By Tingfeng Yan

Freddy Foks is Simon Research Fellow at the University of Manchester. He is a historian of modern Britain and its empire. His first book, Participant Observers: Anthropology, Colonial Development, and the Reinvention of Society in Britain (University of California Press, 2023), draws on his doctoral research. He holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge.

Tingfeng Yan is a contributing editor of the JHIBlog. He interviewed Foks about the intellectual history of anthropology.


Tingfeng Yan: The book addresses how British anthropology started to focus more on “the social” instead of the anatomical or the archaeological since the 1930s. Moreover, how anthropologists interrogated “the social” informed broader discussions in Britain and contributed to the “reinvention of society” in 20th-century Britain. Could you say more about where the notion of “the social” came from for the anthropologists such as Bronislaw Malinowski and their interlocutors in other disciplines? Did they get the idea of “the social,” for example, from French sociology or some other traditions?

Freddy Foks: This question of “the social” was one of the things that first got me interested in the history of anthropology. Like most ideas, it is very hard to pin down, and when searching for origins there is always the danger of infinite regress. As you suggest, the intellectual history certainly leads via Durkheim back to what Maurizio Meloni calls the “transcendence” of the social from the biological. There is another lineage of “the social” by contrast to the political, as reconstructed by Patricia Owens. She points to the long history of the “oikos” (household), the new discourses of custom and commerce in the 18th century and “the social question” of the 19th century. But as I brought these threads together, I worried that I was tying myself up in knots. Towards the end of my PhD I started to move away from writing an intellectual history to something more like a social history of ideas. I found the history of science very helpful in making that move, especially the essays in the collection edited by Andrew Kaiser Pedagogy and the Practice of Science. I also drew inspiration from Randall Collins and Stefan Collini.

TY: How did turning towards a social history of ideas reformulate your research questions?

FF: It prompted me to ask new questions about the reproduction of this distinctive method in this particular discipline. Why did “the social” gain traction amongst this community of anthropologists and how was it operationalized? What were the enabling conditions (material as well as intellectual) that led to this concept being taken up rather than other competing alternatives? Why did anthropology, which had been a wide field of inquiry in Britain in the 1900s, narrow its focus onto “social life” by the Second World War? Rather than look to the origins of “the social” conceptually, I started to pose the question sociologically. So I drew on existing genealogies and then told a causal and chronological narrative of pedagogy and method. That seemed more manageable to try to do in the book.

TY: While Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown are often viewed as the two greats of modern British social anthropology and comparable to each other (albeit with Radcliffe-Brown playing a less foundational role), Radcliffe-Brown received considerably less treatment in the book than Malinowski. He seemed to mostly appear as a competitor to Malinowski and a founder of alternative traditions of anthropology such as that of Oxford, whereas Malinowski was at the center of the work at the LSE, which is given pride of place in your narrative about the rise of social anthropology in Britain. Could you say something about what motivated this choice of focus on Malinowski and the LSE, and what is your assessment of Radcliffe-Brown’s role in the formation of social anthropology?

FF: The usual way of telling the origin story of social anthropology focuses on those two figures: Bronislaw Malinowski and Alfred Radcliffe-Brown. That’s right in terms of ideas. But in terms of the sociological history of the discipline, Malinowski was more important for two reasons. The first reason is pedagogical. Malinowski’s famous seminar at the LSE was the training ground for almost all the major figures in British anthropology who gained professorial appointments in the 1940s and 1950s. While Malinowski was training the next generation of anthropologists in Britain, Radcliffe-Brown was in Sydney and then in Chicago. Radcliffe-Brown had a huge impact via his ideas, but it was only when he became Professor of Social Anthropology at Oxford in 1937 that he spent considerable time in a British institution, discussing ideas and methods with a small group of Malinowski’s former students like Meyer Fortes, Max Gluckman, and Edward Evans-Pritchard. Connected to this issue of the relative importance of pedagogy was the question of funding. Both Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown urged anthropologists to enter the field. But then, as now, fieldwork was incredibly expensive. Anthropologists need time, resources, travel expenses etc. By the early 1930s, Malinowski held the purse strings of most fieldwork funding in the UK via the Rockefeller Foundation. Between 1919 and 1940 the Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Harkness Philanthropies collectively funded British social science to the tune of £690,000 (Donald Fisher did extensive research on this funding back in the 1980s). These were huge sums of money at the time and should be seen as even more significant in an age when there was almost no central government spending on the social sciences. American funding transformed the British universities before the Second World War. It also transformed anthropology by concentrating disciplinary power in a few hands. If you were a graduate student in anthropology in Britain who wanted access to Rockefeller funding in the 1930s you had to go via Malinowski. So in terms both of pedagogy and funding, Malinowski had a greater impact on the reproduction of “the social” in British anthropology than Radcliffe-Brown, even though Radcliffe-Brown may have had a more lasting impact through the 1940s and 1950s in intellectual terms.

