Edward Evans-Pritchard Research Paper

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Modern anthropology, born in the imagination of the educated classes of Western Europe and the USA in the late nineteenth century, owes its parentage to several ways of witnessing and recording the world beyond their immediate horizon. There were already high quality travelers tales, scientific expeditions mounted to investigate natural history (including direct observations of humanity), and political reports on the troublesome borders of empire. Early professional anthropologists experimented within this framework, and various emphases developed in specific national traditions. In the UK, by the second half of the twentieth century a distinctive combination of personal engagement, systematic research aims within the broad field of social science, and relevance to the affairs of state produced the discipline that became proud to carry the label ‘British social anthropology.’ Edward Evans-Pritchard was a key architect of this discipline’s style and success, both intellectually and institutionally, and achieved perhaps a surprising degree of academic recognition for anthroplogy across the humanities and social sciences. The particular timing of his education and his career meant that he was able to take full advantage of the opportunities of the high colonial period in Africa for his primary research. The expansion of the British University system after the Second World War meant that he was able to promote the institutional development of his discipline. His synthesis was not, however, primarily dependent upon ‘participant observation’ of culture and human life as such (as had been emphasized by Malinowski) nor upon the need for defining a ‘natural science of society’ (which had so concerned RadcliffeBrown). Evans-Pritchard’s intellectual ambitions for anthropology sprang rather from an imaginative interest in long-term history and in philosophy, an interest traceable back to his student days and earliest publications.

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Edward Evans-Pritchard was born at Crowbridge in Sussex on 21 September 1902, the son of an Anglican clergyman. He attended Winchester College, from which he entered Exeter College at Oxford University in 1921. His family background was less conventional, however, than this account might indicate, as his father was from Caernarvon and spoke Welsh, while his mother’s family came from Liverpool. Nor was his time as an undergraduate at Oxford spent very conventionally; he found his obligatory studies of history, mainly about kings and battles, somewhat constricting. Exeter College was, however, already established as a focus for anthropological activities, as a result of the enthusiasms of R. R. Marett, University Reader in Social Anthropology and later Rector of the College, and Evans-Pritchard met many anthropologists there. It is extremely likely that he also attended lectures, almost certainly on Roman Britain but also possibly on philosophy, by the young R.G. Collingwood, then regarded as an unconventional and slightly ‘extra-curricular’ lecturer but very popular among students. Evans-Pritchard was a little later to review Collingwood’s Roman Britain (for details see Beidelman 1974); warmly endorsing what we would call today its ‘socio-cultural’ approach to the everyday life and practices of the ordinary folk.

Drawn by the promise of working with experienced field anthropologists, Evans-Pritchard moved on to study at the London School of Economics and Social Science in 1924. C. G. Seligman was already teaching there, and Bronislaw Malinowski arrived the same year. C.G. Seligman, with his wife Brenda, had been engaged in anthropological work for the government of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan since 1910, but they were beginning to seek others to continue their project, and Evans-Pritchard seized his opportunity. After completing a required survey in the southern Blue Nile region in 1926 he was allowed a free hand in embarking on his own project to study the Azande kingdoms of the equatorial forests bordering the Congo basin in the south-west. This field research, together with a series of visits between 1930 and 1936 to the very different region of the upper Nile flood-plains inhabited by the Nuer, whose reputation for being a ‘difficult’ and elusive people far outweighed anything else known about them, laid the foundation for Evans-Pritchard’s later career and his shaping of the discipline of social anthropology. He did have the experience of teaching at King Fuad University in Cairo from 1930 to 1934, and at this time published a series of critical, theoretical papers which foreshadowed some of his mature work (for details see Beidelman 1974). A steady output of ethnographic articles mainly on the Azande and the Nuer also appeared through the 1930s, and indeed in the case of the Azande continued to appear throughout his life. But it was the two monographs appearing at the end of the decade which confirmed EvansPritchard’s outstanding position in anthropology and enabled him, after the War, to re-launch his discipline. They were Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande (1937) and The Nuer: A Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic People (1940), both published by the Clarendon Press in Oxford, who successfully pleaded the need to obtain a subsidy in each case from the Sudan Government.

