The Importance of Context in Goody’s Expansive Moment

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

The Expansive Moment is Jack Goody’s account of the formation and expansion of the ‘school’ of British Social Anthropology (BSA) in the period of 1918-1970. The book was written in the mid 90s after the cold war standoff of the two global superpowers, Russia and the U.S. The context of the book is dissatisfaction with the historical record produced about BSA as Goody rejects the broad classifications placed on the school. His primary concern is to demonstrate the invalidity of claims (mostly by U.S. and Russian anthropologists) that the interests of BSA were consistent with those of the colonial authorities (p.9). The book is presented in two parts: an account of the formation of the school and a response to the question ‘what did we do?’ (p. 3) The methodology is historiographical although Goody qualifies it as ‘notes towards’ or a ‘personal account’ ‘rather than a full-blown history’ (p. 5). The content presented is a selective synthesis of archival material ranging from personal letters to records of the Colonial Office. Goody’s argument rests on demonstrating the legitimacy, independence, and variance of the individuals and their intellectual pursuits in the field of BSA while situating the formation of that field in relation to its primary source of funding – the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial (LSRM), a Foundation with ‘reformist tendencies’ that was ‘hardly concerned to support the continuation of European empires.’ (p. 154) I highlight the key themes identified to be essential components of the argument against the complicity of BSA in colonial rule, using those themes to bring forth what I see to be the major weaknesses in the approach. I will conclude by bringing the discussion back to the problem of representation in knowledge production in the context of asymmetrical power relations.

A large portion of the book is given to description of the dynamics amongst the individuals involved in the formation of BSA. These relationships are characterized by ‘friendships’ and ‘animosities’ within an underlying cohesion that existed through the tradition created by Malinowski (and Radcliffe-Brown to a lesser extent) which ‘established certain parameters for research, presented fieldwork in a theoretical frame, trained students in this framework and assisted them in turn to undertake fieldwork and eventually to get teaching positions.’ (p. 117) This well established order of succession, to follow from Bourdieu, is a large measure of the success of the field of BSA. For Goody, it was the ‘type of scholar who was recruited, and the climate of opinion in which they worked’ that was perhaps ‘the most important fact that leads one drastically to modify the account of British empiricism and imperialism.’ (p. 155) This emphasis on the individual is relevant as some of the key characters were ‘émigré scholars’, indicative of the varied historical and ideological background of the group, which for some became a hindrance in the noted challenge of ‘Making it to the field as a Jew and a Red’ (the title of chapter 3). There is high emphasis placed on the agency of individuals when it serves to indicate variance and freedom in thought, however Goody quickly downplays any emphasis on the appearance of overtly racist, sexist, or classist comments by individuals in reference to each other. The treatment of these comments are one of the contradictions that stand out, and leaves me with a worried question as to how the subjects of their studies were described in personal reflections.

The independence in the establishment of the school lies in the success Malinowski had in presenting to the LSRM, who in turn “bought” the Malinowski method. Goody works to demonstrate intellectual freedom throughout the book, setting aside chapter seven to detail ‘some achievements of anthropology in Africa’. This chapter highlights a number of sub-fields of study, naming some of they key studies and the variance in direction taken depending on the anthropologist at hand. What is omitted are any references to the consequences inherent in knowledge production in such a context of asymmetrical power relations. In the section on economy, there is recognition of the problems in attempting to apply European categorizations (whether neo-classical or Marxist) to indigenous societies, but there is no resolution to this problem offered except to note that ‘Anthropologists have provided intensive data’ (p. 115) on a wide range of phenomena such as productive systems, land tenure, markets, modes of tribute, and others. In the manner of presentation this appears to be mere information (innocent?), it is not knowledge production in service of power because ‘it was felt that priority should be given to indigenous societies’ (p.116). Stating these points Goody is satisfied to conclude that the ‘Rockefeller philanthropies had surprisingly little influence on what research was actually carried out and written up.’ (p. 116).

