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The life and works of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973)
From Thursday 18 October 2018
To Friday 19 October 2018
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The life and works of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard (1902-1973)

Two day conference 18 & 19 October 2018
at the Royal Anthropological Institute

There will be no conference fee, and refreshments will be provided on the day, but tickets must be booked. To book tickets please got to

Thursday 18 October DAY 1


Chair for the morning session Prof André Singer

Prof André Singer (Royal Anthropological Institute)

When in 1976 I was privileged to edit and see through the publication of E-P’s posthumous A History of Anthropological Thought, I could not have imagined it would take more than forty years for his remaining colleagues, students and academic followers to gather and put together a comprehensive appreciation of his life and work. This workshop at the RAI is long overdue but very welcome.   Several of E-P’s students or contemporary colleagues wanted to participate but were unable to be with us: notably Emanuel Marx, Ravindra Jain and David Kronenfeld. They will however send papers for any future publication and I will summarise their ideas in the workshop introduction alongside some visual reminders of the Azande and Shilluk whom I was able to briefly visit in 1974, 1981 and 1985.

John Evans-Pritchard

When writing about how one goes about fieldwork in two articles which were published in 1973, just before he died, Evans-Pritchard (E-P) identified three elements on which the fieldwork carried out will be based – ‘much will depend on the man, on the society he is to study, and the conditions in which he is to make the study.’ In this paper I have taken these three elements, and additional details provided by E-P himself and others and applied them to E-P’s own fieldwork, focusing on his study with the Azande and the Nuer.

The observations about fieldwork which E-P made could be applied to all anthropologists who carry out fieldwork but particularly to those who use participant observation as their method of study. It is therefore hoped that the comments about these major influences on E-P’s work and approach will be illuminating for all.

Dr Juan Ossio Acuña (Pontifical Catholic University of Peru)
Anthropology is Friends

Perhaps what I am going to say in this paper will sound familiar to many scholars who apart from being acquainted with Sir Edward Evan Evans-Pritchard’s publications had the privilege of meeting him personally. Given the fame he reached and having being chairman of the Institute of Social Anthropology and as such a don in All Souls College, one could have imagined his appearance: a well dressed gentleman, perhaps even a bit pompous. If that would had been the case they would have been completely misled because in the street he could have been taken as an ordinary, even scruffy, man, wearing an old green turtleneck jumper, corduroy trousers tied in his waist with a rope and almost always in the company of a dog that was so dear to him that in order not to leave him behind he turned down many invitations from academic institutions both in the United Kingdom and abroad.

However, when necessary he was respectful of the norms and behaved according to the position he had attained but on the other hand he did not have any reservations on interacting with a gardener who advised him about which dog to bet on the greyhound races.

I have introduced this small portrait of him to convey his unpretentious nature and his extraordinary human sensitivity expressed in all his work, but in particular in an emotional context, such as at my farewell when to Antonio Jauregui and I he confided that for him “Anthropology is friends”.

In this article I describe my encounter with that sensitivity and our shared views on Anthropology and History that encouraged me to study at the Institute of Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford and influenced my anthropological career. Apart from a small introduction where I describe the reception he organized for me at my farewell when I left Oxford in 1970 to return to my country, I have divided my paper into four sections. In the first I underscore the importance he gave to meaning. Secondly, the topics I chose to research. In the third place, the influence he exerted on my work and lastly the importance I assigned to friendship.

Pierre Lee (University of Cambridge)
Thinking outside the Box:  An exploration of Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard’s Azande fieldwork through his supply case

In 1926, Evans-Pritchard ordered supplies from the Army & Navy Co-operative Society for his Azande fieldwork, packed in a case. This case was eventually shipped back to Cambridge with various Azande artefacts. It now rests in the archives of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.  Rather than focus on the artefacts, this presentation attempts to piece together insights of Evans-Pritchard’s expedition choices by analysing the contents of the case’s supply list, the only remaining item inside the case. A set of Evans-Pritchard’s notes originally found wrapped around artefacts shipped back in the case in this case were a set of Evans-Pritchard’s hand-written notes were around resemble drafts of Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande. By literally and figuratively thinking outside the box, wider themes of colonial encounter, adventure, and exchange emerge – through the supplies he ordered, the case it was packed in, and the company that furnished them.