While Evans-Pritchard’s best-known ethnographic work was carried out in the Sudan, he also undertook field research in several other countries, partly as a result of the War. He was commissioned in the Sudan Defence Force in 1940, and fought alongside locally recruited militia in Anuak country on the Ethiopian border. In 1942 he was posted to Libya, where he served in the British Military Administration following the liberation of that country from Italian occupation. His investigations of the Bedouin tribes of the interior bore fruit in his book the Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949), an explicitly historical treatment of some of the ideas about segmentary social relations which he had worked out for the Nuer. By the time the War was over, Evans-Pritchard had achieved a greater ethnographic range than any of his British predecessors. There was also an innovative quality to his analytical writings. It was during the period from the late 1930s to the late1940s too that other key events in his life took place. In 1939 he married Ioma HeatonNicholls, daughter of the South African high commissioner in London, with whom he raised a lively family of five children. In 1944 he became a Roman Catholic, and returning to Britain at the end of the War, was appointed in 1945 to a Readership in Cambridge and then in 1946 to the Chair of Social Anthropology in Oxford, in succession to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. He immediately established a high profile position, both for himself and for the now rapidly-expanding subject, becoming president of the Royal Anthropological Institute (1949–51), a founder (1946) and later first life president of the Association of Social Anthropologists of the Commonwealth, and a Fellow of the British Academy (1956). He retired in 1970, and his outstanding life’s contribution was recognized with a knighthood in 1971. He died at his home in Oxford, on 11 September 1973. Even before his death, Evans-Pritchard had become something of a living legend, a ‘household name’ in anthropology. His works helped to define his subject to successive generations of students, and indeed still do so.

Evans-Pritchard’s major achievement was to establish social anthropology after the War as a respected member of the humane disciplines, engaging on more equal terms than previously (at least in Britain) with the concerns of linguists, philosophers, historians, theologians, and political theorists. In achieving this distinctive character (which sustains the subject still) some distance had to be created between the ‘new’ social anthropology on the one hand and the ‘old’ museums together with ‘physical’ or biological anthropology on the other. Moreover, a clear identity had to be forged in respect of sociology, which in its new post-War vigor was seen as a richer cousin and tremendous rival (and indeed still is, especially in claims to public funding). Here, the emphasis lay on anthropology’s qualitative appreciation of relational structures and processes in social life: in the principles behind the uses of language and the creation of meaning in interaction; behind the choreography of kinship and marriage, and the patterning of religious and symbolic practice; and behind the workings of authority, power, and political strife.

The Azande analysis (Evans-Pritchard 1937) immediately struck chords; for example, Collingwood referred to it in his Principles of Art (Collingwood 1938). After the War, the book became widely influential in the debate opening up within philosophy over the socially and historically placed foundations of what could be understood as knowledge. It also resonated with the more flexible approaches being taken by historians towards the social context of ‘witchcraft’ phenomena in the European and American past. Because of its pace and well-constructed storyline, the book easily moved into teaching syllabuses and has always been popular with students. An abridged edition appeared in 1976, mainly to serve teaching courses, and sales are still healthy. The Azande and their doggedly ‘rational’ and clever way of monitoring and justifying the operation of their oracles (still quite surprising to many readers) have helped to define what modern anthropology is about. They have certainly entered almost every textbook on the subject published since the War. Ironically, however, the appeal of the Azande has more recently converged with new and easy forms of cultural relativism which lead students to ask ‘Why shouldn’t the Azande believe in witchcraft, if it suits their way of life, and who am I to criticize them?’ This is not EvansPritchard’s line; on the contrary, he shows how most ordinary Azande themselves are not at all comfortable with the presence of witchcraft. It is those in powerful and privileged positions who focus on the idea, as the source of suffering and death, and turn their accusations on the relatively helpless. Sometimes-cruel kings and princes ultimately control the oracles. Even at the household level only senior men have access to them, while women constitute a large proportion of the accused. Evans-Pritchard’s analysis is explicitly set in a political and historical context that offers a more nuanced reading than that of simple relativism, and ultimately, it can be argued that this extra depth is what gives the text its lasting qualities.

