The Cambridge Torres Strait expedition and British social anthropology
What follows is a transcript of a lecture I gave to a conference, ‘Anthropology and psychology: the legacy of the Torres Strait expedition, 1898-1998’, which was held in St. John’s College, Cambridge, 10-12 August 1998. It was published online by Science as Culture and may still be found there. I have chosen to revive it now because my partner in organizing the conference, Paul Whittle (1938-2009), died last week.
Paul was a marvellous companion in this project. We found each other through a common interest in W.H.R. Rivers, a pioneering psychologist and anthropologist whose role in establishing both his professions had been somewhat eclipsed, only to be revived after a fashion by the novelist Pat Barker’s Regeneration Trilogy. Paul was an experimental psychologist working in Rivers’ main specialism, visual perception, but he also believed that the divorce of his field from psychoanalysis had ruinous consequences; and his intellectual interests were extraordinarily wide. We discovered that we had a great deal in common, despite our outward differences; he was tall, thin and a gent, for example. Just to take the bookends of our lives, we both went to Manchester Grammar School, won scholarships to Cambridge and ended up fleeing to France, more or less at the time of the conference.
Sometimes only death reveals an individual’s importance for us. As soon as I heard of Paul’s, I knew that he was one of a handful who have shaped me. This lecture is the only solid residue of our collaboration a decade ago. I offer it in his memory.
Why organize a conference to mark the centenary of the Cambridge Anthropology Expedition to the Torres Straits? The best reason and our main one is to explore the possibilities for a rapprochement between anthropology and psychology by looking at a period and some individuals who were more open to collaboration between the disciplines than we have since become. But my task here is to examine the significance of CAETS for the subsequent development of social anthropology in Britain. It is widely acknowledged that the expedition was a turning point in the history of the discipline. If Victorian anthropology was largely conducted from the armchair, this event, above all, marked a turn to fieldwork in Britain. But if we ask what impact its participants have made on professional anthropologists and their students today, the answer is likely to be nil or negligible.
For the conventional wisdom is that modern British social anthropology was born without significant antecedents in 1922, when the publication of monographs by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown launched a “functionalist revolution”. The lineage of British social anthropologists has always had a double descent myth of itself, tracing its foundation to these two ancestors, who might as well have sprung from the ground for all that their followers know or care. When I agreed to help organise this conference, Marilyn Strathern told me “Well, I suppose there is some point in examining the history of an error”! In the light of this remark and of the prevailing attitude it expresses, I should make my own motives more explicit.
Anthropology, the aspiration to place knowledge of humanity as a whole on a rigorous footing, has been through three phases corresponding roughly to the last three centuries. In each case its object and method reflected the movement of world history when seen from a European perspective. Anthropology grew out of the critique of the old regime of agrarian civilisation as part of a search for the universal foundations of democratic society. Locke, Rousseau and Kant wished to found the social contract on human nature and to that end their method was philosophical reasoning, supported by the best information available on the uncivilised peoples of North America and the South Seas. Indeed Kant was the first to use the word “anthropology” in anything like its modern sense; but you will not find references made to that in today’s courses on the history of social anthropology.
The 19th century put the spirit of democratic revolution firmly behind itself and addressed a world brought into being by western imperialism, an imperialism powered by mechanisation. The question Victorians asked was how they were able to conquer the planet with so little effective resistance. They concluded that their culture was superior, being based on reason rather than superstition, and that this superiority was grounded in nature as racial difference. Their perspective on world society was inevitably one of movement, so that the racial hierarchy they found there was understood to be still evolving. The object of 19th century anthropology was thus to explain the origin of the continuing inequality between the races of mankind; its method was evolutionary history based on widespread comparison of examples linked by an assumption of human psychic unity. In other words, they could become like us once they submitted to an appropriate form of government and education by us.
In the 20th century anthropology took the predominant form of ethnography. That is, individual peoples, studied in isolation from their wider context in time and space, were written up by lone ethnographers whose method was prolonged and intensive immersion in their societies. Nowhere was this project pursued more rigorously or exclusively than in the British social anthropology of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. By the end of the century, most professionals in social and cultural anthropology around the world pay at least lip service to this ethnographic ideal, although in the other imperial centres (the United States, France, Russia, India etc) the methods employed are more varied. And within Britain the basic model of functionalist ethnography has been undermined from numerous quarters for several decades now.