12.40 LUNCH

Chair for the afternoon session Prof Raymond Apthorpe

Prof Wendy James (University of Oxford)
The E-P legend: perspectives from the Sudan

This paper shows how Sudanese individuals have contributed to the shaping of E-P’s career, his reputation, and his impact.  Starting from his direct contacts during fieldwork, it will move on through assistants who helped with translations and collaboration over publications.  It will then touch on examples of anthropology students moving between Europe/USA and the Sudan (inevitably influenced by his work); and the continuing opportunities E-P found for Sudanese participation in international academic and publishing projects.  Special attention will be given to his support from the late 1950s for the Department of Anthropology and Sociology in the University of Khartoum.  I taught there from 1964-69, when he came as external examiner; a volume emerging from the department’s 50th anniversary appeared recently.  In conclusion, it will be pointed out how interdisciplinary research, by Sudanese especially, has benefited from way that E-P placed anthropology, for us all, at the heart of the humanities.   

Prof Richard Werbner (University of Manchester)
Evans-Pritchard and Max Gluckman

Dr Susan Drucker-Brown (University of Cambridge)
Letters between Evans-Pritchard and Meyer Fortes

Letters from E.P. to Meyer Fortes archived in the Cambridge U.L., are the product of a lifelong friendship which began in 1932.The correspondence chronicles, above all, the search of both men for academic employment. E.P.s reports of some of the gossip and politics involved provide a kind of “back-room” view of the academy and the personalities involved.

There is little personal information about E.P. though the physical discomfort and illnesses accompanying fieldwork are reported. There are some brief but interesting references to general ideas of theory and practice in anthropology as well as usually barbed commentary on the practitioners.  


Dr Ahmed Al-Shahi (University of Oxford)
Some of his surviving letters: a brief insight into Professor Sir Edward-Evans Pritchard’s correspondence

These letters, which were found among Godfrey Lienhardt’s papers and photographs, give a glimpse of Professor Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard’s academic life during his early period of his tenure as Professor of Social Anthropology, Institute of Social Anthropology, Oxford University.  In these letters, he was consulted over many issues by his anthropological colleagues and others who showed their admiration and appreciation of his intellectual contribution to social anthropology.

Dr David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)
Evans-Pritchard and Marett

The aim of this short presentation is to discuss the relationship between E-P and Marett. Both were at Exeter College, Marett as Rector and E-P as a student. I begin with correspondence which shows E-P writing to Marett asking about the possibility of gaining employment, then reflect on the wider intellectual exchange between them, which concludes with E-P’s famous Marett lecture. Whilst it is perhaps a little too much to suggest that it is a lecture a clef, I do think that E-P had Marett’s ideas very much to the forefront of his mind when he was writing it, and this helps us to explain much of its shape and thrust. However much E-P may have come to disagree with Marett, taking into account such figures helps us to understand the breadth of the influences upon his early anthropological training, and the Oxford setting of his work.  

Closing Discussion

Friday 19 October DAY 2


Chair for the morning session Dr Ahmed Al-Shahi

Prof Raymond Apthorpe (University of Cambridge and Royal Anthropological Institute)
Cherchez ‘the primary postulate’: E-P detects the patterns in the history of anthropology

To understand Nuer social ideas and institutions, said E-P, cherchez le vache. But it was another cherchez, another Maigret-like mode of detection, that came to mind immediately when thinking what possibly to contribute to this volume, something from one of his lectures in the mid-1950’s at the Institute, all of which I attended, on the historical sources of social anthropology: ‘if you would review a social theory, look first, dear boy, not for the baggage of whatever sort of evidence that may come with it, but its primary postulate’.  