The Nuer, as a people, and The Nuer as EvansPritchard’s first book on them, next entered the life and language of academic anthropology (EvansPritchard 1940). This was the first time that ‘œcology’ had explicitly been selected for analysis in a field monograph. It was also the first analytical field study of the political principles behind patterns of hostility and alliance between apparently unrelated groups of mobile herders, here cast in a strong idiom of moral obligation invoked through the situational rhetoric of paternal descent. Also for the first time, structured conceptions of space, and of time, were shown to have a social dimension and to constitute an overall framework of shared understandings within which political action was cast and could be ‘read’ by an observer. The book offered quite a different vision of ‘social structure’ from the empiricism of RadcliffeBrown, and, significantly, has since been interpreted as a forerunner of the abstract ‘structuralism’ associated especially with Levi-Strauss; Louis Dumont (in his introduction to the French translation, 1975) even claimed that it had not been properly appreciated by English-speaking anthropologists. The Nuer nevertheless served as model and inspiration to a wide range of field studies of ‘segmentary’ political systems both in Africa and elsewhere. With its successors Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer (Evans-Pritchard 1951a, written as a companion text and explicitly focusing on kinship rather than politics) and Nuer Religion (EvansPritchard 1956) it provoked a considerable industry of ‘re-analysis’, criticism, and comment. The secondary debates flourished in American and British anthropology for some decades until fresh field research began to alter the position of ‘the Nuer’ within anthropology by asking questions about them and their social world from a different standpoint than that of Evans-Pritchard’s founding texts, taking into account aspects of social interconnection across the wider region of the southern Sudan and the longer-term as well as post-colonial social history of North East Africa as a whole and its on-going struggles.

The Nuer, along with the collection on African Political Systems co-edited with Meyer Fortes which appeared in the same year, marked the birth of the subdiscipline of field-based political anthropology and a new dialogue with the growing subject of political science. The final volume in Evans-Pritchard’s trilogy devoted to the Nuer also helped create a subdiscipline, in this case the field-based anthropology of religion, and also established a new base-line for conversations with a neighboring discipline. Nuer Religion (1956) was written quite provocatively as a challenge to academic theology, requiring its specialists as well as a wider readership in religious studies to take tribal systems of belief and practice seriously. Evans Pritchard’s presentation of Nuer trust in kwoth, the Spirit of the above, has the schematic character of a creed, but at the same time a lived and shared reality. He portrays for us in almost biblical tone an elemental confrontation between God and Man, demanding recognition across the gulf between the historical religions and their sacred texts on the one hand and the worlds they often denigrate on the other as erring paganism or blind custom. The work is presented as social analysis, emphasizing how diversity of perception and representation reflects the relativity of points of view within Nuer society as established in his first book, and it draws the line (explicitly) at entering the subjectivity of religious experience. A turn towards this very subjectivity, however, has been at the heart of more recent work in the anthropology of religion, opening up avenues to the anthropological study of the major world religions in their lived reality.

Evans-Pritchard’s use of ethnographic data from his field research in advancing fresh analysis was innovative and brilliant. To appreciate his ‘theories’ or ‘methods’ we need, indeed, to engage with his concrete analyses. However, Evans-Pritchard did set out in the 1950s what he clearly intended as a new horizon for social anthropology. He made explicit his life-long sympathy for the historian’s perspective and his ambition to establish social anthropology as ‘a kind of historiography,’ a comparative study of the forms of social life which did not caricature those forms as mere empirical data but recognized their moral character and their participation in the same historical world as that of the observer (see for example Evans-Pritchard 1951b, 1962). He specifically evoked R.G. Collingwood’s vision of what ‘history’ could be (Collingwood 1946) in sketching his own ambitions for social anthropology, and also followed Collingwood’s example in drawing up a new academic lineage for his disciplinary field as he saw it.