One of my aims in revisiting a formative event of one hundred years ago is to throw light on our own contemporary search for a new paradigm, by investigating in some detail how 19th century anthropology became its 20th century successor, at least in Britain. In the course of this enquiry I also hope to illuminate the relationship between the dominant object and method of the 20th century discipline and the history of world society of which it has been a part. The ultimate purpose of this, of course, is to clarify what form anthropology should take if it is to help us make an informed connection with world society in the next century.
Between evolution and ethnography
The intellectual history of Brish social anthropology has been well-served of late with books like Henrika Kuklick’s The Savage Within and Jack Goody’s The Expansive Moment (both of them participants in this conference). Not long ago, Adam Kuper’s Anthropologists and Anthropology: the British school 1922-1972 had the field virtually to itself. But the recent publication of a tome of almost 600 pages by George Stocking, the preeminent historian of anthropology of our day, overshadows these. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951 is the sequel to Victorian Anthropology and its theme is precisely that shift from armchair evolutionary comparison to fieldwork-based ethnography with which this talk is concerned. Stocking sets out to disarm his critics in a preemptive preface where he represents his own approach as “historicist” rather than “presentist”. That is, he claims to have no particular axe to grind as far as today’s disputes within academic anthropology are concerned, preferring rather to capture as nearly as possible what the participants in the story took to be the truth. In consequence, his judgements are implicit and tend to favour the conventional wisdom.
Stocking’s method is largely biographical, focusing on a few individuals who made a big difference. He takes Tylor as his point of departure for the Victorian evolutionary approach, with Frazer as an even later exponent of that tradition. Towards the end of the book, he lists the individuals who dominate the story of British social anthropology’s formation as follows: “from Tylor through Haddon, Seligman, Marrett and Rivers to Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown” (p. 437). Given that the beginning and end of the story are virtually axiomatic, the interest of the plot lies mainly in the middle. It is notable that of the intermediate quartet mentioned here only Robert Marett of Oxford was not a member of CAETS. But Stocking pays little attention to Haddon and Seligman who enter the story from time to time as institutional godfather figures, but never as pioneers of theory or method, when seen teleologically from the perspective of what British social anthropology eventually became. Marett’s claims to have been influential are likewise pretty marginal. Which leaves us with the enigmatic figure of William Halse Rivers Rivers.
Rivers joined CAETS as an experimental psychologist and he has been celebrated recently as a military psychiatrist in the first world war through Pat Barker’s trilogy of novels. But he probably did more than anyone to set British social anthropology on its modern course. Stocking gives Rivers more space than anyone else after Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown (a major section devoted largely to him in each of three chapters). His tone is often grudgingly dismissive, but Rivers’s prominence in the narrative of the early decades is unavoidable. Inevitably, the question of CAETS’s historical significance becomes conflated with the need to assess Rivers’s relationship to the functionalist movement which Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown and their followers claimed to have initiated, more or less out of nothing.
There is a case for arguing that Rivers deserves to be seen as the founder of professional social anthropology in Britain, an equal to his acknowledged counterparts in America and France, Franz Boas and Marcel Mauss. But I have no wish to play a zero sum game of that sort, denigrating Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown as they and their descendants did Rivers. To some extent, I exhausted that line of polemic in the pamphlet I wrote with Anna Grimshaw a few years ago (Anthropology and the Crisis of the Intellectuals, Prickly Pear Press 1993). It is obvious enough to me, as it is to everyone, that Malinowski was a writer and fieldworker of genius, the dominant figure in British social anthropology between the wars; and that Radcliffe-Brown, especially after Malinowski left England shortly before the second world war, was responsible, with the help of his close colleagues Evans-Pritchard and Fortes (the gang of three?), for the structural-functionalist paradigm which gave British social anthropology such a coherent, if rather narrow profile in mid-century.