TF: This seems a very good reason for giving Malinowski more prominence over Radcliffe-Brown in accounting for the rise of social anthropology.

FF: There was also a second, more pragmatic, reason why I focused more on Malinowski than Radcliffe-Brown. The practical reason was, in part, about the relative richness of existing archives and also of secondary sources. Malinowski’s papers are voluminous and mostly in London, within striking distance of Cambridge, where I did my PhD and the postdoc where I finished the book. Radcliffe-Brown does not have an equivalent existing archive. For that reason, the secondary literature on Malinowski is also much richer than that on Radcliffe-Brown. As a PhD student and an early career researcher there are huge professional pressures to publish. That sets practical limits on the length of time I felt I could devote to coming up with novel arguments based on original archival research. It felt hard enough to write about Malinowski’s importance to the discipline in such a limited time. Doing the same for Radcliffe-Brown would likely have taken another two years of research and another hundred pages of writing. More often than most people like to admit the topic of a book is set by limits of patience, funding, and energy. There’s also the question of the practicalities of structuring a book around some kind of narrative. One of the hardest things about turning a PhD into a monograph is to find a way to make the diffuseness of a PhD thesis into a more coherent and satisfying whole. My editor at the University of California Press, James Vernon, was very helpful in pushing me to find ways to make narrative links between chapters. It was Malinowski who ended up linking the chapters. Malinowski helped me tell the story of disciplinary development within British anthropology during the 1930s and he also helped me connect that story to later chapters about Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London and E.P. Thompson and Karl Polanyi’s rethinking of industrialization. So, there were pragmatic and intellectual reasons for focusing so much on Malinowski. I think Radcliffe-Brown was important too. But stressing his importance relative to Malinowski would have meant writing a different book. I hope someone will soon write a biography of Radcliffe-Brown giving a full account of his impact on anthropology.

TY: Could you say more about social anthropologists’ changing approaches to history in the period you studied? On the one hand, we see that post-WWII historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson borrowed ideas from social anthropology to study the English past. On the other hand, social anthropologists seem to have had a more complicated relationship with history. Bronislaw Malinowski prided himself on studying the present functioning of societies instead of speculating about the unfathomable past. Nevertheless, some later social anthropologists, such as E.E. Evans-Pritchard and Kenneth Little, were more open to a rapprochement between anthropology and history. Was this turn to re-valorize history a general trend in social anthropology in the later period you studied? If so, what do you think may have motivated this shift?

FF: Yes, that’s right about re-valorizing history and also about Malinowski’s skepticism about conjecturing about past times on the basis of little evidence. But I think there’s a misapprehension that British anthropologists only became interested in social change after the Second World War. That myth was largely perpetuated by Edward Evans-Pritchard who famously argued in 1950 that anthropologists were mistaken in thinking they were studying the ethnographic present. Rather, he wrote, “what social anthropologists have in fact chiefly been doing is to write cross-sections of history.” That argument was a polemic aimed at a group of anthropologists (Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown and many of their students) who thought they were, as Evans-Pritchard disparagingly put it, “discovering the sociological laws in terms of which […] actions, ideas and beliefs can be explained and in the light of which they can be planned and controlled.” What Evans-Pritchard meant by “history” was a refusal to concede that social change could or should be planned and controlled. His argument was not accepted by many of his colleagues. As Isaac Schapera, one of Evans-Pritchard’s contemporaries pointed out in the early 1960s, almost all the anthropologists of their generation had been analyzing societies historically, just not in the way that Evans-Pritchard liked. If there was a short moment when history wasn’t discussed all that much by anthropologists, it was in Malinowski’s publications, and that was mostly because he sought to criticize theories of cultural diffusion based on tenuous hypotheses about the past. Evans-Pritchard’s argument wasn’t really about whether anthropologists had stopped being historical after Malinowski. It is better understood as a polemic against planning and positivism written by a recent Catholic convert in the context of the early Cold War. The relevant point was stressed by Schapera in 1963: that anthropologists had not gathered enough evidence one way or another to say definitively if there are “‘general laws’ of social change, or whether, as many historians [and Evans-Pritchard] maintain, changes are all unique, and therefore incapable of being reduced to universal patterns of cause and effect.”

