Who now cares about Malinowski?

Robert Ackerman

  • After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951 by George Stocking
    Athlone, 570 pp, £50.00, January 1996, ISBN 0 485 30072 9

Twenty years ago I was about to leave the English Department at Columbia University to spend a year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton: my project was a biography of J.G. Frazer. At Columbia I had written a dissertation on the literary-critical legacy of the ‘Cambridge Ritualists’ (Jane Ellen Harrison, F.M. Cornford, Gilbert Murray and A.B. Cook, turn-of-the-century classicists who had written on the connection between Greek myth and ritual and the origins of drama), and had then read a good deal of Frazer, who influenced the Ritualists greatly. The project held many difficulties. Chief among them was that, because Frazer worked in classics, anthropology and the history of religion, as an outsider I would have to teach myself the history of all those disciplines. I decided to tap Columbia’s considerable resources first, by talking to colleagues in order to get some sense of how my subject resonated with them.

On the classical side, I recall a conversation with Gilbert Highet, professor of Latin, who couldn’t at all understand why I was bothering with those dusty Edwardians. ‘Don’t you see? They were wrong, my dear fellow’ – that was all he knew and all I needed to know. In anthropology two experiences stand out. Margaret Mead recalled that when she was a girl she and her sister foraged excitedly and a bit furtively in The Golden Bough because Frazer was the only author in their parents’ large library with anything to say (in English) about sex. It also seemed a good idea to consult Marvin Harris, who had written a history of anthropology himself and who at that time taught the history course required of all entering graduate students. When I told him of my plans, he was appalled at my theoretical naivety and seemed to fear for my intellectual life at the Institute. Essentially he advised me to lash myself to the mast and stop up my ears to avoid being seduced by the siren song of Clifford Geertz and his fellow ‘symbolic anthropologists’. In his eyes the danger of infection was so great that he suggested that I rethink the idea of going to the Institute at all. I already knew that the study of mythology had for centuries been marked by trench warfare, but this was my first intimation of what lay ahead for me in anthropology.

The several histories of the subject then available were no better; all I found was rampant whiggism. The narrative, composed by a senior scholar who could offer the long view, presented a broad highway (call it ‘truth’) from which a number of tracks emerged, some longer and more heavily travelled than others but all petering out sooner or later (call them ‘errors’). The strategy for the historian – for example, Lowie in 1937, Evans-Pritchard in 1965 on the history of religion, or Harris in 1968 – lay in the canny selection of a privileged series of ancestors, especially important in a field like anthropology where until seventy years ago there was no clearly marked route into the profession and possible forerunners were to be found everywhere, in natural history, theology, medicine, biology. It will come as no surprise that in the end the high road led to the work of the historian himself and his students, and the narrative offered many occasions to dismiss the work of the historian’s opponents by doing just that to his enemies’ ancestors. I attended a few sessions of Harris’s course and heard Frazer, and most of the other dinosaurs who languished in the pre-Malinowskian ooze, duly derided and dismissed. The history of anthropology seemed to be internecine warfare conducted by other means. It had not yet occurred to me to ask myself why would-be anthropologists had to be baptised in this fashion; after all, nothing like this initiation rite existed in English literature, and so far as I knew not in any other field either.

Had I but known it, the dispassionate historian I was seeking existed and had already begun to make his presence felt. In 1966 George Stocking had argued (in ‘On the Limits of “Presentism” and “Historicism” in the Historiography of the Behavioural Sciences’) that anthropology could not be said to have a proper history at all until it was no longer conducted as a game of winners and sinners, with the criterion for judging earlier scholars being the extent to which they were prescient enough to anticipate contemporary problems, theories and methods (‘Presentism’). Baldly put, the history of anthropology was a kind of history, not a kind of anthropology. Over the next thirty years Stocking and a growing number of scholars for whom he has stood as a model have largely succeeded in creating a complex, nuanced and untendentious history of anthropology.