Douglas H Johnson
Evans-Pritchard as a Pioneer of African History

Evans-Pritchard was critical of anthropologists for being insufficiently historical in their research, and of historians for being insufficiently anthropological in their analysis. With an undergraduate degree in history, an admirer of R.G. Collingwood’s interest in “obscure provinces”, Evans-Pritchard brought an awareness of social processes to his research on societies in today’s South Sudan. His publications on the Zande kingdoms analysed changes in Zande societies as they adjusted to colonial rule. In his Nuer trilogy, and in his shorter articles on the peoples of Dar Fung and Bahr el-Ghazal who were pressed between kingdoms and harassed by their expansion, he demonstrated that even so-called “stateless” societies have a history that is often revealed in their kinship systems or their religious beliefs. This paper describes Evans-Pritchard’s contribution to the historical study of South Sudan and show how his work can be used as the foundation of new research on South Sudanese history.

Dr Chris Morton (University of Oxford)
Akobo realism: Evans-Pritchard’s Anuak fieldwork photography

In this presentation I take Geertz’s formulation of Evans-Pritchard as literary stylist, a style he terms ‘Akobo realism’ (where ’nothing…resists reasoned description’), and extend it to explore his photography among the Anuak, where he undertook two and a half months’ fieldwork in 1935. There he walked 400-500 miles along the Akobo River, taking over 200 photographs and assembling a substantial artifact collection. He wrote up his investigations on the political system of the Anuak in 1940, with a further note in 1947. The presentation will explore Geertz’s brilliant insight into Evans-Pritchard’s literary “optical idiom” by comparing it with the visual record of fieldwork itself. The analysis reveals a completely new understanding of the social contexts of his fieldwork. Not for the first time, the raw photographic record offers an 'inscriptive abundance' (Edwards 2014) which places the ethnography back into the particularity of history rather than the relative timelessness of Evans-Pritchard's anthropological account of Anuak political systems.

Dr Timothy Jenkins (University of Cambridge)
Types of relationships between men and animals in Evans-Pritchard’s Nuer Religion (1956)

Evans-Pritchard proposes three possible ways of thinking about the relationships of men and animals in his study of Nuer Religion (1956). The first is a logic of substitution and sacrifice, where an animal life may be substituted for a human’s in an effort to achieve some desired end, whether at a personal or a higher social scale. The second is a proto-structuralist approach that compares relations between men with relations between animals. The first, which appears to derive from E-P’s reading Christian theologies of the Atonement, has excited relatively little comment, while the second has been the focus of attention because of Lévi-Strauss’s use of the ‘twins are birds’ motif as a trope for his structuralist claims in both Totemism and The Savage Mind (both 1962). There is, however, a third possible relation sketched (in Chapter X, on ‘The Sacrificial Role of Cattle’) which falls into neither of the first two classes, instead raising the possibility of the asymmetrical taking-on of properties between the two series of men and cattle which Structuralism claims to keep separate, without adopting the teleological substitutions demanded by a theory of the atonement. E-P can be shown to have anticipated in plainer language the different ontologies invoked by more recent pioneering studies.

12.40 LUNCH

Chair for the afternoon session Prof Wendy James

Prof Tim Allen (London School of Economics)
Colonial Encounters in Acholiland and Oxford: The Anthropology of Frank Girling and Okot p’Bitek

The work of Frank Girling on the Acholi of Uganda and the prose works of Okot p’Bitek about Acholi customs should be recognised as seminal. Written at the time that the classic texts were being published about other Ugandan groups, such as the Alur and the Lugbara, they are the most significant publications on Acholi ways of life from the late Protectorate and early independence era. Both scholars wrote their Doctorate of Philosophy theses as students in Oxford, and were both taught by Professor E. E. Evans-Pritchard (one of the founding figures of British Social Anthropology). Yet their ethnographic publications are commonly ignored. This essay explains why that is the case and why their work needs to be rehabilitated. The problem is not that they are lacking in perception or are hard to read – on the contrary.

