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«ive Histories of British Social Anthropology Adam Kuper I There are obvious parallels − as well as interactions − between the beginnings of ...»

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Alternative Histories of British Social Anthropology

Adam Kuper


There are obvious parallels − as well as interactions − between the beginnings of ‘British social

anthropology’ and the more or less contemporary development of the Vienna circle of psychoanalysis, the

launch of Durkheim’s AnneÈ Sociologique, or the formation of the Annales school of social historians led

by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch. In each case a small network of marginal intellectuals, attracted by

charismatic leaders, created what amounted to new disciplines in the emergent social sciences. New objects of study, methods of research, and applications were pioneered. The achievements are clear enough, but it is not easy in any of these cases to work out precisely how the trick was done.

Undergraduate lecture courses on the history of British social anthropology conventionally begin with a contrast between Malinowski and the old-style ethnographers, and emphasise the radically innovative way in which he went about his fieldwork in the Trobriand Islands between 1915 and 1918. The great symbolic image, inevitably flashed on the screen, is of Malinowski pitching his tent in the village. We quote his slogan:‘The anthropologist must relinquish his comfortable position on the verandah, where he has been accustomed to collect statements from informants’(1926: 147). From that point on, we tell our students, ethnographers had to ‘go out into the village’, cultivate a garden, join in the dances, exchange gifts, and generally muck in. Above all, the people now had to be studied as they really are rather than as they might once have been.

There is, of course, more than an element of myth-making here. Certainly the Trobriand study became the touchstone for Malinowski’s students, but some of them remarked that their teacher did not always follow his own rules in the field. Michael Young has worked out that ‘his tent was folded for almost half his time in Kiriwina’ (Young, 2004: 502.) And it could be argued that Malinowski’s methodological originality lay elsewhere, in his insistence that ethnographers had to provide what he called concrete documentation, such as maps, measurements, multi-coloured synoptic charts, gardening diaries, and texts in the vernacular. ‘The main principle of my work in the field,’ he wrote in a note to himself in the

Trobriand Islands, ‘avoid artificial simplifications. To this end, collect as concrete materials as possible:

note every informant; work with children, outsiders, and specialists. Take side lights and opinions.’ (Young, 2004: 560. Cf. Rold·n, 1994).

Equally, Malinowski insisted on introducing theory into the very process of what he called the construction of facts. After all, like Franz Boas, he had written a doctoral thesis that addressed issues in the philosophy of science. This was an account of Mach’s positivism, though he ended up with a more permissive empiricist doctrine, ‘nothing without experience’. Working in the Trobriands, he sometimes felt himself ‘almost swamped by detail’, but his philosophy of science indicated that experience had to be shaped, and that theory must come before description. (Young, 2004: 79-90.) The description of facts required precise concepts that only theory could provide. The ethnographer should build up synthetic facts, informed by theoretical considerations, and tackle strategic problems (‘problems, not peoples’).

To be sure, an off-the-shelf ethnographer’s aide was available, and he had made use of it while writing up the results of a short apprentice field study in Mailu, on mainland New Guinea, organising his material to fit the standard format of the Royal Anthropological Institutes’s check-list for fieldworkers, Notes and Queries in Anthropology. It was a convenient solution, which facilitated cross-cultural comparisons, but compiling an mechanical inventory of customs and beliefs could not bring out the connections between different activities and institutions. Malinowski’s aim in his Trobriand fieldwork was to tease out the various strands − magic, economics, kinship, politics − that were woven together in even the most essential work, like house building, sailing, or gardening.