After Tylor is the sequel to Victorian Anthropology (1987); taken together, the two volumes represent a major historiographical achievement. They contain the distillation of 25 years of archival research in Britain, along with many interviews with representatives of the older generation of anthropologists who have since died. In addition, Stocking knows American anthropology well, having edited The Shaping of American Anthropology 1883-1911: A Franz Boas Reader (1974). In 1973 he founded the History of Anthropology Newsletter, which he still edits, and since 1983 he has edited an annual collection of essays on important topics in the field.

This ‘new history’ has appeared at a time when the entire enterprise of anthropology has come under searching criticism. Philosophers of science have judged the positivist hope of extracting ‘anthropological laws’ from the welter of ethnographic data chimerical. Then there is Eurocentrism, which is nothing new – the imposition of (inappropriate) European categories was one of the charges levelled against Frazer himself, 75 years ago. In view of the magnitude of the Empire, it is not surprising that British anthropologists especially have been indicted for complicity, witting or unwitting, in racist, colonialist and post-colonialist oppression of the native peoples they studied. More recently, feminism has indicted anthropology for either ignoring or misrepresenting the lives and roles of women.

There is more. Participant-observer fieldwork, since the Twenties the principal method for carrying out ethnography, has been attacked substantively and methodologically, and most people now agree that we need to confront more directly the exceedingly difficult question of how we come to know the Other. The founders of modern anthropology, in particular Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown, have been depicted as men with feet of clay, with the clay sometimes extending up to the shoulders. And finally, and perhaps most withering of all, to many of the younger generation, Post-Modern critiques have made historical inquiry seem peripheral and even irrelevant. Why bother finding out exactly what Spencer and Gillen thought about exogamy among the Aborigines a hundred years ago? Who now cares about Malinowski, R-B, or E-P? The result of all this is that in recent years a number of anthropology departments in the United States have abandoned the teaching of history.

In the face of such problems Stocking has made several important moves, starting with a decision about the very nature of anthropology. As a historian of ideas, he understands anthropology essentially as theory and chooses to focus on the work of theoretical innovators – although given the complex dialectical relationship between theory and method in ethnography, the latter gets much attention as well. Indeed, in the Preface to After Tylor he acknowledges that the work of many worthy (i.e. non-theoretical) labourers in the anthropological vineyard has been passed over in silence. At the same time, the very success of the dominant theoretical model of the first half of this century – structural-functionalism – as embodied in the work of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown and their followers contributed largely to the process of transforming anthropology into a scholarly discipline. Stocking accordingly describes the gradual establishment of anthropology in British universities, and the consequent dynastic politics; and, in a kind of diminuendo after the death of Malinowski and the decline of Radcliffe-Brown, the last chapter of After Tylor is devoted largely to that topic in the Thirties and Forties.

The two themes of After Tylor, then, are theory and professionalisation. By limiting himself to them, however, Stocking pays only the most glancing attention to the larger societal setting of anthropology. Aside from a few pages on Freud’s brief adventure into anthropology in Totem and Taboo, there is virtually nothing about anthropology in the context of the origins of cultural modernism, nothing about, say, Eliot’s use of The Golden Bough in The Waste Land or about the contribution of anthropology to the interest in, and promotion of, the ‘primitive’ in the interwar years. Stocking doesn’t say so explicitly (because it is not his subject here), but compared to the robust free-for-all of the pre-professional 19th century, in which the largest questions were raised and debated freely, the growth of specialisation described in After Tylor clearly marked an intellectual and social retreat.

Precisely because anthropology in the 19th century had not yet become the special discourse of the professionally initiated, however, and because its objects of study were then virtually unlimited, it lent itself perfectly to Stocking’s ‘historicist’ purposes. As a result, in Victorian Anthropology he was able to offer a history of ideas in a subject that had hitherto been treated either biographically or genealogically. There he offered the fullest description by far of the early Victorian context of the controversy between the monogenists and the polygenists – i.e. between those who believed culture to have begun in some single privileged location before spreading in all directions, and those who saw it originating in many centres more or less simultaneously. In 1859, in the antepenultimate paragraph of The Origin of Species, where Darwin is speaking of the larger ramifications of his theory, we find the suggestion that ‘much light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.’ In 1871 E.B. Tylor picked up the challenge in Primitive Culture, and everything changed.

