Cairo Essays

Edmund Leach

  • Evans-Pritchard by Mary Douglas
    Fontana, 140 pp, £1.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 00 634006 7

Fontana Modern Mastership has by now become so diffuse that the editorial problem may well have shifted from choosing a master who deserves the accolade to finding a biographer to bestow it. Why else should Malinowski still be left off the list but Evans-Pritchard (E-P to all who knew him but not in this book), Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford from 1946-1970, gain the crown? But if E-P be held to deserve apotheosis then Mary Douglas seems, on the face of it, a very appropriate hagiographer, for she is a noted anthropologist in her own right, was once a pupil of E-P, and, like E-P himself in his later years, is an exceptionally devoted member of the Roman Catholic Church. But, unlike E-P, Douglas lacks a sense of history, and the outcome is perverse.

She seems to have gone out of her way to avoid stating what is obvious but essential. For example, she ignores E-P’s own statement that he first became interested in anthropology and archaeology through contacts with the friends of R.R. Marett, who was a prominent member of E-P’s Oxford college. She also ignores the fact that in 1973 E-P, while reiterating his almost paranoid dislike of Malinowski, nevertheless declared that ‘I learnt more from him than from anyone.’ Equally astonishing is the almost complete absence of any reference to Radcliffe-Brown, of whom in 1940 E-P wrote: his ‘influence on the theoretical side of my work will be obvious to any student of anthropology’ as indeed it is, if we count only the work that had been published by that date. Even more eccentric is the suggestion that in his study of The Nuer (1940) E-P was making an analysis of negative feedback, thus antedating The work of Norbert Weiner by eight years. For those of us who are less inclined to believe in miracles, this particular aspect of E-P’s work is an entirely straightforward application of Durkheim’s thesis concerning mechanical solidarity as spelled out in De la Division du Travail Social (1893), a work that Douglas does not mention.

Miniature intellectual biographies in the ‘Modern Masters’ style are, at their best, a kind of dialogue between the biographer and the imagined author of a corpus of textual material which the biographer puts under review. Clearly, in work of this scale, the biographer cannot be expected to take account of all the verifiable historical facts which relate to the biographee’s career. Moreover, in the present case, since many of E-P’s closest associates, friends and foes alike, are still alive, reticence concerning personal matters is fully justified. On the other hand, a wholesale neglect of chronological detail will inevitably lead to chaos.

E-P was a prolific author. Beidelman’s bibliography, published in 1974, lists well over four hundred items published between 1927 and 1974. From this it is easy to discover that many of the key arguments in E-P’s most celebrated books had originally appeared as journal articles many years earlier. Thus the sequence in which E-P’s ideas developed is a good deal more complicated than might appear if one concentrates only on the major titles. Douglas’s own ‘Short Bibliography of Evans-Pritchard’s Writings’ contains only 17 items. They include, mysteriously, A History of Anthropological Thought (1980), but three substantial books, among them the major essay collection The Position of Women in Primitive Society and Other Essays in Social Anthropology (1965), are missing. Correspondingly, in the very short ‘Biographical Note’ at the beginning, the number of errors, misprints and deficiencies is almost comic.

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