In Defence of a Field: A 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.

Jack Goody’s The Expansive Moment invites readers to looks at the accomplishments of British social anthropologists in Africa and to study the history of these accomplishments. Throughout the book, Goody uses personal letters and other archival material to build a history of the dominant figures in the field between the years of 1918-1970. Through this Goody hopes to dispel the argument that British social anthropologists were involved in the colonial domination of Africa, and that these experiences are emblematic of anthropology’s role in colonialism. Unfortunately, the attempt to dispel this critique through an analysis of history causes several problems throughout Goody’s attempt to vindicate his mentors.

These problems are visible throughout the book beginning from the first chapter. In this chapter Goody takes a look at the role of foundations in funding anthropological endeavours in Africa. Goody focuses specifically on the role of the Rockefeller Foundation and its alliance with Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics (LSE) and the International African Institute (IAI). The goal of this project was to send anthropologists to Africa to study culture contact through practical anthropology (21-22). Here Goody asserts that British anthropology could not have been deeply entwined with colonialism because it was receiving funding from an American social reformist foundation and that it only began receiving funding from colonial governments during the period of decolonization. While this argument appears compelling, Goody does not really discuss why the Rockefeller foundation is interested in Africa, aside from a short description about its shared interest in education with the IAI (18). A fault with this argument lies in the fact that the Rockefeller foundation was also actively funding social science research in the United States. As Goody tells American anthropologists to examine their own history before critiquing British anthropology, it is surprising to see him use the Rockefeller foundation as a reason why British social anthropology was not as involved with colonialism as it is made out to be.
Chapter two discusses the process of training that anthropologists like Meyer Fortes underwent before embarking for the field. This chapter is interesting due to the similarities it bears to Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion of the time-economy in French Academia, especially in the expectation by Malinowski that Fortes must complete a year of seminars before he could enter the field to ensure that his methods aligned with Malinowski’s (31). Another similarity it bears is the reliance on supervisors for postings, as seen with Malinowski’s statements about finding Kirchhoff a post in chapter three. In the following chapter, the topic shifts to the process of gaining entry to the field and Kirchhoff’s story is explored in detail. Kirchhoff was barred from entering Africa due to allegations of being involved with communists. Despite attempts by Malinowski to reverse this decision and an attestation by German police in Kirchhoff’s favour, ultimately Kirchhoff was sent to take up an academic position elsewhere (46-47). This story is held up by Goody as proof that anthropologists were sometimes seen with suspicion by colonial authorities and as such could not have been as important in colonial projects as previously portrayed. This argument is also problematic, as in chapter nine Goody argues that the acquisition of an entry visa for anthropologists did not constitute submission to colonial authorities and that many anthropologists who did enter Africa were indeed leftist in their background. To him, no matter where an anthropologist is conducting fieldwork they must deal with state authorities and that this should not be seen as complicity with colonialist projects; however, if anthropologists could not acquire an entry visa they could not conduct any research and as seen with Kirchhoff this could have a devastating effect on their career. In order to conduct fieldwork anthropologists had to conform to a degree to the expectations of colonial authorities. They also have to conform to the expectations and research interests of the foundations that were funding them in order to enter the field at all. Even when they were forced to allow an anthropologist to enter the field it only happened through political pressure exerted by institutions like the LSE or the IAI, as seen in the case of Meyer Fortes entering the field. The omission of this power dynamic was also brought up in class discussion.

The fourth chapter discusses the friendship between Evans-Pritchard and Fortes. Goody portrays this friendship as important as it was a structure of mutual support in their research that would lead to the formation of the Oxford Group after the Second World War. This chapter stands out among the rest as it also demonstrates the zeal with which Evans-Pritchard approached the Second World War and displays his actions as an agent of empire, contrary to Goody’s project in this book (65). The fifth chapter takes a different approach; here it examines the animosities between colleagues in the field and features Evans-Pritchard’s remarks about his colleagues quite prominently. This demonstrates the internal divisions within anthropology and seems to be Goody’s attempt to argue that these divisions are contrary to the depiction that British social anthropology as a whole was part of colonial projects. Goody cites Evans-Pritchard’s critiques of anthropologists who were “cheapening” the field to show these divisions, and argue that some anthropologists were against the practical application of anthropology by the state (73).This is peculiar, as Evans-Pritchard himself was quite contradictory and was incredibly enthusiastic about anthropology’s role in the Second World War (75). In addition to this contradiction, Goody argues in the introduction to the book that the critique of British social anthropology as colonialist anthropology glosses over the social situation of the time period. However, in this chapter in particular Goody readily dismisses the sexist comments Evans-Pritchard makes about Audrey Richards, crediting them as jealousy on Evans-Pritchard’s part (70).

Chapter six moves on to discuss the Oxford Group in detail, and casts the anthropologists in this era as belonging to tribes. It is here that Goody’s nostalgia manifests most clearly, recalling times where he was pulled back into pubs to discuss seminars lest he be thought of as anti-social (85). To Goody, the most notable achievements made by anthropologists in Africa belonged to the earlier members of the anthropological tribe that he describes. In this vein, he continues on to examine these achievements in chapter seven (86). In class, the seventh chapter was handily described as looking at five “subfields” to which British social anthropology directly contributed through the individual interests of the actors in the group. This included studies of lineage, marriage, law, religion and economies. It is at this time that anthropology is expanding in the scope of its studies and this is where the book earns its title.
In chapter nine Goody wraps up his argument about British anthropology’s involvement with colonialism in Africa. Goody pushes for a cumulative model of theory wherein we build upon the knowledge of our theoretical forebears, rather than challenge and dismiss their work as being colonialist (147). Goody’s comments on Geertz betray this view quite well:

In any case I see no need to leave aside other lines which are beginning to yield some pay-off merely in order to adopt something ‘new’ (although this is the title of our symposium). We all wish for greater advances, all desire some panacea for our analytic ills. But this won’t simply come about by pursuing some ‘new’ line, by thinking up some ‘shining’ new model. (147)

Appendix two continues this line of thought, where Goody is arguing against Kuklick’s critiques of British social anthropology and its role in colonialism.

Indeed, many of the issues within this book stem directly from Goody’s defensive tone and project to defend British social anthropology from this critique. Goody’s argument seeks to displace the problems of colonialism by arguing that Russian and American anthropologists were no better. It appears to be an attempt to shift focus away from his mentors and their mentors before them. Why is Goody arguing for this? This links back to his argument for a cumulative approach to anthropological theory. Goody does not want the legacy of anthropologists working in Africa in this time period to be forgotten, and with it his legacy as a student of these anthropologists. While this is not explicitly stated in the book, this compelling thought was brought up in discussion and I pondered it as I re-read my notes for this commentary. In my opinion, Goody’s The Expansive Moment should have stuck to the topic given in its subtitle: a history of social anthropology in Africa from 1918-1970. By attempting to argue against Kuklick it diverted Goody’s discussion away from an in-depth examination of this period and added in a defence of the field, a topic that would have been difficult enough to cover in a single volume of its own.


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