A flourish of fluff

The Expansive Moment
May 30, 1997

Expansive moment? What expansive moment? The text makes it clear that we must ignore the dates of the subtitle that define no coherent period. The boom in anthropology happened postwar and largely in the anthropology of Africa. And is "expansive" really the right word? There was expansion in the sense of more jobs and more research done in more places. But expansive suggests a secure maturity of vision, as a model-giving subject, that anthropology has never really attained. Stress rather the "moment".

There has been much navel-gazing in anthropology of late. Its measure lies in the degree to which it can come up with more than the usual fluff. Jack Goody's survey is something of an apologia pro vita sua and very fluffy in parts. First of all it is an attempt to rebut the claim that his generation and its elders were servants of colonialism. The attempt is somewhat disingenuous in a social scientist. This cannot be true, he claims, because some at least of them were seen as "Reds and Jews" who had a genuine individual hostility to colonialism and were anyway treated with suspicion by government authorities. E. E. Evans-Pritchard (E.P.) was a rare patrician figure who did pay for his research with imperial tribute but always rejected colonial advances other than the financial. The general frame of empire can be ignored because individuals were thinking and feeling individually. This switch from collective to individual and back, according to temporary convenience, is a dodge as old as sociology itself. The sense of alienation is stronger, of course, when Goody jumps the other way and the personal dynamics within the teacup of British anthropology are treated as evolving world epistemology.

It is good to have the folklore of Malinowski's petty tyrannies documented chapter and verse, but Goody clearly finds it harder to cope with E.P. The tempting but sharper epithets are put back in the drawer and the various semi-public scandals of his life are regretfully passed over to stress E.P. as a merely colourful and inconsistent figure. Goody shrugs off the urge to gossip but cannot resist quoting E.P's remark that Audrey Richards might have been settled by "poking" her. It goes straight into anthropology's Book of Wit and Wisdom, with Malinowski's "exterminate the brutes".

Ironically, the most depressing section is that reviewing with simple pride the triumphs of "the expansive moment". What comes back with horrible clarity now is the sheer tedium and intellectual bankruptcy of in-grown Africanist anthropology after the war. It is a breath of stale air.

What emerges clearly in this partial and personal study, contra Goody, is the ambivalent importance to African anthropology of the decolonising process as a source of both funding and topics. Although the continent would quickly become a theoretical dependancy of other regions, this at least led to a concern with big questions, the nature of government, witchcraft, social institutions and so on that seem alien to an age that conducts the ethnographic study of the fitted kitchen and where Africa is something that appears merely as an object of representation in films - sorry film. Yet even Goody, in a more personal section, seems to speak with relief of the passing of this grey moment of the "party line" that allowed his own interests to blossom and flourish. No wonder Rodney Needham would later cry out for an "iridescent metamorphosis" of anthropology. His only mistake perhaps was to assume that change necessarily occurs from a lower into a higher form of life.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper, Museum of Mankind.

The Expansive Moment: The Rise of Social Anthropology in Britain and Africa 1918-1970

Author - Jack Goody
ISBN - 0 521 45048 9 and 45666 5
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00 and £12.95
Pages - 235

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