Malcolm Ruel (1927-2010)

Malcolm Ruel was a distinguished and delightful friend for almost forty years. His colleagues in several Cambridge Departments and in his College, Clare, as well as his many former students, will miss him greatly.

In the interview I did with him in December 2002 - which is up on the web, including, very recently on ‘Youtube’, he described himself as of the second generation of British Social anthropologists. He was part of the significant group which included his Cambridge colleagues Jack Goody, Esther Goody, Ray Abrahams and others.

Malcolm did his first degree at Cambridge, originally in English during the Leavis era, and then a one-year part II in Social Anthropology. He then went to Oxford to do a B.Litt. on the Dinka and then did doctoral research in the Cameroons on the Banyang. This work was published in 1969 as the substantial monograph Leopards and Leaders, whose theme is partly summarized in the subtitle Constitutional Politics among Cross River People.

This book displayed many of the features which made him into a highly respected anthropologist; painstaking, level-headed, scholarly and deep research written up in a clear and well-organized manner. It is one of the classic ethnographies of that area and period. Its level tone and presentation conceals the immense effort, the overcoming of linguistic and social barriers, the ill-health and loneliness which make anthropology one of the most testing of scholarly pursuits.

Yet Malcolm clearly enjoyed fieldwork, for he then did a second period of work in East Africa in 1956-8 among the Kuria people. On the basis of this he later published a set of excellent essays on Belief, Ritual and the Securing of Life: Reflective Essays on a Bantu Religion (1997). Here he also formed life-long friendships and engaged in charitable work with schools in the area, re-visiting the area on a number of occasions.

Malcolm’s first job was at Edinburgh as a Lecturer in Social Anthropology in 1959, where he later became a Senior Lecturer. As a teacher there, and later in Cambridge both within the University and in Clare College, he was a model educator - well organized, clear, relevant and drawing on his own experiences, but always aware of the needs of his students. He clearly enjoyed supervising and continued to do so for some years after retirement from the University.

In 1970 Malcolm moved to a lectureship in the recently founded Social and Political Sciences Committee in Cambridge with his fellow Africanist John Barnes. For about sixteen quite difficult years he tried to provide a bridge between sociology and anthropology within the turbulent politics of SPS. Here all his skills and determination as a flexible and thoughtful academic politician were called for. Finally, when SPS made a firm break and excluded almost all anthropological teaching, Malcolm joined Social Anthropology.   

I knew Malcolm best during those last half dozen years as we worked closely together as Head of Department and Academic Secretary. Here I really appreciated his good sense, good humour, modesty and sensitivity. This struck others in neighbouring departments too – for instance Professor Rob Foley in Biological Anthropology on hearing of his death immediately wrote to me of his sorrow at the death of ‘A very delightful and gentle person…’

After the early work on local politics, Malcolm’s central interest shifted to religion. Building on early significant work on witchcraft he wrote other important essays on topics such as ‘Non-Sacrificial Ritual Killing’ and ‘Christians as Believers’.1  As he progressed his work took on a wider philosophical perspective and addressed a number of the universal questions of belief and knowledge.

Malcolm was a model scholar, seeing worlds in grains of sand, patient, curious, honest and meticulous. He was always courteous in debate and attempted to see the point of those he disagreed with. He was one of the great practitioner’s of the gentle art of ‘Yes… but’.

Malcolm was part of the great generation of British social anthropologists, a relatively small band who treated the people they worked with respect and brought back data and insights which have changed our world. Malcolm did this humbly, without pretension, but with a depth which was often somewhat concealed by his mild and somewhat hesitant manner. He was firmly in the group who through the twin channels of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown we now, over-simply, label as ‘structural functionalists’. Yet towards the end of his work he broke free of this framework and developed new ideas in relation to religion and art which, alongside his earlier substantial work make him a continuing influence.

The world he came to love and admire in Africa, and the friendships and lessons he learnt there, were brought back to numerous students, colleagues and to his family, who were enriched by his experiences. We shall miss a true scholar and a gentle-man – in every sense.

Alan Macfarlane is Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science and a Life Fellow of King’s College, Cambridge.

The interview of Malcolm Ruel can be seen at and also on the ‘Ayabaya’ channel on ‘Youtube’.

To cite this article:

MACFARLANE, ALAN. 2010. ‘Malcolm Ruel (1927-2010)’. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, 2010. (available on-line:

An excellent biographical resource by Alan Macfarlane featuring interviews and films of notable deceased and living anthropologists may be found via the following link

1 ‘Non-Sacrificial Ritual Killing’ in Man, NS. Vol. 25, no. 2 (Jun 1990); ‘Christians as Believers’ in John Davis (ed.), Religious Organization and Religious Experience (London, 1982).


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online*&cw=OR&as_method=get&as_resultsmode=fullkeywords&f0=author&o0=%3D%3D&v0=Malcolm%20Ruel&f1=author&o1=%3D%3D&v1=M%20Ruel&f2=author&o2=%3D%3D&v2=M%20J%20Ruel&f3=title&o3=CT&v3=Malcolm%20Ruel&f