Anthropology as it should be

Robin Fox

  • In the Arms of Africa: The Life of Colin Turnbull by Roy Richard Grinker
    St Martin’s, 354 pp, £19.75, August 2000, ISBN 0 312 22946 1

According to the hype for this excellent biography of Colin Turnbull, he was one of the ‘most well-known anthropologists’ of the 20th century, along with Margaret Mead and Louis Leakey. For many of the more austere members of the profession, to say that these three are ‘well-known anthropologists’ is a bit like saying that Vanna White is a well-known lexicographer. To be fair, each of them did something that was a genuine contribution to anthropology, but the rest was docudrama and self-promotion. The discipline seems particularly vulnerable to this form of exhibitionist exuberance, and the public’s greed for the sensational and the exotic fuels it. The mandate of anthropology is so broad that it easily bursts the bounds of strict professionalism, despite academic attempts at containment. When I was elected to the Association of Social Anthropologists (about 1959), Meyer Fortes told me that it had been formed ‘to prevent people like Geoffrey Gorer from calling themselves social anthropologists’. But while the ASA might keep the Gorers and Meads out, it was susceptible to defection from within.

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