It has sometimes been suggested that EvansPritchard’s style of anthropology could be glossed as ‘the translation of culture,’ and indeed this was adopted as the title of one of the main volumes of essays offered to him on his retirement in 1970 (Beidelman 1971). However, as a gloss on his overall repositioning of anthropology this phrase sits a little uncomfortably, deriving more from late twentiethcentury ideas of ‘culture’ difference than from the disciplined comparison of social forms towards which Evans-Pritchard strove, taking his inspiration from the French sociological school of Durkheim, and especially perhaps from the historically comparative work of Marcel Mauss. Among other initiatives in the 1950s, Evans-Pritchard sponsored a series of translations of classic essays from the Annee Sociologique, starting with Mauss’s essay on The Gift (1954), which remains a foundation text in the teaching of anthropology, especially economic anthropology, and is clearly about more than the ‘translation of culture.’ Evans-Pritchard was certainly concerned with translation, but essentially as a craftsman in handling the subtleties of language as such, as for example in his elegant paper on sanza, the way in which Azande employ proverbs in double-talk (1962), or in his treatments of poetry and/or al literature. A project he undertook with colleagues in the 1960s was the launching of the Oxford Library of African Literature, a series that flourished over the following two decades, and had considerable influence in developing anthropology’s openness to art, performance, narrative, and the uses of textual material generally.

The lasting significance of Evans-Pritchard’s legacy lies partly in its successful move away from simple observer’s empiricism and a narrowly-based definition of the subject-matter of anthropology, towards an engagement with key debates in history, politics, literary criticism, philosophy, theology, and religious studies (for evaluations, see, for example, Barnes 1987, Douglas 1980). At the same time, these subjects have come increasingly to recognize the value of empirical inquiry into the lives, opinions, memories, and practices of people living ‘in the world,’ while the feminist critique and new fields such as gender studies, cultural, and media studies have adopted many ideas from anthropology. They have also helped to give a new lease of life to the idea of ‘ethnography’ as a reflexive engagement with the world.

Meanwhile, anthropology has moved firmly from the ‘tribal periphery’ towards the comparative study of the major civilizations, including the practice of the world religions; it is now tackling modern economic ideas and international development, urban life, and global processes. A generation of anthropologists born long after Evans-Pritchard’s era have naturally sought to refashion and refresh the subject in the fast changing world of the late twentieth century, and various lines of criticism have been directed towards his work. Along with his contemporaries, he has been taken to task for not keeping more of an intellectual distance from the colonial situation in which anthropology had such a privileged position. He has been criticized for being too impressionistic in his ethnographic portrayals, for not adopting a more differentiated view of the peoples he was studying, and not attending more carefully to the specifics of their lives. He has been accused of using a patronizing tone and perpetuating character stereotypes. On the question of religion, he has been accused of presenting Nuer beliefs as too biblical and the people as too pious. He has also had his fair share of accusations over ‘male bias.’ Details of his Nuer ethnography (though rarely of his accounts of the Azande) have been combed over and reanalyzed in order to support various more ‘rigorous’ accounts based on modern social or psychological theories. Evans-Pritchard himself rarely responded directly to these criticisms. From the mid-1960s on, in common with others whose lives had become involved in the Sudan in one way or another, he was shocked and angry about the deepening civil war in the country and its effect on people he remembered, and who remembered him. Perhaps partly because of this he had no taste for picking over his earlier writings. He developed various enthusiasms for both radical and conservative causes, and seemed to enjoy his growing reputation for eccentricity (see Lienhardt’s memoir, 1974). Age added a more of a waspish tone to his famous wit and camaraderie, while the debates over his work were left to others.