The only reason for taking up the cudgels on Rivers’s behalf is that his contribution has been all but eliminated from the collective memory of the discipline. To some extent this is because, by a cruel irony, he died unexpectedly in the same year, 1922, that the functionalist revolution is thought to have taken off with the publication, especially, of Argonauts of the Western Pacific, but also The Andaman Islanders. (This annus mirabilis also saw the publication of Lugard’s The Dual Mandate in Tropical Africa, as well as Ulysses, The Waste Land and Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.) The 1920s were witness to a diffusionist revival which made “conjectural history” the main target of the new ethnographers and Rivers had nailed his flag to that mast for some time. As the dominant institutional figure before the war, his achievements had to be downgraded if his successors wished to represent themselves as revolutionaries. Both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown were economical with the truth when it came to discussing their own antecedents and methods, whereas Rivers cultivated a self-effacing transparency. The problem was particularly acute for Radcliffe-Brown as a product of the Cambridge school led by Haddon and Rivers.
Unlike Stocking, I have several explicit axes to grind; but my concerns are not strictly presentist since, when I insert myself into the long conversation about anthropology, I would want to grant an appropriate measure of respect to those predecessors who made a major difference. Something valuable is lost if we diminish Rivers’s contribution to that conversation. In what follows, I hope to show that he is central to the formation of the British school in the 20th century, with the added twist that he was never wholly specialised in anthropology. The way he constructed the relationship between anthropology and psychology went through some significant shifts over time; and this makes his example instructive as we negotiate today the uncertainties of a paradigm lost. But before embarking on this narrative, I should briefly mention CAETS itself and the part played by Haddon and Seligman in the subsequent development of British social anthropology.
The CAETS protagonists (minus Rivers)
CAETS was Alfred Haddon’s doing, a sequel to the natural history expedition he had undertaken a decade earlier to the islands between Australia and New Guinea. His interest now was mainly in anthropology, seeing the Torres Straits islanders as a threatened culture, literally as islands in a sea of imperialist expansion. He expected to cover the sociology, folklore and material culture himself; but he also took along a linguist, Sidney Ray, a trainee student, Anthony Wilkin (who died young), and three experimental psychologists — three because Rivers first nominated two of his students, Charles Myers and William McDougall, and then decided to come along too. A friend of Myers and McDougall, a medical pathologist called Charles Seligman, talked his way onto the expedition at the last minute. The book on CAETS (edited by Anita Herle and Sandra Rouse and published by Cambridge University Press) contains a number of essays on the expedition itself. I suppose that if you came here hoping to find out more about it, you will be largely disappointed. For the focus of the conference is principally on the consequences of the expedition.
As far as British social anthropology is concerned, CAETS confirmed Haddon as the founder of a precocious school of anthropology at Cambridge which is widely held to have suffered a decline between the wars, only to be resurrected by Meyer Fortes in the 1950s. More important perhaps, the expedition launched Rivers and Seligman as anthropologists, the latter as an influential figure in the discipline at the London School of Economics. Six volumes of CAETS reports were published, the last (paradoxically the introduction) in 1935. The two-part volume on physiology and psychology, for which Rivers was largely responsible, came out first. In this conference we will be devoting a full session to Haddon and one and a half to Rivers. Seligman is unfortunately neglected here, a fate that is mirrored by his treatment in most histories of the discipline, including Stocking’s.
Haddon and Seligman were both prominent patrons of young ethnographers in the period before Malinowski got the fellowship programme of the International African Institute rolling in the 1930s. In addition to their institutional prominence at Cambridge, the LSE and the Royal Anthropological Institute, Seligman, with his wife Brenda (also an anthropologist), was independently wealthy and thus a source of private financial support. Haddon and Seligman were always marginal to the functionalist revolution, but reasonably tolerant of it, giving vent occasionally to fogeyish complaints, but recognising a good thing when they saw it. They each retained a Darwinian evolutionary approach in which culture remained linked to biology. They both, especially Haddon (in collaboration with Huxley and Carr-Saunders), made a belated contribution to the anthropological critique of racism in the 1930s, despite remaining attached to racial taxonomy for most of their careers. Haddon was from the beginning concerned about the plight of natives in the colonies and Seligman too became involved in what was known between the wars as practical anthropology.
