Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa, 1918-1970. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

The Expansive Moment is an ethnographic document that aims to counter the popular criticism of British anthropology in Africa as colonialist by looking into its more progressive aspects. Jack Goody attempts to describe the development of anthropological research in Britain in the 1930s through the discussion of the role of universities, foundations, governments, and anthropologists themselves in shaping the field. By praising them, he defends the different players and their research interests, using, among his sources, personal correspondence between the main characters and his own anecdotes. The present commentary engages with and challenges some of the arguments found in the book to argue that Goody’s assessment of the field is profoundly partial.

To look at The Expansive Moment critically, it is important to understand Jack Goody’s position within his analysis. In his introduction, the author reserves a short paragraph to allude to his close relation with anthropologists like Mayor Fortes and E. E. Evans-Pritchard, major figures in his descriptions. In the a later chapter, entitled “Personal Contributions,” he describes his own involvement in the field. Indeed, after finishing an English degree and participating in the Second World War in the Middle East, Goody engaged in field research in West Africa as part of his archeology and anthropology degree at Cambridge, where he was a student of Fortes.  However, his analysis of his participation in British anthropology in Africa as a successor of the main figures of the 1930s lacks a clear statement on what this entails for his overall argument. This is not the case in Homo Academicus  where, in his study of French academia, Pierre Bourdieu (1984, 1) writes: “In choosing to study the social world in which we are involved, we are obliged to confront […] a certain number of fundamental epistemological problems […].” Bourdieu’s attempt at a sociological study shows self-reflexivity, whereas Goody’s “notes towards” do not tackle with seriousness obvious biases (Goody 1995, 5).

The characters of the book are a group of scholars, headed by Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics (LSE) who mostly, with the exception of Malinowski himself, did field research in British colonies in Africa during the late 1920s and the 1930s supported by the International African Institute and largely funded by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial. These scholars, according to Goody, had little relation to colonial ambitions and were freely following their own research interest. According to him, The personal background of British anthropologists in Africa was in direct contrast to the colonial spirit, as many came from overseas and many others were leftist. However, he later stresses the fact that they had to avoid any confrontation with colonial officers in their findings and that jews and communist had many difficulties of getting into the field. Indeed, while Goody makes the effort to dismiss anti-semitic comments, such as the ones made by Malinowski, he later details the difficulties encountered by Fortes to enter the field. Moreover, while he states that a wide range of scholars were leftist, he explains in detail the impossibility of doing fieldwork when having any communist background, as both the foundations, the university, and mostly the government made a constant effort to impede them to set foot in Africa. Not only were there impediments set to them, some of the anthropologists held personal views that lined with the very subject of colonialism. This is the case of Evans-Pritchard, who not only approved of the seclusion of leftists to research in Africa, but was also aligned with a pro-war ideology.

Goody challenges the proposition that foundations that supported British anthropologists reproduced capitalist systems and cultural ‘hegemony’, exercised power over researchers, and diminished their autonomy. He states that most of the funding came from the American foundation the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, which was later integrated to the Rockefeller foundation. This foundation directly supported researchers for their work in Africa, but also the development of the International African Institute. For instance, the London School of Economics received $2 million between 1923 and 1939 to support more empirical research. There is no transparent discussion of the appeal that anthropologists in Africa had for the Rockefeller foundation, although it is mentioned that they encouraged research on social change. This particular interest could be genuine or it could be enhanced by the attraction of investing in the big continent. Let us not forget the expansive importance of the Standard Oil company at the time. This foundation supported the International African Institute, which was led by Dr J. H. Oldham, a missionary, educationalist, and administrator. Dr Oldham was driven by the interest of applying an educational system in Africa based on practical training, which was criticized for having as intent to control a more compliant African worker. Although Goody describes a disinterested Oldham preoccupied with the well-being of African workers, it is difficult to paint his portrait very far from the colonialist incentive. As a missionary and administrator, he is placed in an ambiguous position, between the academia and the government. Interestingly, Goody mentions Evans-Pritchard disagreement over government-funded or applied work financed by the Colonial Social Science Research Council, the Rhodes-Livingston Institute, and the International African Institute. This was seen to be unscientific and even, as Evans-Pritchard argues, but Goody rapidly dismisses the importance of this criticism by stating that it was fueled by his animosity with Malinowski.

In this short review, it would be important to consider the actual work produced by anthropologists in Africa and their implications for the colonial argument. According to Goody, research interests for lineage, kinship and marriage, law, religion, and economy, were genuine for the ethnographers setting foot in Africa. Goody makes the implicit effort to show the great amount of work produced on each topic. One example comes from Oxford’s Fortes, Evans Pritchard and others’ African Political Systems, published in 1940. The main critique of the topics covered by the British anthropologists is that they looked at aspects of the life of colonized societies that could easily serve the colonialists to better understand the populations and manage them. Not only does the restriction of the field from anthropologists with contrary ideologies from the state reduces chances of upheaval, but the government had interest to keep anthropologists who were getting so close to the populations they wanted to control on their side. It was in their favour to have ‘cultural interpreters’ to be able to better govern over foreigners and to develop appropriate tactics of war or cohesion. This could be done through the study of anthropological work or by direct contact and friendship between colonial officers and the anthropologist.

Finally, Goody merely points at Russian and American anthropologists to discuss how they also engaged in imperialistic research without taking the time to further support his claim. This very limited look precludes all comparison with the situation of anthropology elsewhere and their interconnectedness. Here is a brief look at the similarities of French and British anthropology through comparisons with Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus. This exemplifies how British anthropology did not evolve in a void but was part of the bigger development of the field. First, Goody argues that administration and politics within the academic life in Britain in the 1930s was more time-consuming than teaching and writing. This relates to Bourdieu’s comment on the relevance of political power within the academic hierarchy. Secondly, Goody argues that the change from a small group of scholars to a larger participation increased teaching responsibilities for the older generation, brought new perspectives and approaches, but also erased the earlier small group feeling. This relates to Bourdieu’s drawing of French academics losing the privileges and the distinction of the position. Thirdly, the importance of the supervisor in the life of the student is seen in both Bourdieu’s and Goody’s analysis. For instance, Malinowski had a strong control over his students but also helped them receive fellowships and secure jobs and Bourdieu argued similarly that the securing of an academic post depended on the supervisor.

Throughout these chapters, Goody is defensive about criticism that point out a relationship between colonialism and British anthropology. Some of this criticism is related to the funding, the scholars interests, their relationship with the government, and courses given to colonial civil servants. Goody even chooses to point to others’ colonialist and imperialistic past and present to protect his own territory. Adding to his overall attitude, his closeness to the group of anthropologists described and his own involvement in Africa leads us to believe that he is defending himself, his credibility, and his future approval. This is clear in the following remark: “[…] it is an impoverished field that sees itself as having to discard its predecessors at each generation instead of critically building on their achievements […]” (144-145). Sadly, this volume does not attempt a critical appraisal of British anthropology, but a very personal justification of negative aspects of the field.


Bourdieu Pierre. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


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