“If we are to have a real comparative morphology of societies…we must aim at building up some sort of classification of types of structural systems.” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:309) According to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, anthropologists needed to do extensive, detailed fieldwork before the comparison and analysis of different social structures could commence. Conrad Arensberg’s “The Irish Countryman” is a prime example of the type of work that Radcliffe-Brown described. Clearly a follower of Radcliffe-Brown’s school of social anthropology, Arensberg has undertaken the task of revealing the social structure of at least one such community: the Irish farm community.
Radcliffe-Brown was one of the most prominent theorists of structural functionalism, but another school of functional thought was led by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Malinowski’s psycho-biological approach stresses the needs of the individuals in a society; as well as the way those needs relate to culture and social structure. In “Functionalism, Robert Layton concisely summarizes the difference between the two schools when he states: “[Radcliffe-Brown] implies that society itself has ‘needs’ which must be satisfied by the actions of its members, rather than the other way around as in Malinowski’s approach” (Layton, 1997:35). Conrad Arensberg studies the Irish countryman in the functionalist context set out by A.R. Radcliffe-Brown; his work “The Irish Countryman” would certainly look differently if it had been written by a true believer in Bronislaw Malinowski’s version of structural functionalism.
Radcliffe-Brown tells us that “the structure is thus to be defined as a set of relations between entities” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:297). The household and the community are both structural entities; and statuses in the household are precursors to one’s status within the community. The separation of the boys and the men is an excellent example of the correlation between household and community. The younger men meet in informal groups to drink and socialize; they do not play an active part in community decision-making. A young man would not be considered experienced enough to make decisions on the farm, or in the community; he may be considered a boy until he is middle-aged. He still plays a role on the farm, but it is not a position of power. Once a boy’s father steps down from his place as head of the household, the boy may begin to become a part of the men’s group. The relations between the boys and the men define the structure of the community as well as the household.
In “The Irish Countryman”, household structure is the key to social structure at large. We learn that a normal Irish farmer’s household is comprised of a father, his wife, and their children, sometimes including the husband’s parents, who have remained in the home after giving up their rights to the land. When a husband and wife are ready to give up their farm and their place at the head of the family, they assure that one of the sons marries into an appropriate family, and then the son and his new wife take over the operation of the farm and house. This is when the mother and father take their place as the older generation, moving into the nicest room in the house, the West Room. The other children (the new husband’s brothers and sisters) must at this time find other households to marry into or become part of in an alternative way. Some will move to the town and become a shopkeeper’s wife or apprentice. Variations on this system (e.g. the husband and wife have no children, or only have daughters whom the farm cannot be handed down to) are responsible for a family name being removed from the land, and therefore are considered socially unacceptable. When a family’s name has to be removed from their land, they have failed in their roles within the household and consequently in the community’s social structure. Continuity must be established in the household first, so that the community can maintain its structure.
Composition is not the only factor in establishing continuity, however. Radcliffe-Brown states “if we consider any part of the life process…its function is the part it plays in, the contribution it makes to, the life of the organism as a whole” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:298). If we attribute “life processes” to be the obligations, rights, and duties associated with each household member, we can see how each function contributes to the structure of society. The husband runs the farm and trains the boys; the wife takes care of the house, the chickens, and the children, as well as the churning. Children play their part, learning to work and run the farm, as well as by fulfilling their social obligations, helping kin when needed, and learning respect. Social obligations are extremely important. Kinship ties are very strong; each member of the family has a responsibility to help promote the welfare of their cousins, or “friends”. Radcliffe-Brown says that “The function of a particular social usage is the contribution it makes to the total social life as the functioning of the total social system” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:299). Each role plays a part in the household, each household a part in the community, and the community in the larger context as part of the culture of Ireland.