TF: Where do you see the debate between these two camps stand today?

FF: That debate has still not been settled, even though we now have a huge number of case studies. In fact, it seems unlikely that any number of cases will ever be sufficient to adjudicate between those who believe in general social laws and those who don’t. I think it’s fair to say that the cultural history and cultural anthropology of the 1980s – 2000s tended to side with the Evans-Pritchard side of the debate and set aside causal arguments in favor of in-depth descriptions of difference. But things seem to have shifted recently. In a brilliant essay in the London Review of Books, William Davies surveys the recent trend in social science to look again at causation and the long-term determinants of social life. Trevor Jackson has gone into even more detail about this literature in Past & Present. The human and social sciences are still caught, as they were in the 1950s and 1960s, between camps that, in Sara Maza’s formulation, pit one group who believe that “causes matter because causes link the past to the present directing us to the future” and another camp who propose that “the strangeness of the past [and the ethnographic present] on its own terms is a lesson in tolerant relativism and an invitation to critique the present.” There is evidence, it seems to me, that causation is coming back into fashion. Maybe there is some hope that a new series of studies will combine causal arguments with an attitude of “tolerant relativism.” In fact, that’s what lots of Malinowski’s students thought they were doing, and I wanted to unearth part of that way of thinking in Participant Observers by pointing readers to maybe less well-known figures in the history of social science like Elizabeth Bott and Phyllis Deane and Raymond Firth, all of whom I think are still worth engaging with and learning from.

TY: It is mentioned in the book that three traditions of social anthropology were practiced at Oxford, the LSE, and the Rhodes-Livingstone Institute in the mid-20th century, which made anthropology less appealing to the post-WWII British government as a ready body of knowledge to draw on for tackling practical questions. I wonder if the division of social anthropology into the three traditions affected how scholars in other fields, such as history, made use of anthropology. When historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson borrowed from anthropology, for example, was the difference between the three traditions of any concern to them? Which tradition did they most heavily draw from, and what implications did this have for anthropology’s wider reception in the academy?

FF: My hunch is that historians didn’t have much of a sense of the differences amongst anthropological schools of thought in this era, and maybe still don’t. For them, social anthropology offered a way to make arguments about social context as well as many analogies from other cultures to interpret their sources. This failure to think about the differences between anthropological theories comes out clearly in the lengthy review by Hildred Geertz of Religion and the Decline of Magic.

TY: How did post-WWII anthropologists respond to the way historians such as Keith Thomas and E.P. Thompson made use of social anthropology?

FF: This is a really interesting question and I don’t know the answer. There does seem to have been some dialogue. For instance, Keith Thomas talked to anthropologists at a conference in 1968 at King’s College, Cambridge about witchcraft, published as Witchcraft Confessions and Accusations, ed. by Mary Douglas (1970).  As I mentioned before, Hildred Geertz gave a less sympathetic hearing, and she took Thomas to task for failing to systematize his theories sufficiently. E.P. Thompson’s concept of the “moral economy” has, of course, been very influential across disciplines, including in the work of James C. Scott and James Ferguson.

TY: An important concept in the history of anthropology is holism, or the idea that a given society can be studied as a whole. While Malinowski thought he was doing holistic studies of “primitive” societies on the Trobriand Islands, the anthropological aspiration to holism was later problematized or at least put under more pressure by other anthropologists such as Max Gluckman and Raymond Firth. On the one hand, Gluckman’s Analysis of a Social Situation in Modern Zululand (first published in 1940 and 1942) stressed the connections between the Zulu society and larger forces, such as the global economy, undermining the idea that there could be self-bounded societies for one to study as a “whole.” On the other hand, Raymond Firth noted in his assessment of post-WWII community studies in Britain that holistic research was not universally applicable to all societies. Firth held that while one could study small-scale “primitive” societies holistically, holism was ill-suited to the studies of complex, dynamic Western societies. Despite these critical reflections on holism by anthropologists, holism seemed to live on as what social anthropology was perceived to offer to other disciplines in the 1960s and 1970s. We read on page 161: “social anthropologists’ ideas about ‘the social’ still live on as one particular kind of holism,” and “[a]t least to outsiders looking in, ‘culture’ and ‘the social’ were both holistic concepts that could help reconstruct” the past. Do you think the critical reflection on holism in social anthropology has been lost on scholars in other disciplines at least to some extent? If so, what implications did this have on social anthropology’s reception in the wider academia?

