Robert Lowie just destroyed A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in one must-see letter

When it comes to Internet Drama, nothing beats the paper letter. Anthropology’s founders did not lead isolated lives. “American cultural anthropology” corresponded with “British social anthropology” and the “Année Sociologique” all the time. I’ve blogged before about Marcel Mauss talking trash about Malinowski with Radcliffe-Brown. But for pure in-your face, the winner has got to be Robert Lowie’s response to A.R. Radcliffe-Brown.

For many years, the standard theory textbook in anthropology was Lowie’s 1938 History of Ethnological Theory. It covered everyone — Boas, Durkheim, everyone. A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the apostle of structure-functionalism, was one of the people he described. They had corresponded cordially in the past, but Lowie’s description of ‘R-B’ triggered the pretentious brit, and we wrote an eight page letter detailing  R-B’s charges against Lowie. The first sentence was: “The students of my seminar have asked me to explain how it is that you give such a distorted account of my views in your new book.” It’s all downhill after that — albeit in a very nitpicky, kinship-theory heavy way.

Lowie’s equally long response is a model of collegial, principled, methodical ruthlessness. You can read both letters on the History of Anthropology website. Radcliffe-Brown clearly wanted to have a Penis Size Contest in which each scholar carved our their own academic empire and then denounced each other as tyrants. You know, the way professors always do.

Lowie took the high road (sorta) by beginning his response insisting he didn’t hate R-B:

“Your letter of May 6th requires an extended reply, for it voices some regrettable misunderstandings. However, I must thank you for your candor, which I shall try to requite in kind. I hope you will disabuse “some persons” of the grotesque notion that my remarks are due to “personal spite or personal dislike.” Nothing in our past relations warrants this odd assumption. I have always recognized your work on social organization, and your appreciative note about my Crow book was all that I could wish. At least once I made efforts to lure you to our Summer School; and your willingness to take [W.Lloyd] Warner under your wing on my recommendation suggests some sense of common aims at the time. In short, I have no personal grievance whatsoever.

Ignoring, then, the gratuitous suggestions of bad faith with which your letter teems (and which may charitably be supposed to result from a temporary confusion of my identity with that o f some other controversialist o f yours), I shall answer your two queries and try to define the real nature ofthe difficulty.

After this, Lowie replies (convincingly) to R-B’s charges. It’s a long, intensely-argued middle section. But towards the end of the letter Lowie tightens the screws and returns to the sociology, rather than the substance, of their dispute. Taking issue with R-B’s claim that he (Lowie) is trying to rally his students to the cause of attacking R-B, Lowie replies

I have no disciples and want none. I am not a “leader” and I do not want my students to be led by the nose.

The letter ends with a series of humblebrags denigrating R-B’s egotism:

You have a gospel to proclaim; I make it clear to any students who seek inexpensive solutions for the riddles of the cultural universe that I do not hawk in such commodities. I do not conceive scientific work as an adolescent’s game for individual aggrandizement, but a cooperative effort that gives scope to many diverse talents and temperments. Neither in my book nor in this letter am I at all concerned about “scoring” against you: I am interested in separating dross from gold for a common exchequer. Having reread the pages devoted to you in my book, I suggest submitting them to some friendly layman remoted from the scene of anthropological feuds. Such a reader will not gather that you have “made an enemy” of me. Malice does not refer to its victim as doing some “exemplary” or “brilliant” work. The friendly layman will probably infer that you crave the servile adulation of henchmen, not the disciminating appreciation of peers, which to me is the only desirable form of recognition from fellow-workers.

The ironic thing about this letter is how the two of them have withstood the test of time. Radcliffe-Brown’s concisely, clearly written manifestos for structure-functionalism as still regularly assigned today, while Lowie’s longer works — in which he actually did what he said he would do — are pretty much forgotten. In my opinion, Lowie comes out on top in this correspondence, but in the long run his unwillingness to proclaim is gospel worked against him. On the other hand, Lowie trained a generation of students who went on to be instrumental in this discipline’s history, while R-B never had the influence that Malinowski did, institutionally speaking, in the UK. So perhaps although R-B is taught and remembered, Lowie’s legacy lives on, tacitly, in the discipline even as his work is less read.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

6 thoughts on “Robert Lowie just destroyed A.R. Radcliffe-Brown in one must-see letter

  1. Thanks, Rex. Have downloaded the PDF and added it to my reading stack. Based on your introduction you might find the following book interesting: Embracing Complexity Strategic Perspectives for an Age of Turbulence Jean G. Boulton, Peter M. Allen, and Cliff Bowman. It is by physicists turned management consultants, but it my eye it represents one of the best quick summaries of complexity science, which attempts to address many of the issues Lowe raises, the importance of history and rejection of mechanical, monocausal explanations, in particular. Thanks, again.

  2. My favorite:


    I try to saturate myself with those facts that attract me and then get what enlightenment I
    can concerning them. I do not import the principles of mechanics or of any other extraneous
    discipline, but merely follow the rules of logic that characte1ize all scholarly endeavor, adapting
    them to the specific requirements of the problem.

    You enunciate universal laws, which seem to me blatant bombast

  3. Nice quote. But there is serious danger of anachronism. Anthropology will not long survive if the only logic anthropologists know is the Aristotlean/Medieval Scholastic form to which Lowie was likely referring.

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