British social anthropology’s nationalist project

By | April 8, 2008

We are all indebted to David Mills (Anthropology Today, October 2003) for his well-informed account of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and the Commonwealth (ASA). We need reliable histories if we are to make sense of our own murky times and chart a way forward. Mills, thanks to careful research, a dispassionate style of writing and extensive scrutiny from the profession, has produced what I hope will be a consensual basis for future debate about the forms of association anthropologists need today, if any. Here I bring a more subjective line to the reconstruction of our shared past, fragmented present and precarious future. I argue that British social anthropology drew strength in its prime from the twilight of empire, when it seemed that European thought could make a universal object of the world’s peoples, especially those who lacked their own history. But the discipline’s social function was less in shoring up a fading imperialism than in reproducing a nationalist metaphysics at home.

In 1963, when I entered the Cambridge Department of Social Anthropology as an undergraduate student, I little knew that the ASA had just staged there what became known in retrospect as its first decennial conference or, as one wag put it, “the joint meeting between the British Empire and the University of Chicago.”We were perhaps more irreverent about our teachers in the 60s, but I could not have guessed then just how good a local circle that included Meyer Fortes, Edmund Leach, Jack Goody, Audrey Richards, Reo Fortune, G. I. Jones, Ray Abrahams, Esther Goody, Polly Hill and Stanley Tambiah would look now. I am sure there are many who feel the same way about their own education in the departments of Firth, Evans-Pritchard, Gluckman and Forde.

I soon learned that I was being inducted into a cross between a cult and a lineage, specifically into a double descent group whose twin founding ancestors were Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. The idea was to get within two degrees of separation of one or both of these, which wasn’t hard. Malinowski stood for ‘fieldwork’ (I have been there and you haven’t), Radcliffe-Brown for ‘theory’, a kind of theory I was unfamiliar with which had nothing to do with western intellectual history, but rather seemed to have sprung, like Athena from Zeus, out of the foreheads of initiates after they underwent prolonged exposure to the lives of exotic peoples.

This apparent disregard for the Western canon gave the social anthropologists a reputation for being as illiterate as the barbarians they studied and they had only recently won significant acceptance as fellows of Cambridge colleges. Even so, they had a fairly prominent public profile. Edmund Leach wrote pyrotechnic reviews for the New Statesman and later gave acclaimed BBC Reith Lectures. The humanities dons were beginning to use their concepts and cite their books. Sociology made a belated entry to Cambridge, but the social anthropologists were strong enough to ensure that one of their own got the first chair. An impressive cohort of PhDs came off the production line, including the Stratherns, Bloch, Kuper, Parry, Gudeman, Humphrey, the Hugh-Joneses and later Ingold, Fuller, Hann etc. The academic labour market was buoyant enough then to give everyone a flying start in the profession from which most have not looked back.

The common curriculum was very narrow, despite the intellectual adventures that our teachers went in for themselves. I once asked in a supervision, “Why are the Lele matrilineal?” and was told, “We ask how, not why. That is evolutionary history. We are only interested in the functional consequences for Lele society that they are matrilineal.” Yet Jack Goody had already embarked on his wide-ranging historical inquiries and wrote articles in places like New Society saying that social anthropology was after all comparative sociology; Meyer Fortes gave public lectures incorporating the legacy of Freud and Judaeo-Christianity; Edmund Leach came into the lecture room one day waving Le cru et le cuit and told us that anthropology would never be the same again.

It was confusing, but the adepts among us realised that being intellectually retarded by the official syllabus was necessary if we were to be admitted to the secret society. And the big secret was that it was a holding company for those with the right credentials to do whatever they like and call it ‘social anthropology’. Meyer Fortes, who took the spirit of the guild and made a trade union out of it, said “Social anthropology is what social anthropologists do” — and he had a way of controlling who they were, the ASA. He once told me with more than a hint of irony, after I complained about the mindless empiricism and factional disputes that animated the Cambridge seminar, “Your problem is that you are too rational, Keith. Anthropology is irrational.”

This gap between collective representation and personal practice may account for some of the boundary wars described by Mills. A new professional cadre, tightly controlled by a few acolytes of the founding fathers, had numerous battles to fight in order to preserve their hard-won independence. At first it had been the amateurs — the missionaries, the racists, the folklorists, the district commissioners, the Rosicrucians. Then there were the leftovers of Victorian evolutionism, the vigorous cell of diffusionists, all the non-sociologists who cluttered up the Royal Anthropological Institute and its publications. And of course there were the Americans who actually funded Malinowski at the International African Institute to promote studies of the sun setting on the empire (“the dynamics of culture contact”) and who always threatened to overwhelm the British demographically (“I just don’t care for their kind of writing”, wrote Evans-Pritchard. Well, Clifford Geertz got his own back with a vengeance). The empire itself posed problems. After all, we couldn’t let those Australians, South Africans and Indians adulterate our brand name by doing their own thing, even if they trained more students than we did. No wonder the rallying cry was ‘theory’ with Gluckman as cheer leader.

