Speaking Volumes: Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma

January 3, 1997

On Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma.

What is the most influential book I have ever read? No contest: it has to be Edmund Leach's Political Systems of Highland Burma. My copy is the 1964 reprint, a paperback with a turquoise cover published by G. Bell and Sons for the LSE. I bought it second hand for 15 shillings, not for the guinea it had cost new. It has lived with me since 1965 in Edinburgh, Leicester and in Cardiff, where it has been on the shelf of seven different offices.

The 1964 edition is much more fun to own than the first edition, because Leach added an introductory note of vintage polemic. Unusually, Leach only attacks Max Gluckman and Ernest Gellner (then professors in Manchester and London), rather than his Cambridge colleagues (Fortes and Goody) or Oxford rivals. His intellectual disputes with Gluckman, Fortes, Goody and others were the most exciting, entertaining and informative part of my undergraduate experience. It was wonderfully exhilarating to go to lectures by Leach and Goody in which they tore into each other's work, and then read the journals and find the same battles fought in print.

While I attended lectures by Edmund Leach in all three years of my undergraduate degree, I did not study Burma with him, so I do not remember ever using Political Systems for an essay or seminar. It is not an easy book to read. I wish I had been a Kingsman and had tutorials with Leach himself on it.

Political Systems of Highland Burma is about the Kachin and Shan population of northeast Burma, respectively highland and valley-based rice cultivators. Edmund Leach had spent the war among the Kachin, after a year of orthodox fieldwork there, although all his original fieldnotes, photographs and draft thesis were lost "as the result of enemy action", so he had to prepare a PhD thesis from historical documents. The book is not, therefore, a conventional monograph. Its main attraction is theoretical: it was the book that smashed the Radcliffe-Brown paradigm in British social anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown's use of Durkheim's ideas had produced a dreary and static social science, like a wartime austerity Anglo-Saxon travesty of a boeuf en daube made with watery Bovril and without garlic, olive oil, herbs, wine or real stock. Leach's new social anthropology, drawing on Vico, Pareto, and a properly gallic Durkheim, put the taste back into the stew. Political Systems was the Mediterranean Food of its era: nourishing, thought-provoking and full of unexpected juxtapositions. Leach's anthropology, and his enthusiasm for the work of Levi-Strauss, was the most important intellectual influence of my life. His style, with its bold statements and constant juxtapositions of the exotic other and the apparently familiar suddenly rendered strange, is, for me, the epitome of scholarly text production. Whenever I settle to write, whether about education, gender or wedding meals, I know Leach is still influencing me, 30 years after I first read Political Systems of Highland Burma.

Sara Delamont is dean of humanities and social studies, University of Wales, Cardiff.

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