The Expansive Moment: Existential Issues in British Social Anthropology

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

Jack Goody takes on the charge that British social anthropology was the child of colonialism by highlighting the personal politics of many of the individual anthropologists involved, by the diverse and independent financial base of the discipline, and by the diversity of methodological approaches practiced. Drawing on archives of personal correspondence from the architects of British social anthropology, Goody attempts to refute claims of the discipline’s complicity in colonial rule. His defense, while nuanced, is deeply personal as Goody is both a well respected product of this particular school and a confidant of many of the anthropologists he draws upon. This insight, though a unique view into the development of the discipline, is not enough to support Goody’s claims in the end.

British social anthropology emerged from the colonial corps in the University of Cambridge evolving from a training ground for colonial functionaries and missionaries into a robust academic discipline. Dissatisfied with the historical, armchair approach of his predecessors, Malinowski built a program at the London School of Economics that focused on the ‘ethnographic present’, a practical anthropology that concerned itself with contemporary social systems and emphasized long periods of fieldwork (p.9). This practical approach enabled Malinowski to draw on the support of the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, a vast American philanthropic foundation interested in addressing ‘the more dangerous social concerns’ (p.11). As an aside; this particular foundation came into existence in the wake of a previous iteration that failed to properly investigate the Ludlow Massacre, at which dozens of striking coal miners and their families were shot to death by the Colorado National Guard at a Rockefeller owned mine in 1914 (Craver, p.205). Goody sees this agency as independent of the British empire, but does not sufficiently address the motivations behind Rockefeller money or the foundation’s interested in Africa. 

Through the International African Institute (IAI), administered by the missionary-academic Dr J. H. Oldham, Rockefeller money was granted to Malinowski to promote practical anthropology, which is as Malinowski writes “…a thoroughgoing study of several tribes from the point of view of contact with European culture, the ensuing changes and the possibilities of controlling these changes” (p.21). Having secured funding for the LSE in 1931 and a friendship with Dr Oldham, Malinowski laid the foundation for his approach attracting a comparatively large number of students who would become key figures in British social anthropology and go to form influential groups at Oxford and Cambridge (p.81). This school would use long term fieldwork to attain a level of practical cultural understanding elusive to earlier approaches.

If anthropologists were romantically attached to the notion of indigenous governance and ‘ordered anarchy’ as Goody suggests (p.193) and held similarly progressive views on the independence of African territories, why does he remain quiet in relation to how the knowledge produced by British cultural anthropologists was either explicitly or implicitly intended to support liberation? “To help the independence movement was more important for Fallers in East Africa, for R.T. Smith in British Guiana, for many in West Africa, than to assist the colonial regime” (p.195). As careful as Goody is to highlight the independent and multifaceted views of anthropologists his conception of ‘the independence movement’ remains quite undefined. This reduction of human solidarity to its expression through the colonialist skeleton of the capitalist nation state is dangerous. The danger is in concealing that liberation is more complicated than the formation of a post-colonial state that British social anthropologists sought to assist. This calls into question the very notion of this scheme of liberation, considering the politically repressive nature of post-colonial states and the submissive position young states in the Global South face in the broader political economy of international relations. On the basis of intent and good faith, one could assume anthropologists did not wish to see the exchange of an external elite for an internal one. Yet intent only matters so much given the spectrum of possibilities presented for fieldwork. Were the desire among some to study the exotic ‘ordered anarchy’ in Africa redirected towards the study of their own nation’s social transformation, perhaps they could have shared with the world the pitfalls of transitioning to financial capitalism.

Anthropology often questions the objectivity of observation given the inherent power relationship between the anthropologist and the subject. Perhaps Goody would have considered that in the first place: the Maxim gun, in a way, was the anthropologist’s passport to the field of the colonized in Africa during the expansive moment. Given his frustrations with his American counterparts (p.199) keeping in line with the metaphor we could say the Winchester rifle was the means by which the Department of Indian Affairs anthropologists in the United States could access their site; these fields would not exist in the way they were encountered in which colonialism and violence were the foundation of interaction in ethnographic fieldwork during this period.

With such systemic power imbalances in place, the politics of a handful of individuals seems less relevant than Goody suggests.

“It is true that new nations (like older ones, such as Yugoslavia and the USSR) are plagued with ethnic tensions. That was bound to be the case in Africa where some 4,000 linguistic groups were forcibly brought together by conquest into some fifty colonies which then became nation states. Any efforts made by anthropologists, colonial administrators and politicians could only have a minimal effect on this basic problem.” (p.207).

This basic problem Goody highlights is however quite large: the imposition of a form of governance created the political and economic schema after which later post-colonial governments would be based. After more than a century of external rule at the twilight of British colonialism, local elites in what would become the new nation states of an independent Africa were likely familiar with some of the early and current forms of effective social control in Western democracies; notably the use of police against popular assembly, censorship, and the suppression of political opposition.

Goody’s desire to defend British social anthropology in response to critics from the Soviet Union and the United States where the voices of colonized peoples are largely absent save brief reference towards African-born anthropologists; some of whom studied in Britain, but were also silent the cited correspondences. Several future heads of state for post-colonial countries came from the discipline such as Jomo Kenyatta and Kofi Busia (p.84); leaders less known for their progressive values in the ensuing political contests new states tend to go through.

As further evidence, Goody’s defense cites the personal politics of several anthropologists, which is intended to reflect the discipline’s progressive nature. Malinowski defended suspected communists (p.43-45), and while A.R. Radcliffe-Brown’s nickname at Cambridge was Anarchy (Fortes, p.153)–  this seemed to have more do with his personality than with his politics. This was Goody’s most troubled argument given the field studied was occupied territory. Something that would support his defense would be an account of the agency that the subjects of British social anthropology exerted in even desiring such attention, but this is lacking. The knowledge produced by anthropologists continues to be useful for occupation and dispossession today, so it does not require much imagination to consider what use anthropological research has had to the historical colonial regime. As a historical example,one can consider Radcliffe-Brown’s obituary which cites his invaluable contribution to explain a rebellion that had occurred due to the implementation of a poll tax in colonial Zululand (Fortes, p. 151).

Ultimately Goody’s defense is absent of a strong explanation of the colonial situation in which fieldwork during the expansive movement took place. He uses personal correspondence to try and prove the progressive politics of the discipline but the history of British social anthropology falls short of explaining how exactly they supported the colonized in struggles of self determination. Goody seems to have taken many of the critiques levied against the discipline quite personally, which is not a problem inherently. However, the personal is political, and this reading of the Expansive Moment calls to question Goody’s own views regarding colonialism given his committed defense of British social anthropology.

Additional Works Cited

Craver, Earlene. (1986). “Patronage and the Directions of Research in Economics: The Rockefeller Foundation in Europe 1924-1938.” Minerva, 24;2/3. (pp. 205-22).

Fortes, Meyer. (1956). “Alfred Reginald Radcliffe-Brown, F. B. A, 1881-1955: A Memoir.” Man, 56. (pp.149-153).


One thought on “The Expansive Moment: Existential Issues in British Social Anthropology

  1. I really liked this response for a couple of reasons. First, you brought out the origins of the Rockefeller Foundation, which Goody never talks about. I did not know about the Ludlow massacre, but it seems key to understanding the conditions of emergence of this really important organization: it would seem not only that it would have an interest in producing good PR, but could conceivably have been keeping an eye out for openings in mining or industry in Africa.

    Secondly, I like the way you address anthropologists as incomplete without a gun allowing them to do fieldwork. This not only critically reinterprets the relationship between anthropologist and “native” that Goody mostly glosses over, but it also critically reformulates anthropologists’ relations to colonialism and violence (as expressed by the colonial state or otherwise). It’s almost a Deleuzian move, and yet in Goody’s book it seems like a structuralist work is done to try to clearly separate anthropologists from their gun counterparts, the exception being Evans-Pritchard and yet this apparent transgression becomes mediated by the fact that the “natives” were said to be fighting alongside him against the Italians. In any case, I find this gun-anthropologist assemblage interesting to think with in trying to get more out of what Goody presents.

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