Dr Deirdre Evans-Pritchard (DC Independent Film Festival)
Cyrenaican Bedouin

Prof Douglas J. Davies (Durham University)
The Theories of Primitive Religion: misfortune experienced, framed, translated

In this paper I sketch Evans-Pritchard's critical analysis of sociological, psychological, and philosophical reductionisms of traditional religions as chronologically and methodologically pivotal within twentieth century UK religious studies. While focusing on his advocacy of the need to set religious behaviours within expanded cultural contexts and relational studies, sharp focus will be given not only to his appreciation of human reactions to misfortune and helplessness but also to his inclination towards both poetic and intuitive perspectives upon ritual-symbolism. Taking The Theories slightly wider afield, brief consideration of his damning critique of Jevons, the significant influence of Robertson Smith, Weber, and others, and his potential influence on Bryan Wilson's sociology of sects, will be set alongside his commitment to interpretation as cultural translation within the task of anthropological hermeneutics.


Prof Gary Seaman (University of Southern California)
Paul and Laura Bohannan encounter E.E. Evans-Pritchard at Oxford and discover his Segmentary Lineage Society more perfectly incarnated among the Tiv of Nigeria, 1949-1953

In 1949 after studying Japanese intensively and serving as an officer in US Army intelligence during WW2, Paul Bohannan and his wife Laura intended to pursue advanced degrees in anthropology; they had both enrolled as undergraduates at the University of AZ before the war. Paul thought he would do anthropological fieldwork in Japan, where he had already participated in the strategic bombing survey during the postwar occupation. But when Paul was awarded a Rhodes fellowship to Oxford in 1949, the couple enthusiastically embraced the chance to attend such a prestigious university abroad. Paul intended to find an academic advisor who could supervise his intended topic of Japanese society and culture, as did so many of his contemporaries with wartime experience in the Pacific theater of the war. It was not to be. "We have landed in a nest of Africanists," he declared, and decided he must join them to be a successful scholar at Oxford. His wife agreed, and the two of them under the direction EEEP began an ethnographic study in West Africa of an almost unbelievably perfect example of a "segementary lineage society." Unbelievable, that is, if it were not for the fact that between the two of them, Paul and Laura Bohannan have provided anthropology with perhaps the most deeply researched, documented and published ethnography of such a possible segmented lineage society: The Tiv of the Benue River region of Nigeria.

Dr David Shankland (Royal Anthropological Institute)
Segmentary Lineage Systems Reconsidered

African Political Systems (1940) and The Nuer (1940) set the tone for generations of anthropologists. They were an integral part of undergraduate syllabi for more than forty years, certainly until the late 1980s, and there can be few professionals, even today who has not read them. Yet, scepticism grew steadily through this period until finally they were regarded as being at best misguided and at worse simply wrong. Yet, Gellner steadfastly took the opposite view, claiming that the model worked for North Africa, and often for the rest of the Islamic world rather well (Muslim Society 1981). In my researches in Anatolia, I found to my initial surprise that Gellner, and E-P before him were absolutely right. Demonstrably, the Alevis used a patrilineal system with inherited sanctity to mediate in conflict. Far from being made up, or figments of the author's imagination for their own purposes, or simply the folk model of the local people, the system simply functioned along the lines outlined by those early works. In my presentation I show firstly the ethnography, then show why this is vital to our understanding of Turkish society today. I conclude with remarks as to how this reconsideration may help us to view E-P's legacy.

Closing Discussion


There will be no conference fee, and refreshments will be provided on the day, but tickets must be booked.  To book tickets please got to

Location : Royal Anthropological Institute
50 Fitzroy Street
United Kingdom