Haddon was a populariser, author of general books on the evolution of art and on human history as the migration of peoples. He reviewed books for the Daily Telegraph in its heyday. Seligman became interested in psychoanalysis in the 1920s, a fact which has been noticed by the Frenchman, Bertrand Pulman, but not by many of his British colleagues. Stocking’s narrative gives some prominence to this moment of potential rapprochement between anthropology and psychology. Malinowski too played his part in an exchange which would have been made for Rivers, had he not died. Most important, Seligman led the movement of British social anthropology from the insular Pacific to Africa, carrying out with Brenda a survey of the Nile valley which acted as a bridge between a Frazerian interest in divine kingship and the subsequent study of African political systems by functionalist ethnographers. Indeed the book of that name, edited by Fortes and Evans-Pritchard (African Political Systems, 1940), was dedicated to Seligman. It, more than any other single volume, announced the arrival of a new school, British social anthropology.
So Haddon and Seligman were more than just bit players in the story of British social anthropology; but of the CAETS protagonists no-one would deny that they were secondary to Rivers. Indeed it would be no exaggeration to state that the principal legacy of CAETS was the (partial) conversion of Rivers to anthropology. In what follows, and contrary to Stocking’s method, I will pursue a teleological line, first outlining the distinctive features of British social anthropology in mid-century. I will argue that functionalist ethnography was an allegorical commentary on a world divided into nation-states, its double ancestry reflecting the contradictory dualism (nation and state) at the heart of 20th century society. Then I will list Rivers’s main achievements, in order to place his contribution to the development of the discipline in perspective. Finally I shall claim that Rivers’s long struggle to combine the study of anthropology and psychology, a struggle which underwent some notable shifts, provides an ample source for reflection on how a future anthropology might succeed in bringing the subjectivity of individuals and the history of human society as a whole into a creative methodological synthesis.
CAETS and functionalist ethnography
In order to grasp what the functionalist revolution in modern anthropology was about, it is necessary to focus on the word function which refers principally to what people do. Previously exotic peoples had been studied as evidence for what western societies may have been like before we began writing our own history. They were primitive in that sense. Their customs were taken out of context and arranged in taxonomic sequences illustrating various grand narratives of human progress which culminated in the achievements of the white race. The favourite themes were religion, marriage and technology.
The CAETS protagonists, as Henrika Kuklick has persuasively shown, in “Islands in the Pacific: Darwinian Biogeography and British Anthropology,” American Ethnologist (1996), while remaining committed to Darwinian evolution as a broad framework for anthropology, wanted to place the island cultures in real history, both as present victims of western expansion and as the outcome of previous migrations whose character could only be inferred from the contemporary evidence. Haddon, Rivers and Seligman believed that the islanders’ current way of life had some integrity, but it was under threat from a more powerful one and had already absorbed many previous cultural influences, situated as they were at a crossroads between the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They proposed therefore that the internal consistency of Pacific island cultures had to be set against their interaction with the rest of the world, in a process which might eventually be reconstructed as part of the story of human history in real time.
Rivers went on to compile The History of Melanesian Society in two volumes (1914) which sought to explain cultural variation within the region in part as the result of successive waves of migration. He eventually aligned himself with Eliot-Smith and Perry whose revival of diffusionist world history featured Egypt as the source of a widely distributed cultural complex (an echo of the Lost Tribes of Israel discourse of the previous century). There is no doubt that Rivers and his colleagues generated some pretty wild stuff in reconstructing the history of human movement along lines unconsciously imitating the British imperialism of the day (“navigators in search of precious metals” and so on). And this provided a convenient target for the functionalist ethnographers.
Malinowski published his functionalist manifesto in a series of short pieces which came out between 1922 and 1926: the introduction to Argonauts, two papers in Nature and an encyclopaedia article. It boils down to this. Culture is something people everywhere generate as a vehicle through which they live their everyday lives. It has to work for them on a daily basis and that includes the requirement that the different parts add up to something reasonably coherent. It does not matter where the bits of culture come from; what matters is the integrity of the pattern expressed in everyday life, in the here and now. It is worth recalling that 1922 was the year when audiences everywhere queued up to watch Flaherty’s movie, Nanook of the North. After the slaughter of the trenches, confidence in western civilisation was shaken. The resilience of an Eskimo pitted against nature underscored the message that ways of life we may once have dismissed as primitive had their own legitimacy and might even be a source of inspiration for a West on its knees.
