Audrey Isabel Richards, CBE, FBA, died on 29 June 1984 at the age of 85 (see London Times, 3 July). Her first degree was in Natural Science (Cambridge 1922), and she would later refer back to her biological training; anthropology appealed to her as a ‘young science’. The phrase comes from a review of the subject she wrote in 1944, but echoes the first sentence of Malinowski’s introduction to her published PhD dissertation, Hunger and work in a savage tribe (1932). She was an early member of Malinowski’s charmed circle at LSE, in London for ten years as Assistant and then full Lecturer (1928-1937). Not only did anthropology seem ‘young’, she was also among the first of the new wave of African fieldworkers who were to give that continent such prominence in British social anthropology in the following decades.

The library dissertation was a frankly ‘functional study’ of nutrition among the Southern Bantu, dealing with ‘the fundamental urge for food as shaping human institutions’, a perspective she reversed in her ‘economic study’ of the Bemba tribe (Land, labour, and diet in Northern Rhodesia, 1939). Fieldwork gave her ‘concrete material to show how the biological facts of appetite and diet are themselves shaped by ... system(s) of human relationships and traditional activities’. Her theoretical interests were developing with the times. From a Senior Lectureship at the University of Witwatersrand, she returned to London. As a Reader in Social Anthropology at LSE, she wrote her famous essay, ‘Some types of family structure amongst the Central Bantu’ (1950), the structural-functional excursus which inspired Schneider and Gough’s seminar on matrilineal kinship (1954; published 1961), a monument to her analytical insights. Audrey Richards had meanwhile moved on. In the year she became Fellow of Newnham College, she published Chisungu: a girl’s initiation ceremony among the Bemba (1956), forward-looking in its emphasis on interpretation, and its scrutiny of symbolism, folk models and the place of emotions. Essays edited in her honour by Jean La Fontaine were appropriately titled The Interpretation of ritual (1972). She also contributed to contemporary debate. Overlapping the period of her Smuts Readership at Cambridge, which she held from 1961 till her retirement in 1967, she turned to analyses of political office. These included two Presidential Addresses to the RAI on ‘Social mechanisms for the transfer of political rights in some African tribes’ (1960), and ‘African kings and their royal relatives’ (1961), and the 1968 Henry Myers Lecture on ‘Keeping the king divine’.

In the year she retired, Audrey Richards was completing another Presidential term (of the African Studies Association). In her outgoing address she said: ’We sexagenarians begin to realize that we are not expected to produce original ideas -- heaven forbid -- and that our comments on recent theories are not very much wanted. Paradoxically enough, students often think our most novel contributions are memories of past events and moods -- facts and ideas forgotten because they were only embodied in fleeting words, so that... we become in the end historians or else, perhaps, fodder for historians’.

But she was to continue working. She strove to complete her writings, partly to discharge her debts to those who had supplied her with information over her long life, partly from enthusiasm for the fascinating Bemba materials she had been too busy to analyse, partly perhaps out of a sense of incompleteness. To introduce another paradox: honoured as she was, honour enough had not been done.

Audrey Richards is no easy fodder for a historian. She had enormous strengths, and kept pace with anthropology as it grew. Yet in the end it did not come to bear her stamp. Indeed, future historians of anthropology may mistakenly discount her independent voice, and see her instead as positioned in relation to Bronislaw Malinowski, the editors of African systems of kinship and marriage where the 1950 papers appeared, Victor Turner’s subsequent development of ritual exegesis, or Jack Goody’s interest in succession to high office. The reason, I think, has to do with what she was best at, ‘practical anthropology’.

The phrase is again Malinowski’s (he was for some years chairman of the RAI’s applied anthropology committee). In the postwar years ‘practical anthropology’ suffered a theoretical eclipse, from which it is only now emerging with some sense of urgency. (I suspect, however, that Audrey Richards’s own inclinations would have resisted justifying practical work through granting it ’theoretical’ status.) Her mainstream contemporaries were perhaps too impatient with this aspect of her endeavours.

It was fieldwork which made the difference. In 1932, back from Zambia, she addressed herself to the ‘new field of anthropological research -- African society as it is changing in contact with the forces of western civilization’. She became an exponent of anthropology as an ‘applied science’, though her 1944 review of the International African Institute’s programme records how small the successes had appeared to date. She was instrumental in promoting research, insistent on its long term significance for African administrations, and convinced of the advantages of anthropological fieldwork over other observational techniques. The offices she held are too numerous to mention; they included wartime work in the Colonial Office, being secretary to the Colonial Science Research Council, and serving on Diet and on Nutrition Advisory Committees. Shortly after the CSSRC established the East African Institute of Social Research at Makerere, she became its Director for six energetic years (1950-56). It was for her work there that she received a CBE.

Her own writings on the Bemba had been spiced with an awareness of the practical application of her findings - and with sometimes quite droll asides on cultural misunderstandings bred in a colonial context. At Makerere she embarked on Ganda ethnography. She also coordinated collaborative and interdisciplinary efforts (e.g. Economic development and tribal change: a study of immigrant labour in Buganda, 1954). ‘I have dabbled most of my life in interdisciplinary studies’, she reflected at 67, a mild reference to her achievements. On return to England she became foundation director of the African Studies Centre in Cambridge, and continued to promote collaborative surveys (as reflected for instance in the volume on Subsistence to commercial farming in present-day Buganda, 1973).

