Epochs in an endless story

After Tylor
May 31, 1996

Intellectual epochs can seem of immense or of almost no duration, spanning several generations or over almost at birth. George Stocking sees a methodological quest outlined by E. B. Tylor, the first holder of a university post in anthropology in Britain, still in evidence in the 1950s, an extended epoch indeed. Now by 1950 the new "social anthropology" had finally been consolidated across several British university departments. From one point of view in formation ever since Tylor's successor took over at Oxford, from another Stocking observes that scarcely had the archetype been realised historically than its unity began to fragment. This double-take on time recurs throughout this absorbing book.

Stocking, Chicago historian-cum-anthropologist, has made British social anthropology his project (an encyclopedic enterprise). He characterises After Tylor as a strict chronological reckoning, deliberately avoiding the contextualisation sought in his earlier Victorian Anthropology, and deliberately historicist. His general complaint about the half-dozen existing histories is the way the past is treated in discontinuous terms, taking literally the breaks and conversions through which anthropologists realign themselves with the ancestors.

When one looks at the detail - he covers voluminous correspondence and papers, as well as some oral history - no one is quite so revolutionary. Three familiar issues in defining disciplinary moments become evident.

First, duration. Stocking's opening moment (1888) is Tylor's lecture on "On a method of investigating the development of institutions". It compressed two decades of argument over social evolution, promoting a comparative method designed to establish a sound basis for its study. Almost a paradigm, yet itself already in the past: "not the prospective exemplar of an ascendant paradigm, but the retrospective exemplar of a paradigm about to enter a period of decline". At the same time the call for method echoes over the next 60 years. Stocking's closing moment is the last of a series of methodological handbooks, Notes and Queries, initially put out by the Anthropological Institute and British Association, for the use of "travellers and residents in uncivilised lands"). The first (1874) had been Tylor's; the last (1951) was taken over by A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, who emerges in this account as the principal figure of the new anthropology. To Stocking, the handbook evinces "substantial underlying continuity" with earlier editions and a procedure, the comparative categorisation of societies, "that Tylor himself might have appreciated".

It is rather disconcerting to have Tylor's lecture presented simultaneously as old fashioned the moment it was delivered and as having reverberations several intellectual generations on. But perhaps that sense of things being over at the moment of realisation - like the paradigm evident at the point when its axiomatic status is questioned - is just what defines an epoch (Stocking's title is very apt).

Second, internal layering. Tylor had wished to systematise the classification and correlation of cultural practices as evidence of successive cultural stages, yet the methodological pursuit rapidly displaced the evolutionism. Calling for better methods to determine the question of origins presaged that ethnographic enquiry into social organisation that rendered the determination obsolete.

Finally, everything else that gets done at the same time. The year1951 was also the moment when the American anthropologist George Murdock delivered himself of a general critique of British social anthropology, occasioned by African Systems of Kinship and Marriage published in 1950, following African Political Systems in 1940. The contributors, including most of the leading figures of the embryonic Association of Social Anthropologists, shared all the characteristics of a "school".

But if they had (in Murdock's grudging view) an unequalled level of ethnographic competence, their interests were so narrow as to raise questions about their membership of the international community of anthropologists! Stocking's view is that Murdock seems to collapse British social anthropology into the influence of a single individual (Radcliffe-Brown) during a brief historical moment, the decade 1940-50. This is where he sees his own contribution to history. British anthropologists were more diverse than Radcliffe-Brown, and always had been. He systematically lays out the ideas and careers of both well-known and lesser known figures, including colonial correspondents of the 1870-80s and government anthropologists of the interwar years.

I found these accounts of the peripheral men the most absorbing. By making individuals his units of intellectual history, he shows that the story is far more complex and open-ended than Murdock imagined. Arguments repeat themselves in not-quite-similar form, even when the proponents intend to follow their predecessors or break from them.

Through steady attention to the concerns of each of his characters, Stocking's clear message is that anthropologists are not their paradigms, their work more diverse than a "school" would suggest. What is narrow about the charge of narrow-mindedness is the failure to see what else - on the margins and in counterpoint - an intensity of focus generates.

The mid-1990s will have seen the publication of two British encyclopedias in anthropology (one out, one in press), following the social science encyclopaedia edited by Adam and Jessica Kuper a decade ago.

Perhaps there is a new sense of epoch, an overall shape to give the discipline, encyclopedic because that also conserves internal diversity. Stocking's encyclopedia of individual men (almost no women) leaves another impression: both how diverse they were, and how few. But then it is the quality of their interactions, the relations that people generate between their ideas, the miscegenation that ensures no one reproduces themselves exactly, that gives magnitude to intellectual life. Epochs are not on the same time dimension as historical periods, and the scale of people's enterprises is not to be measured by how many they are, how global their agendas or for how long their ideas are imitated.

In similar vein, formidable as its scope is, this account is also eminently readable. The layering of each character will ensure that it can be read at all levels of anthropological sophistication, while its dovetailing of epochs will provide detective work for social scientists and historians of science alike.

Marilyn Strathern is professor of social anthropology, University of Cambridge.

After Tylor: British Social Anthropology 1888-1951

Author - George W. Stocking Jr
ISBN - 0 485 30072 9
Publisher - Athlone
Price - £50.00
Pages - 570

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