The Foundations of Colonial Anthropology

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

Jack Goody sets out to do a personal historiography on the emergence and expansion of British social anthropology. His accompanying thesis is that early anthropologists working from Britain were not nearly as involved in the colonial projects of the British Empire as critics have recently made them out to be. The very need for this kind of argument, given the wealth of productive analysis that has emerged from anti-colonial critique of anthropology was not clear to me by the time I had finished the book. It was only during the seminar discussions that I came to realize that perhaps the stated argument mostly serves to support Goody’s other underlying argument: that the best work in anthropology was done at the height of this “expansive moment” by people who were supposedly self-made and free from government approval as well as capitalists’ agendas (which nonetheless constituted the research conditions for many of them) (Goody, 1995: 3, 145). In both the seminar and in official reviews of the book, Goody’s argument was found to have been sloppily defended, and his engagement with colonialism and imperialism was seen as superficial, if not dismissive. Goody’s discussion of the influence of the private foundations that were part of extremely powerful economic empires is also uninspiring.

In the seminar discussions, Goody’s limited conceptualization of colonialism became a marked focus. Much of the problem seems to stem from the fact that Goody’s discussion of the influence of colonialism on anthropology is tied to the idea of colonialism as an administrative affair limited to the actions and effects of certain institutions (and the extent to which actors knowingly complied with them) (Goody, 1995: 154). Paraphrasing what was mentioned in class, the deep, long-lasting or epistemological configurations of colonialism and imperialism receive virtually no attention from Goody, despite the importance this kind of thinking has taken on in anthropology.

Reviewer Joan Vincent, in comparing Goody’s work to that of a related book by George Stocking, found that both books on the development of British social anthropology lacked serious engagement with the pervasive influence of colonialism. Whereas she finds Stocking’s reinterpretation rigorous, she finds Goody’s “revisionism” lacking “and, to put it mildly, sloppy” (Vincent, 2007: 320). Another reviewer of both books also found Stocking’s to be “clearly the most comprehensive and valuable of the two” (Heyck, 1997: 1486). My own appreciation for this book would likely have been much greater if it had seemed to me that Goody had tried to be comprehensive, rather than provide what reads as a nostalgic and reactionary argument to many of the changes that anthropology has undergone in recent decades.

For Goody, it would seem, any “new” directions in anthropology should attempt to build on the work of the key figures of the expansive moment, and take its inspiration from the group dynamic that it emerged out of: constantly-corresponding post-graduate researchers with shared intellectual interests, free from control and freely disagreeing. At times, this feels like the kind of defence of the academic old boy’s club that Bourdieu (1984) finds responsible for the lack of scientific thinking in universities. My greatest disappointment is that Goody did not take this book, and his position within academia, as a starting point to seriously evaluate the influence of the Rockefeller Foundation and the Rhodes Livingstone Institute. In a time where corporate influence over universities seems to be increasing, or at least is becoming more overt, such a historiography would have been much more in keeping with creating new directions from anthropology by reinterpreting the past. I present here a couple of counter-interpretations of the role of private foundations using Goody’s text.

In our seminar, it emerged that the Rockefeller empire was well-poised to begin taking influence away from Britain and other European empires over their colonies in Africa. Rockefeller interest in the current existence, ongoing change, and functioning of societies in Africa can be productively interpreted within the geo-politics of the time as imperialistic (Goody, 1995: 20). Goody claims that the Rockefeller’s interests were “reformist” rather than “imperial” as if these two terms had oppositional meanings in the history of Euro-American colonialism and imperialism (Goody, 1995: 9). We can then think of Malinowski’s relationship with the Rockefeller Foundation as a partnership emerging from the same geo-political and historical conditions of the time, rather than as relationship between an irreverent artist and a quaint patron which Goody projects despite the evidence he presents. This counter-narrative, though seriously underdeveloped here, is at least more thought-provoking than the easy interpretation that the Rockefeller Foundation was just being charitable, and that Malinowski barely responded to their interests (Goody, 1995: 57).

Goody also argues that many British anthropologists in Africa held relatively radical views and refused to conform with the interests of colonial governments in various ways. Evans-Pritchard is the most discussed example of this anti-establishment attitude, taking on almost heroic status in Goody’s descriptions. Perhaps because of an undue focus on colonial administration, Goody fails to properly investigate the influence of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute and its sponsors in Africa. The most critical commentary of the Rhodes Livingstone Institute in the book comes not from Goody, but from Evans-Pritchard, who rebukes then-director of the institute, Max Gluckman, for being an administrator more than a scientist. Despite the fact that Evans-Pritchard had supported Gluckman’s promotion as director, Evans-Pritchard disliked the institute for the way it cheapened anthropology (Goody, 1995: 69). Goody calls Evans-Pritchard’s commentary “harsh” (Goody, 1995: 73). But Goody only gives us half the story: he says Max Gluckman was only able to become director by virtue of the fact that Godfrey Wilson, the previous director, committed suicide. But in fact, Godfrey Wilson had resigned only after prolonged conflict with the institute’s sponsors, being vocally critical of the actions of mining companies in the area, and their role in violent conflict and labour disputes. It was two years after his resignation, after a bout as an “information officer” in North Africa for the South African Medical Corps, that he took his own life (Gaillard, 2004: 150). Amidst Goody’s description of Evans-Pritchard’s anti-establishment views, Godfrey Wilson’s story has no place. Though both were opposed to the institute, Evans-Pritchard comments about it cheapening anthropology seem misplaced given Wilson’s active protest of the Rhodes empire, giving another interesting case for discussing the relationship between anthropology and imperialism as well as colonialism.

Other productive counter-narratives could be levelled against Goody’s claims that colonial subjects were never merely the subjects of anthropology, but also always used anthropology for their own purposes (Goody, 1995: 85); or that studies of lineage were of no particular interest to colonial administrations (Goody, 1995: 154). This is possible in part because Goody presents, if only piece by piece, so many interesting nuggets of history. However, the need to do an alternative reading becomes necessary because he often fails to develop them and deal with them critically.


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

Gaillard, Gérald (ed.). (2004). The Routledge Dictionary of Anthropologists. London: Routledge.

Heyck, Thomas William. (1997). Review of After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951 by George W. Stocking; The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970 by Jack Goody. The American Historical Review, 102(5), 1486-1488.

Vincent, Joan. (1997). Schism and Continuity in British “Colonial” Anthropology. Current Anthropology, 38(2), 320-321.


4 thoughts on “The Foundations of Colonial Anthropology

  1. Pingback: 2015: Just Another Year for Empire | ZERO ANTHROPOLOGY

  2. That is by no means my area of specialization. However, I know of a couple of sources that could help. This short article directly names corporations hiring anthropologists to work for them: If you’re more interested in the history of anthropologists doing research funded by large corporations, Mark Solovey of the University of Toronto takes an interest in this. Unfortunately, the full extent to which private entities make use of social science remains largely unknown, with a history that -despite being quite lengthy- is only recently coming to light. Hope this helps.

  3. Let me thank you Émile, because this was actually a bit of a challenge for me. It’s one of the blind spots in my own research background, which tends to be focused more on states, NGOs, and private foundations (many of those stemming from corporations), than corporate research as such. A lot of that corporate research is done by applied anthropologists, under private contracts, and so whatever we know comes about through voluntary disclosure in conferences–especially of the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA)–or articles in the news media that herald the clever uses of ethnography in market research or product design (thus, something in “design anthropology”) may also be relevant.

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