A strong practical component motivated her academic interest, then. Thus East African chiefs: a study of political development in some Uganda and Tanganyika tribes, which she edited in 1960, arose from an ‘intractable problem facing East African Governments’, namely the selection of local officials. Later she turned attention to problems of multi-tribalism in urban areas, and gave The multicultural states of East Africa (1969) as the Keith Callard lectures at the McGill Centre for Developing-Area Studies.

And she had two outstanding ‘practical’ qualities. One was her insistence on knowing one’s method. Method was a long standing interest (she contributed to a collection on Method of study of culture contact in Africa in 1938, and wrote about fieldwork for the volume The Study of society in 1939). Her obituary for Malinowski refers to the ‘functional method’ as a ‘systematic technique for studying the interrelationship of different aspects of a particular culture’, and perhaps it was because functionalism presented itself to her as a ‘method’ that it endured so long in her works. For the same reason, she was able to see interpretation as a problem in correlating ‘expressed purposes’ and ‘deduced attitudes’. She lectured on fieldwork methods to her Cambridge classes. In an interdisciplinary context she developed a robust sense of the distinctiveness of anthropological techniques. This distinctiveness she also wished to preserve as a matter of independence, and time and again stressed the importance of ‘impartial studies of native tribes by those not themselves engaged in any other work in the country’. This conclusion to her very first article, in 1932, was ‘bluntly’ (her term) reiterated in 1966, in her plea for ‘a lunatic fringe of people doing field-work in African societies on their own problems and not specifically attached to “development” schemes’ Her evidence was, very simply, that of commonsense.

A judgmental commonsense contributed to her second practical quality. There was a curious intellectual obstinacy, at one I think with what Jean La Fontaine has called her ‘deep appreciation of the ridiculous’. She insisted on immediate intelligibility. No codes or contrivances in her writing, and no bowing to the wind either. She debunked the posturings which made people ridiculous. The results could themselves be a little unfortunate (as in ‘African systems of thought: an Anglo-French dialogue’, 1967). But the real strength of this integrity showed in her writings on colonial Africa, where she did not hesitate to draw morals from analysis. Her aim might have been to supply information which would be ‘useful’ to the colonial administration, but it was never compromised. Because it was never rhetoric which moved her, but problems.

She was moved by the rhetoric of neither policy makers nor academics. Towards the latter, she was always suspicious of analyses which demonstrated ‘logic’ and ‘consistency’ - she once wrote, for instance, that inconsistency was necessary in religious belief on functional grounds (if it were to do its job of explaining the inexplicable). Moreover, while field techniques might be systematic and comprehensive, that did not mean tidying up all the ends to prove internal cultural consistency. She was in this sense an anti-structuralist, an advocate of leaving the ends loose. Or as Edmund Leach wrote of Chisungu, showing just how matters are more multivalent than one might suppose. Indeed her style embodies here an unacknowledged theory of practice: her words are instrumental, with an air of disorganization about them, and a matter- of-fact openness one would not want tidied away.

Perhaps it was because she had no desire to tidy things away that she was so aware of ‘problems’. Whether apropos practical administration or an analytical tease, the concept of ‘problem’ recurs in her work.
She had a lively sense of how people got themselves into situations which created problems, and it was this rather than an interest in logical contradiction which led to her best work on conflict.

The English were not to be spared. She once lectured on ‘the anthropology of the English’ in the Rand mining towns. When she took a house in the Essex village of Elmdon, she was struck by the problem Elmdoners created for themselves in their idea of a real villager. With characteristic robustness she devised ‘methods’ for disentangling that problem. Under the auspices of EAISR, she had written The changing structure of a Ganda village in the early 1960’s, a book intended for largely local consumption. Now in the early 1970’s she prepared Some Elmdon families (with Jean Robin, a colleague from Institute days), the interest of Elmdon residents firmly in mind. If modern applied anthropology has brought about a new consciousness towards reciprocity between anthropologists and one-time ‘informants’, Audrey Richards should be remembered for such gestures of substance.

'Just a half sheet, Miss Richards, just a half sheet with your conclusions’, a Nairobi official once urged her. Although she told the story as a comment on the impatience of administrators, I am sure she would have done it. At the same time I am sure she would not want any one to come to pat conclusions about her own life - there is no possibility of cramming that into a half page.

Marilyn Strathern

The Interpretation of ritual provides a chronology of Audrey Richards’s life (till 1972), as well as an appreciation from one of her students and a bibliography of principal works from 1932 - 69. Her personal collection of photographs were deposited with the RAI. The Cambridge department of social anthropology has her Elmdon fieldnotes and Bemba slides; other material is in the LSE library.

This obituary first appeared as: Strathern, Marilyn. 1984. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 64, p. 11-12 Reproduced with permission.


To cite this article:

STRATHERN, MARILYN. 1984. 'Obituary'. RAIN, No. 64, p. 11-12 (available on-line: