WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE LIKELY LADS AND LASSES: ACADEMIC ANCESTOR WORSHIP IN BRITISH SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGY

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

 

Sir John Rankine Goody (1919-2015; known as Jack) was not an anthropologist strongly associated with the British colonial empire (which was in the process of collapsing as he entered the field), nor was he generally held to be an apologist for the role of anthropology in colonial administration. But he was the William Wyse Professor of Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, a role in which he succeeded Meyer Fortes who, in turn, was a student of Bronislaw Malinowski. The latter two are key figures within a wave of British social anthropologists specializing in African studies during the final decades of British colonial rule on the continent. These anthropologists viewed themselves as progressive and considered it a given that their work had a net positive influence on African cultures, in part by validating them in the eyes of western intellectuals. Jack Goody seems to agree with his academic forefathers’ assessment of their own merits and he bristles at criticism of their impacts. When asked to write his predecessor’s obituary, Professor Goody goes searching through university archives and troves of personal correspondence, most of which, he readily admits (p.5) are off limits to the general population. While making it clear in the introduction to this book that he has no intention of considering further sources (despite the existence of several), he turns the results of his research into an ostensibly scholarly work on the origins of British social anthropology in Africa. In fact, the result is more like a brief and idiosyncratic biography of his academic mentors and their peers, the objective of which is transparently to fend off their critics and defend their legacies.

Goody tells the reader an interesting and gossipy tale of a group of well-meaning and oft-misunderstood intellectuals interested in moving British anthropology away from “antiquarian ethnography” [Malinowski’s words] towards a more involved, fieldwork-centric and socially progressive anthropology which they call “practical anthropology”. The book’s most fascinating aspect is that despite being overtly presented as a defence of British social anthropology (at least the parts of it that interest Goody), in telling the story Goody actually presents a great deal of evidence that could be seen as supporting the above-mentioned criticisms. He is also often quite disingenuous when making his arguments in defence of his academic ancestors. In this review, I outline the story Goody tells, I describe some of the self-incriminating evidence this story reveals and I briefly discuss Goody’s arguments in defense of the story’s main protagonists.

The first clue that this is a story more about Goody’s intellectual forebears than it is about British social anthropology is found in the central role played by Bronislaw Malinowski. It is he, not Seligman or Radcliffe-Brown that is presented as the most eminent British anthropologist of his time and the focus on Malinowski brings with it a focus on Africa. As with the academic leaders described by Bourdieu in Homo Academicus, Malinowski’s central role stems less from his status as a leading researcher (his own field work was in the Pacific) than from his role as a teacher and administrator. Indeed, Goody himself is quite critical of Malinowski’s academic contributions to the group, both in terms of theory and methodology (p.60; though it should be noted that Goody seems highly critical of anthropological theory in general, p.80). Malinowski’s real power (and the group’s focus on Africa) derives from the position he establishes himself in with respect to the administrative, political and economic needs of this new “practical” anthropology, specifically its focus on fieldwork. Fieldwork requires a trained workforce, it requires funding and it requires political permissions to gain access to the desired territories. His dominance of the International African Institute (http://internationalafricaninstitute.org/index.html) brings the former two resources together and then secures the requisite political permissions. Briefly, he uses a strong relationship with an American charity, the Rockefeller Foundation, to secure funding for projects administered by the IAI and he uses his position at the London School of Economics to produce the trained workforce (which is itself attracted by the funded fieldwork opportunities). Having the needed tools in place, the IAI then seeks approval from the colonial office for its projects, a task significantly aided by the presence of missionary, military and government-linked individuals on its committees.

The Rockefeller Foundation’s (RF) importance is difficult to overstate. Immensely wealthy and virtually alone in its focus on social science in the first half of the 20th century, one is left with the impression that tales similar to the one Goody tells could be told with the Americas or the Far East in lieu of Africa and Chicago or Sydney playing the role of London. Malinowski’s power is entirely dependent on his ability to persuade this group to fund the IAI projects. Indeed, the manner in which Malinowski secures this support provides some of the first evidence that Goody may fail to fend off the critics. While Goody repeatedly asserts that the anthropologists were quite free to choose their topics and were clear of interference once in the field, this bland assertion is hard to reconcile with the origins of Malinowski’s links to the RF. While it is true that Malinowski’s approach to anthropology (a so-called sociological approach) was in line with the thinking of the RF’s program managers, it seems that the allegedly irrelevant constraints the RF placed on those receiving its money were sufficient to deter many American anthropologists from taking it. Malinowski stepped in and provided assurances that were accepted by the RF, most specifically that the work of IAI anthropologists would involve the study of “culture contact”. It seems unlikely that RF funding would have continued to flow towards the IAI had those assurances proven empty after the first projects had been completed. As such, one can conclude that the academic work of the IAI anthropologists was meaningfully constrained by the RF, contrary to Goody’s claims. It should be noted that the RF’s range of ultimate motives can only be speculated upon.

The role of the LSE is also relevant. It serves as the training grounds for Malinowski’s “practical” anthropologists, who then get IAI fellowships for fieldwork and return to Britain as established researchers. The result is that the relevant departments at other schools across Britain become dominated by LSE alumni. The LSE faculty is clearly aware and appreciative of Malinowski’s impact, leaping to the defense of IAI fellows who are denied access to colonial territories in a way that meaningfully influences the Colonial Office (p.49 & p.52). As such, the LSE serves as a key bastion of political support for Malinowski, despite his conflicts with many of his colleagues there. Goody neglects this aspect of the LSE’s involvement.

It is in Goody’s discussion of his protagonists’ political views and actions that the greatest contradictions emerge. An entire chapter is devoted to Meyer Fortes’ initial difficulties in gaining admission to the Gold Coast. Goody insinuates strongly that discrimination against Fortes for being Jewish, South African and an alleged communist sympathizer lie behind these difficulties. He does so despite providing much evidence (p.50/51) that his difficulties were just as likely to be entirely personal in nature. Then, after naming a chapter after Fortes’ alleged status as a progressive (even a radical), he simply mentions in passing that he worked as an intelligence officer (p.56) for the British Empire. Fortes is also enticed by potential positions within the colonial administration itself. Edward Evans-Pritchard is likewise presented as progressive towards Africa, despite serving as a soldier and a military governor there (!). Evans-Pritchard is actually (like Goody himself) a Knight of the British Empire. Similar treatment is reserved for Malinowski, who is presented as somehow being progressive despite his overt support for whatever requirements the Colonial Office sought to impose upon the IAI fellows. Malinowski actually seems less concerned by the interference of the Colonial Office than his colleagues at LSE do. In general, Goody picks and chooses among possible (and unverifiable) interpretations of individual actions and statements, always to the benefit of his preferred characters. Bigoted comments are just jokes (p.5, p.70 & p.74 for example) when they are made by those protagonists. Virulent criticism is reduced to being “somewhat suspicious of the field [anthropology]” (p.84) in the case of Nkrumah and is dismissed because he “had earlier taken courses in the subject”.

Ultimately, having arguably presented more counter-evidence than evidence for his claim, Goody states that “The colonial peoples were never simply subjects of anthropology; it was also an instrument of the colonized in their intellectual struggles.” (p.85). This reader is left to conclude that while British social anthropology may have started out being merely constrained by colonialism, the personal evolution of its practitioners led to it being rather subverted in the end.

References:

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

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