A nonanthropological defense of British anthropology: Review of Jack Goody’s The Expansive Moment

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

On the back cover of The Expansive Moment, it is written that “this is a study of the different ideological and intellectual approaches adopted by the emerging subject of social anthropology and how far these views were incorporated into and defined by the structures and institutions in which they developed”. Although the book does discuss the early British social anthropologists’ ideological and intellectual stances, this presentation still appears somewhat deceiving. Jack Goody does not provide a systematic account of these approaches, nor does he explain how they are defined by the structures and institutions in which they evolved. In the book, there are many cases in which Goody presents a specific individual’s intellectual position. Chapter 5 deals with Evans-Pritchard’s view of himself as a “detached scholar engaged in pure research” and strongly opposed to applied enquiry (74). In chapter 3, Fortes is described as a “progressive conservationist”, a “radical conserver”, who “would prefer to let the races remain in their natural state” (53). But Jack Goody doesn’t try to give an explanation of how these anthropologists came to adopt the positions that they defended. Rather, he presents their positions as a given and, when dealing with the question of how their approaches were influenced by the institutions they had to deal with, he makes the argument that “in general individuals carried out what research they wanted” (195). In other words, Jack Goody tends to view the early British social anthropologists as free individuals who were not seriously constrained by the organizations they worked with or by the provenance of their funding.

In Homo Academicus, Bourdieu tries to analyse the French academic field scientifically, by studying the social, historical and institutional conditions that lead professors to adopt particular positions. To do so, he creates sociological constructions of specific individuals by assigning them a definite set of properties which allow him to compare them rigorously to each other in a “strictly theoretical space of differentiation” (Bourdieu, 22-23). This seemingly complex method is probably not without its flaws, but it allows Bourdieu to avoid some of the pitfalls associated with studying a world you are part of. On the contrary, Jack Goody does no attempt to produce sociological or anthropological explanations of what is at play in the period surrounding the birth of British social anthropology. He focuses mostly on the personal relationships of individual anthropologists and his account is based almost exclusively on their correspondence. It could be said that such a way of writing his story has some advantages. First and foremost, it avoids lumping individuals together and makes it plain that, among anthropologists, intellectual positions were not homogeneous in any way. Secondly, it allows us to learn some interesting information about the characters involved. For example, Malinowski’s central role in the organization of the discipline of social anthropology is made clear, especially in chapter 1.  We also learn about the “leftward, sometimes Marxist, leanings” (9) of many anthropologists and about their support for colonial independence movements (11). But this method also has obvious drawbacks. Through the accumulation of data that often seems trivial, it feels as though the broad picture is blurred rather than illuminated. Moreover, Jack Goody writes phrases such as:

Some anthropologists may have received benefits as representatives of the colonial regime and its hierarchical attitudes.  Others certainly suffered from this association and tried to keep clear of contamination […] (196)

With this type of formulation, meant to repeat the truism that things are always more complex than they look, Goody makes it very hard to understand the nature and the extent of anthropologists’ collaboration (or refusal to collaborate) with the authorities. Admittedly, some typologies and classifications are badly done, but isn’t it part of the purpose of social science to put forward generalizations (which will of course have to be debated)? Furthermore, as discussed in class, by applying an anthropological grid to the study of foreign populations but not to the study of his own peers, Goody may inadvertently reproduce a colonial pattern whereby the former are treated as objects and the latter as subjects.

As stated above, Jack Goody makes the argument that early British social anthropologists were not told how to do their research:

Whatever bows had to be made to the interests of Rockefeller benefactions, the International African Institute (IAI) and the colonial authorities, by and large people were allowed to pursue their own academic purposes (as Rockefeller and the Institute intended) (154)

Not taking into account the fact that “allowed” is a strange word to use for someone who claims that researchers were mostly free, shouldn’t these “bows” to larger powers be a central topic of enquiry? Besides, it is plausible that the Foundation or the colonial authorities rarely imposed direct guidelines and rules to field anthropologists. However, the latter’s work might still have been in line with the former’s interests. The editorial writers of a newspaper probably don’t receive a phone call from the owners telling them what opinion they should defend – such a direct interference might even make them angry. But if they have been nominated in this position, it might mean that they had already internalized the attitudes that are expected of them. In the same way, it is possible to think that there was already some prior ideological and intellectual affinity with, say, Malinowski and those who were in charge of the Rockefeller Foundation. At the very least, research done by British social anthropologists didn’t seriously threaten their interests. As was mentioned during seminar, if the costs are low (the money given by the Foundation and by colonial authorities was substantial for social science research, but it didn’t cripple these institutions’ budgets), the benefits don’t have to be huge.

Much of Goody’s book sounds like a defense of his own legacy and that of his colleagues and mentors. There is some evident nostalgia in his description of the period covered. He speaks of an atmosphere of camaraderie, of solidarity, of communitas (83) and argues that anthropology’s most notable achievements took place in this period (86). He also severely criticizes some of his successors. One of the targets of his criticism is the type of anthropology that separates theory and fieldwork, particularly those anthropologists who limit themselves to recording the words and action of the people (149). For him, anthropology “is analytic or it is nothing” (150). He also has strong words about those today who limit themselves to a “general commitment to some brand-name anthropology […]” (101) without acquiring a deeper knowledge of other disciplines. Without such knowledge, “anthropology will continue to be the domain of the not-so-gifted amateur […]” (101). Another one of the targets of his criticism is the tendency to put aside the work done by the previous generations instead of trying to “build on earlier knowledge” (148), in order for science to be cumulative. This is a good point, which is also made by Vered Amit in a recent book on “mid-level concepts”. She denounces the tendency to reinvent the wheel by jettisoning concepts used by the previous generation (Amit, 2). To avoid this pattern, she and the other authors of the book present specific concepts by referring both to their actual and historical use in the social sciences. Similarly, to make sure that their work is not forgotten, Jack Goody dedicates chapter 7 to the scientific achievements of his colleagues and predecessors in Africa. This is one of the strongest chapters of the book.  Without being clogged by unnecessary detail about the anthropologist’s life trajectories, it clearly presents their contributions on specific topics, while still looking at how these contributions were made possible by the context and by the anthropologists’ particular training (in anthropology under Malinowski’s influence, as well as in other disciplines). If Jack Goody’s goal was to remind his audience of the value of the work undertaken in the early days of social anthropology, it might have been better achieved by organizing the whole book around his colleagues’ contributions and the social and institutional context in which they were made.


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

Amit, Vered (Ed.). (2015). Thinking through Sociality: An Antropological Interrogation of Key Concepts. Oxford: Berghahn Books.


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