It is in the formulation of such an argument that I am concerned with what Goody attempts. There are a number of contradictions, such as the statement that ‘Malinowski’s major interest was in practical anthropology of another kind, while offering help to colonial governments as well as to the governed, inevitably led to a series of conflicts.’ (p. 39) There is also note of one of Fortes’ studies where ‘[a] bow was certainly made to the Rockefeller philanthropies’ (p. 57) and further that he carried out intelligence work in the wartime period (p.56) at the suggestion of Evans-Pritchard who was a member of a military government in North Africa
(p. 75).

I do not see it sufficient to rely on the intentions and ‘independent’ ideologies of individuals to counter an argument of BSA being complicit in colonialism. Context is most important. The period in focus was characterized by a shift in global power with the decline of the British Empire as movements for Independence challenged systems of colonial rule and there was concern with the organization of the international order on the behalf of those with vested interests. Post WWII is marked by the recognition of the U.S. as the military and economic global power, only rivaled by Russia in the build up to the cold war. The ‘communist threat’ was indeed a primary concern to both Britain and the U.S. with regards to the various Independence movements on the rise. There was an explicit problem as to how to allow the inevitable formation of independent states while maintaining an ideological and economic superiority in the global order based on an Anglo-American hegemony. Goody does note the importance of the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940 (p. 56), along with the 1963 Anglo-American Conference of Anthropologists (p. 145) in the formation and direction of research interests of BSA. These two initiatives speak to a shift in the dimensions of power as it relates to the need to maintain order. While Goody understands the interests of the LSRM to be merely reformist, Patterson admits there was interest in social control, crime, delinquency, and furthermore that it was the connection with Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown that showed the ‘interest of the Rockefeller philanthropies in anthropology, especially in colonial policies and the social management of natives’ (2001, p. 73).

The description of the ‘achievements’ in Africa reads to me as a process of ordering societies (presented as primitive) through systematized knowledge production. This was the need of power. Colonialism is not simply a process of political domination and governance of other societies by a superior power. Colonization is also a social and epistemic process. In my reading of this book, Goody has no real conception of that, or simply chooses to ignore it. The question is not whether there were ‘good’ or independent intentions of anthropologists in their research, but rather, what systems of power does the knowledge produced serve? It is here that Goody’s attempt to disassociate BSA with colonial domination unwinds. He omits the context of shifting geopolitics as British colonialism gave way to American Imperialism. He does not recognize imperialism as a continuation of the patterns of domination established by colonial rule and that the powers were aware of these shifts and thus needed more subtle (sinister), flexible yet systematic approaches to domination.

Goody’s shallow understanding of colonialism, his Eurocentric bias, and overgeneralized characterization of the racialized other is exceedingly clear to me in the passage where Goody justifies the ‘insistence on intensive fieldwork’ ‘over an extended period’ ‘in close association’ as an ‘obvious but essential way whereby oral cultures’ ‘could be given the scholarly attention, and even the human dignity’ ‘that had hitherto been accorded only to the members of literate civilizations.’ (p. 153, emphasis added) I gasp at the idea of giving human dignity (?), especially through such anthropological classification. Further I see such a statement as domination and occupation, reified in knowledge production under the guise of anthropology. If there is one thing I am reminded of is not to judge a book by its cover. My first impression looking at the cover with the photograph of Fortes dressed in (military?) colonial attire sitting over an indigenous group in ritual, along with the title The Expansive Moment had me think that I was about to engage an account of an anthropologist reflexively describing colonial complicity. I could not have been more wrong, (naive? Yes probably) and I am compelled to be blunt in stating the dissatisfaction I have with the argument presented in Goody’s defensive account of the formation and expansion of British Social Anthropology.

Works Cited

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


3 thoughts on “The Importance of Context in Goody’s Expansive Moment

  1. Pingback: Situating David Price in the Analysis of the Power – Knowledge Production Nexus | New Directions in Anthropological Research

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

  3. I didn’t get a chance to read this (and everything posted after this) during the semester, but I did subscribe to the blog via e-mail and still have these posts as unread messages, and am now taking the time to read through them. This is a very well-written and well-argued entry. I wholeheartedly agree with you, Aaron, although I am not gifted with your eloquence.

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