From our contemporary perspective, Malinowski’s fieldwork in Kiriwina is often seen as marking the decisive breach between the generation of Haddon, Rivers and Marett and the new social anthropology, even if the precise nature of his ethnographic innovations might be put in question. However, conventional histories also remark upon a more or less contemporary theoretical shift, for which Radcliffe-Brown is sometimes given equal credit, together with Malinowski. Since the 1860s, ethnographic data had been collected in order to address historical and geographical questions. In the first decade of the 20th century, Durkheim became the key influence on the new anthropologists, displacing Darwin, or Humboldt. The new research questions had to do with the workings of social institutions in the here and now, not with historical reconstructions. But Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown famously did not agree on sociological theory. Malinowski was always an individualist, Radcliffe-Brown a collectivist. In his Essay on the Gift, in 1925, Mauss rewrote the kula ethnography in terms of Durkheimian collective sentiments. Malinowski in turn recast reciprocity as a matter of enlightened self-interest in his Crime and Custom in Savage Society, in 1926.

Leaving aside their fundamental disagreements on Durkheimian sociology, however, it is misleading to represent Malinowski or even Radcliffe-Brown as being unequivocally committed to sociology. Rivers had argued in his paper ‘Sociology and Psychology’ in 1916 that anthropologists could operate either as sociologists or as psychologists. ‘Those who follow one path will devote themselves to the study of the body of customs and institutions which make up social behaviour, while those who follow the other path will inquire into the instincts, sentiments, emotions, ideas, and beliefs of mankind.’ (Reprinted in Rivers, 1926: 6.) In a letter to Rivers, Radcliffe-Brown responded that ‘the only difference between us is at what stage in the progress of sociology we should take up the fundamental psychological problems. I wish to take them up at once, whereas you wish to postpone them.’ (Kuper, 1989: 79.) But what psychology did they have in mind? Rivers was a cognitive psychologist who later became a Freudian. Both RadcliffeBrown and Malinowski were drawn to the theory of sentiments of the now forgotten English psychologist A. F. Shand, whom Malinowski described as ‘one of the greatest psychologists of our time’. (Malinowski, 1927: 240. See Kuper, 1990.) The histories then move on to the professionalisation of the discipline. The students of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown established new departments, debated variants of functionalist theory, and wrote the classic monographs of the 1930s and 1940s. Finally, the narratives close with the change of the guard in the 1970s, when Malinowski’s students retired. The students of his students came into what is generally admitted to have become a rather diminished inheritance. The theoretical paradigm established in the 1920s and 1930s finally imploded, although Malinowski’s methodology − or some selective and perhaps mythical version of this method − remained the defining procedure of field research. But awkward questions remained about this process of institutionalisation and professionalisation, none more awkward than those that have to do with the imperial dimension. Was it simply coincidence that the crisis of British social anthropology occurred just as Britain wound up its African empire?


If this is the conventional practitioners’ account, there are, to be sure, a growing number of professional histories, that take a longer perspective and draw on archival records and situate the anthropologists in a broader intellectual context. (See, e.g., Kuklick, 1991 and Stocking, 1995.) I will say little about them here, for two reasons. First, they have filled out but not radically challenged the conventional folk history.

Second, their judgments, implicit or explicit, tend to assume the superiority of the American culturalist perspective. Stocking, for instance, discussing the classical phase of British functionalism, writes that ‘there are many today (especially, perhaps, in the United States) for whom the real problem for historical understanding would seem now to be: how could so many intelligent anthropologists have been so long infected by such a sterile and/or derivative viewpoint’. While fastidiously distancing himself from these crude characterisations, he suggests that the root cause of the aberration is to be found in British national character. (Stocking, 1984: 181-182.) Perhaps for these reasons, perhaps because of a lack of historical curiosity, the professional historians have had less impact than might have been expected on the selfimage of European social anthropologists.

But there are also alternative, critical histories of one kind or another, which have proved more disturbing to practitioners. Some are mainly oral accounts, which dwell on personalities. One published version is a paper by Edmund Leach, provocatively entitled ‘Glimpses of the unmentionable in the history of British social anthropology’. Here Leach aimed to uncover the family secret: ‘differences of social class played a critical role in what happened in British anthropology during the first 40 years of the this [the 20th] century’. (Leach, 1984: 2.) He observed that the early 20th century pioneers of British social anthropology − Rivers and Haddon − were not really gentlemen. For that simple reason they had failed to establish the discipline in Cambridge, then the headquarters of British science. When Malinowski came on the scene it was obvious that he was not an English gentleman, and so not a candidate for Oxbridge. He found a niche in the socialist and marginal London School of Economics, which Leach described as being ‘a very low status institution’ in the 1920s and 1930s. (Leach, 1984 11.) And his students were largely foreigners or women.

