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Timothy Larsen

Book Notes

Oxford anthropology in gossipy retrospect.

With the exception of historians (my own esteemed guild), anthropologists are the most gossipy of scholars. If you want to know the worst that can be told about any of them, just ask their friends in the profession. The Committee for Anthropology at Oxford University was founded in 1905. A History of Oxford Anthropology is the court record of a raucous centennial celebration. It reads much more like a roast than a self-promoting institutional history.

The tone is set in a preface in which the argument is advanced that Oxford was able to lead the field because its collegiate system "provided a lived experience of 'tribal' life." This analysis is developed apparently in all seriousness, although the reader begins to wonder when it comes to lines such as the "Head of House is like the Leopard Skin Chief." The generosity of All Souls College made Oxford anthropology, and this is repaid by a chapter that explains that the college had more money than it knew what to do with and that it hoped anthropology would strengthen the British empire. Of a key founding figure, R. R. Marett, we are told "it would be difficult to identify any ideas of his that have had a lasting influence." A. R. Radcliffe-Brown is discussed in a chapter framed around the question of whether he was "a major disaster to anthropology." People generally liked personally and admired professionally his successor, E. E. Evans-Pritchard, which prompts much vague handwringing about the "mythology" of this period and ineffectual attempts to puncture its "special aura."

John Davis, who succeeded to the chair in 1990, gleefully reports what Sir Isaiah Berlin said to him at the time: "I have known all your predecessors: two charlatans, one eccentric and one sensible man. I wonder what you will turn out to be." Then there is the anecdote about a particularly heated exchange in which one anthropologist was complaining that scholars were over-determining artifacts. Holding up one he asked, "What is the use of this lump of metal?" To which a rattled colleague menacingly replied, "Well, I could kill you with it."

There is no doubt that Oxford has been a leading player in the discipline of anthropology. It is precisely the fact that this resounding success can be taken for granted that makes possible this deliciously indiscreet retrospective.

Timothy Larsen, McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, is the author of Crisis of Doubt: Honest Faith in Nineteenth Century England (Oxford Univ. Press). His new book, about the Bible in the 19th century, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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