Malinowski persisted in calling his Pacific islanders “primitive”; but his message too was that their way of life had an integrity which could offer some positive lessons to the West. His functionalist method thus consisted of joining in the life of an exotic community in order to study intensively how the various aspects of everyday routine worked for the natives and added up to a coherent whole. He used his own (somewhat exaggerated) linguistic competence and long-term immersion in the field as a model. In contrast to the example set by CAETS of a team quizzing informants in Pidgin English on a quick dash through several ports of call, Malinowski advocated prolonged fieldwork by single ethnographers willing to experience life as it was lived by others. To the extent that he later developed a theory (A Scientific Theory of Culture was published posthumously in 1944), it was that the function of an institution, the purpose of its existence, lay in its contribution to the biological survival of individuals within an interlocking matrix of such institutions.
Armed with this approach, Malinowski supervised a programme of field research in the 1930s, mainly in Africa and with Rockefeller funding. This launched British social anthropology as a viable collective enterprise. But, if his style was romantic, a lone adventurer finding himself through encounters with the exotic other and writing vivid novel-like descriptions of faraway places, the most pressing need of his followers was to establish a professional base for themselves within the home universities. And this is where the other half of the founding duo came in.
British social anthropology’s two sides and the nation-state
Radcliffe-Brown must hold the record for geographical coverage of the world’s universities. Starting out as Rivers’s student in Cambridge, he spent more than two decades outside England, mainly in Australia, South Africa and the United States. Then, no sooner was he established in an Oxford chair and undisputed leader of British social anthropology from around 1940, than retirement forced him to set off on his travels again — to Brazil, Egypt, Manchester, South Africa and finally to an isolated death in London. Radcliffe-Brown brought British social anthropology firmly within Durkheimian sociology as the synchronic comparative study of primitive societies (not cultures). His functionalism also stressed the concrete activities of living people observed in the field, but the purpose of these activities was found in their contribution to social order, conceived of as an integrated rule system or social structure. Hence the hyphenated expression, structural-functionalism. He made kinship the core of this study and, in elaborating what Malinowski called “kinship algebra”, he gave to the neophyte profession a special expertise with which to mystify their own students and outsiders.
Radcliffe-Brown put his efforts into conceptual refinement and systematic taxonomy. If this comparative approach was reminiscent of a Tylorian evolutionism, he called his own method “a natural science of society” in which “primitive”peoples were used not to construct a ladder of progress, but to clarify through their greater simplicity the abstract principles underlying social order everywhere. He was aided in this task by his junior colleagues, Evans-Pritchard and Fortes, who by virtue of controlling the Oxbridge chairs during the post-war academic boom ensured that the British school remained identifiably structural-functionalist long after social conditions in the wider world had undermined its basic assumptions.
The American anthropologist G.P. Murdock, cited by Stocking, wrote a critique of the British school in 1951 as follows: he found their interests narrow, their theories parochial and their ethnographies too specialised; they had neglected history and cultural change and were indifferent to psychology; they had all the characteristics of a school which had lost touch with the wider international community of scientific anthropologists. Be that as it may, when the intellectual history of the 20th century is written, my guess is that a considerable place will be found in it for the monographs produced by the British school over four decades. Chief among them will be the books of Evans-Pritchard, Firth and Fortes; my own favourite is Nadel’s magisterial Nigerian study, A Black Byzantium. For ours was the century in which the colonised peoples of the world began to join universal society on their own terms. In doing so, they eventually found their own voice, largely as novelists and poets; but before that, if future generations want to know what they were like, they will have to turn to the disciplined, readable ethnographies of the British school.
It is paradoxical that British anthropologists often wrote of African peoples as if they lived in bounded, timeless units outside the currents of modern history, on metaphorical islands, as it were, to set against the real historical islands that Haddon and Rivers studied. For the ethnographers of the interwar period were also heavily engaged with the problem of social change (which they called “culture contact”). Without exception they were forced to come to grips with the concrete realities of their colonial field situation, even as they also constructed insular laboratories detached from the movement of 20th century society. It is notable that the principal source of their funding, by Rockefeller, went under the rubric of “Social change in Africa”. Even more than most, these ethnographers had to struggle with the contradictions of doing intellectual work in the modern world. It is convenient, but lazy to typify them as just one thing. They themselves recognised that they were trying to reconcile at least two things — hence the double descent mythology personified by Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.