With hindsight, and the turn of another century, it can be seen that Evans-Pritchard’s work remains a source of inspiration despite the broadside against ‘functionalism’ and imperial collusion. He was ‘accused’ of working for the Sudan government, but at the time he was aware of the contradictions of his position and engaged in debate with the colonial authorities (Johnson 1982). He put very vividly those paradoxes of multiple belonging or ‘positionality’ which the modern student ponders, focusing in a still helpful way on the relativity of ‘self and other’ in the making of personal and group identities, as we might rephrase the relevance of segmentary theory today. He placed ‘dialogue’ both between the Azande themselves and between himself and his informants firmly at the heart of the analysis of knowledge and belief that he carried out among them. He also respected, explicitly, the privacy and inner religious consciousness of the Nuer whose world became in so many other ways public property through his work. It is clearly true that in many respects Evans-Pritchard failed to take ‘colonialism’ into account in his analyses, or to allow for historical change; but then again, looking back, he is foremost among those who worked to re-orient anthropology towards history. His treatment of field research was never as an end in itself; field research was only one of many methods, including many of those scholarly methods standard to history and the social sciences, to be drawn into anthropological analysis.

Moreover, Evans-Pritchard’s anthropology was broader, in practice, than many imagine, including for example the sensitive use of informants’ own accounts about relations between men and women among the Azande—long before gender or sexuality had become an academic topic (1974). Nor was he confined to work in ‘social’ anthropology alone; he made quite extensive collections of ethnographic objects, musical recordings, and photographs, now mostly deposited in the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. In Britain, social anthropology has sought to reestablish debates with the study of material culture, art and music on the museum side and also with medical and biological anthropology. Evans-Pritchard’s work remains a source of questions relevant to these new debates. His achievement of a distinctive intellectual tradition within the humanities for ‘social anthropology’ in the mid-twentieth century provided a momentum from which the discipline in the broader sense is still benefiting. His memory continues to be honored, most recently with the establishment of an annual series of Evans-Pritchard Lectures at All Souls College, Oxford, in 1999.


  1. Barnes J A 1987 Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard. Proceedings of the British Academy 73: 447–89
  2. Beidelman T O (ed.) 1971 The Translation of Culture: Essays to E. E. Evans-Pritchard. Tavistock, London
  3. Beidelman T O (ed.) 1974 E. E. Evans-Pritchard, a Bibliography:. Tavistock, London
  4. Collingwood R G 1938 The Principles of Art. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  5. Collingwood R G 1946 The Idea of History. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  6. Douglas M 1980 Evans-Pritchard. Harvester Press, Fontana, Brighton, UK
  7. Dumont C L 1975 Preface to the French edition of The Nuer. In: Beattie J H M, Lienhardt R G (eds.) Studies in Social Anthropology. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  8. Evans-Pritchard E E 1937 Witchcraft, Oracles, and Magic among the Azande. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK. Abridged edition issued in 1976
  9. Evans-Pritchard E E 1940 The Nuer: a Description of the Modes of Livelihood and Political Institutions of a Nilotic people. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  10. Evans-Pritchard E E 1949 The Sanusi of Cyrenaica. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  11. Evans-Pritchard E E 1951a Kinship and Marriage among the Nuer. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  12. Evans-Pritchard E E 1951b Social Anthropology. Cohen & West, London
  13. Evans-Pritchard E E 1956 Nuer Religion. Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK
  14. Evans-Pritchard E E 1962 Essays in Social Anthropology. Faber and Faber, London, Chaps. 1, 9
  15. Evans-Pritchard E E 1974 Man and Woman among the Azande. Faber and Faber, London
  16. Fortes M, Evans-Pritchard E E (eds.) 1940. African Political Systems. Oxford University Press, London, UK
  17. Johnson D H 1982 Evans-Pritchard, the Nuer, and the Sudan Political Service. African Affairs 81: 231–46
  18. Lienhardt R G 1974 Evans-Pritchard: a personal view’. Man n.s. 9: 301–3
  19. Mauss M 1954 The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies. Cohew and West, London
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