Jack Goody’s Expansive Moment: A Review

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

In this text, Jack Goody sets out to address some critiques of British Anthropology in Africa, ones which mainly concern charges of anthropological work providing aid to colonialism. Goody assures the reader that such accusations are based on a lack of knowledge about the actual heterogeneity of opinion and approach of those academics being critiqued, as well as a misreading of the relationships between academics and colonial governments, and mistaken assumptions about the motivations and aims of organizations which funded anthropological research. Historians are particularly vilified in the book, being, according to Goody, wholly dependent on textual sources which they do not have the proper knowledge to decipher correctly. Only personal experience and acquaintance with those individuals involved is enough to allow for the interpretation of these deeply complex and puzzling documents, and Goody graciously offers his own such expertise to aid readers and hapless historians in untangling the history of British anthropology in Africa (even if he does not quite manage to cover the entire time period from 1918-1970, as the title of the book may suggest). Goody, able to draw on his personal knowledge of individuals and institutions involved, should indeed be able to provide added context and detail to accounts of the history of the anthropological project in Africa. Instead, he carefully pares away all but a curated assortment of descriptions of relationships between a few selected actors, spending many chapters in lengthy (and yet severely limited) reflection of the correspondences and other writings of such popular figures as Malinowski, Fortes, Evans-Pritchard and so forth. These are followed by a hackneyed and oddly interpreted list of “achievements” of anthropology in Africa, some talk of theoretical advancements within anthropology, and a painfully defensive lashing out against the work of one historian in particular, Henrika Kuklick’s The Savage Within.

Goody’s presentation of documents from the time is absolutely illuminating, although not for the reasons he hopes. Despite his best efforts to choose writings which support his argument, and to offer them to the reader along with his own, often tremendously over-generous interpretations of them, the reader can still see clear traces of exactly the colonialist mentalities which Goody seeks to disconnect from the proffered material. Rather than revealing a plethora of independently minded researchers, each working to uncover information for its own sake, the documents reveal the everyday functioning of anthropology in Africa via inclusions and exclusions driven by racism and understandings of British superiority, sexism, and favored and unfavored forms of politics and religion. Even if this was not true of the selection Goody brings the reader, and each piece of text was entirely innocent and devoid of these overtones, this would still not be any kind of proof against charges of complicity in colonialism in Africa. First, because given the heap of documentation that Goody himself assures us is available, it really should not have been that difficult to find some which supported his point with less ambiguity. Second, because whether or not the researchers wished for the information they unveiled to be utilized by colonial governments, what matters is not their benevolent intentions, but the results. If the researchers’ letters to one another prove that they did not care at all about colonial governments, being all too wrapped up in their own petty animosities and coalitions, this does not show that the works they created were not used by those same governments. It is also difficult to see in the excerpts provided any iota of regard, interest, or care for the African peoples suffering under colonial oppression and violence.

Of interest with regards to disproving charges of aiding colonial governments and projects in Africa would be questions such as: What areas and peoples were focused upon as part of these studies? How were the studies financed? Who was the intended audience of these anthropological works? In what language were they written? Where were they available for purchase or loan? Who actually read them? What did those readers do, if anything, with the information found within? Was such information available in other ways to colonial officials? Goody pays attention to few of these questions, and his examination of those is suspect at best. For example, his characterization of the Rockefeller foundation, which provided funding for many anthropological studies, as a simply benevolent American organization “interested in social reform” (192) with no interest whatsoever in colonialism is one which requires a stubborn naivete to swallow (in this case consisting of a refusal to acknowledge wider global power structures at the time). The separation of an interest in “reform” from that of colonialism is another interesting move that Goody makes in his text.

Throughout the book, Goody ostensibly puts forth evidence to support his defense of British anthropology in Africa. What his argument (if his fractured, defensive ramblings can be so characterized) actually depends on, however, is a redefinition of colonialism along with an extremely narrow conceptualization of what it means for an anthropologist to be complicit therein. This is clearly illustrated in chapter seven of Goody’s book, entitled “Some achievements of anthropology in Africa”. Here he chooses lineage studies, kinship and marriage, law, religion, and the economy as areas of study which anthropologists are to be congratulated for advancing in Africa. He speaks at length about the individual researchers and their findings, and yet what is conspicuously absent from the chapter is any attempt to explore the reasons for interest in these particular systems, or any attempt to address the subsequent use to which this information was put. As he states at the end of this chapter, “It was truly an expansive moment, both qualitatively and quantitatively” for anthropological research (117). Yet we are not to indulge in any curiosity as to why this was the case. Goody would like us to understand it as a tumble of interpersonal relationships and individual drive and brilliance, and not as a part of larger systems of colonialism and the mobilization of knowledge that is required for projects of governance and control. This requires a violent cutting away of context and analysis, resulting in a cave of self-imposed ignorance from which he beckons the reader to join him. Goody’s work in this book is a desperate move of denial, and I see nothing in it which succeeds in releasing the anthropological tradition from its roots in colonial projects.


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