Another important point for Radcliffe-Brown is that structure remains relatively static while the component parts change. He describes this idea on page 297:
As long as it lives the organism preserves a certain continuity of structure although it does not preserve the complete identity of its constituent parts. It loses some of its constituent molecules by respiration or excretion; it takes in others by respiration and alimentary absorption. Over a period its constituent cells do not remain the same. But the structural arrangement of the constituent units does remain similar. (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:297)
The very structure of the Irish country household supports this idea. The structure of the household remains the same-husband, wife, children, old generation-while the constituent parts change. Family members change roles as they age (sons become husbands, fathers become old men), but the structure remains static. In his discussion of the cuaird, the men’s group that makes important community decisions, Arensberg explains that when boys age they join in the discussions of men and decision-making. As young men join, older men become obsolete. Although individual members differ from year to year the roles remain the same.
Arensberg points out that for comparison “similar old men’s gatherings from any other of the rural communities would serve as well. They are remarkably similar even to duplicating nicknames.” (Arensberg, 1968:121) The only time he uses actual names in the entire book is in the discussion of the cuaird, and here only to keep straight the different roles he is describing. According to Radcliffe-Brown, “the actual relations of Tom, Dick and Harry…may provide illustrations for a general description. But what we need for scientific purposes is an account of the form of the structure” (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:307). Every cuaird has a “drawer down”, “public prosecutor”, “senator”, and “judge”. These roles are needed to preserve the structure of the group and are constant between communities, but the men who occupy the roles change from generation to generation.
Had Conrad Arensberg been a proponent of Malinowski’s structural functionalism, The Irish Countryman would have looked a little different. For one thing Malinowski states:
The functionalist includes in his analysis not merely the emotional as well as the intellectual side of mental processes, but also insists that man in his full biological reality has to be drawn into our analysis of culture. The bodily needs and environmental influences, and the cultural reactions to them, have thus to be studied side by side (Malinowski, 1939:275).
Arensberg’s study does not consider health issues, disease, life expectancy, medical anthropology, or even physical descriptions of the Irish farming community. We do not get to know the individuals themselves; their desires or needs. According to Malinowski, these are important when studying group dynamics.
In Malinowski’s opinion, the group functioned to maintain the individual. His chart, found on page 277 explains how this exchange works. Basic needs, from column A include nutrition, reproduction, bodily comforts, safety, relaxation, movement, and growth. These needs are met by direct responses (such as marriage and family, systems of play and response, and commissariat); which then require instrumental needs (like renewal of personnel, charters of behavior, or renewal of cultural apparatus). For each need to be met, new institutions, resources, and responses are required. These needs and responses are barely mentioned in Arensberg’s study. Had Arensberg shared Malinowski’s viewpoint, he might have included in his field notes a discussion of the diet of the Irish countryman; catalogued the style of dress, the materials used for construction of furniture, or the leisure activities the countryman participated in. We learn nothing of the countryman’s religious affiliation, little about his demeanor toward his family, and his language is only explored insofar as to explain a few miscellaneous terms. It would have been important to discuss the lifestyle of the Irish countryman in these contexts to get a better understanding of how culture affects the life of the individual. According to Malinowski, these topics are essential to the discussion of structure and function, and they would necessarily have been fully discussed by one of his followers.
Social anthropology has several obstacles to overcome before a comprehensive explanation of social structure can be given. Radcliffe-Brown describes three of the most important:
First, the problems of social morphology-what kinds of social structures are there, what are their similarities and differences, how are they to be classified? Second, the problem of social physiology-how do social structures function? Third, the problems of development-how do new types of social structure come into existence? (Radcliffe-Brown, 1952:299)
Arensberg’s “The Irish Countryman” attempts to help answer the first question-what kinds of social structures are there? He catalogues the nature of relations between each group in rural Ireland without what A.R. Radcliffe-Brown would probably consider superfluous detail.
1939. American Journal of Sociology
1952. “Structure and Function in Primitive Society”. The Free Press.
Conrad M. Arensberg
1968. “The Irish Countryman”. Prospect Heights, Illinois: Waveland Press, Inc.
1997. “An Introduction to Theory in Anthropology”. Cambridge University Press.