If ideology is classically the attempt to derive life from ideas, the British school sought to derive ideas from life, devising a special style of writing in which concrete descriptions of live activities were used to support generalisations whose debt to western intellectual traditions was never made explicit. In the hands of Malinowski this could be a romantic literary exercise, linking individual actors and concrete events to a self-conscious narrative. Radcliffe-Brown’s influence was aimed at professional consolidation, the promulgation of a scientific ethos, objectifications of structure, abstract conceptualisation. The truth is that the functionalist ethnographers had to mediate between contrasting social situations — their own isolation as individual fieldworkers exposed to the lives of exotic peoples and their collective reproduction in an academic milieu as a caste of professional experts. They were pulled in two directions: towards joining the peoples of the world and back into the insularity of academic bureaucracy.
This commitment to the outside world, however half-hearted, was more than any expressed by the other inmates of the ivory tower, who remained resolutely locked up in their libraries, laboratories and seminar rooms. And if it was CAETS which symbolised the initial breech with academic insularity, then it symbolised by far the most distinctive feature of 20th century social anthropology, a willingness to make up stories about humanity based on living with real people. Modern ethnographers are a synthesis of fieldworker and theorist, two roles which were normally kept separate before. The aspiration to combine life and ideas, experience and reason in one intellectual personality would not be remarkable if it did not go against the whole trend of the academic division of labour in our times. It is unlikely that the monographs of British social anthropology will be remembered for their ideas: the vivid analytical descriptions they offer of life on the periphery of western civilisation more than compensate for their lack of scruple in acknowledging their own theoretical antecedents.
Perhaps also these monographs will be valued retrospectively as a specific genre of anthropological writing which captured, if only allegorically, something essential in 20th century world society. For ours is (or has been) a world of nation-states divided against each other; so much so that human unity has normally been lost sight of in a welter of national and even ethnic consciousness. It has long been assumed that the social relevance of British social anthropology must be found in the functioning of colonial empire, where most of the field research was carried out, in the logic of indirect rule and of Lugard’s dual mandate. But I prefer to emphasise the way that modern social anthropology has reproduced the dominant worldview of this century which has all of humanity pigeonholed as separate tribes, each the owner (or would-be owner) of a nation-state.
The idea of a nation represents an escape from modern history, from the realities of urban industrial life, into the timeless rural past of the Volk, of the people conceived of as a homogeneous peasantry, living in villages near to nature, unspoiled by social division, the very archetype of a community united by kinship. Before nationalism, western intellectuals compared their societies with the city states of the ancient world. Now they fabricated myths of their own illiterate ethnic orgins in primeval forests. (See Martin Thom Republicans, Tribes and Nations). The Malinowskian pole of the British school has more than an echo of that, which is unsurprising given the Polish adventurer’s personal connection to Central European nationalism.
The other half, Hegel’s vision of the state as both antidote to and vehicle for capitalism, conceives of society as a discrete, bounded territorial unit, governed from the centre according to impersonal rules, administered by scientific experts, itself the very embodiment of social order, employer of a university-trained professional class whose dominance is specific to our century. Again it is not difficult to see this aspect of modern society represented in Radcliffe-Brown’s influence as the arch structural-functionalist. British social anthropology flourished in the period of the corporate state and it is this pole, rather than the Malinowskian impulse to romantic nationalism, which took root in the discipline’s adaptation to the postwar expansion in the universities.
It would be idle to pretend that today’s practitioners of anthropology are free of this contradiction, even if habitual denigration of our predecessors as tools of colonial empire helps to obscure the point. But the story of the unravelling of functionalist ethnography, which is also the story of the unravelling of the nation-state as the universal form of human society, belongs to another talk. This one is concerned with how British social anthropology made it from the 19th to the 20th century; and so it is time at last to place Rivers in the history of that transition.
Rivers and British social anthropology
What were the distinctive features of British social anthropology in its heyday around mid-century? The following would be a shortlist of elements for an idealtype.
1. Ethnography: the habit of writing about one people circumscribed in time and space.
2. Fieldwork: the intensive study of living activities where they take place.
3. Ideas from life: abstract generalisations realised in concrete descriptions.
4. Kinship: the field of professional specialisation, especially the use of genealogies for formal modelling (“kinship algebra”).