It was only when I met an old West Indian revolutionary, C.L.R. James, that I realised how seriously biased my education had been when it came to the anti-colonial revolution. It seems obvious now that the end of empire removed the institutional basis from any claim that “the sociology of primitive peoples” was a universal discipline. Indeed, the question of the relationship between social anthropology and empire became a hot topic in the 60s and 70s after the event. It was a way for a new generation to differentiate itself from the elders who were, I think, rightly aggrieved over being misrepresented. They had always sided with the liberal establishment in London against the racist regimes of the colonies they worked in. Had they not fought evolutionary racism as strongly as Boas and the cultural relativists? Alright, they stayed out of the 1950 UNESCO report on race, but that was to protect the discipline’s scientific standing in the universities by steering clear of ‘controversy’. It was misleading to say they had assisted in the subjection of indigenous peoples to imperial rule. No, social anthropology did not do much for the cause of empire. Its main contribution was to shore up the nation-state at home.

The British could reasonably claim to have launched ‘ethnography’ as the dominant worldwide paradigm of social and cultural anthropology in the twentieth century. And Malinowski was its prophet. He got the model from Central European nationalism: the ethnographer describes the timeless customs of a peasantry living close to nature and bound together by kinship, the living soul of a Volk seeking a state to match its culture and territory. His timing was perfect. Wilson supervised the Versailles project to replace empire with a system of nation-states. The new academic ethnographers reproduced that political model in their ‘primitive sociology’, lending to a war-ridden and fragmented world the appearance of timeless universality. Moreover, Radcliffe-Brown’s contribution, structural-functionalism (a label exported to American sociology by Talcott Parsons), claimed that the simpler societies replicated in microcosm eternal principles of social order, as manifested in corporate states of the inter-war period. Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown shared Durkheim as a precursor because their discipline was implicitly conceived of as a means of defending the nation-state and its ‘organic’ division of labour against revolution. The social anthropologists had more important ideological priorities than merely shoring up the peace in the colonies.

The model of fieldwork-based ethnography that is still sacrosanct for most social anthropologists thus had a specific historical origin and a contemporary social function. It was appropriate to insist that social anthropology was distinctively British. This was after all the nationalist century. But the model and its social matrix, national capitalism, came out of something else and they have been giving way to new forms for some time. It is hard for us to see that ‘ethnography’ reflects the central tendency of 20th century world society, just as its predecessors as the dominant paradigm for anthropology reflected theirs. We pay lip-service to our discipline’s origin in the Enlightenment as a quest for the principles of human nature with which to replace the arbitrary inequality of the old regime. But we generally ignore the fact that Kant coined the term ‘anthropology’ for modern purposes, as part of a cosmopolitan liberal project that still has much resonance for us. The next stage we know mainly in order to denigrate it, as our founders did in their struggle to get established. The Victorians explained their easy conquest of the world as a result of a superior culture linked to biology and the method of evolutionary history helped them to organise the ongoing development of a universal racial hierarchy. The age of nationalism, our own, likewise needed a vision of the world as a medley of isolated cultures and the social anthropologists provided one. It is unlikely to be the last in the sequence.

No other fragment of the academy committed itself to joining the people where they live in order to learn what they do and think. The social anthropologists in their prime were right to be proud of that, even if it sometimes led to misleading claims to having done away with libraries and the other standbys of sedentary research. They won their niche in the universities and were content to be influential in a few of the best. Although they thought of their main audience as the ruling elite, they did sometimes reach out to the public through radio and accessible publications. Their monographs will be ranked among the great original achievements of the twentieth century. When future generations ask how the peoples brought into world society by western imperialism joined humanity on their own terms in the twentieth century, they will find that the British school of ethnographers left an outstanding record of some societies from which these new movements came.

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.” The new tense favoured by the social anthropologists, the ethnographic present, allowed them to develop for their discipline a unity of object, theory and method that was eminently suited to their times. This very success posed difficulties for the reproduction of their successors. First of all, like the nation-states they mimicked, they favoured static, not historical models of society and had difficulty dealing with movement. Second, they obscured their own background in western intellectual history in order to promote a bogus methodology where ideas were made to appear out of live observations. Third, even if the British people sometimes seem not to have woken up to it yet, the world has changed a lot since 1950. The classical British school of ethnography is now part of the circumstances transmitted from the past to constrain our present actions. It will not do to repeat their recipes as if nothing has happened. That is why a strategy so brilliantly adapted to conditions in the mid-twentieth century may not serve us well in the next.

Editorial for Anthropology Today, October 2003.

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