Anthropological studies in Britain grew up in the context of European, and especially British colonialism as a part of the colonial situation. Anthropologists for the most part did not question the colonial situation and the fact that they participated in it by investigating subjugated peoples. As they took the colonial situation for granted, often capitalizing on it and sometimes actively supporting it, they did not perceive that colonialism created a colonial people—‘the native peoples’—under the economic, political and spiritual domination of an alien power which possessed and ruthlessly used the means of violence against them. Instead, they chose to see colonial peoples in terms of a ‘primitive’ concept, denying in effect their colonized status.

This singular blindness to the reality of the situation of the colonized cannot be dismissed as the helplessness of white liberalism under conditions of imperialism so easily as it has been by Katharine Gough.footnote1 On the contrary, imperialism was the normal world for anthropologists (whose existence it had made possible), just as it was for the English bourgeois intelligentsia as a whole. They avoided questioning the foundations and ideology of imperialism because it never occurred to them to do so. They were liberals, as Gough says, but liberalism then as now, however radical, was such a rationalization of the contradictions that it amounted to a denial of their existence.

However, the failure of anthropology to articulate a total conception of the colonial situation cannot be entirely understood in these terms. Characteristic of British culture since the 19th century has been its inability to put the whole of society in question. Even in the post-1945 context of an increasing geo-political and economic crisis, the intelligentsia have firmly avoided questioning the basis of the social order. There is, as Perry Anderson has said, a deep, instinctive aversion among the intelligentsia as a whole to engaging in any fundamental critique of the totality of social and cultural life.footnote2 Since the 19th century, Britain has differed from every other European country in that its intellectuals have never attempted to engage in an analysis of the underlying structures of culture and society. The very notion of ‘underlying structure’ has escaped them, a conceptual blindness epitomized by the superficial empiricism of all the social and historical sciences and by the interminable games of ordinary language analysis in philosophy. Instinctively they have confined themselves to the appearance of things, never attempting to analyse the relationships latent in the things themselves. Equally significant has been the constant evasion of the notion of totality, as both cause and consequence of their refusal to accept the notion of structure. For structure in its Hegelian, Marxist or structuralist usages is a totalizing concept in that is seeks to effect a dynamic but never complete synthesis or closure of a domain of experience. It attempts to grasp a total phenomenon in terms of the relationships which constitute it. But British thought has never looked into this rationalist abyss, either to situate itself or to situate its society as a total historical phenomenon requiring critical structural explanation.

British social anthropology has, however, worked with a notion of structure, but without ever bringing it into an intelligible relation with these considerations. Structure has been identified with the totality of empirically given social relationships in tribal societies. It is, that is to say, the social structure of the society. To all intents and purposes it is therefore coterminous with the totality, a closed, stable system tending towards equilibrium. This structural approach has been the unifying theme of social anthropology since Radcliffe-Brown, and, in consequence, the first task of the anthropologist has always been seen as ‘to give an account of the social structure of the people he has studied.’footnote3 Structure is therefore a simple and not a complex notion because it relates directly and virtually without mediation to the empirical reality of social life.

The principal concern of social anthropology has been with the problem of social order: how does it come about that, once the field-worker has accustomed himself to the bewildering flux of strange impressions, the social life of the people he is studying presents itself as a stable, orderly, repetitive reality, that there appear to be regular modes of action and/or orientation to others? For the anthropologist, the small-scale social systems of the primitive presented a unique opportunity to study the coherence of society in microcosm, and establish the bases of social integration. Yet this is not to say that the problem of order appeared simply as an abstract problem to the anthropologists, a question raised by the nature of anthropological theory itself and requiring critical examination. It was, in fact, imposed by the very presupposition of an isolable, primitive totality, which underlay every ethnographic investigation; but it appeared to the anthropologists as a problem imposed by the phenomena themselves.

Social anthropology discovered its solution to it in the institutional arrangements of social life which regulate the relationships between individuals. Social conduct is governed by habitual, customary, and juridical norms, to which overt or covert sanctions are attached to ensure conformity, and which structure the social life of individuals in their orientation to others in a regular and predictable fashion. This focussed the analysis of primitive life on rules of conduct as mechanisms of social control, on the types of rules that obtain in particular kinds of social groups (e.g. kinship or political groups), and on the consequences which complexes of norms have for the organization of social relationships in given sectors of the social existence. The fabric of society was thus discovered, not in culture (as a given totality of customary ways of behaving), but in institutions considered as regulative social relationships. Hence the ‘structural approach’ to primitive society consisted in describing minutely the organization of social institutions as systems of norms and their orderly articulation with each other—kinship systems, economic systems, juridical systems, and political systems. Broadly speaking, this was regarded as the social structure of the society, and corresponded to Durkheim’s conception of morphological structure. The ‘dynamic’ element in this highly descriptive approach to social phenomena was added by the concept of function. Institutions were seen as functioning parts of the social system which maintained it in a more or less stable equilibrium condition. In so far as institutions continued to play this role in contributing to the maintenance of the total social order they were seen as ‘functional’ for it. Ultimately this conceptual approach focussed on the control mechanisms that function to ensure conformity with the normative order. It led directly to a perception of social life as approximating to a seamless web of highly integrated institutionalized relationships enclosing and regulating the lives of primitives in all their manifest activities.

The concept of social structure which was thus developed consequently remained highly empirical in scope. In the last analysis it simply referred to the totality of real social relationships obtaining in a given social group which could be directly observed and which were organized in a ‘network.’ As it was put by Radcliffe-Brown in his 1940 essay on Social Structure: ‘. . . direct observation does reveal to us that . . . human beings are connected by a complex network of social relations.’footnote4 The integration of this conception of structure into the functional approach had however already been fully formulated by Radcliffe-Brown: ‘Individual human beings . . . are connected by a definite set of social relations into an integrated whole. The continuity of the social structure, like that of an organic structure, is not destroyed by changes in the units . . . The continuity of structure is maintained by the process of social life, which consists of the activities and interactions of the individual human beings and of the organized groups into which they are united. The social life of the community is here defined as the functioning of the social structure. The function of any activity is the part it plays in the social life as a whole and therefore the contribution it makes to the maintenance of the structural continuity.’footnote5