One notable feature of the earlier volume, which slowed it down but also made it more persuasive, was Stocking’s liberal use of ipsissima verba. Because many of the writers he was discussing were known only to specialists, he wisely decided to make generous use of those authors’ own words rather than merely summarising them. Furthermore, the force of his argument was much enhanced by its being embedded in a rich social and intellectual context based on wide extra-anthropological reading. The amplitude and liveliness of anthropological discourse before Darwin had never before been represented and analysed so fully. Sensitive to extended meanings of metaphors and their complex resonance in Victorian society, Stocking devised a method that he calls ‘multiple contextualisation.’ The best example of this, and indeed the centrepiece of Victorian Anthropology, is the chapter on ‘Victorian Cultural Ideology and the Image of Savagery’, in which he demonstrates the centrality of that image, built up as it was from the most diverse elements, and not only from ‘exotic’ sources – he makes much, for example, of the ‘domestic savagery’ reported by Engels and Mayhew.

In After Tylor, however, he forgoes multiple contextualisation in favour of straightforward chronology. We begin in 1888, at the high noon of evolutionism, with Tylor delivering a paper on kinship to the Anthropological Institute, and we conclude in 1951 with structural-functionalism having supplanted evolution and British anthropology trying to re-establish a semblance of normality after the suspension caused by the war. After Tylor, there is William Robertson Smith and the sociological-collectivist view of ancient religion; then Smith’s friend and sometime follower J.G. Frazer, the exemplar of the individualist-intellectualist view; and Baldwin Spencer and Andrew Lang and the controversies surrounding the kinship structures of the Australian Aborigines, then thought to represent the most ‘primitive’ extant people. After World War One the main line goes through W.H.R. Rivers (through whom we hear about the revival of diffusionism associated with Elliot Grafton Smith) and then Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown. To describe their work, Stocking still offers many ipsissima verba, but radiating metaphors are gone and the narrative is everywhere much more linear. He supplies brief, well-written biographical sketches of the leading personalities, and he makes connections between life and work. In addition, he has the obvious advantage here of subject-matter that bears some connection to anthropology as it was practised the day before yesterday.

Like every narrative historian, Stocking has the problem of keeping the story moving forward, which here means that once a theory’s moment passes, we forge ahead. Thus we hardly hear about evolutionists, of whom there continued to be many, once Malinowski appears. Inasmuch as Stocking construed his focus as the work of the leaders rather than the followers, this kind of omission is natural. Nonetheless, a price must be paid for keeping the story on track and a certain amount is omitted or shunted aside. For example, he argues that the maturation and institutionalisation of anthropology was essentially propelled by internal developments within the discipline. A moment’s reflection suggests that this development must have been part of other, larger changes that had to do with the acceptance of the social sciences within the university which here go unmentioned. In addition, Stocking quite properly assumes a largely anthropological readership, and a concomitant level of knowledge: an outsider may find the rather lengthy discussions of technical aspects of kinship not always riveting. A less austere account of the lives of the anthropologists might have made up for this. Stocking notes that at the LSE Malinowski was not content with supervising his students’ academic work but insisted on knowing about and interfering in their personal lives. Reminiscences by the students themselves make it clear that this sort of invasion went far beyond what we regard as acceptable today, and was regarded as excessive even then. Stocking, however, is no more interested in iconoclasm than in idolatry and maintains his historian’s distance throughout. I am told that the inevitable reaction against the Post-Modern reaction against history in anthropology may have already begun, that we may well see in the near future a return to the sensible position that an ignorance of history is very odd and probably dangerous. The publication of After Tylor, taken together with Victorian Anthropology, represents a milestone in the historiography of the behavioural sciences.