The Expansive Moment: A Critique

Goody, Jack. (1995). The Expansive Moment. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press.

The Expansive Moment is a curious piece of literature. Goody presents his tome as a historical review of the development of British anthropology, particularly under the auspices of Bronislaw Malinowski at the London School of Economics. It is an account put together largely through the collection of personal correspondence, which Goody acknowledges has only focused on certain materials while leaving out others (5). It is also largely personal: Goody personally knew the anthropologists concerned, or their students, and the work in fact emerged as a by-product of writing an obituary to Meyer Fortes (4). Given the vested interest of the author in presenting himself–indeed, he dedicates a chapter to his own contributions to the field (118-143)–and his forebears in a positive light, and the defensive tone he takes in presenting some of his arguments (especially that regarding the role of colonialism in anthropology), The Expansive Moment can hardly be considered a work of objective history. In fact, it arouses great suspicion regarding what has been left out. Goody attempts to divest early British anthropology in Africa of its colonial roots. He uses two main lines of argument that are emphasized throughout the book: 1. That anthropologists at the time were largely independent in terms of the subject matter they chose to analyze, and thus did not contribute to colonial projects, which many of them opposed (he makes a point of emphasizing the ‘leftist views’ (9) held by certain persons, including Kirchhoff, who, despite the deceptive title of the third chapter, never “[made] it to the field as a Jew and a Red” (42-57)); 2. That the primary organism funding these anthropologists, namely the Rockefeller foundation, was not interested in supporting colonialism because it was, allegedly, an American foundation interested in reform. This essay addresses both of these claims, seeking to establish that, although they hold some truth, they are either deliberately deceptive or bely an embarrassing lack of insight on Goody’s part. An attempt is then made to understand Goody’s motivation in writing a book that seems to fly in the face of what is today considered to be common knowledge about anthropology’s less than savoury underpinnings.

One of Goody’s persistent claims relates to the idea that the generation of anthropologists following Malinowski and his contemporaries had a great deal of independence regarding the subject matter they wished to pursue (34, 42-43). He devotes a chapter to “Some achievements of anthropology in Africa” (which included lineage studies, as well as studies of kinship and marriage, law, religion, and the economy (87-117)), and highlights the fact that very little work was actually done on social change, in which the primary funder, the Rockefeller Foundation, was most interested. Goody does a good job of illustrating the power dynamics and the necessary negotiations between scholars seeking to pursue research for its own sake, and the structures that provide the necessary funding for that research: in order to receive funding, most of the anthropologists included “culture contact” in their proposals, despite the fact that a lot of the actual research that ensued was at best marginally related to this topic (34, 42-43). However, the real question is whether this purported academic freedom is actually significant. If the results produced by the scholars were utterly useless, would the funding agencies continue to support them? One possible explanation suggested in class was that perhaps the funding agencies have another interest in providing financial support to scholars: by doing so, they purchase anthropologists, effectively closing the doors to critique of the agency itself. The nature of Goody’s book may in fact be indicative of the limits of the academic freedom he extols. In any event, the fact that the research produced does not correspond with what the funding agency asked for is no indicator for whether said research is useful for anyone in a position of power to exert that power over the peoples studied (in fact any research conducted produces such a power imbalance: for knowledge in itself is power, and so the very act of deploying anthropologists to gather data is a move which amasses power). In a situation of conflict any information can be “useful”. For a close-to-home example, one can refer to the potential usage of cultural intelligence in torture methods at the Abu-Ghraib prison camp during the United States’ “War on Terror” (See Hersh, and Price 270) 1. It is strange that Goody should be implying that deep knowledge of customs of Africans didn’t help in ruling them. A peculiar reference is made to Evans-Pritchard quoting “Kirchhoff’s claim that, in a slip of the tongue, Malinowski declared that he was engaged in ‘telling South Africa how to take the Natives’ land away according to their Customs'” (74). Instead of investigating the claim, Goody leaves the reader befuddled at this damning assertion that on its very own serves quite well to completely derail his argument. As for the anthropologist who pursues his own interests without regard for what the powers-that-be want or need, he is nothing more than a pawn in a chess game, only aware of his own moves, and not of the larger scheme. But anthropologists are quite often the ones who point the fingers at those playing the game. Why does Goody fail to do the same?

Another strikingly odd claim Goody makes in an attempt to wash the hands of his mentors (and, in turn, his own) of the blood spilled by colonial empire, is his repeated claim that their primary source of funding, the Rockefeller Foundation, was an American Institute interested in reform (9, 154). He states that the British Empire was dying during the time period he is examining, as if such a fact somehow dissolves any remnants of colonial interest in Africa. A distinction was made in class between British Colonialism and American Imperialism. Goody is attempting to excuse or downplay the role of the former in anthropology, while completely ignoring the latter. The obvious conclusion raised by Goody’s characterization is that America was engaging in an attempt to sweep up the remnants of the disintegrating British Empire, which, considering the shift in the geopolitical power balance from Britain to America as world superpower during the period of the Second World War (class discussion), is clearly the case. The philanthropies of the Rockefeller Foundation itself stemmed from an attempt to recuperate what could be saved from Rockefeller’s own dissolved empire (class discussion), and as a result it is not a stretch to say that the interest in Africa was not purely philanthropic. Indeed, as brought up in class, Goody does not make any attempt to question why Rockefeller was interested in Africa at this particular period in history. So, if the anthropologists were involved in this intrigue, how is it any better than that from which Goody exonerates them? Drawing attention to the book’s date of publication (1995) makes it all the more embarrassing that a scholar of such influence as Jack Goody appears to be so blind to the extent and effects of American imperialism. His understanding of “reform” appears to be a very naive one. Anthropologists have time and again critiqued “reform” or “development” projects and shown that what is couched in language of philanthropy is often not what it seems. But of course, Goody is critical of “new directions” and interested only in building on the foundations led by his forebears (147). Or is he simply trying to pass the blame on to the Americans? But if this were the case, he is not explicit enough about it (that is, if his aim is not to fully pardon the anthropological endeavour of its sin, and instead, to scapegoat the Americans, he should develop a critique of American endeavours, which he doesn’t). Perhaps he lacks the academic freedom he goes to lengths to demonstrate existed among his forebears? After all, he, like the others, is in a relationship of dependence upon those who fund him.

Jack Goody’s book is an intriguing account of the early days of British anthropology. But it appears that a lot is left out or ignored, and that the primary interest of the book lies not in what it says, but in what it leaves unsaid. By reading between the lines, one can gain some insight into the continued influence of funding institutions on academic freedom, and how anthropologists’ own vested interests can lead them to disguise or deny truth. Unfortunately for Goody, he does more to undermine his own argument than to support it.

1For further examples of anthropology used to harm those it studies, see Patterson’s discussion of Project Camelot (124-125).


Hersh, Seymour M. “Annals of National Security: Torture at Abu-Ghraib”. The New Yorker. May 10, 2004.

Patterson, Thomas C. (2001). A Social History of Anthropology in the United States. Oxford: Berg.

Price, David H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.


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