One might note in support of Leach that although the public-school and Oxford man Evans-Pritchard attended Malinowski’s early seminars, he was supervised by Seligman, regarded attendance at the LSE as a shameful come-down, and detested Malinowski, who in turn informed Seligman that he would resign if Evans-Pritchard was appointed to a position at the School. (Goody, 1995: 23.) It is equally salient that Malinowski expressed disproportionate delight when Godfrey Wilson, son of the famous Shakespeare scholar Dover Wilson, became his first loyal male acolyte from the English intellectual aristocracy. On the other hand, it is worth recalling Westermarck’s enthusiastic recollection that the LSE student body was ‘the most international’ and ‘the most varied in colour of any university in the world’.

(Young, 2004:

169.) Leach remarked that in due course the LSE grew in prestige, although ‘as part of its efforts to achieve respectability (which were ultimately very successful), the politics of the place were steadily moving to the right’. Similarly, and like so many arrivistes before them in British history, Malinowski’s rag-tag

army also became respectable, and also moved to the right. As Leach put it:

With varying degrees of enthusiasm and varying degrees of success, Malinowski, Firth, Schapera, Fortes, Nadel, and the other ‘foreigners’ who were mainly responsible for the high prestige that was attributed to ‘British’ social anthropology in the 1950s and 1960s … eventually assimilated themselves into the life style and cultural conventions of Oxbridge academics, but they remained ‘outsiders’ with a highly ambivalent attitude towards the values of their adopted academic milieu.

This ambivalence is both reflected in and a reflection of their approach to the study of anthropology. (Leach, 1984: 11.) This is the crux, in Leach’s view. He argued that the uncomfortable situation of the outsiders recruited by Malinowski explained their theoretical orientation. Yearning for security, they were seduced by the Oxbridge ideal of a stable British hierarchical society. Durkheim apparently believed that everything worked very nicely in properly integrated societies, where people shared the same values. So the outsiders became orthodox Durkheimians. In contrast, upper-middle class British recruits to anthropology (including E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Gregory Bateson, Camilla Wedgwood, Audrey Richards, Lucy Mair, and Leach himself) were rebels against their class. Leach speculated that they had been attracted to ethnographic research because they ‘were trying to get away from a homeland which they found archaic’.

(Leach, 1984: 12.) Sceptical insiders, they did not believe in any grand theories of social cohesion. They took it for granted that every establishment was out to manipulate everyone else.

An historian, Henrika Kuklick, has echoed Leach’s class analysis, though without citing him (Kuklick,1991: 72-3), but these speculations, typical of the gossip about their elders and betters that anthropologists swap in pubs, after their seminars, with a mixture of reverence and schadenfreude, fall apart immediately they are scrutinised with any care. Were Audrey Richards and Lucy Mair insiders, because of their social class, or outsiders because they were women in the academic world of the 1930s and 1940s? Did Radcliffe-Brown’s social insecurity (if indeed he did feel insecure) explain his attraction towards Kropotkin’s anarchism, or rather towards Durkheim’s corporate socialism? Leach’s propotypical insider, Evans-Pritchard, was an orthodox Durheimian before World War II. Schapera, one of Leach’s outsiders, was always sceptical of social theory. And if the analysis were true, it would be hard to understand how Leach himself became a great fan of structuralism in the 1960s. (As so often, Leach may have been generalising from his immediate situation in the small Cambridge department of social anthropology, where he and the increasingly conservative Meyer Fortes were embattled rivals in the 1960s and early 1970s.)


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