately echoes that of Darwin’s joint presentation with Wallace to the Linnaean Society in 1858 may appear not only presumptuous but also inappropriate to a commemoration of Radcliffe-Brown, whose lifelong concern was with structure and function rather than with evolution, and whose vision of ‘a natural science of society’ was, it has often been said, more taxonomic than analytical.[*] But the appearance is, I think, superficial, for two reasons. In the first place, as insisted by W.E.H. Stanner in his entry on Radcliffe-Brown in the 1966 Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Radcliffe-Brown’s ‘fundamental viewpoint was thoroughly historical’: if he neglected the study of history, it was not because he thought it unimportant, but because he held the contingencies of human affairs to be too haphazard for effective schematisation. In the second place, a taxonomy is implied by any theory which purports to explain why the structure of different societies is as it is and not as it might have evolved under other conditions: if Radcliffe-Brown’s ‘branch of natural science which will have for its task the discovery of the general characteristics of those social structures of which the component units are human beings’ – as he put it in his Presidential Address of 1940 to the Royal Anthropological Institute – turns out to be barren, that can only be because the characteristics chosen for comparative study are the wrong ones. I shall argue that we do now know what characteristics we have to look for; that they can be related to the concepts of both structure and function in a way which makes systematic explanation possible; and that such explanation will and must rest on a theory of social selection analogous but not reducible to the theory of natural selection. Whether Radcliffe-Brown would have been willing to entertain all three of these propositions I do not know. Perhaps he would have assented to the first two only to baulk at the third. But even so, I do not believe he would have regarded the attempt as inappropriate to his memory.

In 1959, four years after Radcliffe-Brown’s death, the Scottish Branch of the British Sociological Association held a conference in Edinburgh in commemoration of the centenary of the publication of The Origin of Species. To its proceedings, published in 1961, an Introduction was contributed by Dr Jacob Bronowski in which, after touching on the well-known difficulties posed by attempts to transfer the notion of the ‘survival of the fittest’ from biology to sociology, he remarked that ‘in biology, we are at this moment discovering how the atoms of inheritance, the genes, hang together to form what I will call molecular arrangements – that is, the stable constituents of the gene complex. But in the social sciences, we know neither the units nor their stable arrangements.’ Bronowski then went on to point out that Darwin did not live to see the discoveries, now familiar to us, about genetics which furnish the theory of natural selection with a grounding he himself was unable to give to it; and there is, perhaps, some comfort for sociological theorists in the fact that Darwin achieved what he did despite his apparent adherence to the view that acquired characteristics are heritable and the individual organism the unit of competitive selection. But Bronowski’s question is, all the same, the right one. A late 20th-century sociologist may not have to have any deeper knowledge of psychology than Darwin had of genetics, or any fuller a historical and ethnographic record to work on than Darwin had a fossil record. But any theory of social evolution deserving of the name needs to specify both what it is that social selection selects and what it selects it for. It is no longer – or so I trust – necessary to argue that social evolution is continuous with biological evolution, that the biological inheritance of the human species both creates and constrains the possibilities of institutional variation between societies, and that it cannot be genetic variation which explains institutional variation directly for the simple reason that the extra-organic processes by which human beings transmit information and thereby culture to one another work much, much too fast. But although these familiar considerations are enough to rule out some wrong answers to the question, they are not capable by themselves of furnishing the right one. We need not waste further attention on misplaced analogies between societies and organisms, any more than on misapplications of the notion of ‘the survival of the fittest’ to competition between either societies or their individual members. But before any possible candidate for the unit of social selection can be considered at all, we do have to be clear about what it is that human societies are to be taken to consist of.

Now this way of putting it may already be contentious to some. The objection which it invites is that I am presupposing that societies have boundaries sufficiently clearly defined that any and every sociologist, anthropologist or historian can recognise one on sight. But I presuppose no such thing. Societies are defined as such by the observer, and (as was forcibly argued by Sir Edmund Leach in his Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in 1976) it was a mistake of Radcliffe-Brown’s to imply that either societies or species are entities unproblematically given in nature. There is a host of examples in the historical and ethnographic record of societies where geographical dispersion, exogenous influence, sub-systemic differentiation, cross-cutting ethnic, religious and familial loyalties, weak internal communication, civil discord, or even conflicting self-definitions of membership, make it difficult if not impossible to establish a consistent and uncontroversial criterion for delineating their boundaries. But this need be no more of an impediment to the formulation of a theory of the evolution of societies than have been the corresponding difficulties with which biologists have had to contend in formulating a theory of the evolution of species. If it can be agreed – as I think social theorists of all rival schools would be willing to do – that sociologists, anthropologists and historians look both for and at human institutions, and that these can be broadly defined as interrelated sets of rule-governed practices, then societal boundaries will be delineated by reference to institutional catchment areas in social space. The lines of demarcation will be – indeed, will have to be – drawn at the point where empirical observation shows either that social relations have become so tenuous as effectively to elude the catchment of the institutions ostensibly governing them, or so weak that they effectively fall within the catchment area of another society. As species are bounded by the biologically-transmitted capacity of their members to interbreed, so are societies bounded by the culturally-transmitted capacity of their members to interact – that is, to behave towards one another as members of a common set of institutions in conformity with the rules which operate in the catchment area within which they find themselves. To say this is not to deny that membership of societies by individual persons can be, and often is, either or both multiple and partial, or that individual persons can change from society to society whereas individual animals cannot change from species to species. But, equally, to point this out, and thereby to emphasise both the fluidity and the permeability of any boundary which the observer chooses to draw, is not to deny that societies can be identified as subjects for comparison and contrast. It is perfectly true that very few of those on record are closed, stable, autarkic, endogamous and isolated to the point that no two rival observers could possibly disagree about the delineation of their frontiers. But it does not follow that those which are not are not societies at all.

This, however, still leaves open a number of possible answers to the question what societies are made of. To answer it by saying ‘non-random interaction of persons within recognised institutional catchment areas’ is trivial. Observers from rival theoretical schools are still free to claim that what makes the behaviour non-random is that the persons in question are, by virtue of membership of their societies, members of classes, or groups, or communities, or communication networks, or milieux, or sub-cultures, or shared universes of discourse and symbolism, or whatever else the particular observer may hold to be decisive in the explanation of why any chosen society is as it is reported to be. But there is, all the same, a general answer which is uncontentious without being trivial. Radcliffe-Brown was not mistaken in his emphasis on human beings as the components of social structures and therewith on the regularities of observed behaviour by designated persons without which the notion of structure can have no application to human (or for that matter animal) societies at all. If what we are looking at and for are institutions defined as I have just done, then we are looking at and for regularities of behaviour which is not, or not merely, personal – or, in other words, at the behaviour of people in roles.

The full text of this essay is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] The text of this article is that of the 1986 Radcliffe-Brown Lecture in Social Anthropology, recently delivered at the British Academy.