FF: You’re right. This poses something of a paradox. Anthropologists often grappled with the limits of holism and continually debated how to square fieldwork in a limited area with general claims about cultures and societies. Some dwelt particularly on this problem by analytically connecting their particular field site to the global processes affecting the area under observation. This was especially the case in the work of Max Gluckman and Kenneth Little and also in a really important book by Godfrey and Monica Wilson called The Analysis of Social Change(1945). Many outside the discipline, though, saw holism as British social anthropology’s calling card. It was their functionalism or structural-functionalism that appealed to many. As Keith Thomas wrote in his groundbreaking 1963 review of a large body of anthropological literature, the “attraction of anthropology, whether ‘functional,’ ‘structural’ or ‘cultural,’ is that it does constitute such an attempt to explain things in terms of each other, rather than treating them separately, like patients in a hospital.” Relationality is slightly different from holism, of course, but it was their attempt to describe a “whole way of life,” as the literary critic Raymond Williams put it, that made works of social anthropology so appealing to readers outside the discipline.

TY: Why do you think holism was so appealing to scholars in other disciplines?

FF: For many, it was the promise of a non-Marxist way of thinking about systems, relations, and institutions. This is a really important part of anthropology’s reception history in the postwar decades. That reception history carries on through the 1970s and 1980s, via interdisciplinary discussions about “rationality,” “translation,” and “interpretation” in the human sciences. Anthropology gained another lease of life in this era when many focused on questions of the commensurability and incommensurability of beliefs and cultures. A detailed study of these trends is given in the criminally under-cited From History to Theory(2011) by Kerwin Klein.

TY: While the book takes an imperial lens to study the history of social anthropology in Britain and its empire, I wonder if you could say more about transatlantic connections between anthropology in Britain and that in America. A recurrent idea in this book seems to be that anthropology in Britain from the 1920s to the 1960s was more similar to that in America than people usually thought. Just like Franz Boas, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Benedict who “loom large in political and intellectual debates about race, class and gender” (p. 81), British anthropologists such as Malinowski actively engaged in early 20th-century discussions on the family and influenced studies of “the social” in other disciplines. Mead and Malinowski corresponded with each other and shared a similar fight against Victorian visions of sexuality across the Atlantic (pp. 84-85). Moreover, British anthropological research on race and colonies was very much aligned with the agenda of reformist philanthropists in America. The Rockefeller Foundation, for example, espoused a “technocratic worldview” and sought to advance social development based on planning and control (p. 29). When Malinowski and Oldham wrote to the Rockefeller Foundation, they made “comparisons between East Africa and the American Deep South” on the issue of race relations (p. 43). The division between social anthropology associated with Britain and cultural anthropology associated with America is also said to be not as substantive as many made of it in the 1960s and the 1970s (pp. 180-181). Is it your view that there is more commonality between the anthropological traditions in Britain and America than one usually thought, and does the imperial history of social anthropology presented in this book indicate that a transatlantic history of anthropology may be a plausible next step for further investigations into the modern history of anthropology?

FF: Finding similarities as well as differences across the Atlantic was definitely something that came out of my research. Two of the major works of the history of anthropology by George Stocking and Henrika Kuklick are deeply invested in making British and US anthropologies seem very different from each other. Stocking wrote from the University of Chicago and for current anthropologists. It might be helpful to think of him as doing a kind of disciplinary exorcism: trying to cast out the legacy of Radcliffe-Brown from American anthropology by venerating Franz Boas and the Boasians. Stocking wanted to draw a clear, bright line between the UK and the USA. But that overstates that difference and makes US anthropology seem far too Boasian, which speaks more to the concerns of the 1960s than the 1920s and 1930s. There certainly were differences between the USA and UK, but there were also many common interests. Some of those common interests were in psychology and kinship, as suggested by the letters sent between Margaret Mead and Malinowski. Then in the 1950s and 1960s, there were many overlapping concerns about economic change and economic development. I make a great deal of the importance of American foundation funding in the book. It is hard to overstate how crucial the Rockefeller Foundation was to the remaking of social science in the 20th century and to the transformation of anthropology in Britain in particular. Tamsin Pietsch writes about the importance of the settler colonies in making a British “empire of scholars” by the early 20th century. In the inter-war decades American funding began to pull that network closer to the USA. Doing research in the Rockefeller Foundation archives is a bracing experience. Almost all the classics of 20th-century Anglo-American social science had some connection to the Rockefeller Foundation and its subsidiaries.