5. Social structure: emphasis on a coherent system of social rules, not on culture or psychology.
6. Comparative method: sometimes limited to regional surveys.
7. Professional jargon: close specification of concepts and terms, as opposed to popular usage.
8. Functional integrity: the social or cultural whole expressed through institutional patterns in the here and now.
9. Culture contact: the form in which social change was addressed, also as practical anthropology.
10. Science of society: social anthropology as the sociology of primitive societies.
What then did Rivers contribute to the development of this intellectual project?
1. Ethnography. His The Todas (1906) was considered at the time to be a pioneering example of the new intensive ethnography. Rivers was unusually transparent in listing his sources and this has been used to discredit his seriousness as an ethnographer (e.g. by Stocking). Functionalists tend to be more discrete or even actively misleading. Having said this, Malinowski’s monographs are written at a wholly superior level, making Rivers look like a plodding amateur in the genre.
2. Fieldwork. This was the great message of CAETS and Rivers subsequently argued for the superiority of long-term immersion on the part of a single fieldworker. He wrote up this approach at length in the official handbook Notes and Queries of 1912. Even so the shortcuts he took for granted reveal him as a transitional figure in the development of fieldwork practice.
3. Ideas from life. In the course of CAETS and after, Rivers developed the genealogical method (sometimes called “the concrete method”). This consisted of mapping kinship relations within a community on a network diagram compiled from the perspective of multiple informants. The publication of this almost cubist solution to the problem of mediating the abstract and the concrete in modern society was contemporary with Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). (See Anna Grimshaw’s forthcoming The Ethnographer’s Eye). Rivers was always more precise on methodological issues than his functionalist successors.
4. Kinship. Fortes reconsituted the British school’s focus on kinship as a direct line from L.H. Morgan through Rivers and Radcliffe-Brown to himself. This lineage is disputed, not least because of Radcliffe-Brown’s efforts to downplay his own debt to his teacher. He took Rivers’s dynamic geneological method and turned it into the static kinship algebra for which British social anthropology became (in)famous.
5. Social structure. At one stage Rivers went out of his way to separate the study of social structure as an analytical field from psychology, producing a book from lectures on the subject. He seems not however to have been much influenced in this enterprise by Durkheim’s sociology, as were both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown.
6. Comparative method. Rivers was interested in regional variations, but as a connected historical process, unlike both the evolutionists and the functionalists, who preferred to construct abstract taxonomies.
7. Professional jargon. This was Radcliffe-Brown’s speciality, somewhat to Malinowski’s disgust. Rivers put his energies into method and theoretical analysis.
8. Functional integrity. Rivers saw this — how otherwise could he have developed a notion of social structure? — but he chose to emphasise the wider historical context.
9. Culture contact. This preoccupation of the British school between the wars was, of course, of primary concern to Rivers (and Haddon). They sought to give the problem a functional twist, making a sort of synchronic history (one of several oxymorons in their repertoire). But this largely unrecognised legacy of Haddon and Rivers was submerged in the rhetorical denigration of “conjectural history”.
10. Science of society. Radcliffe-Brown mastered the rhetoric of science, but Rivers pioneered its practice. Whereas British social anthropology occupied a no-man’s-land between science and literature, Rivers believed he was helping to build an impersonal scientific community, in fact several, until the circumstances of the first world war led him in a more individualised and personal direction. (See the following section).
The purpose of this exercise is not to settle competing claims for independent invention of modern social anthropology (according to the logic of intellectual property rights), but rather to place persons in the history of an ongoing conversation about humanity. The prima facie evidence of the above summary comparison is that Rivers’s contribution to the development of British social anthropology is far more than “the history of an error”. He made both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown possible and they in turn gave a decisive impetus to the formation of a discipline which seems in retrospect to have been unusually well-adapted to mid-century Britain and quite possibly to the world at large.
But there is more to Rivers than a proto-functionalist ethnographer who failed to make the grade. He never abandoned his commitment to psychology and it is in this dialectic of emergent academic specialisms that we find unfinished intellectual agendas which might well inform our own efforts to know the world and ourselves. For the notion of British social anthropology as a self-contained, coherent enterprise is long gone, leaving a terrain animated only occasionally by the latest ideas from America and France.