You asked earlier about Radcliffe-Brown versus Malinowski. He’s relevant to this question about the USA too. Centering him rather than Malinowski would have meant writing a more transatlantic and global history. Rather than having Britain at its center it would have had South Africa (Cape Town), Australia (Sydney), and the USA (Chicago) as its main locations. And rather than telling a story about the disciplinary development of social anthropology in Britain, a book centering Radcliffe-Brown’s pedagogy and institution building would have had the advantage of connecting British and American anthropology in a much more satisfying way than I was able to do in Participant Observers.

TY: One of the goals in your book seems to be to nuance our understanding of the historical relations between social anthropology and colonialism. Beyond “[t]he fact that anthropology was a colonial science” (p. 7), you linked British social anthropology in the 1920s-1960s more specifically to a strand of reformist imperialism. Have there been other recent historiographies addressing the specific relations between social anthropology and colonialism, and if so, how does your book speak to these works?

FF: Parts of the diary Malinowski kept during his fieldwork were published in 1967. The entries revealed his frustration and loneliness and provided evidence of his racism and sexism (George Stocking provides an assessment in his essay “The Ethnographer’s Magic”). The Diary’s publication is often seen as a totemic moment in the reappraisal of Malinowski’s legacy and since the 1960s, writing about the history of anthropology has often focused on empire and imperialism. Anthropology and the Colonial Encounter (1973), edited by Talal Asad,stands as a landmark. Asad famously wrote that “colonial power made the object of anthropological knowledge accessible and safe.” But, Asad warned, it would be a mistake to draw from this fact the conclusion that anthropology was “primarily an aid to colonial administration” or a “simple reflection of colonial ideology.” Rather, anthropology reflected the “profound contradictions and ambiguities” of “bourgeois consciousness” and, in a Marxisant turn of phrase, that the discipline possessed the “potentialities for transcending itself.” Since Asad, there has been a great deal of writing about these ambiguities, contradictions, and (failures of) transcendence, including an overview of a great deal of literature by George Steinmetz and an excellent recent essay in the JHIBlog by Nile A. Davis.

My book speaks to this historiography in two ways. First, I approached the history of social anthropology from the perspective of the “new imperial history.” That meant trying to write a history that encompassed both the “metropole” and the “periphery” of the British Empire. I did this by arguing that the discipline’s fortunes in the UK affected what anthropologists researched in the field and then showed how imperial policy guided anthropology’s institutionalization in UK universities. The second body of scholarship that I drew on was the recent turn towards the study of inter-war “internationalism.” A core part of my argument in the first few chapters stands on the connection I draw between social anthropology as practiced by Malinowski and the politics of “trusteeship” associated with the League of Nations. I went to see one of Susan Pedersen’s Ford Lectures (now published online open access as Internationalism and Empire: British Dilemmas, 1919-1939) just before beginning my PhD. Pedersen’s argument about the importance of the mandates system made so much sense in the reading I was starting to do about the politics of inter-war anthropology. Her later book, The Guardians: The League of Nations and The Crisis of Empire, was also a huge influence.

What I thought I could add to the disciplinary history of anthropology was a sense of how historians have been thinking recently about imperial history. The archives of many of the social anthropologists I wrote about are exceptionally rich, and I was only really able to scratch the surface. One of my main hopes is that Participant Observers might inspire others to seek out those archives to write new histories of anthropology that are about anthropologists and also about the communities where anthropologists did their fieldwork.

Tingfeng Yan is a graduate student in Social Thought and History at the University of Chicago. He researches the founding of the United States and the Age of Revolutions.

Edited by Tom Furse

Featured Image: Malinowski’s home in Oberbozen, Wiki Commons.