Rivers between anthropology and psychology
William Rivers started out as a physiologist and had already established the first two experimental psychology laboratories in England before joining CAETS to which he contributed both studies of perception and the genealogical method. As a result of his neurological experiments with Head, he developed a two-stage model of nerve regeneration, the protopathic and the epicritic. He elaborated the sociological study of kinship and social structure. Took his ethnological enquiries in the direction of German historicism and beyond, into the wilder regions of global speculation. Became a psychoanalyst who applied Freud’s ideas critically. Served as an army psychiatrist in the war, finding in the treatment of shell-shock victims a new version of social psychology. He ended his life as a socialist politician and friend of progressive literary men. In the last few years before his death, 1917-1922, he appears to have had a personality transplant, the first stages of which are depicted by Pat Barker in Regeneration. Once a conservative member of the academic establishment, a recluse with a stammer, he became the very model of an outgoing public intellectual.
Now there is much more to this fascinating story than can be told here. But I wish only to point to the way Rivers approached the disciplines of psychology and anthropology (in which he included ethnology and sociology). His first preoccupation was to build up several academic specialisms of which he was a practitioner. Indeed he subscribed to the compartmentalisation of knowledge to the extent of serving as president of both the national bodies responsible for supervising professional practice in anthropology and psychology in Britain. He brought to these various enquiries a common methodological outlook which never sacrificed the active engagement of the investigating subject to an objectifying positivism which was taking root in the universities at the time. It is indisputable that he sought to separate the study of society from that of individuals, in much the same way that chemistry was hived off from physics. At this stage he seems to have made little of the fact that he combined these branches of study within himself.
Rivers’s war experiences changed all that. In the last five years of his life he produced some forty pieces of work, of varying quality and length, while maintaining a punishing regime of professional and public commitment. Inevitably he wrote these pieces off the top of his head, relying on whatever was stored in his memory from decades of specialist practice. In the process his method became more autobiographical and self-reflexive; the boundaries between disciplines became blurred in a synthesising drive to comprehend and influence individual experience of society.
In his posthumous book, Conflict and Dream (1923), Rivers recalls one of his own dreams whose preoccupation was with “Hidden Sources”. His initial explanation is that the dream referred to his frustration in not being able to reply to mistaken American critics of his kinship theories, because of overwork as an army psychiatrist. In a practical sense, but possibly more seriously, a conflict existed between psychology and ethnology. But, pushing the analysis further, Rivers concludes that the dream reveals the fundamental harmony between psychoanalysis and ethnology which are based on the same method, the excavation of hidden sources which help us to understand the complex history of both human personality and culture.
Armed with this integrated vision of self and society, Rivers came out of the war ready to change the world, not just to understand it. In this he differed markedly from Radcliffe-Brown (who spent much of the war teaching in a Sydney suburb) and Malinowski (who, as we know, sat it out on a Pacific island). It was they, however, who forged an academic discipline attuned to the needs of the corporate state in mid-20th century Britain. Not Rivers. What he might have done with Rockefeller funding is anyone’s guess. Certainly the 1920s were a fruitful period to examine the relationship between the new ethnography and psychoanalysis. Malinowski was actively engaged with Freudian ideas at this time, until the exchange went the wrong way from his point of view. There was support from Seligman. But the trend, both in anthropology and psychology, was towards divorce, not marriage. The name of the game in our century has been division of the professional pie.
It is more likely, had he lived, that Rivers would have become a disestablished outsider (something like his friend Myers who left the academy to found the Institute of Industrial Psychology without government support) than that he would have continued as the central figure of two disciplines or become the founder of a new academic synthesis. In that respect, Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown were more attuned to conservative times. But even they can hardly be said to have solved the problem of social reproduction adequately. Malinowski fell out with all of his leading male students before fleeing the country; while Radcliffe-Brown died alone after a life of nomadism. Rivers’s premature death, it can be said, did allow them to reinvent themselves, sometimes at his expense, as the only begetters of British social anthropology. If I have done nothing else today, it should have been to make it clear that this foundation myth is bad history. And, in that light, we might gain something from revisiting CAETS, the events of 1898 and their intellectual legacy.